by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World
One Friday night in 2007, I drove 50 miles to Philadelphia to hear a lecture by John Bradshaw, the author of bestsellers “Homecoming” and “Healing the Shame that Binds You.” He has been writing about shame for so long the Philadelphia Inquirer dubbed him the Shaman of Shame. Despite his world-class credentials, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend an evening learning about this edgy topic when I could be relaxing at home. But curiosity prevailed, and I’m glad I went. The evening’s insights have helped me answer some of the deepest mysteries of my life. My powerful ah-ha resulted from Bradshaw’s simple observation that there are two types of shame.
The nasty variety of shame is the one I have always run away from. This disturbing emotion creates a crashing loss of self-worth. I’ve always hated this feeling so completely that I thought in order to be a good person I had to completely eradicate it from my mind. Experts like Bradshaw believe the self-loathing of shame creates much of the suffering in the world, giving people an excuse to hurt themselves and each other.
The insight Bradshaw offered me was to see that shame also has a positive function. When I see this emotion through Bradshaw’s compassionate eyes I recognize that when it is good, this feeling helps me maintain humility, avoid anti-social behavior, and reel me back from mistakes. Bradshaw uses the analogy of cholesterol, which comes in two forms. The bad one clogs your heart and can kill you, and the good one protects your blood vessels from damage and can save you. This clever analogy has already helped me reformulate my hatred for shame, allowing me to look past its ugly exterior.
This lesson is especially valuable for me now that I am researching my memoir. As I scavenge through the past looking for material, I turn over many rocks, and I don’t always like what I find. My first inclination is to replace the rock and back away. This is an especially enticing option considering the fear, “If you reveal this part of yourself, people will despise you.” If I listen carefully to this warning, I end up hiding all the things that make me human. When I remember my teenage years for example, my mind is clouded by this fear, and I try to stuff my memories back down into the darkness. But I’m tired of running away from own humanity. I want to explore what it has meant to be me. With some exposure to the light, the pain eases and I accept parts of myself I have been avoiding for decades.
Take for example shoplifting. This was especially evil for me, since my dad owned a drugstore. If I thought it through, I would have hated shoplifters. However, as a 12-year-old, I didn’t think it through. And after the deed was accomplished, I didn’t know what to do with the disgust and fear that accompanied each stolen ballpoint pen or candy bar. I buried those feelings, and every time they lurch into view they reduce my sense of self-worth. Nearly fifty years later, in light of Bradshaw’s insight, I look again.
Now I realize feeling disgusted with myself was part of the emotional package that steered me away from that behavior. So now, instead of running away from the memory, I talk myself down from the self-anger, annoyance and secrecy and gradually more details emerge from their dirty hiding place. I see myself furtively glancing over my shoulder. Will I be caught? (How comical that I didn’t know my furtive glances could be interpreted by an intuitive observer.) I listen to my tense, confused, almost dopey thought process, and hear my confusion. “Why am I doing this? It doesn’t feel like me.” I see a young boy experimenting with the rules of property and power. And now I even see hope, because there is an inner voice that is trying to convince me to do better. Shame formerly seemed like a tattoo that would mark me to my dying day. Now I see that it can fade, and I can grow.
While I expand my insight into the relatively innocuous shame of a good boy being bad, there are all sorts memories that can cause memoir writers to shy away from their past, some of them so horrific they seem outside the range of human decency; cheating, betraying, chaos on the battlefield, teenage pranks that went too far, crimes. I recently read a memoir “Ten Points” by Bill Strickland. When he remembered his father’s psychological abuse, he hated not his father but himself. Like many abused children, he thought the situation was his own fault, because if he had tried harder he should have been able to stop the torture. The memories made him feel filthy, and as an adult, he determined to break their hold. His victory came within reach when he realized the horror was “just shame.” Once he found a label, he was able to pry back the curtain and gain control over emotions that threatened to destroy him. His experience is a good example of the positive power John Bradshaw is offering anyone who wants to heal from the pain of humiliation or self-doubt or disgust with their own memories.
I drove down to John Bradshaw’s meeting prepared to face the thing I feared the most. Two hours later, as I walked back to my car, I felt lifted, perceiving hope where there was previously only disgust. I had been given a light that would help me learn from my past, give me more compassion for other people, and would let me share myself with more energy and understanding.
The John Bradshaw lecture was hosted by Acorn, and produced by Dolores Proto, the director of a recovery house in Philadelphia. Learn more about the Acorn organization here: http://www.foodaddiction.com/ This organization runs programs designed to help people cope with overeating, food addiction, and other shame-based addictions.
For writers, shame holds an additional challenge. Exposing one’s writing in public can feel daunting, especially considering that many writers are shy and would rather stay private. If you are one of the people who like me have resisted publishing because of the shame of shyness and self-exposure, or fear of rejection, see the section in my How to Become a Heroic Writer book about Going Public.
Click here to see my full review of Bill Strickland’s memoir, Ten Points.
For brief descriptions and links to other posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
Jerry, I was always ashamed of my own past, of being an abused and abandoned kid. I didn’t say anything to anyone for the longest time. I was even ashamed of being on the road with KISS and the other bands, thinking I’d be seen as some kind of hippie freak.
And then my brother outed both of us in Running With Scissors. And of course, I outed us even more in Look Me in the Eye.
And you know, the things I thought were shameful, others found inspiring. The reception I got was totally opposite what I expected and most of my own sense of shame has melted away.
Thanks for sharing your observations about shame. It’s interesting to hear about how the shame melted away after you were outed. For most aspiring memoir writers, these tricky decisions have to be made BEFORE we out ourselves. It’s also interesting that your brother’s exposure of your childhood opened doors. This could be inspiring to other people who are nervous about sharing family stories.
As far as working for KISS, I would have thought that would be a big credential. I guess I’ll learn more when I finish your book. I’m only about 35% through it. Be aware that on a blog about writing memoirs, you are no longer the guy working for the superstar. You ARE the superstar. You are also an impressive marketer. Your persistence in putting the word out about your book ought to be a model for anyone trying to share their story.
Well, with respect to being a star, you should find that inspiring. Because, after all, I have no prior book writing experience and I just sat down and told my story.
I don’t really feel starlike but I do feel proud and good that my book seems to be so important to so many readers.
As to outing yourself . . . if it’s hard doing it on paper, join a group like Alanon or something . . . try outing yourself there. You will probably get a similar reception. Environments like that are good places to try out bad (shameful) topics.
Thanks for the “Turning over rocks” metaphor. It’s a good one for the process of writing any story, fiction or non-fiction, memoir or personal essay or whatever genre. Turning over rocks is the exploring to see what’s there, and when we find ourselves wanting to put back the rock and ignore what we see under it, that’s a definite clue that there’s a story there. Whenever I find myself with that impulse, whether what’s under the rock is what dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov said in response to a question I asked him in an interview for a magazine piece or a memory I recently encountered in writing a personal essay for an anthology on nature and sex, I sit with it for a while and see what it has to say to me. then I decide whether it’s part of the story I’m writing. Whether I use it or not though, I’ve learned something. And learning is a big part of why we write.
Thanks for the comment Susan. As a nature writer, I suppose you really do spend time looking under rocks. I see on your website you are giving a workshop on how to use nature to jumpstart creativity. What a lovely idea!