Shame is a soul eating emotion. — C.G. Jung
At the beginning of 2017, I lost my job. Laid off. Let go. Whatever words one decides to use, there is an experience of pain that many people share after such an event. More specifically, if you're anything like me, after what feels like a massive failure, after feeling like you've let others down, disappointed them, there is a voice that creeps in, silently at first, but nonetheless distinctly articulate in its message...
... you are a mistake ... you're a failure ... you're a fraud ...
While it was a lesson I first heard a long time ago in one of my sessions with Blake back in Chicago, it didn't sink in until I began seeing my therapist here in Vancouver: the difference between guilt and shame is the difference between making a mistake and being a mistake. This difference is monumental, particularly when you've been taught that failure in any form equates to worthlessness. But as I've said before, perhaps countless times, we don't have to live in that place of shame. In fact, we shouldn't.
Look: the trees exist; the houses
we dwell in stand there stalwartly.
pass by it all, like a rush of air.
And everything conspires to keep quiet
half out of shame perhaps, half out of
some secret hope. ― Rainer Maria Rilke
In truth, I knew my time at the hospital was nearing its end, and as the events unfolded, I threw myself into my hopes for the future, thinking about what might be next. I reached out to my former supervisors to inquire about supervisory education, thinking that I could handle the process, the scrutiny. Yet in a conversation with two people whom I admire and trust dearly, it hurt to admit, "I'm not ready." Knowing me as well as they do, they said, "Don't. Don't do it. Don't go to that shame place. Don't spiral." Even their naming of it made my skin feel raw, like a cut doused in antiseptic. But it had another effect: it halted my mental process of giving into that voice of unworthiness, of self-disdain.
Contrary to popular belief, shame isn't as invisible to the people around us as we might like it to be. When it comes to shame, I don't think anyone has the perfect poker face. Try as we might to keep our wounds covered, sometimes the blood seeps through the shirts we wear, illuminating our emotional mortality to the outside world. We think it's invisible, yet we also like to think that we can tell what's going on with someone else. If I can see you, then isn't it safe to assume you can see me?
Shame is always easier to handle if you have someone to share it with. ― Craig Thompson
Answers don't come easy when it comes to shame. The reality is we all experience shame in different ways, and to different degrees. But there's the point: we all experience it. Every single one of us. Granted, some are better than others of coming out of the rabbit hole faster, and maybe they're the ones we should be turning to for guidance, the ones we can rely on to catch our blind spots.
One area where I get tripped up is thinking no one else knows shame like I do (sometimes I really hate being a Four). But when I stop and remember that my emotional experiences are not wholly unique, that I share with other humans experiences of feeling, of thinking, of doing, I'm reminded, "Oh wait, I'm not so alone in this. I'm sure someone else knows what this feels like." That reminder is enough to keep me from spiraling too far. Even if I take the risk of reaching out to someone, and it turns out they've never experienced the kind or depth of shame I share with them, the act of sharing alone is a powerful one — one in which I relinquish some of my ego and trust someone else to support me. Sharing my feeling ashamed might not restore me to wholeness instantly — that would be a pipe dream. But it does mend a few of the cracks and broken places.
Next time you find yourself thinking "I'm worthless... I'm nothing," take a deep breath, and remember the overwhelming untruth of those thoughts. You're worthy. You're something. Maybe you're everything. Isn't that worth finding out?
photo credit: Allen (via Flickr)