Monica Lewinsky on Breaking Free from Shame

By Dr. Jane Shure

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“Who doesn’t regret something you did when you were 22?”

“Who doesn’t regret something you did when you were 22?” That was the question posed by Monica Lewinsky in a keynote talk on Shame and Survival. “My regret,” she said “is that I fell in love with my boss.”

Collectively, the 500 psychotherapists in the room sighed as we imagined her psychic pain from years of living as the poster child for public shaming. Speaking at the 28th Annual Renfrew Center Foundation Conference on Eating Disorders in Philadelphia, Lewinsky explained how empathy and self-compassion have helped her heal and recover from the toxic ridicule she experienced from the scandal with President Bill Clinton.

Monica cited the research of Brene Brown showing that “self-compassion is key because when we’re able to be gentle with ourselves in the midst of shame, we’re more likely to reach out, connect, and experience empathy.” She drew on Brown’s findings to help her accept the realities she had to deal with, forgive herself for past decisions and cultivate an inner voice that supports self-compassion.

In a 2009 book chapter titled Shame, Compassion, and the Journey Toward Health, I write that “shame is a mighty force. It can make one feel inherently flawed or defective, invalid as a human, and essentially un-loveable. Shame takes one prisoner, inhibiting spontaneity, draining life’s energy, creating emotional paralysis, and triggering an impulse to disappear.” I go on to describe that “compassion is the antidote to shame. Compassion provides connection, kindness, and understanding that helps sustain us through the struggle to be human.”

Most people who experience high levels of shame know that it’s not so simple to shake it off. It takes effort and perseverance over time. Monica shared that “from where I was in the fall of 1998, I could never have imagined that I could have been as resilient as I’ve been.” She told of the story of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers student, who in 2010 was secretly web-camed while being sexually intimate with another male. Days later, Tyler jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge. “In the wake of Tyler’s tragedy, my own suffering took on a different meaning. Perhaps by sharing my story, I reasoned, I might be able to help others in their darkest moments of humiliation. The question became: How do I find and give a purpose to my past?”

Eight years later, in 2018, Monica Lewinsky is rebounding from shame by speaking out against cyberbullying through her TED Talk on The Price of Shameand her writing in Vanity Fair Magazine. This fall marks twenty years since getting embroiled in the Clinton scandal. Now in her 40’s, Monica has a different way of viewing what happened to her. She holds a lot more self-compassion. She encouraged each therapist in the room to be an “upstander” — a person who stands up for someone else, either online or offline. She asked us to recognize the power that we actually have and to reach out to others so they feel seen, emphasizing that “to be seen is invaluable.”

To read more on healing from shame and fortifying resilience:

My TEDx Talk: Boost Resilience: Take Charge of the Inner Critic & Inner Worrier

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