I have read, learned, experienced, and listened to enough TED talks to understand that the particular brand of shame I experience runs deep in my bones. Shame is different than feelings of guilt. The shame I feel is an underlying feeling of being inherently damaged, despite knowing the truth about who I am and who I am not, as if I am somehow wrong just for being, despite knowing otherwise.
What makes this most perplexing is that I don’t see a f*ck-up when I look in the mirror. It has been years since I have seethed with hate in reaction to my own reflection. I don’t have hidden secrets. I don’t obsess or have regret. I am not running from mistakes, addictions, or any other colossal mistakes I can’t remember. I don’t berate myself about one-night stands I couldn’t piece back together in my memory if I tried. When I am wrong I say I am wrong (and I say it a lot). I am also not hiding from the childhood I couldn’t control.
I don’t hate myself for any of those things. I know and believe with my whole heart that my worth and identity is absolutely not woven into any of those things. None of that makes me who I am. None of it has the power to push me around. I had the opportunity to have a brand new start and I know that I am nothing like the person I used to claim to be and I am always trying to continue the process of healing and learning about different ways I can grow as a person.
So how would shame find a place in my world?
How the f*ck did it creep its way into this phase of my journey?
It is possible that the shame I know is even more resilient to change than my love for drugs or alcohol once was?
This is a perfect example of why Recovery is considered and spoken of as a process.
It is a P-R-O-C-E-S-S.
To think of it any other way is to take away from the beauty of its depth.
For most of us, it’s a long, layered, complicated, beautifulfiul, messy, process of healing. This is why it looks and feels and acts differently for each individual person and this is why there is really not a wrong way to do this thing.
For a person like myself, who grew up with one alcoholic parent and one drug-addicted/mentally-ill parent, the fabric of what makes me, is bewildering, but also very, very, common. My primary problem in early recovery was my nearly lethal addiction to prescription medication but my underlying, correlating, issue had always been pacifying a powerful and constant need to escape.
Shame fed my need to escape. Shame was a major component of why I didn’t mind getting lost in drugs and alcohol in the first place, years before I developed and struggled with addiction. Shame is why I didn’t see any point in valuing myself or speaking up or changing. Shame was the culprit behind why I stayed silent about sexual abuse for years. Shame was why I stayed loyal in an abusive relationship for too long. Shame feeds stigmas. Shame is not as famous as it should be. Shame is a silent killer.
My personal recovery has centered on healing from the decisions that I made while living under the weight of my shame and on learning how to restrain myself from an overwhelming and constant urge to run for the f*cking hills every time I feel any kind of emotion. Years ago, I didn’t run when things got hard, I only ran when things changed, when I felt fear, anxiety, or when things felt unpredictable. I also ran when I felt happy, celebratory, or excited, or when I experienced loss, sadness, or guilt. I was toxically fit; in great shape but always on my way to nowhere fast, and that made me feel ashamed of myself and my life.
Today, (eleven years into my recovery), shame still tries to deceive me. It is similar to the ways in which drugs or alcohol used to lure me back in: with empty promises of comfort, joy, or as a resolution. Shame offers similar promises to me if I give in and turn to my old ways of thinking, just as drugs and alcohol once did. The lie is that I get something in return for believing in the ease. In reality, it is a choice to gain nothing and walk away with less of me and more damage every single time. I miss things and I cheat myself. With shame, it can conceal itself starting with isolation. “I’ll feel better if I am alone. I just need to get away for awhile. No one understands. You’re different. You don’t belong here.”
I know my shame is tied to the myths, lies, and inaccurate beliefs that I formed decades ago about myself and the ideas I formed about the world, my family, and people in general and if I am not vigilant, I find myself making decisions based off of the whispers of shame, rather than the reality in front of me that I know to be true. So I have learned to take my emotional temperature often. I am working on it being more regular but often is better than never. For me, it is really important to take a few steps back to counter any lies I might find or places I have avoided or skipped over. This is a way to gauge my emotional health. I look back to see how I have handled stress or tough situations or how I coped with discomfort, distress, or negative situations. It is the only way to see my own progress and the best way to stay honest, grounded and growth focused. Just this week I chose to own some mistakes and emotionally charged decisions, hoping that people would accept my apology forgive me, or at the very least, try to understand. But as a woman in the thick of growing, I can only be myself as honestly and authentically as I can, and I know that means making mistakes, owning them, and moving on. The only thing I know for sure is that honesty is the best way to humility and humility is the path I choose to take to remain in a growth mindset.
Shame cannot win my mind or my heart if I stay close to the truth. Thankfully, emotional health IS measurable and is something I can look at and see where I am doing well and places that need work and believe me, I always have places that need work. My sobriety counts on my recognition of that and is proportional to my beliefs about who I am and who I am not. So for me differentiating between truth and old lies is pretty important. The same can be said about how much of shame’s bullshit I choose to believe. My recovery seems to boil down to a battle between truth and lies. I know I am less likely to believe lies if I am constantly seeking truth and every day I am practicing being mindful of noticing the subtle reminders of my truth, and more importantly, the power and redemption found in God’s Truth of who I am.
The more we examine ourselves, the better we become at recognizing the patterns within ourselves and the whys behind why we are who we are. We aren’t bad people for having bad experiences. We aren’t throw away people because there are parts of our past that we need to just get rid of. We aren’t doomed to screw up forever just because we spent so much time screwing up. The most important part to remember is there is a way out from underneath the weight of living a life that isn’t healthy. Just because we have made crappy decisions doesn’t mean we’re crappy people. Just because crappy things were thrown onto us at different points, doesn’t mean we deserved crappy and therefore, we settle for crappy forever. There’s a way back for any one of us who fell off at some point even if we have no idea where that point was, or where we want to be, or where we belong. It’s important to remember that as humans we are all on a journey of discovering and experiencing and this means that there are constant opportunities to shift and to change.