Three Steps to Releasing Shame
A few years ago I had an essay in an anthology, Dancing at the Shame Prom, Sharing the stories that kept us small, edited by Amy Ferris and Hollye Dexter. In my essay, Residual Shame, I write about the shame I felt being “less than” everyone else – physically and, because of my abbreviated body, in every other way as well. But my disability isn’t the only part of myself I felt shameful about.
Though my abortions were private experiences, they became secrets because of my shame. Secrets are toxic. I was so consumed with shame after my abortions, that I spent a lot of energy to try and create a hazy fog between me and my shame. And though my avoidance behaviors distanced me from the immediacy of my shame, they did not take my shame away. My shame made me feel worthless and wrong.
When I came out of the abortion closet recently, I was reminded of a few key learnings that keep coming up in my life:
First, I was reminded that I am my own worst critic. I hold myself to a higher standard than anyone else would ever dream of holding me to. I speak to myself far more harshly and disrespectfully than I would to anyone else I know. When we live with intense emotions for an extended period of time those emotions not only becomes a part of us but they are building blocks to the structure of beliefs we hold about ourselves. Part of the framework of my self-identity was built by the shame of my abortions. Deep down, I believed that I was a horrible person. The secrecy weakened the scaffolding of my identity. I get to choose whether or not I listen to those voices.
Second, people are far more forgiving than I assume they will be. When I was writing my book, I took a three-day retreat to write about the abortions. Until then, I didn’t know if they would be included in my book. When I realized that they are an important part of my story, my stomach flip flopped. I panicked when I wondered how people would respond when they knew about this ugly part of me. Fortunately, I have many people in my life who, upon hearing about my abortions, have modeled loving acceptance. If they can still love me then so can I.
Third, I am not perfect. I know, I know. No one is. But we all want to be, right? How do we balance our desire for perfection while embracing our imperfect past? The key for me is compassion. I look back on who I was—almost as a separate person—and realize that I did the best I could given what I had to work with. I remember my powerful reconciliation with the man who caused the loss of my leg and the healing power of forgiveness. Forgiveness and compassion walk hand in hand. If I can hold compassion for the man who took my leg, if I can forgive him, then I can certainly forgive myself.
How has shame limited your life or your relationships? Is there residual shame in your life that you are ready to release? You don’t have to write a book to release shame. Talking to just one trusted, non-judgmental person can be the first step.