You got knocked down, but don't stay down!
What a shame!
How often do we say this when we hear about something unfortunate that's happened to someone?
Think of the last time that your confidence took a hit — maybe you lost a job, had a lover break up with you, or failed at a business venture. If you lost a job, was your first reaction to get your resume out and go look for something better? Or, was it to worry about what others would think of your predicament?
Quite often the hardest part about experiencing something difficult is our worry about social stigma, or what others may think. If we feel ashamed, we might not want to tell anyone about it to avoid being seen as a failure, bad, wrong, or unworthy.
I was at the gym several years ago, using one of the treadmills. It was a busy time of day with several others occupying the various machines. I was jogging along at a pretty good clip when my foot hit a drop of the previous user's sweat on the mat, slipped on the rubber, and before I knew it, my knee and chin had hit the mat and I was on the floor! I remember the feeling well. Not only was I in pain, but I noticed all of the eyes on me from all around the room, and I became instantly aware of just how many users were there who I was sure were so much better than me! Oh, the humiliation! I made a quick beeline to the women's shower room in search of a private stall so that I could sit down and assess the damage — without the expected stares and snickers from the other gym members.
In truth, this could have happened to anyone! And honestly, those who were close to me really said, "Are you okay? Can I help you?" But, I was too caught up in my own embarrassment.
The problem with shame
When our reactions to the mishaps of life are constantly focused on what others may think, rather than the next productive step, the biggest problem is that we may avoid the very things that will help us to ultimately get past the crisis successfully.
Shame, embarrassment, and humiliation can stop someone in their tracks. Look at my situation at the gym. I stopped my workout just a few minutes into it — not because I was in that much pain, but because I didn't want others to "see" me, or to think I was a klutz!
Shame or fear of social stigma can lead to all kinds of avoidance behaviors. It thrives in the face of secrecy, silence, and self-judgment. We stop sharing or share just parts of our truth with others. I see it in my counseling practice after it has turned into depression, anxiety, phobias, panic, and thoughts of suicide. Why? Shame is the sense that "I am not okay the way I am. I am bad or flawed."
It's not about you, it's about the behavior or event.
At any point along the way, we can fix it. When we change the way we look at a mishap and see it as a mistake, or an unfortunate event that could happen to anyone, rather than as a personal flaw, we begin to head down a healthier path.
We move away from shame when we find validation and empathy, or someone who says, "That happened to me too, and it sucks," or, "Yeah, I did that once!" When we open up, and talk to others, we will find more and more evidence that we are not alone in our bad experiences.
Most of us even learn from our mistakes if we aren't caught up in shame. I got over my embarrassment at the gym and learned to always check the treadmill and dry it off before I use it. I've lost a job and rather than go with my initial feelings of shame, I dusted off and updated my resume — allowing me to find something else.
Shame and trauma
It is, sometimes, more difficult to overcome the shame associated with traumatic situations, such as child sexual molestation, wartime military experiences, or even addictions but the principles are basically the same. Being able to open up, become vulnerable, and share these hard, shame-provoking experiences can help free us from the stigma and sting of these memories.
How we can help
Maybe the next time we learn that something bad has happened to someone, we might consider what our words imply. We might want to say, "I'm so sorry!" which is validating, empathic, and could nudge the person away from shame and toward healing. Or, "Something like that happened to me too," to show they are not alone, but still honoring their unique experience. Our words and our attitude can truly help our friends, along with offering a listening ear.