Shame on you.

I’ve read a lot of Brene’ Brown over the last few years, a research professor who’s spent the last two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. As a woman in recovery, she explains the topic of shame and its difference compared to guilt in a way that speaks to me. 

Shame is a focus on self, and guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame says, “I am bad.”

Guilt says, “I did something bad.”

The first time I can recall feeling shame was when I was around five years old. Each year my hometown would have a Fall festival, a time for everyone to gather for a weekend of fun watching the grand parade, listening to live music, and enjoying the plethora of beer gardens. Every year they held a beauty pageant on the baseball field right along the 3rd baseline. All the parents and friends of the girls sat in the bleachers on the other side of the chain-linked fence.

That morning I was so excited. I picked out my favorite red and white dress, brown socks, and brown Buster Brown tie-up shoes. My mom did my hair in pigtails with red ribbons wrapped around each one. I twirled around for my daddy as he praised me for how pretty I looked.

We lined up just a few minutes before one o’clock. Since we stood on that dusty baseball field, I made sure to pay special attention to my shoes and wipe off any debris. There were probably six of us girls ranging from the ages of 14 down to 5. I lined up and smiled my biggest smile. My mom always told me I was beautiful, so I knew for sure that I was going to win first place. The announcer started with the introduction. When she would call our name, we were to take a step forward, twirl around, and then return to the line. This went off without a hitch for each contestant.

When the judges made their decisions, it was time to announce Miss Little Town Royalty. 

Third place went to Tonya. 

Second place went to Melissa. 

And first place…

went to Tammy. 

Everyone cheered and clapped as the three girls jumped up and down hugging each other in celebration of their new crowns. I, on the other hand, just stood there, feeling very confused.

Was I in the wrong lineup?

Was there a different pageant I was supposed to be in?

How could this happen?

I was supposed to be the prettiest girl!

A feeling of pure and utter shame spread so fast through me that my face turned bright red. I felt that feeling of not being good enough, pretty enough, or popular enough. I held myself together as my mom approached to walk me to the car. I let the tears flow from my eyes by the time she’d opened the passenger’s door. “How could I not win?” I cried.

There were many more times after that hot day on the baseball field that I didn’t realize the imprints of shame accumulating in my subconscious mind. 

I wonder now about what could or should have happened. Should I have not been allowed to participate in the pageant? Should my mom have had a talk with me beforehand explaining what it means to be a graceful participant?

I would love to say that I don’t like to be in a competitive situation.  But I do love the thrill of it. What I don’t like is this competition was in reference to my looks, and not my talents. There was absolutely nothing I could have done to have win that pageant. But if it was based on my skill in twirling, I just know I would have been crowned!

When I first read about shame, I struggled with trying to apply it to myself. When you’ve spent your entire life stuffing and swallowing down all that muck, it’s a process to pull it all back up again. Yet all my friends who read Brene’s book were raving about how it changed their lives.

I knew it to be something more than, shame says, “I am bad,”or guilt says, “I did something bad.” Until I listened more and learned that shame is that voice in your head that says, “You’re not good enough!”  and “Who do you think you are?”

Wow—now those were two statements I could relate to!

These are those quiet but not-so-quiet voices in my mind.  They’re the ones I hear when I put on a red tight-fitting dress and stand in front of a full-length mirror.

Who do you think you are?

Do you really think you look good in this?

You’re an imposter and everyone knows it. 

I bet they’re going to see you as nothing but a slut.

You’re not good enough.

You’re not pretty enough, strong enough, powerful enough.


Shame shapes the way we think, the way we interact with people, who we marry, and everything else we do. The only way to dissolve this powerful self-conscious emotion is to share the thought with another who can relate. 

Shame cannot survive in empathy.

A lot of places in my book I share about my existence within the grips of shame. When I dropped out of school, I bragged I didn’t need that stupid school, but inside the voice was telling me I just wasn’t smart enough.  When my mom chose not to provide housing when I was still underage, I told everyone I would do it on my own, but inside I only heard I wasn’t wanted.

When a partner would break up with me, I’d tell everyone I wasn’t that into them anyway, but on the inside, I’d hear you’re not loveable. 

When I chose not to become a mother, I honored my decision but instead heard you’re not a real woman.

I wish I could tell you that pivotal point in my life where I put my foot down and said no more to shame.  But as I peel the onion back, I see it in so many areas of my life, even today. I’ve learned that this sort of emotional programming began for me at a very young age and built upon itself. The more I read about it, listen to TED talks, and discuss it with my closest friends become more aware. For me, knowledge is power. I have to know it in order to see it and change it. 

Therapy has played a big part in my recovery and learning to understand why I responded to things in the way I did. I’ve unlearned a lot of behaviors I’d acquired for survival and replaced them with more loving behaviors. 

I’m also constantly looking at the people with whom I surround myself.  These people MUST need to be able to see all of me. And I need to be able to share ANYTHING with them. These are people I call my “Gods in Skin.” Without them, I’d be flailing in the wind. These thoughts would end up taking over and ultimately, I would be miserable. 

And full and shame.