Tackling Shame

copy write Deborah Adams

Every time I have taken a step forward toward shame, it has felt impossible. Group was a good example of that. I was good at giving feedback to others. I excelled at remembering the details of the problems of the other members, so I could pull together what they were going through, and relate it to similar things they had discussed. 

I wanted to share about myself honestly. It terrified me. I felt as if my entire life were at stake. In 2008, I wrote in my journal, “I’ve been feeling ashamed most of my life. It is as if I am so black that any deviation from perfect reminds me of all that lies beneath. I’d rather have been dead than felt these things,”. A year later I noted that “Any mistake feels like annihilation. I want to be her. She is smart, and nice, and kind, and good. Anyone would like her. She is competent. Inside, I writhe. I know I am not her. Fear I will never be her. I feel ugly, tainted. I am full of open sores.”

I appeared so pulled together in a group. I felt allergic to having anyone worry about me. Once, I told the group I was feeling suicidal and was afraid. I followed it up by saying something to the effect of “but I will be fine. You don’t need to worry about me.”  So they didn’t. 

I had started college in 2007. Much of my shares in the group related to my fears and anxieties about being good enough. I could barely tolerate getting a 95. An 85 felt like failure. 15 point away from perfect!

 For me to admit the fear was a huge step. I was showing a room of people my less-than-perfectness. I felt that to be real; I had to be less than perfect. How that stung. 

Surviving, as a child, meant being everything to everyone. To my parents, of course, but also to my sister, my teachers, the students in my classes. I tried so hard to be perfect. To be good. To mirror back what each person needed to see.

Naturally, I couldn’t get through a day without messing up. Repeatedly. The pain was intense. It is no surprise that I was suicidal. Even less that, by the age of 10 (when we lived in a 6th floor apartment), I would sit on my windowsill with my feet dangling out. Fantasizing about jumping. Wishing for the strength.

By 2009, everything seemed to trigger shame. If I smiled at someone on the street and they looked away, shame would flood over me for inflicting myself upon them. If I posted a comment on the message board at school and no one replied, Being wrong tied me in knots. And if I shared something in group…

So, how did I learn to better tolerate shame? Much of it was simply exposure. I kept my head up when I walked and forced myself to smile at everyone I saw. I kept posting on the message boards at school. I had honest opinions even when they differed from my classmates. I kept going to group.

I also kept going to therapy and writing what I couldn’t say to her in my journals. At first, I couldn’t even say out loud the feelings that were tearing me apart. However, I had been seeing her for several years at that point. I was starting to get real.

I also read up on self-hypnosis. I knew I couldn’t tolerate someone else’s voice in my head. It was too much like my childhood. My father used to speak to me in my sleep. He also would hypnotize me and tell me who knows what.

So, yes, another person’s voice was out of the question. So, I learned how to word affirmations. I recorded them and played them to myself daily while I meditated. Gradually, my self-talk changed. Until, one day, as I was walking across the bridge on my way to the library, I heard myself repeat the words from my recording. 

No one is every completely free of shame. That is probably a good thing. I must say, however, that there are few things that still cause me that deep pain. When one pops up I am able to challenge it (most of the time).

I realize that that person I wanted to be, the one who was “smart, and nice, and kind, and good” was me. My shell personality IS me. I wasn’t just pretending to be her. I am her.

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