From almost the beginning I’ve experienced multiple scenarios, interactions, relationships, events that, in my inability to understand what was really happening, left me with an urgent sense of “there must be something wrong with me.”
It was really bad in junior high. There were several bullies who made it their job to harass, threaten, and most of the time embarrass me in front of everyone. I didn’t know how to deal with it. I usually acted like it was funny, then spent my time outside of school with an aching fear – worrying about who would pick on me the next day. But I always found a way to blow it off, to distract myself, to act like it wasn’t a big deal.
I remember having a crush on Rhonda C. in the 7th grade. She was really popular and always nice to me, so I asked her to go steady. She said she would consider it so I thought there was a chance. Her best friend Margie came up to me a day later, grabbed my shoulders and pronounced, “Rhonda says yes! She wants to go steady with you!” Wow! I had no idea what to do. My plan was to avoid her until I could figure out what to say to my very first girlfriend ever (not counting Kelly M. in the 1st grade, but she didn’t know she was my girlfriend).
The next day Rhonda approached me just outside the lunchroom and very compassionately revealed the truth – “Margie thought it would be funny, but it was really mean and I’m sorry she did that. So, as far as I’m concerned we’re going steady.” I finally mustered the words I had been looking for. I gently punched her on the arm and said “Awww-right!” She broke up with me a few days later, and I “moved on” like I did with everything else.
When a 7th grader asks the question “why would people treat me this way?” the only thing he can come up with is “it must be me.” I felt it at school, around my family, and with some of my friends. While I had no idea this was all taking place inside, my soul did. Without knowing it I began to label people – those who where above me – the cool, pretty, smart folk, and those below – the lower class, the truly rejectable – the higher you were on the ladder the more value you had as a person. I spent so much of my time in social situations trying to figure out where I stood on the cool continuum and what I needed to do to make people like me. It was horribly lonely.
Shortly after high school I decided I had had enough. I set out to change everything and nevermore be that kid that everyone picked on. I started working out, changed my style, changed my “crowd” and began to attempt to climb the ladder of coolness. It was tough going. I’ve never taken social cues well and have always struggled with being awkward. But I did manage to at least emerge from the ooze of total dorkness, at least as outward appearances go.
So my odyssey began, and I’m just now realizing the toll it’s taken. Instead of allowing people to heap shame on me, I would heap it on them, especially on people who reminded me of me, which ironically made my shame worse. To this day if anyone says or does anything that makes me feel bad about myself I get really angry – most of the time I’ll retaliate, usually in ways that won’t bring more shame upon me.
Next year I’ll be fifty.
I’m finally coming to grips with the fact that those hurts from the past are alive and well. I may have found some creative ways to bury it all, but I still live day-to-day with that ache in my gut – that fear that forces me to hide, worrying what will happen if people see the real me. But I’ve also come to realize that there are so. many. other. people. who live this way. As children it’s difficult to know how to navigate the painful moments so it makes sense to do nothing, and feel nothing, as these events solidify themselves within, and permanently become part of our “now.”
I know married folk who fight like cats and dogs, never realizing that what they’re really fighting about happened so long ago, before they met each other. I know successful business people who work their fingers to the bone – living from accomplishment to accomplishment – anything to avoid the shame that’s eating them inside. So many people are angry, not because something made them mad, but because they’ve been hurt (anger is always a symptom of hurt). It’s truly an epidemic.
I’m not sure how to get rid of it and I know it’s not a simple deal. But here’s a short list of the things that, when I’m able to talk myself into doing them, have had a nasty affect on my shame:
- Don’t put shame on anyone else. Don’t judge people, talk about them behind their back, publicly highlight their stupidity, laugh at them, etc. Putting shame on other people only makes mine stronger.
- When I hear that voice “there’s something wrong with you,” I try to speak truth as a response. “We all deal with shame.” “We all have things about us that are broken.” “There are plenty of things that aren’t wrong with me.”
- When I worry about what others are thinking/saying: “Other people’s opinions really don’t matter – my life has never been threatened or significantly impacted by the way someone else thinks about me.” “People don’t gossip because of what’s true, but because they’re hurting inside and it’s a wonderful way to feel better.”
- Spend as much time as I can with healthy people who are either dealing actively with their shame, or have been freed from it.
- Discuss my most painful moments with people who care about me. Talking about this stuff is the beginning of freedom.
- Drink wine
Sorry for the forthcoming juvenile observation, but it’s one of the most powerful things I can say about shame. It’s like dog poop. Don’t pick it up, don’t play with it, certainly don’t throw it at anyone. If you get any on you – wash, rinse, repeat, till it’s gone – if you don’t know how to do that, get some help. The farther you can get away from it the better you (and the people around you) will be.