I dug up an old Enid Blyton book the other day and read a story to my daughter. Enid Blyton is a famous British children’s writer from the 50s. In the story, a grandfather says to a child who has misbehaved, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” Yes, we’ve moved on a little since the 50s, but this message is still very much alive; we are taught to be ashamed of ourselves.
As children, when we did something wrong, we were scolded and made to feel inadequate, defective, and unacceptable, which caused shame. When we are little, we are learning how to be in the world, how to relate to each other. As a child, it’s only natural to make mistakes; it’s natural to be different. But the message, more often than not is, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” It’s impossible not to internalize shame.
This negative self-evaluation often has its roots in messages you’ve received from others. For example, when parents, teachers, or society criticized you, they planted in you the seed of shame. We bury it, decide to take it to our graves, then we get on with our lives pretending we are not that bad person. Deep down, we so often believe we are.
When we come into a situation where we can no longer tolerate the issues in our lives, we might seek advice from a therapist or spiritual advisor to face the shame and try to unlearn behaviours that no longer serve us. Some of us have lived with a pervasive feeling of shame for so long that we are unaware of the impact it has on our day-to-day lives.
When we discover we actually are carrying shame, it can be embraced as exciting information! We can then begin the process of letting go of the shame that binds us. Shame will hold you hostage, or rather you will hold yourself hostage, because you believe the early message, “You ought to feel ashamed of yourself.” But how exciting that it was never true! You are only human; we all make mistakes. What if we were free to choose again?
For my entire life I was ashamed of my sexuality. I had grown up around homophobic rhetoric and carried a shameful feeling that somehow, I wasn’t normal. About three years ago I decided to face my shame because it was wreaking havoc in my life. When it got too much, I decided to put it through the Hilarapy process (my own brand of comedy therapy.)
I pulled my community in close and using my tools I went headfirst into the depths of my shame. I discovered I was carrying stories that did not serve me. They were false narratives and projections that simply did not hold true in the light of day. I had been internally belittling myself for years. I had ignored it for as long as possible, but there came a day when I could no longer tolerate my internalised homophobia. Through my own tried and tested Hilarapy process I brought it to the stage in my show, [un]expecting. It was truly life changing. I made people laugh and cry and finally I broke the shackles of shame.
It was the best and the hardest thing I ever did. It felt painful when I faced myself. It was hard to sit with the mess I had inside. It took substantial courage to tell the world how full of shame I was being gay. I knew there would be something on the other side for me. Throughout my creative therapeutic journey, I flooded my shame with light, and when I brought it to the stage it transformed into self-acceptance. The feedback I got from others was that it brought light and love to their experience of shame. When we show up and own our experiences, we have the power to create a collective experience of letting go of shame. We all have the power to change our stories.