One Girl’s Quest to Avoid Shame and Its Painful Consequences

Written by Dawn, Storyteller and Youth Advocate. This is a story about building resilience and discovering self-compassion, self-love and empathy. Empathy is a powerful gift to self and others, and in recognizing that “There is nothing wrong with me”.    

I can’t talk about stigma without talking about shame. And I can’t talk about shame without talking about vulnerability. And I can’t talk about vulnerability without talking about trust. And I can’t talk about trust without talking about fear. And I can’t talk about fear without talking about courage. And I can’t talk about courage without talking about willingness. And I can’t talk about willingness without talking about pain. And I can’t talk about pain without talking about shame, and I can’t talk about shame without taking about stigma.

Stigma is defined as: “A mark of shame or disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” I personally define shame as: The excruciatingly painful feeling of being exposed which results in the desire to hide, take cover or attack.   

Therefore, when I was being dishonest (hiding), I wasn’t being a liar, it was my strategy to avoid pain (shame and stigma), to meet my need for safety and belonging. It wasn’t safe to tell the truth in a culture of punishment!

When I always “had to be right” by becoming defensive when my point of view was disagreed with or I was challenged, I wasn’t the “girl that doesn’t listen and always need to be right”, it was my strategy to avoid the shame of being wrong. Being wrong was shameful, therefore I always had to be right, even if it violated my other need to connect with people!

When I was so focused on myself and competing with others that I didn’t acknowledge their needs,I wasn’t a narcissist, borderline, selfish, or “all she cares about is herself”. It was my strategy to excel. Because it was only the advanced, the gifted, the above average, the amazing and the stars of the show that received the attention, the approval and the acceptance that I craved. They mattered, they were important. It became apparent that the road out of insignificance was paved on the backs of others. Ultimately, my need to be better and the best was: The fear of being average. Because in this society the average are forgotten, they just don’t matter. And remember, we are all born with the need to know that we do matter.

I believe that the behaviors of personality-based mental illness are a web of destructive strategies to meet legitimate needs that have become patterns. The people who want to assist people to heal, tap into their resilience, and live up to their potential, they must examine the ways in which they create barriers to the very thing they seek to facilitate. Some of those “barrier-creators” are: Having an agenda, giving advice, assessments, diagnosis, problem-solving, agreeing, disagreeing, contradicting, comparing, criticizing, threatening, evaluating, judging, correcting, critiquing, fixing, lecturing, should’ing, shaming and punishing. Unfortunately, in school, students don’t learn about true empathy, which is the antidote for shame. What is empathy? It is simply feeling with me, rather than feeling for me. Emotional change never happens when there is disconnect between people.

It is only those few moments when I have received empathy from others and myself that wounds have healed, the patterns of mental illness began to dissolve, and I am able to meet my needs and the needs of others in a healthy way. The moment I sensed that the person presented with my pain was not interested in my compliance, but could be with whatever came up, no matter how ugly, nasty, painful or horrific, I began to do the very things people had been pushing me to do. But it wasn’t until people stopped pushing me that I could stop resisting. Empathy does not generate defensiveness, that’s the magic of it. And I have dedicated my life to being able to give and receive this powerful gift.