This has been a difficult post to write because shame is difficult. Not something we choose to share. I don’t think I’ve got in touch with it very much in the past (except in relation to my drinking of course) but I did last week. The irony that the one thing I was consciously ashamed of was what I did to keep my unconscious shame at bay is not lost on me. I think I’ve been running and hiding from shame all my life.
So here’s how it caught up with me. I had an email from one of the bosses asking for a word last week as someone had told her I’d ‘breached confidentiality’ in a meeting the week before. I knew immediately what it was about. A colleague had been off with stress and I was arguing that we needed to protect his workload. I spent the morning before meeting her coaching myself not to be defensive and not to get in to my own complaints. I sat down, she was perfectly nice about it but I couldn’t help myself. I did apologise but then I said all the things that have bothered me at work; told her I’m thinking of leaving and left the room feeling really pissed off. Came home with a self as victim attitude but woke up the next day feeling sad and vulnerable. Dealt with this by being negative with C who wearily commented ‘you’re still projecting whatever it is you’re trying to get away from’ or something similar. His words hit me straight in the heart and suddenly I was no longer irritable with him but ashamed. What came to mind was an incident from my childhood.
I was 7 years old and had a teacher and best friend that I adored and I was enjoying school more than I ever had before. We were very much the teacher’s favourites. On this day we were talking and messing in class and didn’t quieten down despite being asked repeatedly. Eventually she made us both stand in the corner until break. I was mortified. I don’t remember at what point I started crying but I was still crying when I got home and I couldn’t stop. I remember my parents desperately trying to find out what was wrong. I couldn’t say. They tried to ring my teacher. The next day she asked me if they’d tried to reach her and again I couldn’t say. I wasn’t able to speak it, I was so ashamed. I couldn’t allow anyone to comfort me or help me get some perspective. I had done something wrong but in my mind I was wrong. I think this is my first memory of shame.
So shame, it’s origins and it’s consequences have been on my mind since. Not least the mental gymnastics we deploy to try and avoid feeling it. For me it seems rooted in the need to appear perfect to others, to be the favourite or the best. If I’m not then what does that signal?Rejection? Confirmation that I’m not good enough? Unworthy somehow? Somewhere along the line I must have learnt that love is conditional. I don’t think this came from my parents, they were never performance driven with us. As one of five siblings I became ‘the clever one’; maybe it was a role I created for myself?
I don’t strive to be perfect though or seek to hide my flaws. I’ve often joked that I’ve been getting away with things all my life, whilst underneath hiding the unspoken anxiety of being caught out. When I do get ‘caught out’ it’s catastrophic in my mind. These fears haven’t been in my conscious awareness for many years until now. Especially in relation to work. As a student it was a perpetual anxiety. Everyone else seemed so much more confident and clever. I hid at the back, missed a lot and didn’t study much. I also drank a lot. For a long time since those days the combo of professional status and alcohol have kept it all at bay. Eventually the solution became the problem as it often does and here I am alcohol free with a slideshow of events where I’ve felt shame playing in my head.
I’m also increasingly recognising that one of the ways I deal with anything that triggers my underlying shame is to project it on to others. Moaning, criticising. Anything to get it away from me! I’m ashamed of this too. The 7 year old me couldn’t do that so I must have learnt this later on. Perhaps as a teenager when my rebellious nature kicked in; when I raged against the world and my Dad in particular. When he would shout back ‘you’re just like your bloody mother’. Maybe this was the shaming statement that I really wanted to escape?
There are 2 key distortions going on here psychologically. The first is my mind takes a simple human mistake and transforms that into an absolute statement about my own wrongness. This is unbearable to my conscious mind – the 7 year old girl who can’t be comforted – so I take my wrongness and put it into someone else, usually someone who loves me. The Groucho Marx quote comes to mind: ‘I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member’. There must be something wrong with you if you love me. This might protect me from feeling shame, but it still leaves me alone and uncomforted.
Today I’m learning to sit with my shame instead of drowning it or dumping it on another’s psyche. I’m watching the slideshow go past and thinking ‘it’s ok, it happened, let it go.’ Practicing some self compassion. I emailed my boss the next day to say I was sorry I’d had a rant, it wasn’t appropriate and actually things are ok, and I apologised to my colleague. I made a mistake, I dealt with it, I learnt from it. There’s no shame in that.