For those of you just tuning in, this series is about leaving a life of should. You know—I should be this, I should do that—we’ve all been there. So far, I’ve talked about doing what you should to impress or please that one person in your life you will never please. For me, it was my dad. The last segment was heavy, where I talked about the impact of being raped as a young teen and how I saw myself in the world and the decisions I made because of it. This segment is about shame. I know, fun, right? Stay with me though. I promise you won’t feel shamed by reading this, but quite the opposite. It may even help you let go of some of your shame.
Let’s first clarify the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is “I did a bad thing,” shame is “I am a bad person.” I was trapped by shame most of my life, and it kept me in a cage. I didn’t tell anyone about being raped at age 14 or any of the other bad things that happened to me because I thought they were my fault. I buried the trauma deep inside until I would no longer think about it. I put it in a box and then wrapped it in layers of pleasing other people and doing what was expected of me.
Because of this shame, I thought, unconsciously, that I had to prove my worth to everyone, so I sought to please everyone around me. Exhausting. I was masterful about hiding my shame and putting on a happy face to the world, and all of my opera training made me a fantastic and believable actor, especially to myself. I was really convincing—that everything was great except when I was by myself, which, trust me, I avoided. As long as I was surrounded by people, as long as I had an audience, I could put on a show for the world and myself. But left alone, the misery seeped up to the surface, and I would cry unendingly without knowing why.
The sadness and shame that dwelled deep inside me could not stay buried forever. In my mid-30s, I was a pastor’s wife living in rural Illinois in the parsonage across the parking lot from the white clapboard church, and my life was intolerable. I was thoroughly depressed, but still putting on a show: the perfect voice teacher/opera singer and pastor’s wife. Driving back and forth an hour to Dubuque every day to teach voice lessons, I was alone with my thoughts, and they weren’t good. If it weren’t for my responsibilities and my affectionate kitties at home, I probably would’ve driven off one of the bluffs of the Mississippi. Instead, I decided to do something about it.
In 2007, I started therapy in Madison. At first, just showing up to the sessions was a big deal, and initially I was still trying to pretend that everything was fine. The added benefit was coming to Madison. Here I found I could breathe deeper and, for the first time in my life, I felt as though I were home—even though I had never lived here before. I felt like Madison was a place where I could be myself, whatever that was.
After more than a year of intense therapy and coming to Madison every other week, I finally admitted out loud that I had been a victim of rape and violence as a young person. This was huge for me. I had never talked about it to anyone. In fact, if you had asked me if I had ever been a victim of anything, I would have said no. I didn’t ever want to be a victim—I wanted to show the world that I was strong and happy so people would like me.
At first, I wrote about what happened to me, and then, eventually, I was able to say it out loud to my therapist. That admission would change the course of my life. The shame of what had happened to me held me in vice grips that wouldn’t let go. Stuck in the darkness of my shame, I thought it was my fault. Once I admitted it to myself, I felt a weight lift off of me. Over time, I realized that I didn’t do anything to deserve what happened. I saw the same truth with other things that had happened to me, and that is when I learned that shame only exists in the darkness. Once I talk about what happened to me, I can free myself from shame.
My journey of finding my true self and freeing myself from a life of should was far from done at this point, but I can say with certainty that if I had not acknowledged my past to myself, I would have never found my true self and my true life.
What things don’t you talk about that happened to you? What life experiences do you avoid even thinking about or think are your fault? Is there any event that has a grip on you from the past? If so, as is true for most of us, talk about it, even if it’s just to the blank page in front of you. Shame is a jail cell we create for ourselves, and each of us have the key to unlock it. Tell your story! Fly! Be free! For me, this was the first and most important step of letting go of who I should be and finding the true me.
Sandy Eichel is a happy ex-should-er.