The scarlet letter shame

When I was younger I was shy and insecure. Junior High and most of High School was difficult because I perceived rejection around every corner. The interesting thing about High School was that things really began to come together for me. I had some good friends and got involved with a number of activities, but lurking beneath the surface was the fear that I would be found out- that I really didn’t belong. I think what surprised me most was that when I got to college the feeling remained. I thought with a fresh start where no one knew me I would be free to reinvent myself, after all, no one there knew I was once a geek. What I realized was that I carried a scarlet letter wherever I went. In the book the Scarlet Letter, the main character was forced to where a red letter “A” on all her clothes to announce that she had committed adultery. Shame often feels that way. Wherever we go people will somehow see that we don’t belong, we aren’t good enough, or whatever negative message our shame is announcing to us. The problem with shame is that it is an insidious monster that is hard to kill and sometimes even harder to recognize. Many people live with shame without even knowing it.

If you experience any of the following there is probably shame lurking in the depths of your heart:

1. You struggle with perfectionism. The degree to which you must be perfect is the degree to which shame resides in your heart. Performance is a way to run from the dark truths that you actually believe about yourself.

2. There are a lot of “shoulds” in your life or you experience a great deal of guilt. These work much the same way as performance. Because of feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness people feel obligated to perform and help others, if they don’t there are feelings of guilt.

3. Shame often masks itself as anxiety. Much of the worry and fear we experience is actually a manifestation of shame. Depression, feelings of worthlessness, is also an indication of deep shame in a person’s life.

4. The feeling that you are simply acting or performing in relationships and one day the “real” you will be discovered and rejected.

5. Fear of failure- making one mistake is a devastating experience for you.

So, what can we do about shame? Well, being a therapist, my first response is seek out some counseling- shame is a difficult thing to defeat on your own. But there are some concepts and steps that one can make.

1. Begin to reclaim the disowned parts of yourself. Due to subtle shaming events in our childhood there are often parts of ourselves that we consider shameful. It can be particular emotions like anger, aspects like dependency, vulnerability, and weakness, or particular dreams or hobbies like writing or collecting.

2. There was a story I heard about a comedian who used to try out new material at three different venues. He stated that “If it didn’t get laughs I wouldn’t use it anymore. It’s not that the joke wasn’t funny, they just didn’t get it.” There are certain things in our lives that we have to claim and appreciate even if they aren’t appreciated by others. Our jokes are still funny!

3. We need to build within ourselves a healthy grandiosity. Every one of us has dreams and grandiose notions of ourselves and there is something healthy about cultivating that part of ourselves. Neurologists actually see it as a physiological system set up to regulate and counteract shame. One psychologist makes the analogy of building sandcastles. When considering building sandcastles there are three perspectives one can take. There is the child who refuses to build a castle because he knows it will get washed away. The second child builds, but builds as if it will stand forever and is devastated when the waves come. The third child builds and enjoys his creation knowing it will come to an end, but that he can also build again. The third child is the capacity we must work to build within ourselves. To dream and to build ourselves up with the knowledge that we will fail and face disappointments, but to enjoy the now and know we can build again.

4. Build better mirrors. The interesting thing about mirrors is that we would never know what we look like without them. If there were no mirrors or photos in the world we would have no idea what we look like. The philosopher/psychologist Lacan pointed out that we are wired to see ourselves through external stimulus. People are the mirrors of our sense of self. More specifically, we learn what our self looks like and what it is worth from our parents. Unfortunately, this is often a distortion. A shaming look from a parent when we are dancing around may be enough to kill the outgoing nature within us. If you grow up seeing yourself only through fun house mirrors then that is what you will believe you look like. If you then looked in a normal mirror, you would not believe what you saw is the truth. And that is why it is often so hard to accept praise or validation because it feels false- that isn’t the mirror you have lived with.

Shame is a resilient beast but it can be tamed and even killed.

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