Shame is a pit in the ground. When you’re young, if your shames are small, then the pit starts out shallow. If your shames are large, then the pit starts out deep and dark. But no matter how it starts, over the course of our lives, all of the shame we experience makes the pit bigger, deeper, and darker.
For years, I admitted to myself only the shallow shames, the ones that kept me up at night, but not the ones that kept me silent. I compartmentalized my shame, convinced myself that there was no shame in my past that I needed to face. And then one day, an issue in my marriage brought me face to face with a shame experience from my past that I had never faced before.
I started exploring shame in counseling and I started reading Brene Brown’s book, I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame. Brown writes, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”
Once I started talking about the experiences that made me feel shame, my feelings of shame increased exponentially. I explained it to my husband like this, I had begun by shining light onto one experience in my pit of shame, but inevitably this light uncovered other shame experiences and now I have to face them all.
At first glance, this feels like a terrible thing. I am more symptomatic, in more pain, then I was before this whole thing started. I am experiencing increased anxiety, loss of time, and out of body feelings. But I have to believe that in the end working through these shame experiences will result in becoming a healthier and more emotionally integrated person.
Brown’s brook is a crash course in shame management and developing resilience. She writes, “We cannot grow when we are in shame, and we can’t use shame to change ourselves or others.” We must process and resolve our shame in order to grow into the better versions of ourselves we all want to be.
We can help each other do that by listening compassionately and empathically to each other’s stories without letting our own fear and shame get in the way. Brown explains, “If empathy is the skill or ability to tap into our own experiences in order to connect with an experience someone is relating to us, compassion is the willingness to be open to this process.”
I encourage you to stretch your empathy muscles toward yourself and your loved ones today. The world needs more of it.