While watching the new Netflix series Sex, Love and Goop, I caught myself crying as some women faced their body/mind issues related to intimacy. Recent personal re-trauma experiences, along with the body-shaming issues evident in the series, triggered my empathy and reminded me that I continue to need to work around my own shame. As I prepare to offer a session on vulnerability and courage for the National Conservation Leadership Institute, I believe I need to practice what I preach. Shame has crippled me through the years. I hope sharing my story will help me further process this shame as well as encourage others to unpack theirs.
What is it about shame?
Brené Brown says, “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment.” My Petri dish of shame grew through my life through silence and secrecy. I experienced a sexual assault around age eight from a person I was supposed to most trust. I remained silent, primarily, because I was not sure what happened. My age meant I didn’t really know. The only thing I really knew is it felt bad.
My second shame-based event is termination. On top of the shame that comes with dismissal, I also felt gaslighted, ghosted, and erased. This feeling was amplified because of the accomplices and witnesses to dehumanizing behaviors leading up to the event and after. There is no evidence to justify a dismissal (which is not required by Minnesota law) just the perpetrator’s power to do so with a reasonable expectation to go unquestioned. Society’s assumption that you have done something to deserve dismissal keeps the event shrouded in secrecy and the ex-employee (me) silent.
Releasing the shame
Gabor Mate, in the movie The Wisdom of Trauma, says to a woman suffering from addiction after an abduction, “The predator can always tell who is without detection.” Both exploiters in my story had a reasonable assumption that they could act without accountability. There is no justification for how I was treated. So, the first step in working through my shame is coming to terms with the fact that I am not meant to carry the burden of blame. I have nothing to be ashamed about in these situations.
Secondly, I encourage people to reach out to a professional. In my case, I collaborated with a therapist who helped me define the meaning I made from the early event. What I internalized that day my youth was shattered was: “something bad happened, it was my fault, I must be punished.” The judgment part to which Brown speaks was one I created. I had gotten good at punishing myself. The first therapist helped me reframe my internal dialogue to “I did my best.”
Another therapist I worked with more recently did an exercise where I spoke to myself as that small child, and she spoke back to me. That is called the two-chair technique. As we were conducting the session, and I was crying, he encouraged me to let the tears come. He told me tears help release trauma from the body; the snot that comes with it represents shame. I spent an hour journaling after this session, and in that time, I realized that the small child was the strongest person I know. That was empowering.
Moving beyond shame
While I have done my best to recover from both described events, I will continue to be triggered. I have come to realize my work around these issues may never be fully resolved. But I can continue to develop systems and skills to be aware of my triggers, learn to pause, and have tools in place to manage the emotions that arise.
Studying trauma has been especially helpful in this journey. I have partnered with a trauma-informed counselor in portions of my work and attended the Collective Trauma Summit for each of the last two years. I have also read trauma-related books, which I will list below. Through this study, I have begun to incorporate a trauma-informed lens into all my work.
Empathy and compassion are required here. In studying trauma, I have come to understand that my perpetrators’ behaviors were a result of their own trauma. I am not saying I do not still get angry at them sometimes. But my soul rests a bit in knowing that hurting people hurt people. I must have empathy and compassion for myself in my trauma and for others in theirs, including the people who hurt me the most. This is not easy but is required for true peace.
Side benefits of releasing shame
Working through all of this gives the added benefit of a little humility. I know I have caused pain to others, especially in relationships with some men in my life. I have started writing apologies and journaling, which is cathartic, regardless of whether these are delivered.
After bodywork with one of my therapists, I noticed that weight loss became a bit easier. I was working at it as I usually do, but it was not until after a major shame release that my weight suddenly started dropping. My body appreciated getting trauma, including any shame I held, out of my system. Now that I believe I am worth looking and feeling good, my choices reflect that. Of course, I fall sometimes. When I do, I accept my humanity and get back up.
Finally, once I started genuinely loving myself, I was much more able to love another. I can bring my full self to a relationship and set more appropriate boundaries. Most importantly, I practice presence and gratitude as much as I can. We are not perfect, as perfection is not possible; however, we have many moments of perfection, and he is a blessed part of my life.
On the day that triggered this writing, I had a scheduled call with a group of alumni of the Conservation Leadership Institute on the topic of Whiteness. Many men in the field want to work toward more diversity, equity, and inclusion but are often defensive, uncertain, and even fear action (so as not to further offend). But I wonder how shame might be playing a role. Some men may have to acknowledge their own past behaviors that might have marginalized women and other minority groups. I imagine some feel shame (or guilt is the better term here) in being aware of a system from which they have benefitted. Could some men be realizing, “I did not have to work as hard to get to my position as I previously thought”?
For men, Brown says shame shows up in one way: weakness. The work of diversity and inclusion requires vulnerability. Is it possible that some men resist because being vulnerable enough to acknowledge their part of the mess could be seen as weakness? I wonder.
I tell the men who want to advocate and practice diversity and inclusion that we were raised in the same system, but we received different messages. We all need to learn and grow. No one person has the complete answer or the ideal solution. There is no shame in needing each other, asking for help, admitting we are imperfect or apologizing for a mistake when it happens.
Brown says that empathy is the antidote to shame. My counselors have dumped empathy on my big Petri dish of shame, and my heart became more open. Now, I have room to pass that empathy on to others and that is why I love what I do.
For more information on my workshops, check out my workshop link HERE. For coaching, check out my link HERE . Or drop me a note at email@example.com to set up a time to discuss your needs.
For further reading
My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem
Healing Collective Trauma by Thomas Hübl
Waking the Tiger by Peter A. Levine, Ph.D.
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.
Anything by Dr. Arielle Schwartz – check out here website here: https://drarielleschwartz.com/
Written by: Michelle Doerr