I have noticed something lately, low-self-esteem is an epidemic right now. And I think that shame is the birthing place of low-self-esteem. We live in a world that is fighting for people’s rights, right for diversity, right for self-determination, and yet shame is silently killing people’s identities. Shame tells us that we can’t be vulnerable, that we can’t show our weaknesses, that we can’t have flaws, and that we can’t make mistakes.
Brené Brown said in her tedtalk “Listening to Shame” that Shame is the idea that a woman must live up to the Enjoli 80s commercial:
“I can bring home the bacon, Fry it up in a pan,
And never let you forget you’re a man!
“I can work ’til five o’clock, Come home and read Tickety-Tock
And if its lovin’ you want
I can kiss you and give you the shivers…”
She also stated that for men shame says, “do not be perceived as weak” and you must “die on top of your white horse, rather than fall down.” Shame is you have to be strong and if you have a break down there is something wrong with you and you probably have a mental illness. Sometimes I’m appalled by how we as a society treat each other. It’s rarely safe to be authentic anymore in relationships – sometimes even with family. We are responsible for spreading the disease of shame. In my own experiences lately, I have realized that many people don’t accept people talking about coming “undone” and certainly we don’t accept anything but positive emotions from other people. At the first sign of our friends showing their weaknesses we run away.
I am writing this as a step towards whole-hearted living…even when whole-hearted living looks like falling apart. I am writing this as an affront to shame which would have me hide my vulnerabilities. I have battled shame many times in my life. However, a few weeks ago I faced shame head on and it kicked me to the dirt. There are moments in life when life feels cruel and unkind. A few weeks ago I reached out to someone I really care about. One of my best buddies in life. However, reaching out to this person caused me to come unhinged, unglued, hopeless and desperately sad because of the circumstances through which the relationship ended. I completely broke down….I cried….and I had moments of not wanting to get out of bed. Yes, I am a counsellor. Shame told me that I shouldn’t be struggling, I am a counsellor. I should have it together. Counsellors can’t have break downs. Counsellors can’t come unhinged. We should all be self-care masters and the healthiest people on the planet. Shame spoke lies to me. That I shouldn’t feel how I felt. That I shouldn’t be ruled by this circumstance or that this circumstance shouldn’t undo me. That I must pull it together, if not for myself….for others. So that others wouldn’t have to “put up with me” or be weighed down by my emotions that were unglued. It took me several days to sort through my emotions and hurt….but I’ll tell you that it took me even longer to work through the shame I felt for letting the pain impact me so much. Shame said to me that the person I care about ignored me and distanced themselves from me because of who I am. Guilt is “I did something wrong”, but shame says “There is something wrong with you.” I felt in my heart that I had lost connection because “I’m too much” and because “I cause people pain”. I don’t understand why when I am at my worst, is when someone is most likely to distance themselves or ignore me. And so I wrestled with shame, because shame said it’s my fault and this is what I deserve because I came unhinged at the seams and because my emotions overflowed.
To be honest, I think that how we handle people when they come unraveled makes all of the difference in helping someone face their pain or shaming them into isolation and loneliness. I think that there are serious and diagnosable mental illnesses; however, more often than not, I believe that most mental illness is inflicted upon people by shame, because instead of demonstrating kindness, love and mercy towards someone who is being “real” about their emotions, we shame people for not “keeping it together” or at least for not demonstrating a facade of keeping it together. We would prefer a mask over the real person.
Shame destroys a person’s sense of self. Belonging is impossible if we don’t create space for individuals to be fully authentic and fully authentic means being accepted even when you come unraveled. I believe in the Western Society we view people as strong if they are “emotionally stable,” meaning they don’t experience or at least don’t show strong emotions or sadness. I wonder if depression would lose it’s affect on individuals if society was able to acknowledge depression, anxiety, hopelessness and accept it as a natural experience within human existence. I think sometimes we unknowingly, shame people, by limiting “healthy” to only positive emotions. When I came unhinged I felt legitimately crazy – I believe that if I had felt safe and confident in feeling what I was feeling, it would have reduced the feelings of crazy. The hardest part was that while things were coming unhinged, I felt strongly that I had to keep it together, that I couldn’t be “ruled” by my negative emotions, this had the effect of making me feel “crazy.” What if it was ok to come unraveled? To feel things deeply? to experience hopelessness? What if we could talk about it? What if that didn’t mean a person was mentally ill? or crazy? or flawed? or weak? what if we didn’t walk away from people when they are unhinged? What if we acknowledged their pain and sat with them in the middle of it? What if we didn’t shut each other out for falling of the “white horse” or not keeping it all together?
It is not my desire to shame any of my readers. It has taken me several weeks to shut of the voice of shame in order to write that I, as a counsellor, came unraveled. And yet, I believe that coming unraveled can also be a beautiful thing. Pain isn’t all bad. I believe I am a beautiful person for allowing myself to love so deeply that it hurts. I could shut off my heart and avoid pain, but I have the ability to really live when I’m able to really feel. So it’s not my desire for anyone reading this to shame themselves for anyways were they have knowingly or unknowingly shamed or caused someone to feel ashamed of themselves. My intention is to break shame, not bring shame to others. My intention is to spur you, the reader, to consider the ways in which your allowing shame to be a silent monster in your life and to consider how your actions may or not create space for the people in your lives to live whole-heartedly, even if it means coming unraveled. I have had a couple of friends that were not ashamed of my messiness or my unraveling. Who loved me in the middle of it. These kinds of people are those who have learned to shut off the voice of shame in their own lives. You will shame others if you haven’t learned how to stop letting shame, shame you. What are you ashamed off? Shame only has a voice as long as you hide – but when you stand authentically and vulnerably in front of others, bold about your strengths as well as about your weaknesses, shame’s shackles are broken.
What if shame didn’t have a voice in your life? What would you do? Who would you be? What is shame telling you about yourself? Shame never tells the truth, it always says, “there is something wrong with you.” Let me tell you, there is nothing wrong with you. At your worst and at your best. The human experience includes highs and lows, stability and unraveling. Maybe if we stopped trying to remove negative emotions from the human experience, we would stop the epidemic that is destroying our sense of self. You are worthy, you are valuable, and you are unique: blemishes and all.