How many times have you found yourself in a cycle of doing things to make you feel better because you feel shit about yourself only to find you feel worse after? Then you make attempts try to reach some ideal of a more ‘perfect’ version of yourself only to find yourself doing the same over and over again. I blame shame! Shame stops us being real with ourselves and others. Shame causes us to paint ourselves with layers of veneer in hope that no one sees our ‘flaws’. For human beings are very quick to judge, see fault in others and shame each other. When our self-worth is low, we are already self-critical. The comments of others, adds to the pain. We cover up. We can’t be real. Our identity is lost in the mud of negative thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behaviours.
There are many circumstances and factors that cause a person to feel shame. Physical, emotional, verbal abuse & trauma are amongst some of these. Just as these causes vary so do our responses. Our genetics, psychological makeup, environmental & cultural upbringing, family, social and relational experiences affect our resilience. But shame holds us back. And so we attempt to make ourselves ‘feel better’.
We ‘self-medicate’. This can be in the form of people pleasing, having a ‘must do’ list that grows in order to seek approval from others, substance abuse, unhealthy eating and exercise behaviours and promiscuity.
Our coping mechanisms become our security yet we are screaming to be real with ourselves and desperate for others to embrace us warts and all. We are drowning in the exhaustion of keeping up the façade which is a thin, fragile barrier to the wounds and bruises of our interior that we do not allow anyone to see. The behaviours we engage in become our protection, and if anyone comments on them we become defensive as we are protecting our ‘shame’. We try harder to cover up, so the thoughts, beliefs and behaviours are strengthened.
We patch ourselves up, thinking that we are damaged goods. In my early 20’s, about a year after physically recovering from anorexia, I had a temporary break up with my boyfriend. I had these words said to me “No one will want you anymore. You are like a used rag.” This comment was like a knife going into my shattered sense of self. Physically I had recovered. My body weight had been restored but self-love had not. This is very different to loving your body.
The need for approval and people pleasing continued into my marriage, into my work life and motherhood. I felt I had to be perfect in all these areas. I was submissive and passive, not speaking up if I was exhausted or did not agree with something, for fear of displeasing others. I felt what they thought of me depended on this. This was lying to myself and lying to others. I felt shameful feeling tired, I felt shameful wanting a break and I felt shameful that I wanted to stop being like this.
Shame and depression go hand in hand. By the end of 21 years of marriage, I had both. I felt I was loved for housework and sex. I felt that was the extent of my value. I was exhausted and I hated myself for feeling this way. I felt I had failed. A failed marriage, failed as a mother and I cried every day at work, so I felt I had failed there as well. The suggestion to put myself first and start looking after myself was foreign to me. Who was I that I should look after myself? I could not fathom this. I felt guilty when I did anything that I enjoyed or anything that was nurturing for me. This is not healthy.
I wonder how many people both men and women, who do not like who they are, hide behind behaviours like eating disorders, substance abuse, addictive gambling and promiscuity. These are all shame-based behaviours and are an attempt to alleviate pain. Meeting new men after I separated was foreign to me. What was not foreign though, was the belief that I was only liked for sex. In a state of self-hate, promiscuity temporarily made me feel a sense of worth, yet moment by moment the feelings of shame intensified. I interpreted these moments as ‘someone likes me’ when at a time I did not like myself. What I really wanted was to be loved. What I really needed to do was start loving myself. I did not recognise let alone know how to do this. I did not know who I was to love that person.
Photo credit: Belinda Mason – One Life Exhibition Blur Projects
Shame Grows in the Dark
In that state of mind, I made a huge mistake. I loathed myself for this. I had hit rock bottom. More shame, more guilt and now more fear of what people would think. This is stinking thinking. I did not tell anyone the truth. Shame grows in the dark. I was close to taking my life on 2 occasions because I could not stand living with myself.
Being arrested 4.5 years later was one of the most difficult things I have had to face but the best thing that could have happened. Entering a plea of guilty to the barrister was like smashing the walls I had built my entire life to protect a hurting me. I felt a relief that I did not have to try anymore to be something I wasn’t. The shame was still there but it was no longer in the dark. I had intensive counselling and started peeling back the layers that I had used to cover ‘real me’. I had forgotten who that person was. She had been hidden under a pile of rubble of false beliefs, thoughts and behaviours that ‘crushed me’ had lived by for 40 years. Being handcuffed and led away from the courtroom to a prison environment was the most difficult thing I have had to face. No notion of perfection in that experience. There was shame in being strip searched every week. Shame in having cameras on the shower, toilet and mattress on the floor of the cell for the first 2 nights. The shame of having all freedom taken away, including choice of meals, clothes and time to exercise. This was in addition to the fear of being in an environment that I had never experienced before.
Freedom in Imperfection
Or had I in a different sense? Fear, guilt and shame had me bound my entire life. It was during the time in prison that I ‘released’ myself from shame based thinking. It was difficult in those circumstances to believe that I was worthy, but if I did not, I never would have got off the cycle of shame based behaviour.
Owning our flaws, faults and mistakes is perfect.
Not striving for unrealistic, perceived ideals that are self-imposed or imposed by others (individuals or society) is perfect.
Not feeling the need to people please in order to like who you are is perfect.
It is one thing to be shameful of our actions but another to remain in a state of shame about ourselves. Every day we have an opportunity to learn and love ourselves a bit more. It is a process and takes daily commitment to forgive yourself and love who you are, especially when you have lived out of a place of fear, guilt and shame for many years. I met many women that have dealt with horrific life circumstances. How many of us live constantly in the prison of shame that keeps us captive? It clouds who we are and does not allow us to think rationally, to change, to feel or to love ourselves.
Self-acceptance means that when you are happy with who you are, you are less likely to have your feelings hurt by others. Whatever anyone says, you already know! You are a step ahead of them! There is no shame in recognising this and reaching out for help! In fact, it is necessary!
In a world that so often says ‘you are not enough’, Loving yourself is an absolute must! Your life depends on it to live freely and not just exist – to love others freely, without conditions. Know that you are enough.
Written by Eleni Psillakis