Shame is a feeling or a felt sense, maybe in response to a thought, experience or memory that we are not enough, ‘good’ or worthy. Shame is likely a mechanism of our body trying to protect us, from – you guessed it – more shame. But we aren’t born with shame. So. where did you learn your shame response from? A sibling? A parent? A teacher? Your local community? Your society at large? Probably a combination of these factors.
Food for thought: Where are your boundaries in place now, as an adult human, to protect yourself from these forces? Because while we all experience shame, we don’t necessarily need it. Responsibility for our actions is an essential part of learning how to be a mature adulting-adult. Shame is often more to do with our internalisation of what we think other people think about us.
So, what is the proverbial medicine for shame?
Our bodies generally want to retract in shame. To pull back, pull away, run, hide, take us away. Anywhere, but here. To remedy our shame, to find it’s medicine, is to find the thing that helps us stand still unflinching, feeling it, learning its lessons.
Before self-love, there is acceptance of reality.
The opposite of shame is not necessarily unconditional self-love but simply the acceptance of ourselves in a present moment. A moment that perhaps does not feel great in the body, that is trying to take us back to all the other times we have felt disregarded, humiliated, clumsy, asymmetrical, ugly, weird, flawed or incomplete.
When we can accept ourselves in this – be it the stretch marks, our lack of curves, our scars, our shyness, our brashness – this flows out into the ways we can accept other parts of ourselves and other people, consciously and without judgement.
One big ball of confusion.
Our brain wants to lump all shame moments into one big ball of unapproachable shame in an attempt to protect us. When really, all the body might actually require is to stretch ourselves and stay with it, here and now. In all of the disarray and imperfection.
These small bite-size present moments of shame, give us insight into a more real version of what we have been taught to hate, hide or fear about ourselves. In one instance, it might be something ‘trivial’, like the first time I got my period wearing white Levi’s on a date. While Napisan Oxy-action did a pretty bloody good job on the jeans, I never quite looked at those white Levi’s the same. They beckoned me to reflect on a moment when, even though I was studiously absorbed in the intersectional feminist authors of my time and doing fastidious period tracking, to be honest, I had still felt ashamed that I bled. Ashamed that I didn’t ‘plan’ for it. Ashamed at how heavy and crimson red my period was. Ashamed that I might not be seen as cool and sexy and fuckable.
And this is the piece, right?
Not all things come out in the wash.
You can wash the Levi’s, but you can’t wash off social conditioning about what is ‘good’, ‘sexy’, ‘feminine’, ‘tough’, ‘right’, ‘hot’ – whatever word you wanna pin to the feeling of ‘not being quite enough’.
These kinds of events that amplify emotions we are taught to attach to binaries such as good / bad, naughty / nice, pretty / ugly, clean / dirty, and feminine / masculine, show up in a multitude of ways in our lives to teach us where we don’t believe we fit.
Don’t you leave me with a scar.
The aim is not then to try and squeeze a triangle through a circle, as the iconic Missy Higgins would say. But to learn how to accept that you are in fact, a triangle.
Actually we all are. Our edges can be sharp, they can be prickly, they can hurt, they can be embarrassing, we can project them onto our own bodies, we can hear them in our mind chattering away trying to convince us of all sorts of things about how ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘unloveable’ or ‘unsexy’ we are.
Have you ever seen a person take responsibility for their shame?
Reclaiming it. Right out there in the light of day, saying: “Hey! I got my period all over my favourite jeans on this date, which I’m actually really enjoying and i’m going to tie my sweater around my waist, and keep talking about my veggie patch dreams and eat this taco and kiss you anyway, because fuck it!” More of this, please. Less shame, thanks.
Shame is like a lasagne.
Of course, shame is multi-dimensional. There are complexities and layers which I have not fully tapped into here. That is because I think this where the practice starts and starting is the hardest part. For example, if I intentionally work on my relationship to having a body that randomly bleeds in public (and can also give life!), how will that permeate through the other parts of me?
When I am dating others that menstruate, will it make me open and accepting of their bodies? Will it help me accept the cycles of my energy and mood, as well as the ebbs and flow of the moon. Will this help me accept harder griefs in my life with grace and integrity for myself?
Where can you start? A shame thread. You can just tug at a little. Saying okay, “I notice this. I don’t have to love it. But _______ requires my attention and awareness from me now.” Or it may surface in other ways, like taking this into intimate relationships or projecting it onto others.
We want to break the cycle, not perpetuate it.
Investigate your shame with acceptance and curiosity. Ask, “What can I see here in this smaller thread to unravel the larger piece? Where is it in my body? Can I sit with it a moment today? Will it maybe change form if I do?”
Spring cleaning with shame.
I invite you to start tending to the art of letting your shame have threads. Not to let it build into big ball of wool that you stuff away in the arts and craft cupboard. Start the work of untangling, maybe tie a knot when you notice something. Be frank. Be tangible with yourself, your shame, your fragments.
Write about them, find ways to mark down your observations. You might be surprised at what you learn about who you really are and what you really want. From there you can use the threads to weave yourself in the direction of who you really to be. To celebrate the un-linear, un-becoming of who you were always meant to be.
A ritual in un-learning shame.
Try this: Go through the old photograph box. Look for an old school photo of yourself as a kid. Try to think back to an age when you remember being carefree, brazen and shame-less and find the photo from this time.
Once you have the photograph which embodies this for you, stick it somewhere where you often meet with shame: your bedroom mirror or perhaps the bathroom or front door. Anywhere you will see it on the daily.
Let your younger self remind you what it felt like to live shame-free, exploring identity playfully each day.