The first time I felt shame I was in second grade. It was such a visceral and definitive moment I can remember the outfit I was wearing that day. A beige sweater with an American flag woven into the chest, a matching scrunchie donned the top of my very-high ponytail, and a pair of Limited Too jeans. I returned to my classroom after running a post-recess errand for my teacher. All of my classmates were seated on the carpet and staring at me with shock and intensity as I entered the room. My heart dropped. Something was wrong.
My teacher addressed me in front of everyone. “Brittany…I’ve been told that you didn’t allow someone into your club today during recess.” Clubs were a big deal on the playground in second grade. And I had been a bitch. And now everyone knew it. And I was ashamed. My insides felt like a freshly carved and gutted pumpkin. A pit so deep and anxious I could hardly breathe. I cried.
It was the one and only time I got in “trouble” during my academic career. Except for the time I smacked the shit out of a kid in fifth grade during recess. He’d taken up the sporting act of hitting girls on the back of the head when they weren’t looking. I stand by my act of vigilante justice.
Nevertheless, I’ve spent a significant amount of time contemplating guilt and shame and forgiveness lately. It is perhaps the most complicated relationship in my life right now. There are innumerable quotes and books and inspirational citations imploring us to forgive ourselves, to forgive others, to “let it go,” to move on. Beautiful sentiments; eloquently crafted turns of phrase to encourage good vibes. I appreciate them all. I post them frequently in the hopes of sprouting a glowingly positive, radiant kind of self-awareness and spirituality.
Unfortunately, there is no “how-to” guide for actually overcoming shame. Believe me, the 27 self-help books I’ve acquired and read prove I’ve done the leg work.
I remained clueless. I didn’t know how to begin to tackle these issues that seem to plague my day-to-day hunt for happiness. I decided to start at the source. Only recently did I learn the difference between guilt and shame, two words I’ve used interchangeably for many many years.
The boiled down definitions are as follows: guilt is “the acknowledgement of doing something bad.”Shame is “I am bad.”
“I am bad.” Three very little words packing a Mike Tyson punch.
The surface-level reason for my breakup isn’t a secret. I cheated. I cheated on my boyfriend and unsuccessfully kept it a secret for several years. It was a really, really shitty thing to do. The guilt I felt during those first few months after it happened was unimaginable. I walked on egg shells and went into “good-girlfriend” overdrive. I panicked every time he didn’t answer his phone or respond to a text. But time ticked on and I eventually put it to bed and out of my mind. Here’s how my brain justified my actions: “If he did the exact same thing and felt the exact same way you feel now, would you want to know about it?” And my answer was no. Absolutely not. I wanted it to fade into oblivion. I felt guilty as hell, but I didn’t believe myself to be bad. I felt guilty about a lot of habits and behaviors and thoughts and actions, but I didn’t feel shame.
I feel it now.
I felt it for many, many months without a definition for my constant anxiety and desire to find anything and everything to avoid being alone with myself and my thoughts. And then I listened to a podcast about shame. And my inner-soulful satellites perked up. I understood. Entirely. Shame. And definitions of shame. And discussions of shame. And what it means to find yourself in a place where you not only acknowledge you’ve done something bad, but you believe you are bad. It’s a pretty low low. “What the fuck is wrong with me?” runs through my brain on a loop for hours and days and weeks on end.
Having identified the word and the “thing” and the darkness through which I’d been wandering aimlessly, I knew I needed to sit with this for awhile. I knew there was purpose in the murky and difficult pile of shit I’d accumulated over time.
An image came to mind, an illustrated shame gif, if you will. I decided the best depiction is to think of my life as a tank of water. The water is purified, crystal clear, full of all of the good things I am and the good things I’ve done and the good I’ve put into the world. Guilt is a drop of black ink. One drop of black ink for every bad thing I’ve done and every mistake I’ve ever made. Each drop in my crystal clear water danced and morphed and flowed into my life, creating momentary chaos, but ultimately sinking to the bottom of my tank, lying in wait at the base of it all.
That bitchy moment in second grade was the first teeny drop of black ink. The drops accumulated over time: lying to my parents, drunken encounters with guys, alienating and ruining friendships and relationships with women and men alike, being the reason my family separated from our church, unhealthy habits…the list goes on and on. The ink kept dropping, dancing, morphing, but always settling at the bottom.
Shame came when I finally sat with myself long enough to stir the fucking tank. Shame is the gray and murky and almost opaque version of myself that emerged when I finally started stirring and facing all of my life choices. Shame is acceptance and owning all you’ve done. Shame is sitting in a dark quiet room with every shitty choice you’ve ever made and reconciling with your own soul.
I used to believe in the ideology: “never regret anything because everything that ever happened brought you here.” I think that’s bullshit. I think you absolutely have the right to say to yourself, “I’ve been a terrible person. And I regret a lot. And if I knew then what I know now, I would have done things differently.”
But during this shame spiral, this really difficult moment in time when I truly started to feel the weight of my choices, I heard the following: “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.”
THAT I can wrap my head around. I can wrap my head around the fact that it is possible to forgive yourself for not only doing bad, but being bad. It’s important to sit with your demons. To know them. To stir your tank and let it percolate and to familiarize yourself with those deeply dark and embarrassing moments.
But it’s also possible to walk away from that tank of shadowy shitty water. It’s possible to pour yourself a brand new tank of goodness and light. It’s possible to decide to walk away from every person you’ve ever been and to start brand new.
What an unbelievably beautiful gift ♥