Shame is always easier to handle if you have someone to share it with.- Craig Thompson
Suzanne sat on a bench in the New York City subway waiting for her train after work. She had a 45-minute wait. She found a bench out of the main traffic isles thinking it would be a little quieter.
It reminded her of a different day about a year before when she sat on a similar bench in Paddington Train Station in London. As she thought about that day she was overcome with shame. Her eyes moistened. How quickly life had changed. She wished she could have a redo.
That day a year ago, she had pre-ordered a book and was notified that it was in. She stopped by the bookstore on her way to Paddington.
She had read several pages when an older gentleman sat down beside her and tried several times to strike up a conversation.
After a few brief exchanges of pleasantries, she began to respond more tersely. With a gentle smile, he got up walking away.
Thinking back she could still see his face. He had a pleasant smile, but his eyes looked lonely. She saw a glimmer of sadness go across his eyes as he got up.
On that fateful day, she met another man on the train, a man about her age maybe a year or two older. The train was full. He approached the seat beside her where she had piled her things trying to avoid a repeat of earlier. She wanted to read.
As he motioned to the seat, she picked up her backpack putting her book inside. They talked as the train sped to her destination. As fate would have it, they got off at the same stop.
He invited her to dinner at a local diner. Her book now totally forgotten as the hours passed.
He was in London for three months on a business trip from New York. He had subleased a flat just a few doors from hers. Soon, they spent most of their off-hours together.
She thought back to the day when he asked her to move to New York where they could continue their relationship. It was the day before he was due to fly back to New York. They made plans to meet in a month. He gave her is apartment address, company name, and address, everything she thought was necessary.
They said their goodbyes that night because his flight left early the next morning, with the promise to call or text every day.
The calls came the first week then began to fall off. At first, she was very disappointed and questions went through her mind. Her calls weren’t returned. He didn’t call. When they did connect he explained that he had to work late and it would have been too late or some such excuse.
She sent emails and text messages about her arrival plans. He called saying he would meet her at the airport. He had arranged a sublet for her sending her all the pertinent information. He said the refrigerator would be full and he’d be in the airport when she arrived.
Her friends and family warned her not to move, but she was so sure about this relationship, she brushed their concerns aside.
Shortly after arriving at the airport, he called saying he wouldn’t be able to make it and told her to get a cab to the apartment.
She found a temporary job, but she never heard from him again. His phone had been disconnected. The apartment address he gave didn’t exist. The company where he supposedly worked had never heard of him.
Now, she sat on a different bench waiting for the subway. She felt the loneliness that she had seen in the older man’s eyes just a year before. She didn’t know a soul in New York other than the few people she worked with.
The loneliness felt like such a shameful experience, especially because of the way she had treated the older gentleman. She felt invisible, miles away from anyone she knew. At the same time, she felt exposed, like everyone was looking at her. She dressed differently. She talked differently. She felt like she stuck out like a sore thumb.
It seemed to get worse. She withdrew from talking to anyone unless she had to. She avoided calls from family and friends in London, ashamed to admit she was wrong. She was all alone.
Facts About Shame and Embarrassment
In today’s culture, we hear a lot about shame and shaming. Exactly what are we talking about? And how does shame relate to embarrassment?
Embarrassment is a response to something that threatens to change our projected image. It results from a socially unacceptable act, which may not be morally wrong. It is the result of a public act that others know about. It does involve a degree of loss of dignity, depending on the situation. Embarrassment may or may not be self-caused.
Shame is morally wrong and maybe accentuated if it is exposed. It is also attached to a thought or action that remains hidden and undiscoverable to others. Embarrassment can be intense, but shame is a more substantial feeling because it is connected to our character not just our image.
Shame comes from measuring our actions against moral standards and discovering that they fall short. Shaming comes when our actions are noticed or made public.
Shame comes from “to cover.” It is often accompanied by a gesture to cover the brow or eyes, a downcast gaze and a slack posture, which convey remorse and contrition.
People with low self-esteem are more prone to shame because they are harder on themselves. They may also try to defend against the shame by blaming someone else. Unfortunately, this often leads to deeper shame.
It had been months since Suzanne had arrived in New York. She seemed to sink lower and lower into loneliness and shame. She couldn’t bring herself to call anyone in London. When she’d get a call she’d text back that life was amazing and she’d call later, but never managed to make that call.
Suzanne sat on the same bench waiting for the subway. A lady slid in beside her.
“Hi, my name is Mandy. I’ve seen you sitting on this same bench for a couple of weeks. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to come over.”
Suzanne raised her head and gave Mandy a semi-smile then continued watching the bug on the floor.
“I’ve been attending a woman’s group for women who are lonely. I noticed you sitting here. I’d like to invite you to go with me. Please.”
Suzanne raised her head again and looked at Mandy, “How do I know you’re telling me the truth?”
Mandy pulled a printed brochure out of her purse and handed it to Suzanne. She continued talking about the group and the ladies in the group while Suzanne looked at the information.
“When is the group?”
“In a couple of hours,” Mandy replied. “It’s the next stop on the subway. I’d like to buy you lunch while we wait. We meet next door to the best pizza shop in New York. I really would like to do this. Do you have something else to do tonight? It is a Friday night.”
“Okay,” Suzanne said, “Will I have to say anything during the meeting?”
“No, not unless you want to.”
Suzanne found a chair near the back. As the meeting began to start, she was surprised when Mandy took the chair next to her. During lunch, Mandy talked about her arrival in New York and how she found herself alone. Suzanne listened intently but didn’t divulge any information about her arrival. She was still feeling intense shame.
The leader began to talk about taking off the armor and exposing our hearts and how our egos want to keep our hearts encased in armor, no matter the cost, to avoid feeling “less than” or unworthy of love or belonging. She continued to state how shutting down doesn’t protect us from shame, disconnection, and isolation. In fact, it guarantees them.
Suzanne hung on every word. Mandy reached over and took Suzanne’s hand, “It’s okay. I’ve been there also,” she said when Suzanne looked at her. “We can help.”
The leader continued. Shame is referred to as the “never good enough” emotion. It has the power to make us feel that we’re not worthy of connection, belonging or even love. She went on to state that we need to “speak shame,” identifying and telling the shame story. Then, deal with it in an appropriate way.
The leader told her story how she’d play the incident over and over in her head while trying to forget it happened. She said this strategy doesn’t work well because it only causes emotional and physical reactions like facial flushes, stomach tightening, which led to further disconnecting.
She stated that she formed the support group because she found it was more effective to tell her shame story to someone who understood instead of holding it inside. She gave the metaphor of shame being like a culture being grown in a petri dish, the more she kept it silent and in the dark, the more it grew. Exposing it to the light of day by telling someone else, it seems to lose its power and begin to shrink.
As we learn to tell our stories, we learn to be more empathetic, to listen and not judge others. She continued, “Most of us in this room realize what is at stake when someone chooses to share their shame stories with us. We know the damage that can be done by greeting such a story with judgment instead of empathy. So, if there is anyone who needs to share your story to start your journey of healing, find someone. They will listen with empathy.”
Mandy squeezed Suzanne’s hand but didn’t push.
“Mandy, can I tell you my story,” Suzanne asked with tears running down her cheeks. “I’ve carried it for way too long.”
Shame causes the disconnect between people and between a person and God. The disconnect is where we get the statements, “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not_____________ enough.” Shame is the result of an act that is socially or morally unacceptable. It does not depend on someone’s personality traits. It is usually the result of an individual act that is unknown to others. It is an act and the emotion behind that act that the person carries with them down deep inside.
Isaiah 41:10 “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Remember, connecting is a choice. You don’t have to remain stuck in the shame situation. Find someone to talk to.
God loves you right where you are and exactly as you are. When feeling shame or regret, forgiveness could seem out of reach, but God wants to give you forgiveness, and all you have to do is ask. He wants to be a place of rest and understanding in your time of need.
As we learn to connect more with God that feeling of shame goes away. God takes the shame and replaces it with His love. The disconnect comes when we don’t feel loved and accepted when we feel ridiculed and made fun of, but when you are relying on and depending on God’s love it allows you to overlook and move beyond the shame.