My shame was chronic, but I didn’t know it. In fact, I hadn’t realised it was shame at all. I experienced it as constant unease, a fear of being found out for something I couldn’t identify but was certain I must have done, an inability to relax and be myself around people and a sense that I should, and would, be punished soon. Somehow, though, I didn’t associate any of these feelings with shame. I thought instead that this was just how it felt to be a person, and that if I could only get my shit together, correct my many personal wrongs then I would finally be free of it, would at last be like everyone else around me who seemed to find life far easier.
Shame is defined as a painful feeling of humiliation caused by incorrect or embarrassing behaviour. It’s something we’ve all felt at one time or another, likely after acting outside of our values or behaving in ways we can’t and don’t want to defend. Leaving a friend alone on a night out, drunkenly starting an argument or cheating on a partner would cause most of us to feel shame, and act as sobering and lasting reminder that our actions have consequences, and that treating ourselves and others without care is not a comfortable or bearable feeling.
Chronic shame is the same feeling without clear end or clear origins, and any origins it does have may not don’t seem commensurate with the depth of despair you’re going through. It’s shame that seems to spring from even very slight or common social missteps, wrong moves, or misunderstandings. It is a shame that can feel like it was born alongside the sufferer, living in their body for as long as they have. It’s shame about everything, anything, or nothing at all.
After seeing several therapists and living more than a decade into adulthood, I’ve found the source of some of my own chronic feelings of shame. For years I fought a daily battle with unmedicated and undiagnosed ADHD, obscuring the reality of my needs so often and so acutely that I ended up frequently bed-bound with depression and exhaustion. Each day I’d run through a performance of ease when inside I was tearing myself to shreds. Living for most of my teens and twenties in this state of terrified self-defence meant I built up a framework of shame- a shamework if you will- around my personality, my struggle to find my footing professionally or socially and my various indecipherable moods.
This kind of shame may be recognisable to you, though it may not. One lie that my shame has told me is that I’m the only person experiencing it, and after finally opening up to friends, specialists and strangers on the internet I know how false this belief is. Many of us go through it, and for the most part we do it in secret, perhaps believing that there’s nothing to be done, or even that the shame is somehow helpful to us, serving a vital function. As a child and a young adult my shame had felt like- and perhaps even was- a genuinely protective force, alerting me when I stepped over the line, strayed too close to danger in social situations, said or did the wrong thing.
Shame kept me within the appropriate limits, cut down in size but also safer from life’s many rejections. For sufferers, chronic shame can feel like a second skin, as familiar as your first phone number or the network of lines on the palm of your hands. When it speaks to you, it might speak in your own voice. My shame told me that it was me, and that to be without it would mean I would be split and unguarded. It told my life would only ever be small, and in exchange for its many protections I accepted this to be true for years and years. Challenging my shame felt like challenging myself.
But challenge it we must, because chronic shame can keep us from living bigger lives, experiencing deeper loves, forming truer connections, and achieving any real calm and self-acceptance in this lifetime. Challenging shame begins with acknowledging it, though it doesn’t end there. For many of us it can be a long, long road between realising that our shame is stifling us and learning how to work against it, replacing that shaming voice with something kinder and more supportive.
It can involve trauma informed therapy, CBT, workbooks, reading, psychoanalysis, exploring your personal history, better understanding neurodivergence, excavating systems of abuse, understanding shame in the context of your relationships and your worldview, and replacing shame-based narratives with something fairer and more accurate. It’s hard, absolutely, but it is possible to ease feelings of shame and put them into context. Working on my own relationship to shame required that I look at my self-talk, my shame triggers, and the avoidant actions I took when I felt at my worst, actions like drinking too much, withdrawing from friends and family and saying no to promising opportunities that felt too far out of my comfort zone.
I may not be able to totally eradicate my shame by talking about it, nor win back the years or opportunities lost, but I know that acknowledging it makes it easier to separate from it and move on with my life. Shame is a hungry thing, a thing that requires an enormous amount of time and energy to maintain. And do you know what? It’s simply not time or energy that I have to spare. I’ve got too much living to get on with.
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