Shame is a big one for me. Mainly because shame is the biggest impact of abuse. Shame can come sudden by traumatic event or it can creep in young and grow over the years. Whether it’s through physical, sexual or psychological abuse, anything that invalidates and renders you — your dignity as a human being — invisible or nonexistent, even to your own self, is shame producing.
Guilt and shame are closely linked, but they’re not the same. Guilt is carried. Shame is internalized — carved into, grafted onto you so that it becomes a part of your being.
No one is born feeling ashamed of who they are. No one comes into this world apologetic for taking up space, for breathing the air or using up resources. Every child has a sense of presence and wonder about them. The world is new and so are they. Babies just are.
Guilt is served on a platter. Shame is force fed. It doesn’t need your decision to accept it. It’s not like the clothes you wear. It’s the skin you live in.
Guilt is the apology for what you did. Shame is the apology for what you are. It arises from a sense of, not so much making a mistake, but being a mistake.
Guilt is inflicted, inferred or hoisted upon you. Shame is planted so that it grows into you, rising up from within you. Seeds of shame are blown into the fertile soil of your vulnerability and take root from the nurturance of indifference, usury and contempt. It is sustained by messages from your environment and the messages you now give yourself on your own voice and the mistakes you make that only verify your worst fears about you.
Guilt whittles away at your self. Shame says you were nothing to begin with.
You cannot shake shame, because shame roots itself deep into your innermost being. It usurps the real you — your human dignity — in your conscious and even subconscious identification, so that you cannot even sense it as separate from you. It is you.
Basic goodness belongs to someone else…everyone else. It is devoid in you. Whatever goodness you portray to others, shame tells you it is a lie, a facade.
Shame makes you feel like a fraud, a fake, inherently flawed, living a lie that, if discovered, would exile you from humanity.
When Guilt asks, “What did I do wrong?” Shame answers, “You are the wrong”.
Everything I have ever done — everything, whether it be my creativity or my human rights activism has not only been motivated by artistic passion and love, but driven by the need to prove myself worthy. To justify the air I breathe, the space I take up, the resources I use. To redeem myself for the suffering other people have experienced for my having been born.
Intellectually, I know these things are not true. Intellectually, I know that I have as much right to be here as the next person, that the pain my mother and brother suffered was not my fault. And yet…and yet, I cannot shake that feeling that somehow it was because of me great suffering happened, that somehow I must prove my worth, to make up for the cost of me being here.
I know, I know, I know better. And as I get older, I become stronger. The motivation for artistry and love is stronger — most days — than the drive to redeem or justify my existence. But it is a part of me. I don’t think it will ever not be. I’ve lived with this for almost six decades. I’ve stopped struggling with it.
Rather than despair, I am more at peace with it nowadays. Rather than attempting to transform or transcend or quantum leap away from it, I accept this part of me, perhaps the only part that really is flawed — this belief that the essence of me is flawed, and not the essence, itself, of who I am that is flawed.
It’s called unconditional acceptance, and I think I’m getting the hang of it. The point is, shame is insidious, but it’s not invincible or all powerful. You don’t need to be completely free of shame. You don’t need to be completely free of anything, actually. You just need to keep moving through the dark times, to not get stuck or sink beyond the reach of a helping hand or caring heart…even if you don’t deserve it.
You are beautiful in your imperfection. You need to know that. So when Shame raises its ugly head and says NO to whatever is good and true, when it tells you you’re worthless, tell it maybe, but you don’t give a shit. And then write, paint, dance, take a friend to the movies, help a kid tie her shoelaces, pick a flower, sing a tune, hold someone’s hand, laugh out loud or take a walk.
Have the last word in your life, and let it be a resounding YES.
I already love the sound of your voice.