Slaying The Shame Monster

“Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child you have stolen, for my will is as strong as yours and my kingdom as great. You have no power over me!” ~Jim Henson

Me at a time in my life when I almost made my shame escape

As I mentioned the other day, I’ve been reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. It was given to me by a thoughtful, supportive friend last month, and I’ve slowly been making my way through it. The beautiful thing about Brené Brown is that her struggles and her authenticity seep from the pages of her books, making her words both relatable and heartening. She touches on so many difficult and uplifting emotions in the book that reading it has been equal parts soul-crushing reality and soul-inflating inspiration. Read about shame, guilt, perfectionism, fear, blame, and addiction and recognize how much those habits and emotions define and control you. Then read about hope, joy, play, creativity, resilience, authenticity, and self-compassion and see where you might be able to grow in a more positive direction. More than once while reading I’ve exclaimed out loud to myself in response to what I have read. Holy crap. That is me. I operate that same way. I so relate. I need to work on that. That makes so much sense. I have some work to do. I am really good at that.

The part of the book that hit me the hardest was the portion about shame. I know Brené began her work as a shame researcher, delving into the components of shame and how humans deal with or deflect it and how we can grow out of and away from it in healthy ways. So I fully expected to read about shame in this book. What I didn’t expect was to discover that for the majority of my life shame was my constant companion and operations manager. Ouch.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by this discovery. I grew up commonly hearing, “You should be ashamed of yourself” and “You’re embarrassing yourself.” Most of my reactions to events in my life were approached from a shame vantage point. Boyfriend broke up with me? Of course he did. You were acting like a needy jerk. It’s a wonder he didn’t leave you sooner. New job too much for me? Of course it is. Who do you think you are? You have no life experience. You can’t be expected to manage other human beings. Can’t stick to a diet and lose that stress-eating weight? Of course you can’t. You suck at dedication. Struggling with parenting? Of course you are. Your mother always said you were too selfish to raise children and it turns out she is right. Brené’s definition of shame snapped me like a wet, locker room towel: “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” It was through this lens that I grew up and approached my adult life. I was an imposter, one misstep away from everyone I knew discovering my deep secret. To deal with this, I became a perfectionist. (That is another blog post entirely.)

I was continually baffled that anyone would want to be my friend or date me. I couldn’t see what they saw. I only saw my unworthiness. Still, I must have been presenting something else to these people too. They didn’t seem to see what I was seeing. The incongruity was not lost on me, but it never once occurred to me that maybe what they were seeing was the true Justine and what I was seeing was a story I had been sold. It took decades for me to figure that out, and I’m still shredding the pages of that story and working on my rewrite.

Perhaps the most life-affirming part of this book for me has been the section on Cultivating a Resilient Spirit because this is where I shine. I grew up feeling unworthy, less than, and invisible, but I persevered and took risks. Somehow, despite all the negativity and fear, I knew deep in my core I was capable. In my late teens and early twenties, I arrived at a place where I almost was able to recognize the big lie I had been sold. I was brave enough to imagine for myself something bigger. I took steps in that direction. I stepped away from guilt and forced obligation and walked towards autonomy and growth. I stepped up. At age 22, I graduated from a four-year university, the first in our family to do so. By 23, I was starting graduate school. At 24, I voluntarily sought help and signed on with a debt relief organization to pay off tens of thousands of dollars I had accumulated in loans and credit card liability. I was adulting and taking ownership, being resilient, and moving forward.

Then I realized I’d run out of money for graduate school. Rather than rising up and trying to find a way through that financial quagmire, I took my mother’s advice and I quit because I couldn’t afford it. I fell right back into the pattern of being a fearful, self-pitying, self-loathing coward and I stayed there for another two decades, operating from the familiar mindset that told me I wasn’t worthy.

I’ve spent more of my life in that shame mindset than I have spent believing in myself. I let other people’s negativity inform my choices. I asked for advice from the wrong people. I spurned the pleas of the right people who tried to guide me towards my better angels. Now I’m grateful for the difficult day that opened my eyes and taught me who was not to be trusted with my dreams and hopes. I learned to lean towards the people who raise me up, and I walked away from those who make me feel less special, talented, helpful, kind, and important than I am. I ignore those who don’t get me or who think they know me but don’t. I face my shame, talk about it, and deconstruct it. And all of this has led me to a place where I am starting to understand who I am and to like myself.

Shame grows through secrecy, silence, and judgment. Understanding this gives me a pathway out of it. You deny it oxygen by addressing it, sharing your difficult stories with others, and walking away from those who would keep you grounded in it. I am happier more often now, able to be joyful and at peace. I make better choices and I forgive myself more easily when my choices aren’t the best. I appreciate others. I try to apologize when I screw up. I am still working on self-love and I am having a devil of a time beating the judgment out of myself and my life, but I am making progress. I’m embracing my humanity and feeling part of a bigger whole rather than feeling like a lonely pariah. I am proud of myself, dammit. It feels good.

Sharing my darkness and vulnerability is terrifying, but blogging about these shadow monsters here has changed my life. Shame has no power over me anymore because I have named it, gotten cozy with it, and discovered its weaknesses. It will never leave me because it is part of my story, but it buzzes quietly in the background now, just white noise that my brain blocks out.

6 comments

  1. I read The Gifts of Imperfection a few years ago and it resonated with me too. It’s a great book. The whole time I was reading it, I was telling myself I was going to have to read it a second time, and much slower the second time around, so that I can work on some of the things I was reading about. Your post has motivated me to read it again. I was in therapy for many years and my therapist told me a recurring theme I was always hearing in my life was: “WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?” I realized she was right because my mother was always saying to me, “WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?” Sometimes I would be ranting to my therapist about something and she would lean back in her chair, smile, raise her eyebrows, and quietly whisper, “What’s wrong with me?” That’s all it took to get me to realize I was doing it again! I’ve worked on this but it still manages to pop up again and again and I still ask myself that pretty frequently. I have to conscientiously listen to myself think because I don’t always hear myself saying it to myself. It’s hard Justine. I know you get it and your posts always mean so much to me. I’m so glad you are blogging about it.

    1. I am fairly certain I heard that phrase too, along with “Are you out of your mind?” I know I have a critical voice I have used with my children, but I have tried not to make them feel that an occasional subpar choice meant they were inherently stupid or worthless. I also made sure they knew they were a priority and not a burden. I know I didn’t do it all right, but I think on the balance they always knew I loved them and would do anything for them (and still will). I will always struggle with the negative messaging I received as a child, but I am learning to push back against those false stories about myself. All we can do is show up for ourselves and try to reprogram ourselves. It’s nice to have another traveler on this journey with me, Gail. Thanks for sharing and being open. It helps!

      1. I heard, “Are you our of your mind” a time or two also.. I remember the first time I blurted out to one of my kids the phrase, “What is wrong with you?!” It just flew out of my mouth and I was horrified with myself!

      2. It’s so hard when the ghosts of our past ooze into our present. I made quite a few of the mistakes I learned in my childhood when my sons were very young. Ultimately, what saved me was the same horror you felt when that phrase flew out of your mouth. I said or did something that felt deeply painful and wrong to me as a parent, and I vowed to do my best never to do it again. Breaking the cycle is what started my journey out of my old life.

      3. I was told once that we tend to parent our kids in the way we were parented. That was a real eye opener to me. In some ways I think it’s true. I remember being young and all the fights I had with my 2 sisters (normal sibling rivalry type fights). I used to HATE it when my mother would say: “Can’t you all just play nicely and get along with each other?” I vowed never to say that to my children as it irked me so bad. But one day, my sons were squabbling about something (I think they were about 7 and 10). I told them if they didn’t straighten up, I was going to separate them and then I looked at them, put my hands on my hips and said, “I just don’t understand why you can’t play together nicely and get along!” I realized then I had turned into my mother. It was a sobering realization!

      4. I don’t think using a platitude millions of mothers have used through the decades is equal to parenting as your parents parented. I am sure I used a saying or two like that once or twice as well. But, I managed to avoid saying things like “You have a face only a mother could love” or “Cry me a river,” so I choose to think I didn’t parent the same way. I know I did say or do some things my parents did, but I think on the whole I parented as I wished I had been parented rather than how I actually was. Based on my close relationships with my sons, I believe I am ahead of the game. Fingers crossed.

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