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When Shame Comes Calling, You Don’t Have to Listen

You are not ruined, regardless of what shame insists. When it starts in on you, you have the power to hang up on the conversation.

The shame you feel doesn’t belong to you. Image by H. B. from Pixabay

The insidious thing about shame is that it doesn’t arrive in our lives as a one-and-done phenomenon. There is not an incident and then a “Whew, glad that’s over” moment. Shame is a slow drip, a poison fed intravenously throughout our lives from the incident forward. There is the event that shatters us, the coping mechanisms by which we gather ourselves back together as best we can, and then … drip, drip, drip, shame lingers, eroding our relationships, our accomplishments, our livelihoods and our sense of ourselves from that point forward, until something — therapy, support groups, hypnosis, #MeToo, #TimesUp — interrupts it and gives us the will to redirect the poison to its source. Or we give up completely—and that, as God is my witness, must not be allowed to happen.

Shame is a slow drip, a poison fed intravenously throughout our experience from the incident forward.

The shame and trauma can seem like the Xenomorphs in Alien that get chopped up, burned, buried, bulldozed, frozen and shot into space but somehow manage to slither aboard in unguarded moments and hiss, “Surprise! Remember me?” If you’ve been at it for a while — in my case 50+ years — you can get very fast on your feet and slam the door in the monster’s face the second you get a whiff of it. And you can, as I have done, keep on marching, keep on creating and celebrating . … Until the next time. The tripwires can be gossamer — a smell, a sound, the condescending arch of an eyebrow, a news story, a presidential election — and there you are, contending with it again.

If I could offer one thing for times like this and people like us who’ve been through the worst of it, it would be for you to know, remember and remind yourself with the speed of that memory, that the shame is not yours, it’s his/theirs, and whatever you’ve told yourself about yourself related to the incident(s) is not the truth. You are not stupid, shameful, worthless, gullible, dumb, unlovable or any of those other assessments you made of yourself in the moment (I’ve made them all, repeatedly and sometimes all at once) and all those generalizations you came up with to protect yourself are equally false: All men are not predators, dangerous, untrustworthy, monsters, pigs, or vile bastards and the world itself is not dangerous, unwelcoming, treacherous and hostile — again, all of which I have believed at some point, even briefly, over the years.

You did not deserve this, you did not cause it, and it did not break you. You may have felt, may feel shattered but the truth is, you in all your wholeness are still there. Like a coffee mug with a chip on the rim, you still hold your life, you still fulfill your purpose and you always will. By virtue of your being here, you demonstrate your strength.

By virtue of your being here, you demonstrate your strength.

Recovering from the shock, the betrayal, the physical and psychic insult may take some time and it may take some strategies — counseling, support groups, great friends to hear and hold your story — but your life does not have to be shaped and defined by what someone else inflicted on you. You had no control at the time of the assault, but you don’t have to take on helplessness as a shield. The only power you have now is what you let the experience make of you — and that’s a mighty power indeed.

And as #MeToo so brilliantly has let us know, we are not alone. We are legion and we are never going back to the silence that has borne our pain and fury. Get mad, get sad and then, take a look at the steaming pile of shit that life dumped on you through no fault of your own and choose: Will you let it bury you or will you let it fertilize your astonishing life and connect you even more deeply to others?

I’ve recently turned 70. I want you to know that the horror story I lived through in my teens nearly sunk me. And yet, I have created — and continue to create — the most remarkable life. My fight to be well and whole was sometimes trench warfare, fought moment by moment against a hateful foe whose poison sometimes whispered, sometimes roared, but seemed always out to get me. Ultimately, I persevered. I never could have imagined life could be so sweet.

You have to be fleet on your feet like Peter Pan trying to catch his shadow to replace shame’s hateful perceptions with truer ones — I did not deserve it, it was not my fault. I am safe, I am loved, I belong, I have allies — but I can say without a shadow of a sliver of an itsy bitsy doubt that it’s possible and it gets easier over the years. If that weren’t true, these past years (2016–2019 and counting) would have completely undone me, because they have presented and continue to present a constant, almost daily confrontation — once again — with that monster and with the “good people” who enable him.

Yet, here I am, whole, complete, unsinkable. So are you.

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