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How Shame Can Change the Course of Your Life

“We live in a world where most people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line. Not only is this wrong, but it’s dangerous.”

– Brené Brown

In 1991, I was in my sophomore year of college. Even though it was close to 30 years ago, I recall one moment of shame like it was yesterday.

The previous year as a freshman, I didn’t know what I wanted to pursue in terms of a major and was still trying to figure everything out. I had picked a major and a minor to put me on a path but was not 100% sure that is what I wanted to do. I think this is the dilemma of many college students.

Unless you are going to a trade school or something other than college, you have to take required classes such as English, Math, and physical and social sciences. But it was my freshman English class which made me think I had chosen the wrong major (Criminal Justice) when I enrolled.

I thought this because of my professor. She was one of the best professors I’ve ever had. Her teaching style, friendliness, willingness to help students, and the overall comfort of her class was something you don’t see every day in a college atmosphere. I enjoyed it, which was a rarity for me. She believed in me and told me so. And she told me I should major in English. 

For someone who had little confidence in life up to that point, her belief in me boosted my self-esteem and made me reconsider my original choice of majors. And when you are a freshman in college navigating academics, social life, working, and family, a little boost can go a long way.

I loved writing in college and back then; I don’t remember a class on creative writing or anything similar. So if you wanted to write as a profession and learn about literature, you majored in English. To get the feedback I did, it made me want to pursue it for a career.

But someone shattered all that confidence the next year. And it may have helped change the course of my life.

Photo by Mihail Macri on Unsplash

I have had self-confidence issues since I was a child. I still have them today. Just because you grow up doesn’t mean they go away. They stick with you until you figure out how to better deal with them, but they are still there. They are still hiding out somewhere in the back of your mind, and they return from time to time.

I think a lot of my issues stem from trying to figure out what it meant to be a “man”. Because when I was growing up, I had this thought of what a man should be. I was taught the normal, society-driven definition. A man should be tough, emotionless, work to death to support his family, and be someone who is respected. And the tougher you were, the more respect you had. Or so I was told.

So when it came time to choose a major for college, it was all about that toughness. I chose Criminal Justice. Because being in law enforcement brought all of what a man is supposed to be. And I needed to be a “man”.

I had to prove I was a man to my father and brother. To my friends and to all the people who saw me as weak. Even though I didn’t know if they thought that or not. Because I thought I was weak and that is all that mattered.

But they were more of a man than I was, and I didn’t want to let them down. Unfortunately, I never thought about what I wanted. Because I had something to prove. 

Given this need to prove something, I didn’t change my major right away. I stayed in the Criminal Justice program because English wasn’t a major that a “man” enrolled in was it? At least that’s what society had taught me. I was conflicted. 

But changing my major was always in the back of my mind. So when my sophomore year rolled around and I took another English class, I was excited. 

Until that fateful day. 

Photo by Rene Böhmer on Unsplash

“You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”

– Brené Brown

I don’t recall the specifics of that day. I don’t remember what the subject of the day’s class was or what exactly was said. But I remember vividly how the professor spoke to me in front of the class.

I can see all the other students in the class turned around looking at me. I can hear one student saying, “oh, damn!” I see it like it was yesterday. And even though I don’t remember what she said to me, that moment is fresh in my mind.

Because I remember how it made me feel. 

It made me feel ashamed and unworthy. It made me feel like I deserved that treatment. That I was bad. I felt I did not belong at that moment. Or afterward. English class was never the same, and my thoughts of pursuing a major in English vanished. Because now I needed to prove even more that I was a “man”. And the only way I could do that was to stay in my Criminal Justice program.

That’s what shame does.

According to Brené Brown and her book Daring Greatly, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” It is also, “….the fear of disconnection – it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection.”

I’ve believed I’ve been flawed for a long time. I know I’m deeply flawed. And while I embrace some of those flaws because it makes me who I am, many of them have kept me from living the life I want. And it hurts those around me. They are so ingrained in me, they overrule the good traits I have. I can’t even see these good traits. So they get buried under a sea of negativity and shame.

The shame I felt on that day kept me from not only pursuing that English degree but also followed me every day after. It kept me from wanting to write. That day substantiated what I already believed.

I was unworthy.

Because I grew up feeling unworthy. I grew up not feeling like a man and like I was weak. I wasn’t as tough as my friends, my father, my brother. I had emotions, but I wasn’t supposed to express them. I was a man, but not really. 

And all these moments of shame piled up and kept me from being who I am. Who I wanted to be. 

Photo by Yang Miao on Unsplash

In her research, Dr. Brown has found there are four emotions of self-consciousness. Guilt, shame, humiliation, and embarrassment. 

In simple terms, shame is the focus on the self, meaning I am bad. Guilt is the focus on behavior, meaning I did something bad. 

Humiliation means something bad has happened to me and I deserved it while embarrassment is something bad has happened to me but I didn’t deserve it.

And while all these emotions have different impacts on our lives, shame makes you feel isolated and alone. It makes you feel disconnected.

All those moments in my childhood about not feeling tough enough, not strong enough, and not “man” enough made me feel weak and disconnected. That moment with the English teacher just confirmed everything I thought about myself already.

And for men, weakness is the number one thing which brings shame.

According to Dr. Brown’s book, for men, shame is a sense of being defective, and it happens when others think you are soft. And revealing any kind of weakness is shaming. One of the worst fears for men is being criticized or ridiculed. These two are extremely shaming. 

For women, the number one thing which brings shame is appearance and body image. The primary trigger which brings women the most shame is how they look. Women are expected to be perfect, but it should still be all effortless.

Shame tells both men and women there is something wrong with us, something wrong with who we are.

Dealing with Shame

Photo by Corinne Kutz on Unsplash

It took me a long time to get over the feeling I may be perceived as weak. Of maybe not fitting the definition of what it means to be a “man”. And I still struggle with that feeling.

That’s why I stayed too long in a career I loathed, why I joined the Marine Corps, why I let that English teacher decide my worth. Because I didn’t want to be seen as weak. I wanted to be respected even if it was at the expense of myself.

That feeling cost me many years of my life. Shame may have altered the course of my life because I let it. 

But it also made me who I am today. I can’t go back and change my course, but I do sometimes wonder if all of my experiences of shame kept me from a different path. That’s a question I can’t answer and one which is really irrelevant. Because my path now is my own. I’m choosing the road I travel, and I’ve never been happier. 

I’ve learned to combat my shame. And while that will look different for everyone, there are three things Dr. Brown recommends to help overcome shame.

  • Talk to yourself like you talk to someone you love – most of us would never talk to someone else the way we talk to ourselves. 
  • Reach out to someone you trust. 
  • Tell your story – shame cannot survive when spoken and out in the open. 

What has helped me overcome these feelings of inadequacy is to realize there is no one definition of what a “man” should be, and I don’t have to be tough to be worthy. I don’t have to let these moments of shame keep me from living.

However, the number one thing I’ve learned is there is nothing wrong me. It’s okay to be flawed. And I am embracing these flaws because it helps me learn who I am and how I can be a better version of myself.

I am a man. In fact, I’m a better man than I’ve ever been. Because I know now, I am worthy and I belong. 

I also want you to know there is nothing wrong with you. We are all flawed. We are all perfectly imperfect and worthy of love and belonging. You just have to believe it. And then live that belief.

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