Recently, I have been sitting with some feelings of shame. This shame was provoked by a conversation with a trusted colleague who shared with me their very personal pain—pain caused by something I did that was short-sighted and inappropriate, even as my actions were well-intentioned.
I don’t use the word shame lightly. Shame is different than guilt or embarrassment or regret, striking more deeply and causing me to question my own worth and wisdom. And if not addressed healthfully, shame can be debilitating and toxic. But sometimes, shame is a useful moral signal, suggesting that I’m not in alignment with my values.
In this sense, shame is not always bad—in fact, it can be helpful and healthy. You probably know that Dr. Brené Brown has famously written and spoken a lot on this topic and perhaps would disagree with some of my characterizations here. But as my friend and colleague Rev. Sean Dennison* has observed, sometimes “shame is the proper response … and the only feeling that acts as a catalyst for recovery and redemption.”
When I engage healthfully with my feelings of shame, I (potentially) strengthen my capacity for empathy, deepen connections with myself and others and the world around me, clarify my convictions, and re-commit to living my values.
My recent experience qualifies as this kind of healthy shame, motivating me to reflect, to act, and to make change. Healthy or not, though, it still stinks to experience it. Thankfully, I don’t have to live forever in that shameful space. I cannot change what has already transpired, but I do have choices moving forward—choices about how to respond to the shame, to learn from it, allow it to be “a catalyst for recovery and redemption.”
In this situation, I have talked with other colleagues who have helped me make sense of what happened. I have sat with the unpleasantness and discomfort—feeling just generally icky for a day or two. I have apologized to the person I hurt. I have invited others into partnership as I seek ways to repair the damage. I have committed to integrating the new insight into my future decision-making and behavior.
So, yes. I have been sitting with feelings of shame. But the shame does not define me, and it will not be my companion forever. And I am hopeful that its lessons will become a valuable part of me as I grow into an ever-wiser, ever-more-compassionate version of myself.
With love and courage,
* full quote from the Rev. Sean Dennison (January 10, 2021) —
Needs to be said: all you bemoaning “cancel culture” need to understand that some things must be cancelled: hatred, fascism, unbridled greed, the destruction of the earth, insurrection, murder, contempt for the poor…
Also shame is the proper response to those things and the only feeling that acts as a catalyst for recovery and redemption.
Thank you, Paige for vulnerably sharing this. Your personal experience gives us food for thought.
–And I hope that you find peace with yourself fairly quickly as you move forward.
I tend to agree with Brene Brown that shame is more damaging than catalyst, but I find your divergent interpretation inspiring. More power to you as you use it as a “catalyst for recovery and redemption!”
We can love each other, even when our flaws are in plain sight.
Well-said, courageously expressed. Yes shame and courage can expand or contract one another.
As I opened my poem, The Silent Wall of Shame:
Why is it so hard to talk about “shame”?
What makes it the feeling we all fear to name?
How has our “shame” become a straitjacket?
“Shame” must break from that ghost-ridden closet!
Write on, shamelessly, shamefully! Mark
I was deeply touched by your experience of shame, as you described it. I am sorry that your experience was so hard on you — but I am also impressed by your honesty about it. This is a lesson for us all. It’s easier to avoid the shame we might feel — harder to acknowledge that we have hurt another. Thank you for sharing your experience with us on such a deeply honest and vulnerable level.
BTW, I used a quote from you in my course last week — telling my students of our need “to be honest with ourselves about our history” (Jan. 24)” A helpful way to characterize our study of some of the really painful parts of our multicultural America.