I’ve been thinking about shame a lot lately.
I know it’s showing up because in the seemingly-endless writing/editing of my book manuscript, the story I’m working right now is all about shame . . . or so we’ve been told. (No, it’s not Eve — though that’s true in her story, as well.)
Here’s the shocking thing: there is NO reference to shame in the text itself. Every bit of it, centuries of it, has been brought to bear by those who have told her story.
She doesn’t feel shame. It’s what has been overwhelmingly applied to her. Blech!
Here’s what I’m struck by: this is what we do in and to our own stories — apply shame to ourselves!
Why? Why is that so often our default?
Yes, there is MUCH to be said about patriarchy, capitalism, consumerism, and then some — cultural and ideological realities that prey on the fact that when we feel shame we stay in line, don’t get too full of ourselves, don’t feel empowered, remain convinced that we’re not enough, spend money to become enough, and never quite hit the mark (which starts the cycle all over again).
But even after we’ve named all this, parsed it out via good and ongoing exploration of our own stories, it still sits there and shows up again and again and again: the burden of shame.
And so I wonder (not surprisingly), had this woman’s story — and Eve’s and so many more besides — been told without shame, would we so easily, unconsciously, and repeatedly apply it to ourselves?
My answer (not surprisingly) is that we most definitely would NOT!
Our work is to discern, in our own stories, our actual life, if shame IS what belongs there, or if its what we (and others) have assumed, applied, and layered on after-the-fact.
One way to do this, to parse through all of this conflicting story-stuff and shame’s prevalence, is to think about a time in which you considered breaking the rules, stepping outside the lines, following your intuition / wisdom / heart. You KNEW it would create a ruckus, that others wouldn’t like it, that you would be seen as stirring up trouble or not following protocol or being selfish . . .
Or think about a time when you did it anyway . . .
- What did you feel when you contemplated this choice?
- And if you went through with it, what did others “make” you feel?
- Do those emotions (which I’m guessing include shame) mean that you shouldn’t have done it? That you were wrong? That you WERE selfish? (I’m hoping your answer is “no.”)
The insipid presence of shame either keeps us from trusting ourselves enough to make bold and brave choices that are in perfect alignment with who we truly are, what we truly want , and all that we deserve OR we do make the choice and then pay the price. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
Have I mentioned? Blech! So, back to the story and no actual mention of shame . . .
What if there was no mention in our own? What if we erased it? What if we didn’t give it a second thought? What if we understood it to be something that we’ve inherited and been taught to apply, but that doesn’t belong to us at all? What if we could eradicate it from our vocabulary and our lived experience?
What if, indeed!
And how would we do that, exactly?
Well, there are lots of ways, but here are two that come to mind:
First, we become acutely and intimately aware of when shame IS the emotion present (vs. guilt, humiliation, or embarrassment — to use Brené Brown’s vocabulary). We assess if it is REALLY what we feel or if it only seems like it because it’s what we are so familiar with — and/or if it’s what others expect and WANT us to feel (or are applying). And then we say, “no!” We refuse shame’s presence. We deny its power. We separate ourselves from the pattern or habit. We turn on our heel and walk a different way.
Second, not as alternative but as accompaniment, we reimagine and retell the countless stories we have been told about a woman’s shame — as though it were a given, just the way it is, commonplace, and to be expected. We critique our own assumptions and others’. And we re-vision those stories in ways that reveal their inherent beauty, wisdom, and strength . . . so that WE are the ones who come to see, understand, and value the same in ourselves.
Brené Brown says that “the antidote to shame is empathy.” For ourselves! And according to Kristen Neff, self-compassion is the key — which includes self-kindness vs. self-judgment, acknowledging our common humanity vs. isolation, and mindfulness vs. over-identification.
Think of it!! If empathy and compassion had been our implicit and overwhelming response to Eve’s story, to that of the Woman at the Well (the one I’ve been working with), to countless women throughout time, and ourselves?!? Everything would be different. I have to believe it still can be.
This week, maybe start small. Notice when shame rears its ugly head — and how it makes you feel. Then quietly (or loudly!) just say “no.”
Another thing? When you see shame being applied to other women — whether on social media, in a book or film, on the news — say “no” again. Out loud. And in its place, apply generous doses of empathy, self-compassion, and yes, grace.
You deserve a story without shame — past, present, and future. Every woman does — past, present, and future.
May it be so.
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