[brief mention of suicidal thoughts]
I think almost everyone hates thinking about shame. And really hates talking about shame. It’s shaming to a lot of people to even admit that they feel shame. That didn’t even make sense to me until I suddenly recognised it in myself reading Brené Brown’s I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t). I didn’t realise I felt so much shame until a few years ago when people began talking about it openly online. I certainly didn’t feel it as a distinguishable emotion. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked about shame by a healthcare professional. Which is a shame because it the driving force behind a lot of my mental illness.
In that book, Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging”. Yesterday, I was reading and came across a reference to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I thought I would just quickly look it up and check that I still knew it. I am meeting my basic needs of water, food, shelter, rest and safety. I am partially meeting my need to feel like I belong and for connection. Sometimes better than others. I am not meeting my esteem needs at all. I don’t feel like I have achieved or accomplished anything with my life and since I am now in my early forties that is intensely shaming to me. I should have done better; everyone else has. I can feel this tension in the back of my mouth and throat, my chest feels tight and I just want to hide in the dark and never let anyone see or think of me ever again. That’s shame.
That this is so intensely shaming to me is a problem because it is paralysing me. I am stuck and can’t make plans or move forward. I am too afraid and too angry with myself and too full of disappointment and disgust. It makes me hate myself that I had so many chances and I ruined them all. I hate meeting new people or catching up with people after a long time because I have nothing to show for myself. A big part of my problem is that I don’t have a job and I personally, and increasingly society too, put a large proportion of your worth as a person on your job. I have been on benefits for exactly ten years this month. I have never had a proper career and only crappy jobs many years ago. I had a good school education and did well and then got into a good university to do a vocational subject where I did very well for two years before I became incapable of managing my illness and had to drop out after starting final year three times. Those first couple of years at university are the last time I felt good about myself in terms of jobs or careers and that was twenty years ago.
I know I have low self-esteem but I think my assessment of myself is actually quite correct. I don’t have anything to be proud of so it is logical that I have low self-esteem. Brown says that “[s]hame and self-esteem are very different issues. We feel shame. We think self-esteem. Our self-esteem is based on how we see ourselves – our strengths and limitations – over time. It is how and what we think of ourselves. Shame is an emotion, It is how we feel when we have certain experiences. When we are in shame, we don’t see the big picture; we don’t accurately think about our strengths and limitations. We just feel alone, exposed and deeply flawed” and that makes perfect sense to me.
I don’t really have any drive to improve myself. I have had problems with motivation for many years. I don’t want to feel this shame but I also have this strong feeling that I deserve it and that it is right that I feel bad. The world is as it should be when I feel bad. Yesterday, when I had this rush of shame after thinking about how I’ve not achieved anything, the shame was followed by intense suicidal thoughts of how I had no option but to kill myself. There is no chance or hope at all that I will achieve anything so why continue like this. I will never do better, I’ll only get worse… etc, etc. It was very painful.
Going back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I need to remember how lucky I am that I can meet my basic needs. I was homeless for six months once (not on the streets but in a spare room and unable to find a place of my own) and so having a housing association flat with a secure tenacy is something I hold close and treasure. I’ve been in this house for a few years but I still love locking the front door and knowing that I am safe. I am lucky to receive benefits and get support group ESA, DLA (not been migrated over to PIP yet; there’s a terror to come) and housing benefit which allows me a good standard of living as long as I am careful. I don’t deserve any of this though. I didn’t earn it. It was just given to me. Those thoughts feel shaming too though I can also hear the counter argument that everyone deserves a basic standard of living just by virtue of being a human.
Brown says the way to heal shame is a combination of compassion, courage (she means every day “ordinary courage” not stand-in-front-of-bullets courage) and connection (with other people). I am trying to do a little of those here and then maybe I can release some of my shame.