When shame swallows you whole

Brene Brown calls shame the master emotion. Knowing how shame works won't save you from the crushing darkness. How can you break free once you're trapped?

*Trigger warning: Shame. In Brené Brown’s book, “Rising Strong“, she talks about how we live in a culture that tends to hide the ugly middle parts of our stories. Everyone likes a hero, but we’ve become a culture that doesn’t really honor the pain and mistakes and the struggles that happen when someone is in the middle of their story. For me, a big part of being a sex coach is modeling vulnerability and sharing my journey as a way to demonstrate that all of us are always in process and learning.

I had a few trusted colleagues and friends read this post, and while their feedback was overwhelmingly beautiful, a few also found their own shame triggered by reading about my shame. I invite you to take care of yourself as you read this and process. Be gentle. Allow space for your feelings. And reach out if you’d like to share anything.


 

Want to know something bizarre about me?

Vulnerability is a space that I’ve come to crave.

I know this makes me an outlier.

Most people cringe at the thought of being vulnerable, at opening themselves up to hurt, ridicule, failure, and pain.

It’s not that I’m emotionally masochistic (maybe I am a little bit), but that every single great thing that’s ever happened to me occurred after I allowed myself to be vulnerable and then found the courage to do the thing anyway.

Being vulnerable has allowed me to experience the most profound depths of intimacy, love, connection, gratitude, and transformation.

Studying Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability and wholehearted living, along with other amazing thought leaders like Tara Brach and Seth Godin, has not only inspired and influenced the work I do with my clients, but it also afforded me a sense of security against experiencing my own shame.

After all, if I understood shame, if I knew how it looked and how it felt, if I studied the way it impacts us and how to overcome it, then shame would be easier to avoid, to identify, and to elude, right?

The truth is shame will find you, no matter how much you know.

Shame will grab you and do everything it can to crush you.

Shame will find a way to hold you under the water and no one will ever know you’re drowning because the amazing thing about shame is it tricks you into silencing yourself when you most need to scream for help.

In “Rising Strong“, Brené Brown’s newest book, she says, “…shame crashes over you with such force that you go into do-or-die survival mode.”

She goes on to say, “Ironically, I always warn people not to be seduced into believing that they can manage these moments simply because they’ve learned how they work. We call shame the master emotion for a reason.”

I was genuinely surprised when I recently realized that I’ve been drowning in shame for well over a year in my relationship with my partner.

What’s worse, is in the tiny moments when I spotted glimpses of my shame, I felt deeply ashamed of feeling that shame because as a professional, I should (there’s that word) know better.

And so I hid.

I silenced myself.

I shrank, wished for a different reality, and through all of that resistance, suffered tremendous pain which, of course, fed my shame even more.

Each of us have different shame triggers, and many of us have one or two primary triggers that we carry for most of our lives.

One of my shame triggers is a nasty little voice that likes to whisper how unloveable I am.

Most of the time, that voice is a distant, nagging irritant that I can acknowledge without feeding it. We have found a way to live fairly harmoniously.

It’s an on-going process for me to remind myself I am worthy, I am enough, I am lovable, and it has gotten easier with practice to hold this knowledge inside of me as a truth.

I started to see cracks in my lovability as I fell more deeply in love with my partner. I began to internalize a dialog that told me I wasn’t living up to his expectations.

We have an open relationship. My partner identifies as poly, and I identify as non-monogamous.

When we first started co-creating this relationship, I had a few other lovers and non-monogamy felt pretty easy. As my feelings for my partner, who is simply extraordinary, became more important to me, something started shifting.

What once was easy was becoming crushingly difficult.

I started talking to myself about snapping out of it. I began a daily routine of speaking to myself like a drill sergeant.

Figure this out. Find out what’s holding you back. Name all the ways you’re insecure and start fixing them. Do more self-care, dammit! That’s not good enough. You’re going to ruin this amazing relationship. Get with the program.

That’s still not good enough.

You’re not good enough.

If you know the difference between guilt and shame, you can see how that last one is when things took a turn for the worse.

What made it more complicated is that I also live with PTSD from sexual trauma as well as anxiety.

But as a sex positive professional who is surrounded by folks who easily and naturally practice polyamory and non-monogamy, I felt utterly and completely alone.

I started wincing every time the word “poly” got mentioned.

I pulled inside myself and scrolled as quickly as I could past articles extolling the virtues of non-monogamy.

When my partner went on dates, I felt like something inside of me was dying, but knowing just how important our relationship structure was to him, I would only disclose smaller versions of my truth.

I would buckle down. Work harder. Dig deeper. Find a way. I could do this on my own.

Because I was convinced I was a failure, and who wants to show the world what a total and complete failure they are?

That’s when shame won.

Shame wants nothing more than your total and complete isolation. Shame salivates over your panic. And the thing shame loves more than anything is when you feel shame about having shame.

Oh yes. In the world of shame, nothing is more elegant and perfect than a shame spiral.

This deepening sense of worthlessness and dread nurtured itself inside of me for nearly a full year.

I started feeling like I was reaching my breaking point – which honestly sounded like: I will just end things. I can’t make him happy. I feel miserable about what a fraud I am. I’ll just pull the plug and save us both.

All of this despite the fact that my partner and I have one of the most accepting, trusting, passionate, communicative relationships on the planet. Because it wasn’t about him, or about us.

It was about me, being trapped under the weight of my own shame, and trying to disown my story without facing it.

I was resisting my truth.

Shame can drive us to do horrible things. Shame can traumatize us, harm us, and lead to depression, anxiety, and even violence.

Then, I had the fortune of having a perfect storm of circumstances force my shame out into the light.

First, my partner and I had pretty significant miscommunication that threw us into the deep end.

Second, I attended a workshop on shame by the glorious Charlie Glickman at the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit. Being confronted by so much information about shame, and also hearing so many people in the room express feelings and thoughts that echoed my own, I began to realize what was happening to me.

Third, I did what I do best, and I leapt towards what felt most vulnerable. I moved into my discomfort and had a series of scary conversations, ending with a raw, brutal tell-all one night with my partner.

I was inconsolable in my grief and pain, but as I started to drag my shame out into the light of day, it began to shrink.

We worked through that conversation together. My partner holding space for my truth, inviting time for me to share my feelings – even the really ugly ones. He offered me such grace and patience, which in turn allowed me to start to treat myself with the same amount of kindness.

For weeks after, I felt lighter than I had in months. Certainly, I still felt tender and raw, unsure of what this new world meant for me, but I felt seen and heard. I felt proud that I’d faced my deepest fears.

I felt my self-worth returning, but this time it was stronger and more rooted in my sense of self than ever before.

Because we’d been to hell and back and learned something powerful in the process.

As fate will do, shortly after all of this unfolded, an article landed in my lap that beautifully captured so much of what I’d been struggling to find words for. Even better were some of the comments.

My favorite comment spoke directly to the fear I’d been carrying for so long. The story I’d been telling myself was that if I couldn’t make myself look like everyone else who does non-monogamy, then I was a failure.

The comment, in part, said, “Every poly relationship is entirely unique to the individuals involved. In every relationship, poly or mono, we make allowances for the strengths and weaknesses of our partners…If I choose to be in relationship with you, I accept you as you are, and then will negotiate a relationship that works for us rather than one that works for someone else.”

Message received, world. Message received.

Shame only thrives in darkness. So, by sharing our stories and discussing our pain, we can begin the process of healing. Together.

Shame can show up in many different ways for each of us, and when it does, you feel like you are entirely alone in your struggle.

My shame shows up around my body, my talent, and my lovability. You may not have any shame in these spaces at all.

We can feel shame around parenting, or success, or money, or our education.

But where so many of us experience a great deal of shame is around sex and intimacy – the way our body looks naked, especially if it’s changed over the years; the way we experience orgasm (or not); the fantasies in our head; the things that turn us on; the fact that our bodies or our desire may not align with what all of the mainstream magazines and movies tell us it should be.

Every mention of the thing that we feel ashamed of can trigger more hiding, more yucky feelings, and more fear.

What makes shame even worse is when a partner shames us for something we are already struggling with – like watching porn or masturbating.

Though shame in very tiny doses can help us make changes, the kind of shame most of us experience is far beyond what’s healthy.

When we feel ashamed, we pull within and try to bury our truth. The deeper we push it, the more controlling and powerful it becomes.

No relationship can thrive when shame is sitting at the head of the table. No person can achieve wholeness when they’re weighed down by shame.

So, I do not take it lightly when I suggest that you find a way to come to terms with any areas where you are experiencing shame and share your fears with someone, because I know how profoundly difficult it can be to admit these things to yourself, much less utter those words to someone else.

Start with a therapist or a coach. Call into a sex positive podcast. Write a letter to someone you trust. Write a letter to yourself, even.

The bottom line is that you are valuable, powerful, beautiful, and normal just as you are. Shame will hide that truth from you and tell you horrible stories about yourself and your worth.

So, I’m inviting you to share your shame with me. Just as I’ve shared mine with you.

Let’s start a movement of dragging our shame out into the light and aligning with our truths, even if they’re terrifying.

If the people in your life cannot accept you when you’re standing in your truth, then the sooner you figure that out, the sooner you can build a new life, find new loved ones who do. And then that’s when the really good stuff unfolds for you.

It gets easier.

Just do it.

Dare greatly.

Whatever motto or movement inspires you, I implore you to shine just the tiniest of light into the darkest corners of your shame to see what happens.

You may just find that eventually you can fill those once-haunted spaces with love, gratitude, joy, and acceptance.

And whatever happened with me?

Well, by speaking my shame and giving my fears a voice, I started experiencing immediate relief. I’ve connected with other non-monogamous folks, shared my story, listened to theirs, and I’m finding new growth and acceptance where there was pain and suffering. My partner and I are co-creating our relationship, each and every day, and we have a vision for something uniquely our own. And yes, that vision includes non-monogamy.

If you’d like to share your experience with shame, I invite you to comment below or shoot me a message. You can even do it anonymously if you aren’t quite ready to make yourself known.

You deserve to let go of the stories that are not lifting you up.

If you decide to voice your shame with a partner, make sure you set both of you up for success by choosing a time when you’re both present and relaxed, when you can ask your partner to hold safe space for you, because you’ll probably fumble it a bit.

And that is OK. It’s part of the process. You’ve got this.

[callout title=”Work with me” link=”https://www.dawnserra.com/work-with-me/” class=”hb-aligncenter”]Your desire, your fantasies, your voice deserve to be explored and heard. I’m here to help. [/callout]

 

  • Catherine Bohan Opel

    Wow, that was really great. It is hard to be that open and honest. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you for reading and stopping by, Catherine! Yay.

  • Kelsey Obsession

    Thank you for sharing this, Dawn. I think we really need to talk about these things, to share the difficulties because we all go through it. And thank you for inviting responses. I’d like to share a recent story of mine:

    I attempted a project that was intended to help me and others explore our sexuality, and for me to learn how to better communicate during sex to get what I want. For about 560 reasons, it didn’t work out. I felt deeply ashamed because I put myself out there as a porn performer in order to DO this project, and was terrified I’d made a huge mistake, I should never have tried, and stuck because I still haven’t learned the thing I thought I was going to learn. I did some similar things as you, trying to secretly fix things, making invisible & impossible deals with myself.

    After several years of beating myself up, going deeper and deeper down that shame spiral, I started researching anxiety and discovered that my actual ‘problem’ is that I still suffer a LOT from the social phobia and selective mutism (inability to communicate in certain situations) that was diagnosed when I was age 4. I had no idea because I had framed all these experiences on the basis of my low self-esteem – “xyz happened because something’s wrong with me,” or I’m not perfect, I’m not good enough, I’m stupid (that’s a HUGE one), etc… NOT because my body went into fight-flight-freeze due to a trigger (what really has been happening). I would become so anxious at the prospect of asking for sex, that whether I asked or not I got the same result. Even if I asked and he did it, by that point I was so out of my body from anxiety I couldn’t enjoy it. It felt like I just had to hope that he would do what I needed at the right time, and the longer things went like that the less often that ‘just happened.’

    Shame and social phobia go hand-in-hand – I will freeze when I feel shame or potential judgment or dislike from a partner, especially under perceived pressure (like during sex when I want what I want, but I also want them to continue having sex with me). My relationship got to the point where we were barely speaking to each other, and are now in the process of reconnecting. Its not how I thought things would happen at all, but I’ve learned a lot.

    Ironically I now have the opportunity to complete the project, but I’m coming from a different mental/emotional place. My ego is still deeply bruised and I still feel the shame and embarrassment, but knowing I have my partner alongside me now, its getting easier bit by bit.

    • WOW. Kelsey, thank you so much for your vulnerable share. I have selective mutism following a series of sexual assaults and rapes, and that inability to speak in certain sexual situations is royally frustrating and othering.

      I am so happy to hear that you have your partner’s support and that you’re reconnecting. It can be such a bumpy road. Shame is a nasty beast. You are brave and glorious and so inspiring.

      • Kelsey Obsession

        WOW right back. Thank you so much for sharing that with me, I’ve never heard or read about anyone else experiencing this (I’m sure they do, they’re probably just not putting it out on the internet where I’d see it). I’ve only ever heard of SM in childhood, but it makes perfect sense it could grow out of trauma. Mutism is so isolating since you can’t explain what’s going on. Thanks so much, I feel better knowing I’m not alone.

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