When Shame Is Your Constant Companion
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Lately I have been digging into the idea of shame. The more I look at, the more I see how insidiously shame has shaped who I am and what I believe about the world
I have carried shame around for a very long time. The problem with the shame I feel is that it isn’t really about anything I am doing or have done. I feel shame about me, I feel shameful for the person I am — despite all evidence to the contrary. Shame has come to define how I see myself, and it influences all the ways I interact with the world outside of me.
Shame comes sometimes, like a big wave washing over me. Often in very unremarkable moments. I could be walking or driving, or doing the dishes, and out of nowhere, I will feel from head to toe that I am bad. I am shameful. Me as a person, everything about me is bad.
I have felt this way since I was a young child. Very early on, I adopted shame as a truth central to my being. And that is a truth I still hold. I remember thinking as a kid as young as 5 or 6 that I shouldn’t exist, I am bad.
The lies of shame feel truer to me than does the assurance of gravity. It is something I feel and know so certainly — it is not even a thought anymore, just a matter of fact.
I feel shame like it is another part of my body, like it is the blood running through me. I feel shame for needing things. I feel shame for struggling. I feel shame for wanting to kill myself. For how deeply I just want to quit trying.
I feel shame essentially for existing. For taking up space. For inhabiting my body. I feel shame for having opinions and wants. I feel shame for taking other people’s time, for needing help, for asking questions, for basically not being invisible. I feel shame for not loving like I wish I could. I feel shame for talking, or not talking enough. I feel shame for having likes and dislikes. I feel shame for expressing myself. I feel shame for being noticed, for being seen.
I have no doubt how very loved and cared for I am. To be honest, it makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable to be loved so deeply. I know I need the love and grace of those around me, but even the fact of being loved feels shameful. Because I feel I don’t deserve it, because I haven’t earned it, because I don’t understand why I am loved. And sometimes it feels like a great burden, because I feel like such a waste to spend all this love on.
This is the shame that underpins how I am in the world. How I am in relationships. I am uncomfortable in my relationships much of the time. I feel I can never let my guard down, can never feel free to just exist, because so much of me feels that existing is bad. I feel the need to earn love and attention. I can never fully trust anyone with myself, because it feels like I am bad and evil.
Obviously, shame is a sick and and poisonous feeling. It is something that eats you from the inside out, until nothing is left except for the sick feeling that you don’t deserve to be alive. Shame is the kind of infection that you want to kill. That you need to eradicate. But shame has become so enmeshed in who I am, in how I identify myself, that in order to destroy this shame, it seems to require killing part of myself.
Shame also frequently drives my self-destructive impulses. The desire to destroy this awful feeling of shame manifests in doing things to attack or destroy parts of me. So cutting myself, or refusing to feed myself, is a twisted effort to channel or combat the overwhelming feeling of shame.
The battle now is to separate the shame from myself. To put this shame where it belongs, outside of me. The impulse to destroy shame is not bad. But shame is not me. A friend of mine told me that “shame is like a dragon.” It is like a dragon I think has eaten me alive already. But it hasn’t. Shame is a dragon I can beat.
Getty Images photo via Grandfailure