It's a shame we have so much trouble talking about shame

Shame is a sham. It’s not ‘you.’

Shame is a feeling we have about ourselves, a belief stored deep inside us that says we are inadequate or defective, regardless of how we live our lives to the contrary. Anyone who has ever blushed at a compliment has it; the hot flash revealing the uneasy disbelief, “I don’t deserve a flattering remark because I know that inherently there is something wrong with me.”

Shame is an implant. You’re not born with it. But it starts when you’re young. Invariably it gets burned into your psyche by the sense that you didn’t live up to parental expectations. When I played Midget football my father was in the stands when I fumbled the ball. Dad was a terrific athlete who probably could have played in the pros if his family wasn’t dirt poor. I’ve never forgotten twisting in the wind with humiliation and the sense of having fallen short of expectations… although my father never said a word that wasn’t encouraging. To this day, if I need a spare on the tenth frame of the bowling tournament, don’t count on me making it!

How do we rid ourselves of shame? How do I at least give myself a fifty-fifty chance to hit the ten pin instead of making a dumb joke or pretending I don’t care?

Shame wields its power when you tamp it down and ignore its existence. Expose it to the light, and it becomes a vampire at high noon.

I’m pretty sure my own experience is typical. At a weekend retreat for men we did an exercise that called for us to share the one thing we were most proud of and one thing we were most ashamed of. When it was my turn, the proud part was easy, but it took considerable hemming and hawing to finally share a lapse of integrity that took place during the early days of my career. For thirty-five years I had kept the event closeted! Finally, feeling I was among people I could trust, I whispered my transgression.

To me, the whisper was screaming “I’m unworthy” like Mike Meyer in a “Wayne’s World” sketch. To the men it was yawns all around.

I learned that when you finally exorcise your ‘deep dark shame’ your friends are more likely to regard you with empathy than enmity.

(Posting early this week; away on vacation over Labor Day.)

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