Shame is an emotion every one of us has experienced, yet it’s an abstract, elusive emotion that we can’t quite describe.
The shy cousin of emotions—shame hides in her room all day with the curtains drawn, and she wears only black.
Anger on the other hand, is unmistakable—red, hot, electric, explosive rage (or a subtler, seething sense of fury, like the quiet blue of a raging fire.)
Fear is also easy to detect—our bodies recoil like a threatened spider. The hairs on our arms stand up like static. Fear is panic, sweats and pacing. It is a sinking feeling that something awful is about to happen.
Sadness too is quite easy to read. It is salty eyes welling up or copious tears rolling down cheeks. It’s that sore feeling inside your chest like a bruise. It’s moping, grieving, and curling up in a fetal position. It is achy weeping or the iciness of emptiness inside.
Happiness is yet another obvious emotion, with its smiles, laughter, hugs, jokes and joy. It is a lightness or spring in your step. It is open arms and an open heart.
A Psychology Today blog post by clinical psychologist, Mary C. Lamia defines shame as a “concealed, contagious and dangerous emotion,” and goes on to make a clear distinction between guilt and shame. She writes:
“Where you will likely have an urge to admit guilt, or talk with others about a situation that left you with guilty feelings, it is much less likely that you will broadcast your shame. In fact, you’ll most likely conceal what you feel because shame does not make a distinction between an action and the self. Therefore, with shame, ‘bad’ behavior is not separate from a ‘bad’ self as it is with guilt.”
That’s the thing about shame—unless you actually say something or it shows in your body language—nobody really knows it’s how you feel inside—deep inside. It’s that sick feeling in the pit of your gut—the feeling of not feeling “good enough,” feeling bad about who you are, or feeling inept or deficient about yourself.
The image that comes to mind, when I think of shame, is the 1886 marble sculpture titled “Eve after the Fall,” by renowned 19th Century French sculptor, Auguste Rodin. It is the full body sculpture of a naked woman standing in an uneasy pose—her one leg bent to cover the other, her torso slightly concave, her head bowed low and burrowing into her elbow as she wraps her arms around her body, as though she is trying to cover up, to conceal, to hide herself. This, to me, is shame.
Shame and I go back a long way.
For me, shame was having to wear thick, clunky glasses to preschool, at age four, and feeling different and ugly—the odd one out—like there must be something wrong with me, for being the only child wearing funny glasses.
Shame was being that little girl who—when teased and mocked by other kids—cried silently, with no tears, and waited in the corner for her mommy to pick her up, without saying a word to anyone about her hurt feelings.
Shame was the feeling of spending recess alone on the playground in third grade when nobody wanted to play with me.
Shame was the cesspool inside of me, that contained all the negative feelings about myself, that spurred my 10-year-long eating disorder at age 14.
Shame was the feeling of giving my numb body away to guys, when I was way too young to know that it was their shame that was left inside me when they pulled out.
Shame was the reason for that heavy, icky, dark, rotting feeling inside of me—that there is something wrong with me. Not because of something I had done, but just because of who I am.
It is shame that motivated me, nine months ago, to Google the words: healing shame. I found a woman—a therapist, in the same city I live in—whose life’s work is to help her clients heal their shame.
Shame is the reason why I embarked on her 10-week-long drama-therapy workshop, with other women healing their own shame. I went so deep that I came out the other side gasping for air—like I had been swimming underwater for all these years, and finally surfaced, able to breathe freely.
Shame is what got me to stand in our circle of women on the last night of the workshop, and say goodbye to my inner eight-year-old girl. That girl who picked up and carried her shame inside her, for 30 years.
That was the night I said “goodbye” to my shame and “hello” to my empowered self—the woman I am now—who stands proud of who she is. The woman on the other side of shame.
Because of this, I can now become a vehicle of healing for others—a voice of empowerment for others. I can now stand up for little girls who may not yet know that they can stand up for themselves.
Like the little girl in the story that I write about now—I’m all fired up, even though it happened a few months ago. This was an incident that I will never forget, because I stood up—not just for the little girl in the incident—but for my own shamed, little girl self from 30 years ago.
For all girls out there, who will one day become women, this story is for you:
I am at a park on a Sunday afternoon, hanging out with some people after a community dance event. A young mother sits on the grass with some friends and her six or seven-year-old daughter.
The daughter wears a funky skirt that shows her bony knees, mismatched socks and cool Converse sneakers. She has long, blonde hair that is straight, like her skinny legs. I watch her dancing alone on the grass—swirling and twirling, full of guts and gusto, verve and swerve. She is careless, lost in her own world, alive and free—a little girl.
The mother isn’t paying her daughter much attention, but she watches her from the corner of her eye. I am giving the young girl my full attention though—watching her—as I lean against a nearby mossy tree next to a stranger, a guy who is probably in his late 30s or early 40s.
At one point, the little girl spots the horizontal branch of the tree we are next to, and she skips to it. Without any hesitation, she kicks off her cool sneakers, throws her arms over to clasp the branch, pulls herself up and loops her legs over like a Koala bear beaming with pride.
I smile right back at her.
Then I hear the guy next to me say in a teasing, singsong, mocking way, “Everyone can see your underwear… everyone can see your underwear…”
I feel my blood boil—this teasing strikes a cord so deep inside me, my throat gets hot and I start to shake.
I watch the expression on the little girl’s face change dramatically as this stranger carries on, blatantly teasing her in his mocking voice, “Everyone can see your underwear…”
The small tears start, one by one, dripping from the corners of her eyes, as she holds on to the tree branch with all her might.
I can remember her underwear—green and white stripes—such cool undies! I remember thinking: This little girl rocks in her cool striped undies, her mismatched socks, her kicked-off sneakers and her sleek hair shining in the sunlight like glass.
However, as this guy continues to mock her—ignoring her tears and not for a moment noticing how his words are affecting her—she lets go.
She falls to the ground, lands on her feet and runs to her mother. She collapses into her mother’s lap and curls up, hugging her knees to her chest and bursts out crying, quietly.
I recognize that cry.
It’s the cry of self-consciousness. It’s the cry of feeling shamed.
At the time, I was enrolled in my aforementioned healing shame workshop. I was working on healing my own girlhood shame, and I knew that there was no way I was going to let the guy get away with this behavior. I turn toward this wimp of a man in his too-small t-shirt, with his eyes ogling and oblivious, and his smirk showing his imperviousness to her feelings.
In a voice that comes from being a mother and having worked hard to harness my own power as a woman of worth, I say: “I want to tell you something—and take it from me because I’m a woman now but I once was a little girl—what I want to tell you is that what you said was damaging.”
I feel the power in me rise—my Shakti (Sanskrit for Divine Feminine Empowerment). I add, “You have a responsibility as an adult to show her respect!”
At this point he clears his throat, tries to fob me off, and tells me I am overreacting. I can see in his eyes that he doesn’t get it, so I say, “What you said can scar a little girl for a lifetime!”
To this he replies, “Whoa, whoa… I get it, I get it… you made your point.” And I know I did.
I walk away to check on the little girl with her mother, and she now has on long pants under her skirt. I say, “Are you OK sweetie?”
Her mother answers, “I’ve been telling her all day to put…on…her…pants!”
This is not the solution.
A girl, fearlessly climbing a tree in a skirt, does not need to cover up or hide. She should not have to conform to a society where grown men don’t understand that it is unacceptable to verbally shame innocent children.
My hope for this little girl is that she is able reclaim her power, wear her green and white striped undies, her mismatched socks and continue to climb trees like nobody is watching—even if they are.