A Study of Shame
by Lucie Kavanagh
“Guilt, of course, is feeling bad about one’s actions, but shame is feeling bad about oneself.”
― Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion
Recently I told a friend who hadn’t known me at the time, about my mental health difficulties in recent years and how, because of them, I had lost my job. I started the story in a matter-of-fact way but surprised myself at how quickly the telling of it became intensely difficult. I couldn’t understand exactly why. The events are over 5 years ago now and long since accepted and processed. But what I forgot was that the feelings around still lingered and the greatest of this was and is, shame. Taking myself back to that time brought with it the intense shame and guilt, along with the many, many thoughts of how I could/should have handled things differently. Shame likes to play around with hindsight and of course, it tends to come hand in hand with mental health difficulties. We judge ourselves; we sense or experience judgement from others; we see or hear it around us and it all gets internalised. Shame can start at a very young age, particularly when it comes because of trauma. If we have no one to confide in, or no words to explain, or even no support to say them, we are left to hold something that is simply too heavy. It’s easier to be angry at ourselves than someone else. Shame becomes all encompassing. It is a greedy emotion.
Silence breeds shame. If we can’t name our experiences or feelings about them, shame can quickly take over and I think this is why difficult events in childhood make us particularly vulnerable. Guilt we can sometimes do something about, particularly if there’s an event we can make amends for, or even study to see if we need to or not. Shame is too inward and too hard to get at without help.
In the aforementioned conversation, my friend was shocked, and her shock made me feel deeply uncomfortable. I felt myself back in that devastating conversation with my employers, wishing I could make myself invisible. I could see the envelopes on the table as I chatted over a coffee to my managers about my recent medical assessment. I could feel my heartbeat banging in my ears as I tried to appear calm and think of something useful to say, something that would make them not give up on me.
But then suddenly something changed. They became emotional. They started saying how hard this was for them. They handed the envelopes to me. They told me I could come back and do voluntary work when I was ready. They thanked me for my years of service. I remember as they got up to leave, I tried to open my mouth to call them back. But I couldn’t. I remember just sitting, wondering if it had all actually happened or if I was having some strange breakdown and imagining things.
My GP rang a solicitor there and then that evening when he heard the story, but I couldn’t get my head around why. In my head, it was all my fault. The solicitor clarified that my employers had done nothing wrong legally…but that their actions were completely morally and ethically wrong. It took a long time to really hear that.
“They should have protected you,” my friend said, “they could have asked you beforehand to bring someone to that meeting.”
But that’s how it was. I was ashamed and, in my shame, I couldn’t blame an organisation for wanting rid of me when I couldn’t even manage to get myself back to the workplace. But it’s the little things at the time…the comments about my diagnosis, the lack of any sort of accommodation that might have helped, the feeling of being a nuisance, the feeling that the people I had known for so long viewed me with embarrassment. It’s those things, the awkwardness, the nuances in speech, and the silence that make me look back with shame and sadness on a career that I loved. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I never actually was in trouble for anything. I wasn’t well. I’m never quite sure what to call it – a breakdown? A culmination of things? But does it matter in the end? I was unwell just as much as if I had sustained a serious injury or physical illness. But I wasn’t treated as I would have been if I had had either of those things.
“I look back quite often and think if only I had tried harder, fought harder, looked for advice, worked harder at it.”
“But you did,” my friend said. “You were having therapy and treatment. You were doing everything advised. You were keeping in touch with work. You did everything they asked you to.”
The sad thing is that my entire career got coloured with those months. The fear that I have always lived with, of not being good enough, of simply not being enough, manifested itself in a real and terrifying way and for a long time, it felt, this was how it was going to be. But sometimes we need to challenge the shame and the silence around it. If they exist alongside a difficult story, then finding someone we trust to tell that story will challenge the shame. Call it out. Sometimes talking about it will clarify the areas that were and are not our responsibility to carry. Imagine if someone else told you the things you are ashamed of and how you would respond. We tend to treat others with a lot more compassion than our own selves. Sometimes I try to imagine that I am hearing the above story from another person. This is how I reply:
Mental illness can happen to anyone at any time, and no one deserves to be treated punitively as a result of it. If you are, please feel free to use the words of the solicitor that greatly helped me when time allowed me to really hear them.
It is morally and ethically wrong.
And you are always enough.
“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”
― Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
If you are having a tough time at the moment and need to reach out for support, please contact any of the following