It happened again yesterday.
This overwhelming sense of shame that started in my stomach and seemed to extend itself until it encompassed me whole. Even my fingertips could feel the hot, white, burning shame. It was so real and evident to me that even though I was in mid conversation with someone I had zero idea what either of us was saying because my inner dialogue couldn’t believe that the amount of shame I was feeling wasn’t being seen by the other person.
I became an outsider looking in on the conversation. An outsider that was kind of impressed that I was able to see myself be two people – one who was talking and laughing and apparently normal on the outside; and the other on the inside, feeling on fire from shame and wanting to hide in a closet and never come out.
If Academy Awards were given out for these performances I was Charlize Theron in Monster’s Ball – er, wait.
Who gets skinny and pretty to win an Oscar? That’s who I want to be.
No one does?
Ok, fine. I’ll be Hilary Swank in the boxing movie. Wait! I know. If we’re playing this game I actually choose to be Julia Roberts in … well … anything.
I’ve gotten off track. Sorry.
Back to my Oscar winning performance. It was amazing, really.
Well, amazing up until the point where I actually listened in on what I was saying and realized most of it was rambling nonsense – I’m pretty sure I started talking about football. I know nothing about football. There’s a 50/50 chance I said something about the “Pasons” making it into the finals. Umm. What? Who in the world are the “Pasons’?? Maybe my performance was more People’s Choice Awards less Academy Awards … oh, well. At least there is a trophy involved.
Anyway, I bet you can’t tell how I ended up rambling in the conversation, can you?
Back to what I was trying to talk about: shame.
After the conversation ended, I was in my office alone, experiencing a shame hangover. I tried to figure out what had happened and why my reaction was so strong. I knew it was a simple question that had triggered my reaction. A question innocently posed to me by a new colleague, just trying to get to know me, “So, tell me about yourself, I don’t see a ring, so I assume you’re not married?”
Now, if you’re not me you are probably thinking there was nothing all that compelling about that question and I shouldn’t have felt shame attached to it. I agree that there isn’t anything all that out of the ordinary about that question, however, how one feels shame and what brings it to the surface is such an individual process based off of so many different variables that only the individual experiencing it can determine what is triggering the shame response.
I can only talk about my experience and what it feels like for me and in no way am I suggesting that every single woman feels this way or that how I experience shame will be how you will experience shame. If you do want to learn more about shame and how we as human beings experience it, Brené Brown is your go to. She is an author, social worker, and self-proclaimed “shame researcher” and someone I’ve loved and been kindly jealous of for years. She just gets it and can explain things in a way that reach people at their core.
Her definition of shame is:
“An intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Women often experience shame when they are entangled in a web of layered, conflicting and competing social-community expectations. Shame creates feelings of fear, blame and disconnection.”
That was exactly what I was experiencing when I was once again asked the question about marriage – an intensely painful feeling, a feeling of disconnect and also for me a deep feeling of self-hatred.
Every day I receive competing messages about how I should feel about being single.
On one hand I see articles about being “thirty, flirty, and thriving,” and the joy of being on one’s own; I hear people talk about how much freedom they feel in being single, how the world is open to them because they aren’t tied down to anyone or anything. I hear those things and I know that isn’t how I feel so on top of the pain or shame I feel in not being in a relationship, I now add on the shame of not being okay with it – not feeling like I’m souring on eagle’s wings because I am independent.
On the other hand, I am laden with messages about love, marriage, and how life’s goal is to find someone to share your life with; I see representations about the good part of relationships almost everywhere I turn: movies, tv, family, friends, etc. I see articles that give me the five things you need to be doing to get a man to love you. Now, before you say it, I know relationships aren’t perfect. Most are work, many are hard, but with the work and the hardship come goodness or why else would we seek after them?
So, what am I to believe? What messages do I listen to? What stories have I told myself over the years as a result of the hundreds of different messages I have received?
What I came to realize in my office as I experienced my shame hangover is that what matters most to me is that last question. It matters the most because the stories are what bring the damage. The messages in and of themselves are just words, it’s when I chose to attach meaning to those words and tell myself a certain type of story that the damage occurs. I have noticed when I start to challenge the stories I tell myself, my resilience to the pain that can come from shame starts to increase. So if resilience to shame is what I am after then I have to start challenging the stories I tell myself. The first step is then to notice that I’m feeling shame and try to figure out what story is attached to the shame I’m feeling.
The stories I have told myself about my being single are painful and written by the large and small negative experiences of my life that are tied to relationships. Where I feel I differ from some people who are struggling with their marital status is that a large part of my shame and pain around relationships comes as a direct result of my childhood sexual abuse.
That experience and the stories I’ve told myself about it add an extra layer of complexity to how I view relationships as opposed to someone who didn’t experience that type of abuse. I was told during that experience at eleven years old that I was pathetic, fat, ugly, and disgusting. Those were the exact words. I was told that I was a loser, that no one would ever want me and thus, my abuser, having pity on me, would have to get over feeling disgusted by me and show me the “love” that I would never experience otherwise. First and foremost, I know now that love is not what happened to me. What happened was evil. What happened was abuse.
However, sadly, at the time I didn’t understand. Those four words and the knowledge that I wouldn’t ever be wanted have echoed in my mind for twenty-two years and have had an impact on how I view myself and the world. As a child, I believed them to be true but at the same time didn’t want them to be true and so to protect myself from the enormity of what it would mean to me if they were indeed true, I came up with a story.
The story being that those four words weren’t true but the way I would know that they weren’t true was when I grew up and someone did want my company, someone did want to date me. I decided that when I got married I would finally have the proof that the words weren’t true. So, dating and subsequent marriage was my way to prove my abuser wrong, to close the chapter on the pain that I felt as a result of believing and telling myself that the words spoken to me were true.
Was that the right story to tell myself? No, of course not. But I was an eleven year old kid in pain and trying to do the best that I could to make everything okay again. Was it a story I consciously told myself? Partly. I knew I placed a lot of my healing on marriage but it wasn’t until the last few years that I began to understand exactly why.
So, for me I’ve had to face questions like: what happens when you get older and the plan that was set in place isn’t working out as it is supposed to? What happens when you don’t date in high school or after even as you try to make dating happen? What happens when you experience normal rejection? What happens when you experience abnormal rejection, like a guy picking you up for a date and then two miles down the road deciding that he had made a mistake and doesn’t really want to take you out so he drives you back home (true story, haha)?
What happens is shame, is pain. It is as if I’ve been sitting in the middle of a balance scale with “words are true” on one side and “words are not true” on the other. Every time something would happen in regards to relationships it would influence either side. The shame I felt as a single woman began to grow any time an event would trigger something to hit the “words are true” scale. As time went on, things held more weight and the “words are true” side grew to far out weight the “words are not true” side.
But the story I made up is wrong. My singleness isn’t a result of an abuser being right about who I am as a person. For so many years I have been questioning myself instead of the story, instead of who and what inspired and continues to inspire the story I tell about my being single. It’s time to stop believing the words of an evil soul and seek to write a different story. It’s time to tell myself another story, a better story; one in which my worth isn’t attached to marital status or any of the other outside markers society tells me to unite my worth to – appearance, wealth, possessions, fame, power, etc.
Worth isn’t something we earn, it’s something we were born with and all received equal portions of; the challenge is then to see it and claim it for ourselves and others.
You matter! Everyone you see matters! Shame will come and try to take away our ability to see our intrinsic worth but it doesn’t have to. Take the first step with me: find out what triggers shame in you. Find out what stories you have been telling yourself that keep shame alive and begin to look at them and seek to write a new story.
It’s okay, it will be scary. One day you might find yourself, mid conversation, scorched in shame, rambling about a sport you don’t even like, believing you are holding it all together and then suddenly seeing that you are not.
Don’t worry. You are not alone.
Let it in and then let it go. Nominate yourself for your own Academy Award and kick shame in the face.
You got this. And so do I.