Some of the most difficult shame to heal from is that resulting from emotions we don’t feel worthy enough to have. We argue that we haven’t hurt enough or that others have dealt with more. We criticize what we feel, call it something else, or deny it completely. We see a world with so much pain and convince ourselves that ours doesn’t matter comparatively. We develop the idea that there are requirements for certain emotions and that we don’t meet them.
This is a challenge I know well, one I still face on a regular basis. There are events in my past that basic reasoning tells me were harmful or damaging, and that I am validated in feeling angry or violated or sad for. Reasoning also tells me I’m allowed to call them what they really are. But though I understand these things have had a profound effect on my life, most of the time, I still struggle to admit, sometimes to even recognize, that I have a right to hurt.
I’ve been taught to respect the fact that I have a good life, for the simple reason that others have it much harder than me. They’ve known more pain, been hungrier, been sicker, had more terrible things happen to them, experienced more sorrow, etc. I have learned to belittle my emotions and have believed that to express my pain or admit I even feel it is to be selfish and self-pitying. I have believed that, at times, I am unworthy to feel what I feel.
I have believed a lot of things that aren’t true. And in the past months, I have learned that there isn’t a single emotion that anyone is unworthy of feeling, not even me. To experience life, to breathe, gives us the right feel.
This week I recognize one of these such events in my life: the one-year anniversary of having lost a baby. It was not a pregnancy very many people knew about—I only knew for five days. I didn’t spend months planning or joyfully tell my family. I didn’t even have the chance.
I had a tubal ligation eight years ago, so when I found out I was pregnant last summer, I was more shocked than anything. My youngest child was ten years old at the time, and long abandoned thoughts of packing kids into car seats and changing diapers and buying tiny clothes filled my head the day I found out. Until that afternoon, when the call confirming my blood test came through. Pregnancies post-tubal ligation are rare, the doctor told me; I would need to follow up with a specialist.
So began a week of ultrasounds and almost daily blood tests and doctor appointments, a week of waiting for test results and answers, a week of already loving a baby I might not get to meet. As the doctor suspected, the pregnancy was ectopic—the embryo was growing in my right fallopian tube—and therefore, not viable. Because of the danger of an ectopic pregnancy, I had surgery later that day, less than 120 hours after learning I was pregnant.
Bodies and hearts both heal, but hearts sometimes take a little longer, especially when you don’t think you’re worthy enough to feel the pain you’re experiencing. In the aftermath of that week a year ago, that was the struggle that stayed with me.
There were so many reasons to believe I didn’t deserve to hurt, that I shouldn’t admit to it. The pregnancy was unexpected, I already had two half-grown kids, I only knew I was pregnant for five days, and I knew from the beginning there was a high likelihood the pregnancy wasn’t viable. What did I have on someone who’d had multiple miscarriages or someone who had been pregnant for months and then lost the baby?
And so I felt ashamed for feeling sad after losing the baby. I didn’t believe what I’d been through was enough to earn the right to feel sorrow.
Like so many other times in my life, I used my shame a catalyst to avoid the truth. I blamed the emotions on other things—a stressful week, last-minute surgery, recovery time—and when that didn’t help, I denied the pain completely, anything to abate the shame. I couldn’t even bring myself to say I’d lost a baby; instead, I told others I’d experienced an ectopic pregnancy.
Accepting the sadness and my worthiness to feel it came slowly. I think it started when I told my kids shortly before Christmas what had happened—they’d been out of town during the actual event last June. They understood right away how this experience could make someone sad, and they never questioned their sadness—or mine.
The change in my perspective wasn’t complete until several months later when the kids and I made a decision to honor the baby’s memory on Memorial Day, a solemn action that finally made feeling sad okay.
The thing about shame is that once you’re honest with yourself, the lies you’ve told yourself fall apart, and the shame has nothing to hold over you. I realize now that I’m worthy to feel and express what’s inside me. I don’t need to compare myself or my feelings to anyone else’s. I also don’t need to earn any sort of permission or right to experience emotion. What I am and what I have is already enough.