Could Surgery Remove My Shame?

Image shows a rich red theater curtain, closed and brightly illuminated.

I have read that the nightmare of standing on a stage, under bright performance lights, as the curtain rises and realizing that you are stark naked is more common than people imagine.

Realizing the shared nature of that horrible dream should ease my shame around the stupid mistakes dotting the landscape of my life. But it doesn’t.

My knee-jerk reaction when the memories of screwups float to the front of my brain is to dig a hole, crawl inside, and pull the dirt in on top of me. So programmed am I to feel shame about my mistakes that this vision of self-inflicted live burial is my go-to.

Did I mention how screwed up I am on this topic?

It’s epic.

A few times (twice, to be exact), life almost convinced me it wasn’t worth living.

The road back from a shame-dominated life continues to be long and winding (hat tip to The Beatles). Some days, weeks, and months are better than others. But the struggle to own part in my failures without damning myself as someone beyond redemption will be with me for the rest of my life.

And I am increasingly okay with that. Particularly with some of the literature on the subject currently available.

I’ve just reread (for the dozenth time) one of my go-to books on shame and failure; Brene Brown’s “Daring Greatly.”

If you have a pulse and have ever (!) experienced a failure (come on now, do we need to make a list), then I recommend this book to your reading list.

In the meantime, here’s my take on some of Ms. Brown’s highlights:

Guilt and shame are distinct emotions often used interchangeably, but they have specific characteristics and effects.

Guilt is feeling remorse or regret for something one has done or failed to do. It is a feeling directed at specific actions or behaviors rather than the person. It is a normal and healthy emotion that helps individuals recognize when they have acted in a way not aligned with their values or beliefs. Guilt can motivate individuals to make amends for their actions, apologize, and take steps to prevent similar situations in the future.

Shame, on the other hand, is a feeling of worthlessness or inadequacy. It is a negative emotion directed at the person as a whole and not specific actions or behaviors. Individuals who experience shame internalize negative beliefs about themselves and their abilities. They may feel that they are fundamentally flawed or that something is wrong with them. This leads to feelings of isolation and a lack of self-worth.

A critical difference between the two is that guilt is a feeling repaired by action, whereas shame is a feeling profoundly ingrained and can be much harder to overcome. For example, if someone feels guilty about lying to a friend, apologizing and being honest in the future can help alleviate that guilt. However, if someone feels shame about their intelligence, nothing will repair that feeling.

Another difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is a feeling that is typically shared with others, while shame keeps a secret. When an individual feels shame, they may hide their feelings and avoid sharing them with others or, as is my habit, isolate myself. When an individual feels guilty, they may seek forgiveness or apologize for their actions.

Guilt and shame are distinct emotions that are often confused. I do it all the time, fueling the struggles I mentioned above (think gasoline on a lit Weber grill).

When we fail at something (relationship/marriage, business, drugs or alcohol, gambling, money management, dieting, working out, a promise made, etc.), most of the time, only those directly involved know about our misstep. While we imagine the entire world knowing our secret, very few do.

I wasn’t so lucky.

Mine landed me on the evening news with the story smudged across social media, leaving me nowhere to hide. Remember the nightmare.

If I can leave you with the seed of an idea today, it is this; there is life after failure.

It’s not always easy and certainly isn’t simple, but the path to building a new life and filling it with purpose, passion, meaning, and reward is possible.

I’m writing this on a snowy Monday morning, sitting in the library of my home overlooking the Medomak River. A fire roars in the fireplace, the Walt Whitman Overture plays on the radio, and I am living a life I had, at one point, thought had been forfeited.

But new dreams are possible, and with diligence, humility, and a lot of grace, there is life after failure.

Fair warning. You will hear that phrase from me regularly.

It’s part of my purpose. It’s part of my dream. The in this dream, I am fully clothed.

Complimentary Coaching Conversation

After a public shaming over a business mistake, I lost everything. Over the next four years, I fought my way back to hope, joy, and a vision for the future. Today, my mission is to help others who, just like me, had been knocked to the ground by personal or professional failure.

Each month, I create a handful of opportunities to show up for hurting individuals who are serious about radically changing their life. I provide judgment-free conversation that helps you stop feeling like a failure.

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