“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.”
― Brené Brown,
“Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?
I am afraid to tell you who I am, because if I tell you who I am,
you may not like who I am, and it’s all that I have.” John Joseph Powell
My Aunt Trish had taken me to a bookstore where we found the small paperback with the words that would forever change my thinking and understanding about myself. I was a young teenager, and picking up the book by John Joseph Powell, I sat mesmerized, realizing that he understood me (and my fear). In fact, 40 years after having first read his words, I find he continues to assure me that I’m not so weird for being afraid of rejection. For years, I didn’t know the word to put with the feelings, but in my adult life I have found the word that matches, and it is shame. When we show people who we are, and they reject us, there is an awful lot of shame. Brene’ Brown has written a lot about the subject, and she is right — shame is powerful because it is unspeakable.
What the adult in me has learned from that 13-year-old is that the unspeakable only holds the power you and I allow it to hold. In order to lessen the power of shame, we must give it our voice if we really want to get rid of those miserable, suffocating feelings. Speaking the unspeakable after many years of being quiet can make others uncomfortable, though, and in that, there is yet another possibility of feeling rejected. No, not everyone is ready to have us talk about what has brought us shame, and that’s a problem — their problem, really.
Brown defines shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging — something we’ve experienced, done or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. Let that sit with you for just a minute. Substitute feel unworthy where you hear shame, and it begins to really hit home in its familiarity.
What has made you feel unworthy? The kid who laughed at you because of the way you asked too many questions, so you decided to stop speaking up in class? Or maybe it was the fella in the meeting last week who shot you a glance that said your questions were annoying. Whether you were 13 or 35, it’s easy for others to do things that make us suddenly feel unworthy. There are so many things that bring us shame — the way we’ve handled situations or spoken to people, things we’ve done or not done, and also other people’s efforts to make us feel ashamed — making us smaller than they are.
It’s time to think about the power our shame is holding over us and how it affects our lives and relationships each day. It’s time to be brave enough to risk the very thing Powell has forced me to consider. Why are we afraid to let people know who we are, flaws and all? We are afraid because they might not like us and that is all we have. The truth is that you might be a great artist or writer, but someone has told you through their criticism that you aren’t so special. Those words begin to take root before you know it, and the feelings of unworthiness or shame powerfully silence the possibility within you.
You and I (and our children and our friends and the homeless fella sitting on the bench) are worthy of much more than one person’s words have convinced us — maybe you can pick up a paintbrush at 60 realizing that person who shamed you into setting it down so long ago was dealing with their own issues of unworthiness.
This week, I hope you will think of the words or actions of others that might have made you feel unworthy (or words of your own that you have spoken to another), and then speak, at least to yourself, the truth. It’s a scary thing to show others who we are, to risk that they won’t like us or worse will shame us because we do things differently, but you and I are ready, aren’t’ we? Not everyone has to like us, but we need to like ourselves. I think my aunt knew that I needed some help figuring this out, so she helped me begin so many years ago — maybe I’m just a slow learner. Maybe you could start by taking a young person to find a book that will put them on a path of better thinking.