Shame is a heavy, sticky emotion and state of mind. In the grips of it we can feel unworthy, dirty and low. And because in our minds, the thing we feel shame about is so abhorrent we keep it to ourselves so that it doesn’t get reviewed by anyone else. It becomes a point of vulnerability that we want to keep hidden because we’re so afraid of how harshly others might judge us if they found out. Shame is so shameful that it is the emotion we dare not own up to even owning.
I can joke about being ashamed, feigning a sort of faux-shame. I have a very house proud visitor about to descend and I can’t find any toilet lime scale remover, so I’ll smile wryly at my lack of cleaning and ‘house-wifeliness.’ Actually though, the lack of cleaning is a conscious choice. I can’t have a job, run a business, be involved in local community events, do all the coming and going and spending time that’s needed with and for three children and get everything done. Something has given and it’s the housework. The house is organised and tidy-ish but dusty and a bit grubby. If you drop food on my kitchen floor, don’t pick it up and eat it. So my shame doesn’t exist there. But it does exist.
I find it quite hard to write about the sources of my own real shame. They are so personal, so real to me and they make me physically react. I will literally bow my head in shame to avoid your eyes when it’s in my mind. Consciously and rationally I know you can’t read it from my eyes, but I’ll avert them just in case. And because I don’t know most of you who will read this, I could actually write it down here, because I won’t see your reaction and you’d probably be polite in your response anyway. I haven’t broken the law, or hurt or killed anyone after all. It’s much smaller scale than that, but to me, in my mind, it is monumental and huge. And I don’t want people who know me to judge me, pity me or laugh at me. More importantly, I don’t want to open a dialogue about it.
When my second born daughter was a baby, I was doing a lot of counselling and coaching courses. One of them required that I had to have twenty hours of counselling. This was beautifully timed, because in that room with my counsellor, I was able to air, view and manage the shame I had accumulated after baby two’s birth. I didn’t realise until afterwards that I probably had postnatal depression in her first year. I was flat, listless and often just going through the motions of my life with little energy and no oomph. In fact I often felt cold and separate.
Combined with sleep deprivation and the steep learning curve involved in learning to manage two children, I felt shame that my second baby had not had the best of me. I felt that she had a ‘different’ mum to my firstborn. In counselling, I managed to look this shame square in the face and see it for what it was: an overreaction to some differences and the fact that in my shame I had blocked out the positive aspects and the ways in which baby two had also benefited from getting a mum who was a lot more clued-up and a lot less anxious than the mum my first girl had. It was not all bad. It was a relief and I was able to leave the crippling effects of the old shame behind me. I opened a dialogue about it and it was beneficial, to me and to those close to me.
So what about the shameful shames I’m still carrying around so shamefully?! Well, actually, I spoke it the other day. I told somebody about one of my two shame-inducers. They were aware of the issue but not of my crippled-inside, churned up response to it. To have spoken of it was to have knocked a tiny dent in its power. To have aired it was the first step in being brave enough to begin to tackle it. Shame likes a nice, dark corner of the mind to fester in. I made a chink of light in the vicinity of the darkness; a first step.
When I’m going to be working with a child, I meet with their parents before our work begins. We talk family history, issues, strengths and weaknesses. I am always humbled by the trust these parents place in me and the vulnerability they choose to embrace in order to share some really hard-to-tell-stories. They do this for the love of their child.
How can I expect this vulnerability and bravery from them whilst being too frightened to make myself vulnerable? Having found the amazing work of Brene Brown on shame and vulnerability, I wrote a post for my own website. It was a first and public declaration of owning my own shame and vulnerability. I upset my Mum by writing it though. She was sad that I had carried negative feelings about myself and had now aired them. She wished that I would delete the post.
I didn’t though. We all experience negativity and self doubt. It’s my time to face my shame demons and in doing so to take away their sting and power. I am strong enough at this time in my life to begin to allow myself to be vulnerable. In accepting and embracing vulnerability, strength is derived. And perhaps I can teach this to my daughters as they grow.
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