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A Better Response to Shame

Written by Shauna Weaver

I had just taken my place in line at The Muny when a familiar face stepped directly behind me. We have all experienced moments where curiosity causes us to do a double-take; but since I moved to St. Louis only two summers ago, it was downright strange. Her name appeared in my mind, and before I knew what was happening, I boldly used it to greet her.

We had taken a two-week course together over a year ago. She clearly did not remember me. I reintroduced myself, and we began chatting about how we liked the professor and other classes we had since taken.

Our wait in line ended, and we said goodbye. But I was only beginning to sit with the feelings that lingered in the wake of our interaction. From the moment she gave me a look that said “Who are you and why are you talking to me?”, I felt dismissed. Inferior. Like there was something embarrassing about myself that I was not aware of, but she could clearly see.

I had felt that way when our paths first crossed over a year ago, too.

As I made my way to my seat, I couldn’t help asking myself the big, horrible question: “What did I do wrong?” The words resounded in the back of my mind for the next 30 minutes. As the colorful performers sang and danced their way across the stage, I did a run-through of our brief conversation in my mind -- first from my perspective, then from what I imagined might be hers. I considered what I was wearing, the words I chose, and what she might have known about me.

But my confusion only grew as I realized that we knew almost nothing about each other. She hadn’t even remembered who I was! The question I asked myself morphed into something darker: “What is wrong with me?”

When we find ourselves asking this kind of question, we can be confident we’re dealing with shame.

Shame is the feeling that something is fundamentally wrong with who you are. Psychologist Dan Allender defines it as “an experience of exposure.” It is the sensation that something undesirable -- that we fear others see in us, or that we fear is within ourselves -- has been revealed. It’s the feeling that we have been judged... and the verdict is “not good enough.” It often follows the suggestion that we are less-than. The most important thing to mention about shame, however, is that it is a liar that always needs to be challenged instead of believed.

It was then that I remembered a truth I’ve been learning in real time:

Sometimes how we perceive an event or an interaction has more to do with our internal struggle than it does with the actual events or other people involved. Shame is a terrorist who hijacks our ability to process our emotions; interfering with the way we interpret the affect of others.

These internal struggles are formed by what we refer to in counseling as a person’s “story”: a unique combination of life experiences that influence the way one thinks, responds to, and sees the world. A person’s story has both formed the ways they are beautiful and exacerbated the ways they are broken. The unique perspective arising from one's story contributes to a sense of identity, which directly impacts how we interact with others. Long-standing conditions, such as mental/physical health, and even temporary circumstances such as mood and environment, can affect our approach to the world as well.

This complexity can be frustrating. When it comes to human beings, formulas and linear trajectories that guarantee certain feelings or results do not exist.

I don’t know your version of Feeling Shame at the Muny. But I invite you to remember, in these situations, you always have a choice to make: Either believe the lie that you are less-than or think about what a person who loves you might say and offer yourself the same compassion and empathy, they would offer, instead of self-criticism and shame.

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