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Staring Down Shame

What If it’s Only a Wine Glass?

I came into the kitchen one morning and noticed a few slivers of glass on the counter top. I asked our house guest if she knew of a glass breaking, wanting to make sure no one had been injured and that no glass remained as a danger. She was apologetic and explained that she had tried to dry her fingertips on the corner of a towel next to the sink (which happened to have the wine glass drying on it). The tiniest movement in the towel had caused the wine glass to topple into the sink, breaking it into pieces.

As my friend remarked on her “clumsiness”, she stared down at the floor in embarrassment. Following a hunch, I asked her if she’d be willing to experiment together: to look at the accident from a different perspective than “clumsiness”? What if, together, a new way of looking at herself could be discovered? She was grateful for the opportunity, the eagerness in her voice unmistakable.

As we continued our experiment, we considered the wine glass breaking as an “event” that could be described simply as: when I use the corner of a dish towel that has a wine glass resting on it, the smallest movement may cause the wine glass to shift its position, perhaps falling and breaking.  What if there was no right or wrong… or mistake made (or “clumsiness”)… simply natural consequences and learning? She was “in” and the relieved smile on her face seemed to reflect the deep meaning of our experiment. We fixed coffee and continued our exploration of the idea of perspective.

What if each of us made a commitment to release our grip on negative self-concepts and look at the events in our lives as just that: events? Sometimes wine glasses break. Blaming ourselves and feeling shame gets us nowhere. In fact, feeling shame can be a dangerous emotion as we often project it onto others, not wanting to experience the discomfort of this harmful feeling. Could this be a worthwhile endeavor – to catch shame before it has a chance to become part of our self- description? Before we actually believe we are shameful human beings?

Brené Brown, speaker, researcher and author of Daring Greatly and I Thought It Was Just Me, distinguishes guilt as “I did something bad” from shame which is “I am bad”. The first involves behavior, the second self-worth. How easy it is to feel shameful when all we are doing is being human. And where does the concept of shame come from?

I know of a woman who, at age 5, saw her mother ironing her favorite dress… the one with the tulip on the skirt. She was appreciative and eagerly thanked her mother for working so hard: ironing on a hot day in Illinois and making her tulip dress look “pretty” on the hanger. Her mother stopped ironing, put her hands on her hips and said: “If you and your sisters had any idea how hard it is to be a mother, you’d think twice. All I do is work all day long!” The young girl was shocked and felt embarrassed to have her gratitude treated in this manner. She backed slowly out of the room and, feeling responsible for her mother’s anger, made a decision to do anything she could to “make her mother happy”. She decided to be perfect. At everything.

A single incident, at a vulnerable time in childhood, can shape future behavior by creating a belief – such as “I have to be perfect to make those I love happy”. Loyalty to this belief can be tenacious and a life of constant defeat and lack of fulfillment can result.  This young girl has grown up to learn that shame is the foundation for perfection and the years of striving and hard work toward achieving this perfection have not brought her the safety and assurance she needed. Fortunately, she has sought learning and growth along the way, healing with safe people and is committed to living a life of wholeness and connection.

I have come to learn the safety and love we need comes from being who we are with authenticity, compassion and love – and connecting to others from this place. It comes from living in service to our own selves and to others, in a way that is wholehearted, intentional and deeply caring. Safety and love are the gifts of non-judgment, loving others and giving.

What if we all made a commitment to stare down shame – by being honest with ourselves and others and admitting how we are feeling when shame occurs?  Shame grows stronger in darkness, away from other human beings. What if we shared our experience of shame with a good friend, a partner…maybe a pet that listens…and chose another perspective? Can a wine glass (broken) be only a wine glass (that is broken)? How deeply would we bless our children – all children – if we let shame and self-blame be something we learned to recognize, re-organize (in our thinking) and respond to in a more healthy and life-affirming way?

I am moved by shame and how many of us suffer from the illusion of “not good enough”. Please join me in my following posts as we look a bit more deeply into this destructive emotion and how to become more resilient to shame. And the little girl: she’s okay now. I should know: my granddaughter is wearing the tulip dress with great delight. What greater gift is there, in healing from shame, than love?

In gratitude, I invite you to comment: have you had an experience with shame? If so, how did it impact you? Do you have any suggestions for people who are feeling shameful in some way?

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