A few months ago I read Daring Greatly by Brene Brown and at one point she explains the difference between “shame” and “guilt.” We feel guilt when we do something “bad,” which one can apologize for and move on. But we feel shame when we think we are bad. When we feel that as people we are not worthy, not enough.
Brown says the shame armour begins to go on around the middle grades when we begin being shamed by others for who we are. We internalize it to mean: I shouldn’t be this way, if I am, I’m not enough. I’m too fat, too skinny, not cool enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough.
The armour is new and awkward at first. As we grow into it, we get better at hiding. But even at 40, 50, 60 years old, our shame can get triggered and we’re back in 7th grade in that cafeteria.
“Shame is so painful for children because it is inextricably linked to the fear of being unlovable. For young children who are still dependent on their parents for survival—for food, shelter, and safety—feeling unlovable is a threat to survival. It’s trauma. I’m convinced that the reason most of us revert back to feeling childlike and small when we’re in shame is because our brain stores our early shame experiences as trauma, and when it’s triggered we return to that place.” – Brene Brown, Daring Greatly
Brown also discovered in her research that shame triggers for men and women differ. For men, the overarching message was that any kind of weakness is shameful. There was a whole slough of contradictory expectations for women that if they didn’t meet, triggered shame. For example, women, even in this more enlightened age, still believe they need to be nice, thin, naturally pretty . . . oh, and perfect. Be a perfect mother, wife, daughter.
I am aware of my own triggers around being “nice.” I very much want to be perceived as a nice person. I hate being perceived as not being nice. I hate when my good intentions are misinterpreted.
Even to me the issue of “stay small, sweet, quiet, and modest” sounds like an outdated problem, but the truth is that women still run into those demands whenever we find and use our voices. – Brene Brown, Daring Greatly
So, here’s one of my own junior high school moments. 7th grade. My friends and I were eating lunch in a circle and we started a very small food fight among us. Just a few harmless grapes and such. But then suddenly I turn and I’m staring at a pair of jeans. I look up and this girl I hardly know slaps me across the face. “Look at my jeans!” she yells down at me, pointing to a splotch of yoghurt on her pants. “You got yoghurt on my pants!”
There was indeed a small splotch of yoghurt on her pants, but it couldn’t have been mine. I wasn’t eating yoghurt. She had singled me out for some reason. Slapped me, yelled at me. I didn’t understand why. I hadn’t done anything wrong.
I can’t recall what happened next, I know she stood there for a while with that yoghurt splotch in my face. Maybe I handed her a napkin, maybe I wiped it off myself. What I do remember is holding my embarrassment and shame in, rolling my eyes with my friends, and everyone nervously continuing the conversation. No one mentioned the slap to me then or ever. And on my way back to class, I told them to go on, I had to use the restroom, and in the privacy of a stall, I allowed myself to cry.
Being slapped meant I was bad and had done something horribly wrong. Only bad children got slapped. Everyone must have thought I had done something wrong, that I was a terrible person. But I hadn’t done anything wrong. I couldn’t contain those two ideas… I was a nice girl.
Even writing this 35 years later, I can feel my eyes well up. Why?
Have you seen the movie Inside Out? I think for me that slap is a “core memory.” Or, in dramatic writing speak, it’s one of the wounds that shaped my life.
I never wanted to be slapped ever again, especially not in front of my friends, so for years I went out of my way to be nice to people, to not rock the boat, to not hurt anyone’s feelings. I hated for anyone to think I was mean-spirited, selfish, unfair, uncompassionate… and it was a stake in my heart when someone either misinterpreted my intentions, or called me out – because God forbid I did something that wasn’t nice to someone!
Set your timer for 5 -10 minutes per start line (I recommend increasing the duration each time from 5 to 7 to 10 minutes as it encourages the work to go deeper each time)
When you start your timer write, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t cross out. (just do it!)*
1) The WOUND that shaped my character’s life happened when . . .
2) The secret shame he/she feels around this incident manifests through . . .
3) My character fears that if this shame is revealed then . . .
4) The moment my character faces this fear and exposes his/her shame is . . .
Now write your next scene . . .
*If you want to try various ways of writing try short sentences, long sentence release (no punctuation, just connect everything by conjunctions), or listing.
**Post posting note – I subscribe to my own blog via email to make sure the posts are going out. This morning I woke up to an email from myself with the subject line: Shame On You. I had an immediate physical reaction to seeing those words and was curious as to if anyone else had a reaction. I considered changing the title to be “nice” and spare people from feeling bad about themselves. lol.