Let’s talk about shame.
I’ve been thinking a lot about shame since I read Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly and I’ll be honest, I never really understood shame on this level. Now that it’s been simmering within me for the last month or so, I feel the need to share my thoughts that have come out of that reflection. This isn’t easy for me to write nor is it easy to think about.
Let’s rewind about 18 years to my high school days. I remember so vividly how much I didn’t like myself. I needed braces, I was awkward, I tried so so hard to “fit in” and I so desperately wanted to be “cool.” I was unique (see, I’m much kinder to myself today). I wasn’t the fittest girl, but I loved playing sports (specifically volleyball). I never dated anyone because I was never sought after, but that didn’t mean I didn’t have crushes. I cared about my grades unlike most high school students, therefore, I was looked at as a nerdy and a “good girl.” Guess that’s why I got the super fun senior superlative “most likely to succeed” with the principle’s son. I had curly hair and just looked “different.” I was often asked what I was mixed with. I didn’t know who I was. I just existed and my new best friend, shame, made sure I was never alone. How sweet of her! I learned that in a small Georgia town with under 20,000 residents, people didn’t like different. All of this to say, I never really felt accepted or like I fit in. Don’t get me wrong, I had friends! Two of them who I’m still very close with today! Like any great friendship in high school, shame made sure she stayed with me post-high school.
I took shame with me to college. Going to a big college like The University of Georgia, that feeling of not fitting in grew to quite the beast. I made some poor decisions with dating because I honestly was just shocked that a guy liked me. Wow! That was a hard one to write. I had so much going for me. If only I had the confidence to match it. My glutton for punishment was choosing to be with men that really didn’t love/appreciate me. As you could imagine, after each one, I would lose a tremendous amount of confidence which was fuel for that shame. It was honestly a slippery slope that I was riding down on a bobsled.
I remember so vividly my Dad looking perplexed as to why I submitted myself to so much pain and not flourishing into the woman he had hoped that I would become. He would ask me “Nikki, I raised you with so much love and attention, why do you choose to have the opposite?” I never really allowed myself to answer that question because I was wrapped up in situations where I chose to wear a blindfold. I see that now.
That first awful relationship ended and truly only made me feel damaged and unworthy of another relationship. That shame followed me like a shadow. When you think so poorly of yourself, you carry that to yet another bad relationship…and to another, and so on. I don’t believe that relationships are everything, but in my world at that time, that was the poison I chose to medicate my shame.
I was so oblivious to my own shame that it took almost a decade to see such a pattern in my behavior. Now, don’t get me wrong. Today, I am so thankful for those “mistakes.” I am applying quotations because I now know that nothing is a mistake, they are truly learning opportunities. If I had not allowed this shame to follow me over so many years, I wouldn’t be writing this today. Though it is painful to reflect on how poorly I thought of myself which led to one poor decision after another, I have gained so much knowledge about myself, how this shame developed and hopefully gives myself the ability to help others to not bring shame upon themselves or to strip themselves clean of shame before it really grows into a massive spiderweb.
It took a lot of really tough moments over the years for me to slowly realize what I was doing to myself and to find ways to embrace who I was, and who I was becoming. Luckily, there was always this tiny little voice within me (that I ignored 99.999999% of the time) that would occasionally (and persistently) poke me and say “there is something missing here, something isn’t right.” Yeah, I fell apart a few times, but I always wore a smile. Pushed through every tough chapter. I hid it all so well. I pushed myself to finish college and threw myself into hustling in corporate America. Of all the things I could have done, thank God I chose a career to keep some consistency in my life that gave me some meaning despite what I thought of myself.
So, why am I writing and reflecting on all of this? Am I living a life today with zero shame? Absolutely not. And honestly, I’m not sure if I will ever fully rid my life of the shame that I carry with me. I catch myself quite often saying to myself “you are not worthy of this, you carry too much baggage.” Or “they have it all together while you don’t.” However, the fact that I recognize that shame and call it out when it creeps out of its dark corner, I know that I will continue to become better and better at appreciating who I have become and where I have yet to go. I will tell you that I appreciate and love so much about myself today. When shame starts surfacing, I say “I see you have come again” and tell myself “You are worthy.” Today, I am extremely confident in who I am and I love every bit of it! I have all of the right people in my corner who love and encourage me when I need it. I love the woman I have become, no matter the scars that I carry with me. I now say that they are what give me substance.
I also think that our culture was so good at segregating different from what was considered acceptable. No one shined a light on the various forms of beauty two decades ago when I was growing up as an adolescent. Maybe social acceptance would have been the one thing I needed to give me confidence since my first shaming session was created by my difference from those around me. I also was not in the greatest environment that promoted confidence. Note: I don’t blame anyone for that. It is what it is. Luckily, I see that the world today has shifted to fully embracing others and praising them for their uniqueness. I absolutely love that. In some ways, the world is changing for the better and I’m here for it!
I am not perfect. I never will be perfect. I just wish I would have had this strength/confidence 10-18 years ago during those ‘make it or break it’ years. If only I could tell that sweet, precious, innocent little girl to hold her head high and know that she is worthy. Bad habits begin with the smallest actions. We need to encourage and uplift our youth early so they have the tools they need to fight against the biggest enemy we’ll ever encounter, ourselves.
May every little girl be told she is worthy and hold her head higher than high.