Women have described various physical reactions to shame, including stomach tightening, nausea, shaking, waves of heat in their faces and chests, wincing and twinges of smallness…
~Brene Brown I Thought it was Just Me…
Early on in my shame journey I did a small exercise to try and figure out how I experience shame. In reading Brene Brown’s book, I was shocked to discover that her list of how women feel shame seemed to include most of the ways I feel shame as well. My mind was completely blown. I actually had to stop reading the book and get ahold of my bearings. For years and years and years I was convinced that something was wrong with me, that I was having serious anxiety attacks, and that I was broken in some way, when all along what I’ve been experiencing are the manifestations of shame.
By far, the most common way that I feel shame is through anxiety. I have been formally experiencing anxiety for about 10 years. Looking back, however, I’ve realized that I have been feeling the anxiety/shame since at least age 12, if not earlier. I know that I probably meet the criteria for a generalized anxiety disorder: I worry too much about things I shouldn’t worry about, and I do have anxiety attacks, but they are generally provoked by something (and now I realize that something is often shame). The anxiety I feel in relation to shame, however, is different than the “normal anxiety.” I’m not sure how I can accurately describe how the shame anxiety is different… maybe it’s not. Maybe all my anxiety attacks are shrouded with shame. I wrote a descriptive narrative about the feelings of anxiety I had as I waited one day to talk to K. I remember this day clearly. A lot of shit was going on in my life. I needed someone to talk to and I wasn’t sure who to go to. I felt ashamed for going to talk to her about it, and that was the source of my “anxiety” (shame) that day.
Other ways that I experience shame aren’t quite as dramatic as a full out anxiety attack, but I feel them all the time. I feel twinges in my chest, like I’ve momentarily lost my breath or my heart has jumped out of place. I wince, most often when I recount things I’ve said or done that I don’t like or that I regret. I recount events and encounters or conversations in my head and tell myself I’m stupid. I feel small, physically small, like a child – 6 years old, to be exact. I my moments of smallness I feel like I’m a pest, or like I need to be babysat, or that I’m just in the way… like I have nothing valuable to add to any situation or relationship.
That’s all just shame. I never realized it before I read this book and now I see it all the time. My day is riddled with feelings and manifestations of shame. It’s no wonder I am having such a hard time breaking out of the pattern. And, just because I can recognize the shame doesn’t mean that I don’t experience it just as much. Sometimes I try to stop my feeling by telling myself, “this is shame… stop shaming yourself!” and sometimes it works. I might not stop it all the time, but I’ve at least thought about how I feel shame and what I feel shame about. I’ll save the exploration of my shame triggers and vulnerabilities for another post, but I can say with confidence that I am feeling successful in the first endeavour of overcoming shame – Recognizing Shame and identifying it as such.
Do you want to participate in The Shame Project? Visit this post and share some of the shame you experience.