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Let's Talk About Shame

Updated: Nov 22, 2022

CW: this post discusses shame, self-criticism (including examples of ableist self-talk), and includes explicit language.

It’s November 1. Halloween season is over (although spooky season lives on forever in my heart). I don’t totally understand what happened, because one minute it was April and I was remarking on how there were only 6 months left until Halloween and I better start my annual scary movie rewatching, and then I blinked and somehow it’s November 1. If you’ve read any of my last few blog posts, you might remember that I had Big Spooky Season Plans, to write a series of posts looking at recent horror movies and how they tell stories about mental health. I was jazzed about this, for the record - when we talked about writing blog posts on our website, back in like, August? This was one of the first things I thought of - I was like, heck yeah, I’m gonna get to write out all my thoughts about these movies I love, I’m gonna get to share that with people, I can’t wait. I outlined the movies I wanted to write about, and even as the month of October slipped away, I sincerely believed I would write this series of blog posts.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t write the series. I wrote an introductory blog post and then I wrote a single analysis post. Upon realizing that I was not going to actually write the series I’d envisioned, I was filled with frustration at myself, sadness about not having gotten to write the things I was excited to write, and most of all, shame. Shame feels like a cold sweat; a metallic lump heavy in my stomach; my eyes filling with hot tears no matter how desperately I try to hold them back. Shame feels like my body trembling, my fingers cold and numb while I overheat everywhere else. Shame whispers in my ear in a sneaky, oily little voice, telling me that I didn’t just fail, but I’m a failure. That not only did I not accomplish what I set out to, but that I was stupid for ever thinking I possibly could, and that I was arrogant and cocky to publicly tell people I was going to do this thing. The more it talks to me, the louder it gets and the more I shrink inside myself, letting the shame surround me. It gets to a point where it’s no longer about the blog posts, it’s just a litany of all my self-doubts and insecurities and the certainty that I am not enough and never will be.

Excuse my language, but shame is a little motherfucker.

Shame is a squatter that lives rent-free inside me and throws parties all night long and then doesn’t clean up after itself.

Here’s a thing though: shame didn’t help me write those blog posts. It just berated me for failing to write them, for being a failure as a person, yadda yadda yadda. Shame doesn’t help move us forward. Shame is sticky. My metaphors are jumping all over the place here, but I find it helpful to think of shame as quicksand. Like, childhood cartoon style quicksand, that you stumble into and don’t realize it until you’re stuck. You start sinking into it, like with shame, and your instinct is to try and fight your way out of it. But the more you fight it, the more you sink into it and the faster you get stuck. Or maybe you freeze, you don’t know what to do and you just let yourself fall into it. When you fight with your shame, your shame is always going to win. Your shame has endless energy and resources and you cannot keep up with it. It will always find a way to convince you you’re wrong, and it will never let you get the last word. Ignoring your shame or freezing won’t get rid of it either. Ignoring it just lets it pull you in deeper and deeper and surround you.

My instinct is usually to fight. It looks like this: I didn’t write the blog posts I said I was going to. I feel shame about that. I feel like a failure. But wait a minute, I know, logically, that I’m not a failure! But I feel like a failure. But it’s just a few blog posts, it’s not the end of the world, and I still do lots of other really important and great stuff! But you didn’t do those blog posts and you said you would and you said they’d be easy and you didn’t do them. You failed to do an easy thing you wanted to do. What’s wrong with you? — And we go in circles like this until I’m exhausted and kinda hate myself. During this time I’m going back and forth with my shame, I’m not writing anything new, I’m not accomplishing anything, I’m not even enjoying myself… there’s literally nothing gained in fighting my shame. So I’m trying something new.

In quicksand, they say you’re supposed to lean back, float on the quicksand, and that way you can gradually pull yourself out of it. In order to do that, you first have to recognize that you’re stuck in quicksand. So I’m noticing - holy smokes I’m feeling a lot of shame. I’m leaning back into the shame, floating on it without sinking into it. The shame is there and it’s saying some very unkind things about me, but I’m gonna choose not to engage with that. I’m going to accept that I set unrealistic expectations for myself, and that I’m probably going to keep doing that despite my best intentions. I’m accepting that I set expectations for myself based on things I’m excited about creating or achieving, and that feels joyous for me to do. So if I set expectations I can’t meet, I’m going to try and notice the shame, lean back and float, and keep working on creating the things I want to create, instead of spending my time and energy fighting with the shame quicksand.

I feel shame even in feeling shame - I’m a social worker, I’m supposed to know better, I’m supposed to set a good example and always feel good about myself! And look at that - the shame has sucked me back in again. As I said. Sticky. So I keep noticing it, accepting that it’s going to be there, and that I don’t have to engage with it. I’m going to redirect my energy from fighting with my shame, to creating - to writing this blog post! To doing the things I want to be doing in my life, the things that make me happy and fulfilled. The shame might still be there, I can’t make it go away. But I can choose not to spend my time and energy arguing with it. I can recognize the quicksand and lean back into it and slowly float to safety.

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