When I was 9 years old and was secretly drinking a very sweet orange inside mathematics class, the teacher walked up to my desk and took me to the front with my squeezed orange. When I was 10 years old and wearing a cute yellow gown I liked, and my aunt came to our house and joked “Zee, only skinny girls should wear gowns like that!” When my brother saw a very pressured red lipstick on my lips when I was 13, he became furious and asked, “ what is all this on your lips, go and clean it immediately.” That was in front of people! When I was 14, I was picked with some other students to represent my school in inter junior school competition (pick and talk). I failed to say anything tangible about the topic I picked in front of the audience and the judges. When we eventually got to the bus, the Uncle that followed said, “you! I’m quite disappointed.” I cried my eyes out when I got back home.
These are some very ordinary moments in my life where I felt intense shame. Shame is distinct from guilt because it isn’t about responsibility. It’s about feeling like the very way you are is insufficient and bad and embarrassing. At such moments we feel humiliated, exposed and small and unable to look another person straight in the eye. We want to sink into the ground and disappear. I’ve felt deeply ashamed of failure my whole life, and by “failure” I mean not performing as well as the best person around me.
We have all felt shame at one point in time or another. Maybe you were teased for mispronouncing a common word or perhaps a loved one witnessed you telling a lie. Shame makes you terrified of rejection of any kind. There were so many things I was afraid to do because I was afraid to fail at them. I was always waiting for someone to deliver a verdict about my worthlessness. I didn’t want to share anything about myself because it made me feel so horribly exposed. I was so afraid of other people’s judgement. I was brittle, convinced that the world was inherently cruel. I would find myself in spirals of self-loathing where one bad thought could lead to an entire week spent feeling terrible. It was hard for me to improve because improving means accepting where you are and what you lack, and shame stifles your ability to do that.
I now understand that people will always judge you and that rejection is inevitable. If you’re trying to do something difficult, you need to be strong enough to weather rejection again and again. To be a slave to perfection is a terrible thing because there will always be a gap between the person you are and the person you portray yourself as that you can never close. It means that you’ll be dishonest with yourself and other people in an effort to live up to who you think you need to be.
I want to be able to improve in the ways that matter. In order to do that, I have to be able to live with myself. I have to be able to say: at times in my life I’ve been very wrong, I fucked up all sorts of things, I was lazy, I was a naive sister, I was uncommunicative with friends I loved, I neglected important relationships in my life, I’ve lied, I’ve hurt people. I’m not as good as I want to be at all sorts of things. And maybe that’s a blessing because I have so much room to get better. It turns out that I can be accountable and I can still like myself—I can still believe in my capability to change. I don’t need to live in a permanent state of shame just because I’m a fallible human being.