I have a huge shame trigger around being perceived as stupid. I struggled a lot in junior school; my reading never seemed to progress, my handwriting was horrible and don’t even ask how I did in the weekly spelling tests.
I’d often be in tears over my homework and devastated once again to do so poorly in tests.
Then I moved to a different school. Within weeks my new teacher asked my mother in for a meeting. She suspected I had dyslexia and suggested I get tested.
That one conversation changed everything.
I still struggled, I still cried, I was still so frustrated with myself for falling short of the mark over and over again. But, at least I knew it wasn’t because I was stupid.
I’ve been defiant over this trigger ever since. I read Thomas Hardy at aged 13…took me six months to slog through Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I’ve read nearly every book on the Man-Booker prize list. I repeatedly turned down the offer of extra time in exams at school and at university.
But, of course, I still do stupid things. Like missing a recent flight by a day.
You might be thinking; “Oh no big deal! Everyone’s done that!” But that’s missing the point. When I mess up, when I do things that in Tamarisk-land are considered to be the highest order of idiocy…that’s when the shame storm comes on so thick and fast it can take me down in seconds.
Something in your life does this to you too.
Your thing, my thing. They’ll probably always be there in some way, shape or form.
But we can learn to go with it. We can bring a huge amount of compassion to the process of negotiating shame.
Here’s what’s working for me, right now:
There is always a good reason — usually a series of good reasons — for why you’re feeling what you’re feeling.
As soon as you start demanding to know what this is and why it’s here and the hell is going on, goddammit – you start to get into that unkind and judgey place of what the fuck is wrong with you?!
Which, in my experience leads straight down into feeling more shame.
What works better is just to allow your feelings. Let them be as they are. Notice what you’re feeling. Describe it as you notice it.
Hmmm, this is shame. It feels like the tips of my ears are burning, I feel like time is speeding up and slowing down at the same time. My hair feels prickly. I stay rooted to the spot and run away at the same time. OK. This what shame feels like right now.
Allow it, allow yourself to feel as crappy as you want
Why? Because that’s what you’re feeling. Ain’t no use fighting, baby!
Yes, it sucks. Yes, it’s painful. Yes, shame can feel like getting caught in a sticky web.
Remember our metaphor? Those feelings have a gift for you but you have to open the door and let them in.
So feel what you’re feeling.
Yup. I feel like crap-o-la with extra crap right now. Don’t know how long this is gonna last but all I know is, right now this feels horrible. This is my experience right now.
Bonus – when you let yourself feel what you’re feeling, it passes much faster!
Let the feelings give you their gift
So you’ve decided to go with me on this one and stop fighting the feelings. You’ve stopped asking, whywhywhy….isthishappening???
By now you’ve got a good idea why. I did when I was in the airport…I felt overwhelmed with shame because missing a flight by a day makes me feel like a blonde bimbo.
If you don’t know, you’ll probably have some fairly robust theories.
Instead of jumping straight to reason and logic and thinking rationally about why you’re in the middle of a shame storm, take a minute and hear what the feelings have to say:
“Yup, this is really sucky. It’s really sucky for you to have missed this flight by a day. It’s really reminding you of a WHOLE bunch of other stuff right now, huh? This is reminding you of feeling like a little girl who fought so hard to be normal and like the rest of her classmates, isn’t it. That’s OK, too. But now is not then, sweetie. Now is not then “
You have internal resources or sources of strength you can call upon.
They might be changing your physical state by getting up and moving around, it might taking a few deep breaths, or it might be allowing yourself to go to the loo and cry.
There are also external resources to call on. You could call a friend, grab your journal or read favourite book from your childhood (mine’s The Velveteen Rabbit).
Anything that inch-by-inch helps you to feel stronger, anything that moves you back to remembering that just because you did a foolish thing, doesn’t make you a foolish person.
Avoid talking to people who can’t hear your shame stories.
This includes the cheerer-upers, the pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot-strapers, the you-think-you-got-problems-let-me-tell-you-something-ers and the oh-that’s-no-big-deal-you’ll-laugh-about-this-as-much-as-I-am-now folks.
No calling them.
They either mean well or get triggered into their own shame stories by hearing yours that they’re just not able to be there for you.
They want to make things better for you, to help take your pain away and make it seem as if it’s no biggie. Because dealing with your pain triggers theirs.
This can leave you feeling like you don’t get the right to feel what you’re feeling.
And you do.
You want to be straight on the phone to people who will listen, offer to hug you and let you talk it out for as long as you need to without trying to fix you or make it better.
You can come back later, once the storm has past to get all CSI on the scene of your shame. In fact, I’d recommend it (with a huge helping of compassion, of course). I’m sure with the help of some curiosity, you’d find out some really cool stuff about yourself.
By while you’re in it? Try this process first.