Measuring The Weight Of Our Shame

Names have been changed to protect their privacy.

28.02.21

I knew it as soon as I walked through the front door and saw her standing in her kitchen. 

I was carrying sushi for the both of us in one hand and had the miso soups balancing precariously in a takeaway drinks tray in the other; my car keys and phone were tucked awkwardly under my armpit. And Lucy was carrying everything else.

I mean, physically she wasn’t holding anything. But her face and body language looked as though she’d just returned home from one of those stupid Outward Bound trips parents send their kids on “to find themselves”. You know, the ones where rebellious teenagers are forced to wade through rivers and mud for six hours, consume copious amount of bug spray and OSM muesli bars (the heroin of the snack aisle), and somehow reconcile seven days without WiFi? Lucy looked as though she’d just got back from one of those. Except she’d forgotten to take the tramping bag off her shoulders. She looked… depleted. As though someone had gone into the home that lives behind her eyes and found the master switch box and taken a pair of scissors to all the cords. There was a heaviness and an emptiness cohabitating within her, which I know sounds weird because those are two opposite things but that’s the only way I can describe it.

After some gentle probing (and no less than sixteen pieces of sushi), Lucy finally took off her bag and showed me what was inside. She unpacked all of the grief and guilt and, most of all, shame she’d been carrying around for the better part of two months. Some of it I knew about (doubts she had over her career; worries she had for her family; question marks over relationships), but a lot of it was stuff I’d never heard her say before. And one of those confessions involved me. Or, at least, Lucy knew it would involve me as a consequence of what had happened. And sure, I’ll be transparent here and say that it made me feel a little sad and insecure – as bad news usually does. But I had two immediate thoughts in quick succession: Firstly, Lucy’s guilt around what had happened didn’t make me angry at her – it actually did the opposite; it reminded me that I love her. That her heart and intentions are inherently good. And secondly, my discomfort over what happened in no way warranted the weight of the shame she’d made herself carry as a result of it.

The most confronting part wasn’t what Lucy had done but how heavy her shame was. How heavy she’d decided it needed to be. The weight of her shame was completely disproportionate to the things she’d done and the people she’d perceived herself to have let down. 

The thing about shame is that it’s almost never productive. Guilt, on the other hand, can be! Guilt serves a function in that it urges us to live in alignment with our belief system, and it points out when we’ve behaved in a way that counters those beliefs. Guilt is basically proof that you’re not a bad person – because a truly bad person wouldn’t think they’d done anything wrong. (Never forget that, by the way). By contrast, shame is when your brain tells you that you are a bad person. Shame tells you that you’ve failed or fucked up or are falling behind. Shame keeps you stagnant and insular and closed off from the world. And it stands in the way of everything good in life: Of joy and connection, of pursuing your dreams, of feeling pride in your accomplishments, of having good sex.

For the overly self-critical, next time you find yourself weighed down by a decision you’ve made; an indiscretion that you’ve attached a kettlebell of shame to and stuffed inside your backpack, it may be worth asking yourself: 

Is the weight of the shame I’m carrying proportionate to what I did? Could I lessen this weight by giving myself some grace? Or, better yet, could I simply put this shit down and walk away?


Header image via Tumblr