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“I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” ~ Brené Brown
Shame has been living rent-free in my head for a long time.
She looks like Master Chow, the kung fu lady in the animation film, “Minions: The Rise of Gru.”
Authoritative. Mysterious. Sharp. Tough. Unpredictable.
Sometimes she likes to jump out from nowhere and slap me on the head when I feel happy about something.
Oftentimes, she likes to make off-the-cuff comments about what I lack, what I am not good at, and that I will never be good enough, no matter how hard I try.
Mostly, she likes to stand behind me with her arms crossed, watch over my left shoulder, and judge my every word and action with a smirk on her face.
And her favourite topics? My non-existent love life tops the chart for sure. My hard of hearing comes as a close second. And the lucky third would be my accent being a non-native English speaker.
I listen to shame and believe she is my conscience and inner guide that keeps me on the righteous path. I use shame as the fuel to improve and better myself. But when I reach a goal, shame will pull me away quickly and push me toward the next goalpost. Nothing is good enough.
I am growing tired of this endless chase of perfection.
This year, I have engaged with a new wellness coach to support my healing journey. She asked me to trace back to my earliest memory, the very first moment, of feeling shameful.
Here is what I recalled:
“I would have just turned six at the time.
I arrived at this grey, concrete building with my parents. Along the full height of the building, nine big metal Chinese characters mounted vertically that read ‘Ho Man Tin Special Education School’.
I walked up a few flights of stairs into a small, dim room that was covered with this unusually thick, mahogany-red coloured carpet on the floor and the walls. Children’s books and toys were either stacked or scattered randomly across several tall, dark brown bookshelves.
A lady asked me to sit on a wooden chair in the middle of the room. She put a big, black headphone with thick-padded earpieces on me (like the Bose noise cancelling ones). She handed me a little pen-shaped device, which had a cable attached at one end and a push button at the other. She tapped softly on the headphone, then my thumb, and lastly the push button. I understood that she wanted me to press the button when I heard something. Then she walked behind me to her work desk, which had several black-box-like machines.
Both of my ears were ringing and buzzing non-stop. I did not know whether the hearing test had started or not. I did not know what I was supposed to hear. So, I shut my eyes and squinted my forehead, trying to catch any incoming sound. Every few seconds when I thought I heard a faint beep of a different tone and volume in one of the ears, I pressed the button. But I could not tell for certain if the beep came from the machine or from my head.
And then there was nothing.
I have no recollection of what happened immediately after the hearing test. What the lady told my parents, how my parents reacted, and what I was told.
All I remember is feeling confused, lonely, and helpless. That I must be the same as those children I saw on my way in. That the society would say I am ‘low IQ’, ‘retard,’ or ‘bad karma.’ That I would bring shame to my family.”
In that moment, I wanted to travel back in time and comfort my six-year-old self. I wanted to tell her the hearing test proved that she had a superpower. I wanted to support her with all the resources and learnings I had now as an adult. But I could not turn back the clock to rewrite the story.
The seed of shame was already planted in my young, sensitive mind.
Brené Brown said in her 2012 TED talk that secrecy, silence, and judgement are the ingredients responsible for the shame epidemic in our society.
Many of us witness or experience stigma, taboo, and discrimination as we grow up:
>> Parents refuse to talk about their children’s gender identity or sexual orientation.
>> Relatives make inappropriate comments about a woman’s body or relationship status.
>> Neighbours gossip about someone’s child who has a physical or mental disability.
>> Children make fun of their classmate’s traditional home-cooked lunch at school.
>> Businesses overlook the lack of diversity and representation in their workforce.
When our individual identity does not match the collective ideals, we may doubt our choices and even stop trusting our gut feelings. We may try to suppress our needs and desires. We may use addiction to numb our way into conformity. We may push people away by withdrawing from relationships or projecting our anger and aggression outwardly.
Shame becomes a monstrous shadow that stands in the way on our path to pure joy and authenticity. It takes over control of our unconscious mind, keeping us in the abyss of unworthiness, anxiety, and fear–but only if we let it.
It is possible to turn our perceived weaknesses and failures (as shame told us) into strengths, learnings, and opportunities.
Brené Brown offered this advice in 2021: “Empathy, understanding, listening…that is actually the only thing that’s effective…you can’t shame or belittle people into changing.”
A key part of my burnout recovery is to understand and unlearn the shame that I have been holding against my single life, my hearing, and my communication skills.
And I have found the foundation I need for healing: Maitri.
“…the art of developing an unconditional friendliness toward every part of our sweet selves—the tired, the mending, the broken, the wonderful, the always-changing.” ~Waylon Lewis
Maitri is beyond keeping healthy habits and doing self-care.
It is about cultivating a deep and conscious relationship with our body, mind, and soul.
It is about embracing our perfectly imperfect self with compassion and curiosity.
It is about acknowledging the past, honouring our needs, and remembering our lessons.
It is about showing up in the present with authenticity and vulnerability.
It is about letting go of fear, abandoning hope, and relaxing into the future.
Doing the healing work is a humbling experience.
Some days feel like as if I am on top of the world, immersing in boundless light, energy and joy. Some days feel like such an uphill battle as shame tries to take hold of the narrative (again) that I just want to throw in the towel.
Whenever I feel like giving up, I will read these 11 quotes from Sheleana Aiyana’s Becoming the One as reminders that all of us are capable and worthy of the life that we desire:
1. “Home is not another person or a place outside of you. Home is the love you have within you. It is the remembrance that you are already complete. Yes, even with your wounds. Even with the scars from the past. You don’t need to chase love; you need to remember the love that you are.”
2. “The healing path often appears when everything else has been stripped away…It is the moments of deep despair and shatter that prepare us for a more awakened existence.”
3. “Your body is a beautiful, intelligent source of wisdom for you. Being whole means your head, body, and heart are working in harmony to guide you. A deeply connected head, body, and heart is the brilliant result of an integrated and spiritual being.”
4. “What’s important to remember is that emotions are energy, and when we give that energy permission to pass through us, transformation occurs.”
5. “When self-awareness and willingness are present, our triggers become our teachers.”
6. “Coming home to ourselves means learning how to feel safe in our body once again. It means relearning how to navigate our big emotions with grace, reintegrating the parts of ourselves we’ve kept hidden, and unmasking the authentic self. Coming home to ourselves is a return to the wisdom of our own hearts and trust in our body, our intuition, and our worth.”
7. “Forgiveness is the road to internal freedom, and it widens our capacity to open ourselves to love again, to trust ourselves and experience the depth and beauty of life has to offer.”
8. “Change does not happen through criticism, judgement, and self-blame but through connection, encouragement and praise.”
9. “Healing doesn’t mean erasing your past and trying to become a completely different person; it means acknowledging the things that have been silently dominating your life so you can do better the next time around.”
10. “A lot of our rejected parts were hidden in order to survive, win love, and gain approval. By bringing compassion and acceptance to these parts of ourselves, we shift how we relate to our patterns and reclaim our wholeness.”
11. “This journey is a preparation for you to come home to yourself so that you can share your energy with the world in a way that is impactful, heart-centred, and in alignment with your soul’s purpose.”