I got my biggest light-bulb moment about shame when I read the third chapter of I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) by Brene Brown.
The book is about shame and how to deal with it through shame resilience. The third chapter is all about how to build resilience by recognising when you feel shame and understanding what triggers your shame.
To find out your shame triggers, Brown talks about unwanted identities. When people give us an unwanted identity (or we think they’re giving us an unwanted identity, or we give ourselves an unwanted identity), we feel shame.
Our unwanted identities will differ from person to person. Some unwanted identities include: loudmouth, drama queen, uneducated, poor.
Unwanted identities usually come from our culture and upbringing. The most powerful source of unwanted identities comes from our family of origin.
For example, parents may tell their children they need to win at sports and do well at school. So these children might grow into adults who don’t want to be seen as failures.
Unwanted identities don’t necessarily come from our families telling us how we should and shouldn’t be but from what they model. So the children of parents who never take a sick day and pretend they’re fine when they’re unwell might grow into adults who don’t want to be seen as being sick.
So there’s the background to my light-bulb moment.
Brown gives some ‘shame trigger questions’ to help us identify our unwanted identities. Since shame comes from how we see ourselves from other people’s eyes, the questions are all about how we want to be seen and don’t want to seen.
I struggled to answer these. Maybe out of self-consciousness or self-judgement. What right do I have to want to be seen like this or even think about how I want to be seen?
But then Brown said something that made everything click. She said that we judge others when we perceive them to have the traits we don’t want to have.
So changing the question to ‘what do I judge other people most for?’ was much easier for me to identify. Once the words started flowing, I could see how true it was that I didn’t want to have these traits. And I was able to write my list of how I didn’t want to be seen:
I don’t want people to see me as inconsiderate, closed-minded, judgemental, selfish, proud, arrogant, unintelligent, rude.
And from here I was able to write how I do want to be seen, which is naturally the opposite of the first list.
I want to be seen as courteous, always looking out for people, sensitive to their needs, and seeing things from their eyes. I want to be seen as wise, open-minded, understanding, intelligent, selfless, humble, kind, and caring.
And then the light-bulb moment came. As I wrote my list I realised I was describing my sister (how I always perceived her).
My sister is almost seven years older than me and became like a mother to me when my mum moved out when I was six. So with this new shame knowledge, I can look back now and see that I must have looked to my sister as the model of what I should be in life. I’ve never heard a single person say anything bad about my sister. I’ve only ever seen people admire, respect, and like her.
She never once told me I should be this or be that, but by the way she lived her life and the way I felt people perceived her, I took that to be the identity I wanted and felt shame any time I didn’t live up to this.
But it’s an unrealistic expectation that I can be all the things on my list all the time. I’m learning that having an unkind moment or being seen as unkind doesn’t make me a bad person.
Besides, trying to be perceived a certain way doesn’t work because we can’t control how people see us, it’s exhausting, and you lose yourself.
After my identity crisis last year, I don’t want to lose myself again. I’m trying to not worry so much about being liked, and to just focus on being real. Brown’s book and ‘shame trigger questions’ help me to do this.
Hope this exercise gives you a light-bulb moment and helps you be more real too.