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Am I a Puppet of My Own Shame?

Shame creates the belief that you're bad, and that belief can govern your life.

Key points

  • Shame from the past can seep into a person's very core, convincing them that they are "bad."
  • Healing shame requires feeling pain and working through vulnerability.
  • Once shame is let go of, it is less likely to disempower someone or govern their life.
Aysegul Yahsi/Unsplash
Source: Aysegul Yahsi/Unsplash

Let me take you back in time—well, over 30 years ago. I was on a first date with a guy named Jeff. I'd vetted him. By all reports, he was nice, having earned his Ph.D. from the same program that I was currently slogging my way through.

So, we were sitting outside at a little bistro, enjoying a Dallas sunset. And the usual get-to-know-you questions were tossed around.

“Where did you grow up?”

“What made you want to go into psychology?”

Then the inevitable question fell from his lips: “Have you ever been married?”

He'd obviously not vetted me.

I paused, weighing my response carefully. I didn’t want to lie. So I spoke my truth.

“Yes,” I said, looking at him directly. “In fact, twice.”

Before I could take another breath, he responded, an amused sarcasm oozing out of him. “Well, if I’d known that, I wouldn’t have asked you out.”

I felt dirty, wishing with all my being that I could disappear underneath the suddenly garish red-checkered tablecloth. But more importantly, I felt deep shame.

Jeff had confirmed my worst fear: If anyone knew the truth, I wouldn't be accepted.

I didn't need his words to feel shame. I was still carrying around buckets of it all by myself.

Doing the work of feeling shame, and letting it go

The very essence of shame, and what keeps it locked away and unspoken for so many, is that you've been told or absorbed or come to believe that you are bad. You got that message from abusers or anyone who wanted to control you, perhaps your family, your neighborhood, your school, your church, or your culture.

Shame seeps into your very core: "I'm bad." "I'm not enough." "I'm not lovable." You decide it must be true, and others can manipulate you because of that belief. And you can do some pretty chaotic things to hide it from yourself or keep others from seeing it.

You can become very angry inside, and need to become more powerful than those around you. You can develop a perfect-looking camouflage that's held together by rigid compartmentalization of pain. You can become devout in your belief that "forgetting" your past is the key, and refuse to see or deny the painful circumstances of whatever abuse or hurt was there.

Or you can do some version of all three. And many more.

You don't realize that your unconscious hurt and shame are the puppeteers that are controlling your actions. And until you work through that shame, feel where it came from, and learn how you can let go of it, you'll remain its puppet. In Terrance Real's eloquent and still relevant book, I Don't Want To Talk About It (Scribner, 1998), he quotes a conversation that he and one of his patients, who was making this tremendously powerful realization, had in session:

"That's it, isn't it?" he answers, defeated.

"That's what?" I ask.

"You either feel it or live it, right? The pain. Either feel it or live. Isn't that what you're going to say to me?"

"I wish there were easier options," I tell him. "I really do."

Brené Brown made a similar point more recently in the tenth anniversary edition of The Gifts of Imperfection: "You can't get to courage without walking through vulnerability. Period."

The point remains the same: Shame must be worked through to lose its power. Deep feelings need to be felt.

That work, painstaking at times, can snip that puppeteer's strings. And you can find your freedom to live a more self-accepting life.

That's where therapy comes in. You can experience a safe relationship where you can trudge through that shame, where you can feel the anger and pain behind it, and where you can adopt self-compassion toward that part of you that absorbed it. And let it go.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.