“Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.”
~ Brene Brown, PhD LMSW
“Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable.
Be honest and transparent anyway.”
~ Mother Teresa
I’ve been around Camp Shame most of my life – as visitor, vacationer, permanent resident. I know the camp’s location, sensation, and mission statement well: You are bad. Bad in every way, any way, at every thing or any thing. While the faces and names of the camp counselors might have changed season-to-season, the variety of episodes and incidents played out similarly, lending harmony to those reinforcing camp songs, full of lethal strokes of verbal punishment that I am a bad person; unworthy of love or belonging, while fully worthy of rejection through the frequent refrain of shame on you fervently fired toward me. It carried on year after year.
I absorbed every morsel of those hurtful, venomous words like a damp sponge. Soon, I believed it, I’d ring myself out, then absorb more by singing along as I memorized the refrain and drank the camp kool aid. Later I adopted the practice, became a counselor myself following through in adapting the shame on you mantra as part of my personal arsenal of outward punishment toward the next generation of campers in the psychological game of self-centered insensitivity and indignation so as to keep you small – smaller than me – and prove beyond question that I am right (always) and you are wrong. Sound familiar? Ah, those were the days – the god-awful sanctimonious days.
Whenever I was on the receiving end of belittling shame words it was my emotional undoing. I’d spiral into a cavern of self-doubt, self-loathing, isolation, and frozen fear disguised as procrastination. My life was small; I felt small, played small, acted small. I believed I didn’t count, didn’t matter. I believed whatever it was I shamed for. Unbeknownst to me the shaming worked. As a result, I wouldn’t rock boats, stir waters, challenge perceived authority, or have any individualistic idea or opinion of my own. I didn’t speak up or speak out. The hopes and dreams for my life were stunted and stalled as a result. This cavern was my Camp Shame and I was terrified of it.
There is an inherent risk when you put yourself, your voice, vulnerably out in the stratosphere of public access for anyone and everyone to see and hear you. The risk is it may not be received well; you may be judged, chastised, verbally bashed. You hope not, but that is how it goes. The hard sting is when you receive it directly. For me, this risk is a perpetual invitation to return to Camp Shame to stunt and stall me once again, maybe a little longer this time or altogether permanent. Yet in the risky business of honesty and speaking your truth, you have a responsibility to yourself, your objectives, and your fragile psyche to mentally condition for the shaming backlash. You must work to build your inner immunity, resilience – shame resilience – as Brene Brown refers to it. That’s another kind of undoing, one where Camp Shame can be both training ground, healing house and test site. I recently drove by the old Camp Shame neighborhood – unintentionally – when I vulnerably shared another personal story to the masses.
Shortly after my last essay, I received an email alert that a submitted comment required my pre-screen managing attention. The comment read in-part, You forget that… you also forget…YOU… lies… Oh, and… Shame on you. Between the ellipsises were cruel, hurtful words, and unrelated to the essay topic. One more thing, that comment came from a relative – a relative of mine. It was a drive-by hit and run at the gates of Camp Shame. Three words that can open the gate, if I allow it to: Shame on you. Words can hurt. Words do hurt. When delivered by a relative, well, let’s just say it down right sucks. I get lost for words to describe how much it hurts. There was nothing kind, loving, sensitive, thoughtful, compassionate or constructive in the remarks that were submitted. The purpose was to maim. I love what author Stephen R. Covey writes in his notable book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “And unless we value the differences in our perceptions, unless we value each other and give credence to the possibility that we’re both right, that life is not always a dichotomous either/or, that there are almost always third alternatives, we will never be able to transcend the limits of that conditioning.”
The important lesson I share with you is not what someone else said or did, but how I responded to it, transcending the limits someone else was compelled to restrict upon me, dismissing my view and experience, quash my feelings in a hostile attempt to diminish me as an autonomous human being. I share what happened inside me and what external actions I took as an example of how I have overcome those heavily conditioned reactions that were regularly my emotional and physical undoing. In his book, The Power of NOW, Ekhart Tolle explains, “The script in your head that you learned a long time ago, the conditioning of your mind, will dictate your thinking and your behavior. You may be free of it for brief intervals, but rarely for long. This is especially true when something ‘goes wrong’ or there is some loss or upset. Your conditioned reaction will then be involuntary, automatic, and predictable, fueled by the one basic emotion that underlies the mind-identified state of consciousness: fear.”
Upon reading the remarks I felt the familiar ping of ‘fear’ in my gut as I muttered in shock to myself, “Wow.” Calmly I paused, took a deep breath and reviewed it again. I had to sit with the reality of seeing these words in front of me, addressed to me, while comprehending who sent them, and nuture my spirit knowing this individual found me, has followed me, and has not changed and is still not a safe person for me to engage with. Before me was a litmus test…confronting my fear head on while undoing my conditioned reaction. Can I do it? Will I do it?
During the last six years, I’ve done the most serious, concentrated-focus work of healing, growth, and reconciling. I’m learning to love myself, and undo of a lifetime association with, reaction to and response of that dreaded shame and the subconscious buy-in agreement I had with it. This same effort has also gone into eradicating my own shaming behavior, cleansing my vocabulary thus dissolving my counter-weaponry fortress. I need not tear you down any more, the way I was torn down.
I’m still getting comfortable detaching from the theoretical philosophy that claims if I share a bloodline with someone I’m required to be and stay in a relationship – of any kind- with that person, let alone take their shaming. False. I do not subscribe to this thinking, yet it has not been an easy premise for me to stay behind and practice, especially when this philosophy has been preached by the same shaming participants. Here I am, in a catch-22, being challenged to practice letting go and staying away – for my own well-being, because some relatives are too sick, dangerous, unsafe, or unhealthy to be around. It is quite easy to do when there’s no contact. I’ve been there too. When there is no contact the problem miraculously solves itself; when there’s no contact, there’s nothing to do. Easy-peasy. Now there was contact, I was looking at it, an email, being confronted by Higher Sources to walk my talk and do something about the shaming game before me. Make another bold transformative move to undo the shame I’d absorbed in the past from similar occurrences. It is a empowering act of self love at a new level, and a healing, strengthening gift to myself.
First, I hit the delete button of the email. Next, I went to the administrative action page of the blog and rejected the pending comment. Third, I blocked the email address for any future submission attempts. Last, I called a trusted friend to talk through what happened and celebrate that for the first time in a long time, that individual didn’t wound me with their shaming words. I didn’t absorb it. I repelled it. It bounced off me. No response is a response. My deleting action silently stated that shame-baiting or any other malicious attitudes are not welcome. I declared that my love for my emotional well-being was more important than someone else’s snark nasty comment.
What happened for me with this experience was assurance that if a relative, a blood relative didn’t undo me, a stranger most definitely wouldn’t. Shamers are out there, eager to pounce. It’s their defense weapon of superiority, ignorance, and indifference. I’ve undone my subscription.
It takes strength, courage, time, and love for ourselves to undo the emotional undoing we’ve experienced through shame in our lives. Please know, you are worth every effort. Keep at it.
“I am not a product of my circumstances.
I am a product of my decisions.”
~ Stephen R. Covey