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.