One of the greatest challenges I face in my struggle with shame is actually facing it. It comes on like an attack, sometimes slow and creeping and sometimes blindsiding me all at once. My response tends to follow the line of fight or flight, and more often than not, I choose flight—repressing it or numbing myself to all emotion. At least, this has been the truth in the past. I’m learning to fight now, to face shame despite the pain and fear it causes.
In doing this, I have found that courage is one of the most readily honed weapons in my anti-shame arsenal. I have always sported a certain amount of bravery, facing down that which makes me anxious or frightened. As a child, I faced my fear of public speaking. As an adult, I said goodbye to my family for nine days and put myself on a plane to attend graduate school for the first time. A few years ago, I moved my kids 1,800 miles away against my extended family’s wishes. And after a three-year battle with myself and my shame, I recently told my husband I wanted a divorce, a feeling I’d been hiding for over three years.
A good friend once told me that courage is not the lack of fear, but rather, it is facing fear and overcoming it. Shame gives me much to be frightened of: the emotions, the physical reaction, the sensation of unworthiness. So as I learn to deal with the shame, learn to cope and move on every time it hits me, I am grateful that I have the courage to do.
Last weekend my very conservative little sister shared her heart with me, elaborating on her beliefs on divorce. She is a strong, Christian woman who has faced adversity in her own marriage. She and her husband worked things out. They have three beautiful children and one more on the way, and they’re happy now. Her heart is that divorce is a sin, no matter what the reason. This goes beyond even our strict religious upbringing, where my sixth grade confirmation teacher gave at least a handful, albeit a small handful, of legitimate reasons to divorce.
I’d been expecting this conversation with my sister for some time, based on her reaction to my decision to separate from my husband and my knowledge of her religious stance, but it was still difficult to face the inadvertent pounding of shame she was determined to give. It had to be done consciously, steps taken so that I didn’t reverse the progress I’d already made.
First, I needed to remember I am not my sister. It is an uncomfortable piece of acrobatics to balance knowing that you are not alone—shame thrives on you believing that you are the only one who makes mistakes or are hurt by others’ abuse; you take the blame—and knowing that you are not anyone else but you. My sister’s beliefs are not mine, and my shame is not hers. What she believes about marriage makes me sad, but I cannot let it change what I believe about myself. I know what I’ve been through and I know I’ve done the best I can. I cannot be any more or less than who I am, not even for my sister.
I also needed to be honest with my sister about what I actually believed, and that took facing my fear of not being accepted by her, my only sibling. I knew this woman had been through a lot; I knew she had powerful beliefs that I didn’t agree with; I knew that she would judge me; I didn’t know how far that judgement would go. But I was done lying. And so when my sister, who knows quite a bit about why my marriage is over, told me ending a marriage for any reason was against God’s will, I risked her support and love and told her I didn’t agree. I thanked her for sharing her thoughts, told her I was happy she had peace, and said, “I hope you can also make peace with my decision …”
For the first time since I told her my husband and I were separating, my sister told me she loved me no matter what. It’s a little bittersweet knowing she is judging me, despite her love. But it’s something to grow from, and that I can hang on to; though, even reaching that point took more courage; one more step.
My sister’s words that Friday night stayed with me over the weekend and combined with the stress of telling my kids about the divorce for the first time Saturday morning. By Monday morning, shame almost owned me again. That’s when I chose to finally be honest with myself.
If shame is something you struggle with, I imagine you won’t find it too difficult to believe that it’s possible not to be truthful with yourself. But I had buried the shame so deep I felt almost no emotion when I woke up that morning. I didn’t want to believe the shame my sister had tried to pour over me had actually affected me. I wanted her love to be stronger than that. And I wanted to be strong enough to protect myself. But in the end, I knew I hadn’t been as impervious as I’d hoped.
So I mustered the courage to speak up, and I called the shame what it was. Out loud. I admitted I was judging myself based on my sister’s words and my conservative upbringing, that I was sad my sister couldn’t just say she loved me without the caveat, and confessed everything I had felt while telling my kids about the divorce, from the anger that my husband refused to say any of the hard things to the sadness and shame of knowing I’d hurt my kids. Within minutes, the shame no longer had a hold on me.
Shame will use your thoughts, fears, beliefs, memories, even your love against you, destroy you from the inside out, unless you stop it. When shame is your adversary, it takes courage to own who you are and what you believe, and it takes courage to be honest, whether it is with yourself or with someone whose opinion matters to you. You can’t let the shame control you or stop you. And you definitely can’t run away; it’ll just sneak up behind you. You need to face it, call it what it is, and be true to yourself. You need to have courage for you.