Shame has been coming up for me this week, and boy does it suck! I've had to remind myself that it's okay to welcome it in, but not to let it take up residence! Shame has always been an indicator to me that I need to take a tour of my emotions. That I need to make sense of stories that I might be telling myself in order to take a detour from more painful deeper beliefs that no longer deserve a place on my inner world map but will always exist if I don't visit them to officially close them down. Talking about shame isn't something we often do, yet I believe it's one of the most important parts of healing our wounds and living a good life.
My first 'social work' role was working with families who were experiencing significant difficulties in providing a safe and stable environment that ensured the wellbeing and positive development of their children. When these clients - often women - shared their stories of abuse and trauma, and of poverty and pain, I began to notice a thread that weaved through all of their words. This thread was sometimes able to be named, other times it was communicated through averted eyes, or sometimes through a defiant stare and a set jaw that would have been intimidating if it wasn't for that small glimpse of vulnerability I saw that asked "Will you judge me for this? Am I right in believing it's safe to share this with you?"
Desperate to understand what I was intuiting in these moments, I imagined myself teasing apart this thread - examining its texture and quality, its colour and thickness - and I was able to recognise that it was shame that wove its way through people's worlds, tying them in knots and creating feelings of being stuck. I personally knew this feeling well, having long been a perfectionist (which I now know to be one of shame's staunchest bodyguards), and I wondered then about all the ways in which shame tries to hide and take cover, and the impacts this has on our everyday lives. I started asking questions of my colleagues and my social work tutors (and anyone else that would listen) about working well with shame - questions that were often met with shrugs of 'I don't know?'. When nothing much turned up in the social work and psychology literature, I turned to the net and stumbled upon Brene Brown's Ted Talks on shame and vulnerability which had just gone viral. Thanks Brene (and check them out if you haven't already)!
Brene describes shame as the "most powerful, master emotion", the painful feeling of being unworthy and unlovable. That my clients were sharing their stories seemed positive, and yet it also frightened me as I still wasn't sure how to respond in a way that would be helpful. Brene has identified that shame needs three things in order to survive - secrecy, silence and judgement. I realised then that the answer was allowing people to feel the shame, to speak it and to have it met with non-judgement and better still, having someone attune to the difficult feelings you're experiencing. Brene says "Shame cannot survive being spoken...and being met with empathy".
For me this week it was a flare up of my chronic condition that set the shame train in motion. I've needed to cancel appointments on and off all week, and I really don't like having to do that, both from a business sense and from a more personal need to not let people down. Shame set in, telling me if only I'd not overdone it on the weekend (when I ventured out to Pop and Pour and had a drink and a dance and have since paid the price with fatigue and pain all over, and all the other joys of fibro) that I wouldn't be in this position. Thoughts like "how could you be so stupid Tracey!" were followed by "don't be so lazy, just suck it up!", and "you don't even look unwell, people will think you're making it up", trying to sink me further into despair. Just looking at those words written there for all to see - stupid, lazy, fraud - is hard. Shame says 'shut up, you fool!' and 'no-one else feels like this!', yet I know that someone will see this, and recognise these words, and that I am not alone.
Oh what a shame, Shame, that you won't be taking up residence today! I'll be digging deeper into these shame filled stories - of needing to be perfect, of always being available, and of authenticity - to learn and heal from them, but I'll be doing it from a place of compassion and kindness.