There are three things I know about shame:
1. Everyone has it.
2. Everyone is scared to talk about it.
3. The less we talk about it; the more we have it.
Last week I found myself caught in a raging shame storm. Why? I was in a very stressful work situation and rather than responding authentically and calmly, I got sucked in, became reactionary, and totally over-functioned. I did and said things I normally don’t do and say. I was not my best self.
Like all shame storms, it started with soft breezes of memory followed by the warm wash of “Oh shit.” I pushed back the thought. The thought pushed back. My face was hot. I felt small and my heart was racing. I pushed back the instant replay of me acting out and the instant replay oozed back in.
Now the winds of inadequacy are whipping all around me. I’m slowly getting pulled into the shame cyclone. I’m losing my perspective and my ability to recall anything good about myself. First thought: “God, I’m such an idiot. Why did I do that?”
The greatest gift of having done this work (the research and the personal work) is that I can recognize what’s happening. I recognize the physical symptoms – dry mouth, time slowing down, tunnel vision, feeling sick, face is hot, heart racing.
This is the very small window of shame resilience. If you’ve read my work, this is where you do the totally counter-intuitive thing: reach out. “I need to talk to someone RIGHT NOW. I need to tell this story.” Shame hates having words wrapped around it – it can’t survive being shared. The most dangerous thing to do at this point is hide.
Here’s the tricky part. You can’t call just anyone. It’s not that simple.
I have a lot of good friends, but there are only 2 or 3 people who I can call when I’m in the shame cyclone. If you share your shame story with the wrong person, they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in your already dangerous shit storm. You want something like a sturdy tree – one that won’t rip out of the ground or snap like a twig. You definitely want to avoid the following:
1. The friend who is actually ashamed for you. She gasps and confirms how horrified you should be. Then there is awkward silence. Then you have to make her feel better.
2. The friend who responds with sympathy (I feel for you) rather than empathy (I feel with you). If you want to see a shame cyclone turn deadly – throw one of these at it: “Oh, you poor thing” or, in the south, the incredibly passive-aggressive version of “Bless your heart.”
3. The friend who needs you to be the pillar of shame-free living. She can’t help because she’s disappointed in your imperfections. You’ve let her down.
4. The friend who is so uncomfortable with vulnerability that she scolds you or looks for someone to blame: “How did you let this happen? Who did this to you? We’ll kick their asses.”
5. The friend who is all about making it better and, out of her own discomfort, refuses to acknowledge that you can actually be an asshole: “You rock. You’re perfect. Everyone loves you.”
6. The friend who confuses “connection through empathy” with “That’s nothing. Listen to my story.”
Of course, we can all be all of “these friends” – especially if someone tells us a story that gets right up in our shame grill. We’re human. Imperfect. Vulnerable.
When we’re in shame, we need someone who is deeply rooted, able to bend, and most of all, we need someonee who embraces us for our strengths and struggles. We need to honor our struggle by sharing it with someone who has earned the right to hear it. And it’s’ a little bit of the right person at the right time about the right issue.
I called my sister. It’s only been in the past year (post 2007 breakdown spiritual awakening) that I’ve called one or both of sisters for shame cyclone support. I’m 8 years older than Ashley and Barrett and for most of our lives I’ve been more of a parent figure than a sister. It’s partly because of the age difference, partly because of circumstance (my parents divorced when I was 20, my brother was 16, and they were 12. I kinda took on a not-so-good co-parenting thing for a while), and partly because of my own need to be . . . well . . . the family elder.
Ashley was amazing. She listened and was totally compassionate. She said wonderfully empathic things like, “Oh shit, man. I’ve done that. I hate that feeling!” We laughed. She talked about a couple of issues that are tender and vulnerable for her. I felt totally exposed and loved at the same time (shame hates that and normally responds by high-tailing it out of there).
She wasn’t uprooted and thrown into the storm. She wasn’t so rigid that she snapped. She was strong and tall. The storm stood no chance. Within minutes, the wind turned into a soft breeze and I stood next to her. When the conversation started, I was cowering under her branches, but when it was over, I was standing next to her. I was strong, tall, and deeply rooted again. That’s how empathy works.
I’m so grateful that I called her. I’m grateful that my sisters and my brother see me and love me. I’m grateful for the courage to allow my very imperfect self to be seen.
I think compassion is really about acknowledging that we’re all made of strength and struggle. To be compassionate, we must believe that we are all equal, regardless if we are seeking help or offering it. If we allow ourselves to both give and receive, I don’t think shame stands a chance.
Plus, there are just so many gifts in extending a branch . . . and reaching out for one.