Bringing Shame Out of the Closet
Learn how to put shame aside and start living your life.
-Dr. Anne K. Gross
Your face burns. Your stomach twists. You look at the ground, unable to meet the eyes of those around you. All the while, hurtful, half-formed thoughts swirl through your mind: I’m different…I’m not good enough…They’ll never, ever accept me for who I am. Whether it’s connected to your appearance, your love-life, your race, or an illness or disability, you’re experiencing shame—and it doesn’t feel good.
Whereas most emotions we feel are specific: worry, sweaty palms, racing heart when we feel anxious; unhappiness and lack of energy when we feel depressed, shame is a general feeling of being bad, flawed, and deficient that permeates the very core of how we feel about ourselves. Afraid that others will find us unlovable if they know us for who we really are, shame fuels our silence and need to withdraw.
Read on to gain an enhanced understanding of how shame manifests itself, and what you can do to combat its debilitating presence in your own life.
Understanding why shame is so destructive
Shame squelches intimacy.
Shame prompts you to keep others—even those you’d like to be close to—at a distance so that they won’t discover your secret. The fact is, though, that we all have areas of vulnerability, and intimacy derives from our ability to share both our strengths and our weaknesses.
I know well what it was like to grow up in a family with a shame-based secret. My mother contracted polio in 1927 at the age of two, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. At the time, disability was a shameful thing, leading my family to silence all aspects of my mother’s disability. As a result, my mother and I never talked about her disability, and were robbed of an opportunity to show compassion for each other.
However, the damage to our family life went deeper than that. Although the unspoken rule in our family was that we were never to talk about her disability, we were all enlisted to help minimize its impact. This confusing and ultimately destructive double message that permeated our family life was not particular to my childhood – rather, these dynamics are quite common in families that silence some defining aspect of themselves – such as alcoholism, gambling, etc – about which they feel shame.
“Second-hand shame” harms others.
When we are around others who feel shame, we often experience their shame as if it were our own. I remember feeling the sting of second-hand shame when I was thirteen. While my mother and I were out shopping, a little girl came over and gawked at my mother, who was sitting in her wheelchair. I felt overwhelmed with feelings of humiliation, and I wanted to leave the store. It wasn’t until after my mother died and I read her journals that I realized that the shame I felt that afternoon was similar to how my mother felt every day: deficient and flawed.