Do you know shame? For me, shame is the most painful of all the emotions. Its message is, “You are not ok, there is something wrong with you”. And when it bubbles up, I try to run! How do you react, when you feel shame?
Shame nearly suffocated me as a teenager when I got the message from my peers that I was not ok because of the shape of my body. I was too tall.
Thinking back, it is still palpable to me how that kind of toxic shame felt in my body: the knot in my throat, a heaviness wrapped around my whole body like a lead blanket, and such deep desperation because there was nothing I could do about my height. There was no way for me to become ok, I was stuck and doomed. I was not ok, and would always be not ok.
Thank God, there was my grandmother who loved me fiercely, and when she had to go to the hospital told me that the tall nurse was her favorite one, because she reminded her of me.
Then there was my love, now partner of 25 years, who thought I was just the cutest thing ever, bragging to his friends that he had to import me because he could not find a woman tall enough here.
Both of them loved me passionately, and when I looked into their eyes, I saw that they thought I was amazing, I was more than ok. They started to heal the shame wound.
Still many years later, at an Imago Couples Therapy workshop that my husband and I attended, I was touched deeply when he did an exercise called “positive showering”, where in front of others he emphatically stated all he loved about me. When he did the exercise, amongst other things, he mentioned that he really likes my height.
The “teenage part of me” felt such relief and joy. It was like a healing balm was poured over my body. It was the opposite of what had happened to me as a teenager, it was a public proclamation that I am loved and ok. It was another step in my healing process.
However, the final steps of my healing needed to come from myself. Only once I chose to love and embrace radically every inch of me, I received full emotional healing. Today, I feel fortunate to be able to say that I love this awesome body of mine.
I see my body as a miracle, which allows me to live, touch, embrace, cook, hike, eat, and kiss. I am grateful for every moment I have in my body (aka avatar) on this earth, aiming to live life to the fullest.
At times, I wish I could reach back in time and gently cup the face of that lanky 15-year-old girl, look into her blue eyes and say, “Honey, you are awesome, I love you, everything will be ok”.
All of us know shame. For me, it was connected to my height, for you, it might have been, or might be right now, connected to your skin color, being single, social status, being infertile, lack of schooling, balding head, lack of income, being sick, or it might be another reason. Shame can attach to pretty much anything.
Dr. Brene Brown, who has researched shame extensively, says in her TED talk, “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive”.
My shame survived for many years because I hid it, and would not share my feelings with anybody. This only solidified the belief that I am not ok, and there is no way out of it. I would pretend that I am ok.
Only when I started being honest about the pain I experienced growing up, regarding the messages I got about my body not being the way it was supposed to be, healing could start. And then, when my pain was met with empathy and love by people who care for me, my shame shrank away until it totally disappeared.
If you have shame in your life, I invite you to join me on this journey to healing. Here are a few steps that can help you:
1. Know that you are ok – body, mind, emotions – all of you!
Being ok is your birthright. You are ok because you are breathing. Being ok is not something you can achieve or lose. It is yours, just because you are human.
Our protective mechanisms, those behaviours that kick in when we don’t feel safe, sometimes can be ugly. However, underneath that, we are all more than ok, full of light and wonder.
2. Share your shame with people you trust.
Opening up and sharing your shame story with people you trust, who will meet you with kindness and empathy, will be a key step in your healing journey.
If you don’t have those kinds of people in your life right now, find a therapist who can be that person for you, until you have those kinds of people in your circle.
3. Be your own cheerleader.
Become aware of your negative self-talk and start exchanging it with positivity and self-acceptance.
Whenever a thought pops up that tells you that you are not ok. Slow it down and become curious. Ask yourself, where is this coming from? Whose voice is that? Often shame thoughts are voices of the past internalized. Next, become your cheerleader and replace it with a thought of self-acceptance.
For example, if your thought is something like, “I am a loser because I don’t own a house”. Ask yourself, where is this message coming from? Who told you that in the past? You might realize that your dad always talked about how important owning a house is and he would judge people who did not. Following, replace the thought with a more positive thought, like, “It would be nice to own a house, but being a tenant does not indicate anything about my self-worth. Actually, renting also has advantages”.
4. Show kindness and empathy when others share feelings of shame with you.
Pay it forward!
Now that you know – and hopefully have experienced yourself – that you can be released from the toxic grip of shame by sharing your feelings, be that kind and empathic person for others. Our healing deepens when we help others to heal.
We all know shame, it is part of the human condition, but we do not have to be held hostage by it. Taking these steps will move you towards having more emotional freedom.
Like all of us, there might be areas in your life you want to grow in, habits you would like to change, things you would do differently if you could have a do-over. That is normal, we all are on that journey.
At the same time, I think it is important to remember that the core of all of us is ok – and more than ok – no matter what. That being ok, that is being worthy of love and acceptance, is your birthright.
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