Shame sucks. It’s seriously one of the most detrimental feelings a human being can experience. Its goal is to cut you off from the rest of the world so that no one else has to see how horrible/disturbed/disgusting you really are. Shame shows itself in red faces, clenched fists, and lacking eye contact.
Guilt, when it’s justified, can be useful. Guilt inspires positive change and keeps us from repeating the same mistakes. Don’t know the difference between guilt and shame? Guilt is feeling shitty about something you’ve done that violates your own moral code. Shame is going from “I did a shitty thing” to “I am a shitty person.” Shame revolves around the idea that there is something inherently wrong with you. It’s triggered by rejection, by ostracization, by embarrassment… any number of things, really.
Guilt promotes forward movement. Shame keeps you stuck and scared and small. Shame prohibits growth.
And yet, I feel shame all. the. time. I am a shame queen. I live in a shame palace with shame servants who bring me big plates of shame at 8 am, noon, and 5 pm, respectively, and I swallow the shame until I’m so full of it, I can’t move.
My physical experience of shame starts with an invisible punch in the chest. I lose my breath. The color and light start to drain from from the room. I stop hearing conversations around me. I turn inward, spiraling down an internal shame vortex. I feel an immediate urge to flee — to get away from the people I love before they can see the REAL me.
Shame → self-hatred → suicidality.
And it’s crazy to me how quickly this process can be triggered. It’s so deeply ingrained in me, it feels organic. I have learned to relinquish control and let shame dictate how I feel about myself as soon as it’s triggered. Shame swears that I need the reality check. Shame says, “without me, you would make too many mistakes, you would be too… free.”
Oh, I get it, shame. You’re trying to keep me from seeing my own fucking light. You’re trying to stop me from letting it grow.
While I was in treatment in 2011, my addiction counselor introduced me to Brene Brown’s research about shame and vulnerability. I hated her, mostly because I hated him and I hated treatment and I didn’t want to talk about my shit. Gary told me to write something I was ashamed of on a piece of paper. I wrote, “I was a prostitute” in such small handwriting, you could barely see it and then leaned back in my seat, muttering, “this is fucking bullshit.”
I’ve come a long way.
I eventually learned to love Brene Brown and her goddamn TED Talks. She’s a bit passe at this point (her videos been watched a gazillion times and are recommended by every therapist on gawd’s green earth), but she sparked something of a vulnerability revolution. Brown emphasizes that it’s okay to be vulnerable — maybe even transparent — and that vulnerability can be lifesaving. It’s also contagious. Step into any creative nonfiction class if you need proof.
Memoirists (at least the ones people gravitate towards) have mastered the art of befriending and divulging the things they’re ashamed of. We like reading their work because it makes us feel a little less alone, a little less crazy, a little more human. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship — the reader finds solace in resonance, while the writer is given the gift of distance. Writing transforms shame from an invisible parasite into some benign words on a page.
If Brene Brown, Alcoholics Anonymous, memoir writing, and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) have taught me anything, it’s that sharing is shame’s worst nightmare.
Twelve Step programs confront shame in the fourth and fifth steps.
Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Step 5: Admitted to GOD, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs
In other words, step four requires alcoholics to write down every shitty thing they’ve ever done — sexually, financially, interpersonally, etc. — and then step five asks that they share it with another human being (usually a sponsor) and with GOD (caps belong to AA, not me. lol).
At its core, this is a very beneficial practice. The problem, for me, is that the fourth and fifth steps are shrouded in concepts like “morality,” “character defects,” “wrongs,” and “virtues.” This language screams Catholicism, righteousness, and sinfulness to me. If you’re an alcoholic and this language works for you, by all means, use the steps as you need to. I’ve come to a point, however, where I no longer believe I can pray away my “character defects” or that there even is such a thing. I need a shame removal process that won’t further shame me.
So what are my options?
Dialectical behavioral therapy also combats shame by means of exposure. In the third module of the program — emotion regulation — clients are taught how to recognize emotions, decide whether they “fit the facts” of a given situation, and then choose whether to embrace or alter them based on their usefulness.
DBT asserts that the only time shame is justified is when “you will be rejected by a person or group you care about if your personal characteristics or behavior are made public.” To challenge unjustified shame, DBT promotes the use of opposite action, which is exactly what it sounds like — acting opposite to how you want to act.
Shame usually tells us to run and/or hide. Opposite action is so not down with that.
Here’s what opposite action to shame looks like:
- Make public your personal characteristics or your behavior (with people who won’t reject you).
- Repeat the behavior that sets off shame over and over (without hiding the behavior from those who won’t reject you).
- No apologizing or trying to make up for a perceived transgression.
- Take in all the information from the situation.
- Change your body posture. Look innocent and proud. Lift your head; “puff up” your chest; maintain eye contact. Keep your voice tone steady and clear.
Sounds terrifying, I know. The more you do it, though, the easier it gets. And seriously, talking about the things you’re ashamed of can save you from SO MUCH PAIN. You’ll probably realize that most of your friends are being bogged down by similar bullshit. Remember: when one person talks about shame, other people start talking about it, too.
I started taking memoir seriously when I was 21 (four years ago), shortly after getting sober for the second time. I knew I had to write about prostitution. I knew I couldn’t keep it a secret any longer — that I wouldn’t stop feeling ostracized until I shared. And so I did. I was terrified, but really had no reason to be. I was met with compassion, appreciation, and empathy. The more I wrote, the more I exposed. The more I exposed, the more I was able to write.
So now I’m going to write probably the scariest thing I have ever written: the master list of things I’m ashamed of. I am going to do this quickly in order to avoid censoring myself — seriously, I’m not holding anything back. This is the shit that’s been too scary for me to write about. Even big mouths sometimes keep secrets.
Alright, let’s do this.
(P.S. If you walk away from this judging me, you’re probably hiding from some of your own shit. Just sayin’)
THE MASTER LIST OF THINGS I’M ASHAMED OF:
- In 2011, after a prolonged period of sobriety, I decided to get drunk and go out with some coworkers. I woke up in the hospital the next morning. The police report said that I made my way to a random Rochester bar and started screaming that I had been gang raped. I was arrested and brought to the hospital, where I continued to scream about a gang rape. I woke up disoriented and peeled off my heart moniter, ripped out my IV, picked my clothes up off the floor, and tried to leave. Didn’t work out very well.
- My birthday present that year was the footing of my ambulance bill.
- My best friend was supposed to be a bridesmaid in my wedding that didn’t happen. A month before, she told me over Facebook messenger that she didn’t want to come because a) Duluth scared her and b) I was too intense to be friends with.
- I had sex with a Portuguese man a month before I was supposed to get married. When the wedding was finally cancelled, I had sex with 10+ additional men in order to forget about what I had done.
- After the breakup, I ran back to Europe instead of cleaning up my mess. My brother said I disgusted him and all of my friends.
- I arrived in Barcelona at 11 pm on a Wednesday night with nowhere to stay because I wanted to hook up with a server I knew. He never got back to me. I was alone. In the dark. Surrounded by strangers.
- That same server left me stranded on a street corner in Barcelona at 4 am a week later. He compared me to a homeless man from New York.
- On Christmas Eve six years ago, I got wasted and humiliated my family in front of people they were trying to impress. Zach staged an “intervention” the next morning and told me that he would remove me from his life if I didn’t change.
- When I was 9 years old, I bought an Easter outfit that I adored. My grandfather saw me in it and said, “looks like you’re getting pudgy.”
- My driver’s ed teacher asked me if I was pregnant. I was 15 and already hated my body.
- I started Jenny Craig when I was 12.
- During my first semester of college, I fell in love with a self-admitted fascist who thought I was an idiot. When I revealed my crush to him and he rejected me, I sobbed on the bathroom floor of my dormitory, drenched in red wine.
- I discovered masturbation by humping pillows.
- My friend and I used to watch Talk Sex with Sue with pillows between our legs.
- I once humped my stuffed animal gorilla and accidentally peed on it. One day I came home and the gorilla was in the garage. Apparently my parents figured it out.
- I wrote “erotica” in second grade. One of my friends told the teacher about it. My mom was called in for a conference with my teacher and the principal and she decided to pull me out of school.
- At the next school I went to, I had a book on witchcraft and my teacher caught me casting spells. My mom was called in for another conference and again pulled me out of the school. She screamed at me the whole way home.
- I have fucked so many men who treated me like shit.
- I caught cold sores from a female partner who lied to me.
- I fell for a very obvious scam in Tanzania that resulted in me being robbed and temporarily kidnapped and then shamed by my study abroad leaders, who forced me to apologize to the rest of the group. I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere alone for the rest of the trip.
- This led to a two-year bout of intrusive thoughts/P-OCD/unwanted thoughts syndrome. It was so bad, I wanted to kill myself on a daily basis. If you don’t know what this is, Maria Bamford is basically the authority on it. Listening to her talk about it so candidly changed my fucking life.
- I once fucked an obese man for money who played Nickelback while he put beads up my ass.
- I once pissed in a cup in Chicago’s Water Tower Place for money. The man said he was going to “drink me with a cigar.”
- I sometimes came when johns fucked me.
- I once had sex with a john who I thought was going to kill me.
- I’ve had to call johns “daddy.”
- I made a toilet overflow in jail.
- After overflowing the toilet, I revealed to the other inmates that I didn’t know how to use a mop.
- I’ve drunkenly passed out on three toilets.
- I once did heroin and pissed on my brother’s carpet.
- As a kid, I played every weird sex game under the sun — Doctor, mommy/daughter, family, whatever. I feel like I was always the bossier one.
- When I was eight or nine, I printed out an article called “100 ways to please your lover” while my parents were at dinner. They came home while it was still printing and I ran to the bathroom to flush the printed pages down the toilet. My dad chased me and took the papers out of the toilet and parental controls were soon added to the computers.
- I was rejected from five of the seven graduate schools I applied to.
- I was rejected from my creative writing senior seminar because of a typo on the first page of my shitty writing sample. (I eventually turned in another sample and got into the class, but this was a humiliating experience).
- When I was in treatment in 2011, my PTSD manifested in such a way that I fell in lust with a rapist who lived in my sober house. When I figured out why it was happening and told a fellow patient about it, he said, “Duh, we all knew you were just pissed because Bo didn’t want to rape you.”
- I once masterbated in my reading circle in fifth grade.
- My elementary school grade crush asked me if I had ever heard of a treadmill.
- Yo, I was pretty fat in grade school.
- When I sit down, I have fat rolls. I used to call this “the donut” and draw around it with a big permanent marker and tell myself that that’s where the surgeon would cut my stomach.
- I obsess over men who reject me, especially the ones who express interest and then take it back. These men make me totally insane, and not in a quirky way.
- I’ve had friends promise not to be scared off by manifestations of my PTSD, only to totally abandon me when they see me dissociate.
- I broke up with my high school boyfriend because I thought he had a crush on my brother.
- I was lectured after class for saying something really offensive to another student during my freshman year of high school.
- I was kicked out of the Triple Rock for running in traffic outside the venue.
- I was once supposed to play a show in Detroit, but was so drunk when I stood up that I couldn’t form a complete sentence. I passed out and snored through everyone else’s set. My tourmate said I embarrassed him. Of course I did.
- I got rejected twice on New Year’s Eve, 2o15.
- A man once walked into the motel room we were supposed to meet in, said he couldn’t do it, dropped a 20 dollar bill on the bed, and left.
- I had sex with my boyfriend’s best friend after we broke up and was so drunk that I didn’t even remember it.
- I’ve been a mistress. More than once.
- I spent so much time in bed as a depressed 12-year-old that my hair started to dread.
- Shortly after, I was sent to my first mental hospital. I told on one of the kids for smoking a cigarette.
- I was banned from K-Mart for shoplifting when I was 20.
- I used to drive while blackout drunk.
- I’ve cut myself in a church.
- I still romanticize prostitution sometimes.
- I had sex with a girl at her parents’ house while her parents were home… not very long ago.
- I have a stupid tramp stamp covering up the words “mo money,” which is a very long and painful story (in multiple ways).
- I drunkenly kissed someone at a New Year’s party in front of my very monogamous boyfriend.
- I told my co-worker I had a crush on him and he 100% rejected me.
- I once freaked out at my birthday party and threatened to send all my friends home.
- I think really fucked up, disturbing things on a regular basis.
- I once masturbated in my car while crying and listening to Dystopia.
- My brother has a scar on his arm from me scratching him as a kid.
- I convinced my brother Luke to drink/do drugs when he was 12 so that I wouldn’t feel so bad about my own usage.
- I once took a bunch of pictures of myself wearing a pink strap-on and posted them on the Internet. Luke’s friend saw them and told his mom. His mom told my mom and… you can put those pieces together yourself.
- My parents found out that I was prostituting and threatened to send me to jail when I was 19.
- My number one source of shame: PTSD has kept me from being able to maintain a real world 9-5. I don’t have a real world 9-5. (FYI, asking people how they make money/why they don’t have a regular job/whether writing “really pays off” is a ticket to an awkward conversation. Some folks have visible disabilities, others don’t.)
- I am not personally wealthy, but I come from a wealthy family.
- In 2011, I had a four-day house party while my parents were out of town. I passed out and got raped the first night. My youngest brother was there for all of this. I was supposed to be his role model.
- I was hired as a summer camp counselor when I was 21. I showed up to work wretchedly hungover on the last day. I said “shit” during four square. I told the little girls that I tattooed myself. I got in trouble for all of this.
- When I was 8 or so, I gave my brother’s friend a kiss while he was sleeping.
- I once ran around a hotel in Milwaukee, convinced that the former tour manager of the Violent Femmes was trying to rape me. (I was quite possibly right about this.)
- I was abandoned at said hotel by one of the Summerfest stage managers who promised me a place to stay and then went off with another girl.
- I drunkenly screamed at him in front of a crowd of people.
- I have small tits.
- I once showed a 16 year old my cut up arm and told her I wanted to die. She never talked to me again.
- I’m afraid that I was responsible for my cat’s illness and subsequent death because I tried to take him for walks outside.
- I have had so much sex with so many people for brief hits of validation.
- I’ve done a lot of this shit while sober.
That’s all I can think of right now. This feels really weird. I’m sweating so much that I had to take my shirt off.
I’ll probably add more later.
Here’s an exercise for you: Find a trusted friend who may be dealing with their own shame boat. Invite them to write a list of all the things they’re ashamed of. You’ll do the same. Plan to meet up with each other in a safe, quiet space within a few days. Light candles and incense and sit on comfy things. Share the lists out loud — maybe switching off, item by item. Do some sort of cleansing ritual afterwards. Cry if you need to. If you can’t think of anyone to share with, you can share with me. I won’t judge you.
Remember — always ask for what you need. Being honest about your shame can be an excruciating, albeit rewarding, process. Eat some ice cream. Find a dog to pet. Dive into a lake.
I love you. You’re never, ever alone.
P.S. A few days have passed since I wrote the first version of this list and I just want to say that my experience reading it now is so much different than it was the first day. I feel a sort of detached calm around it. Vulnerability is legit, d00ds.