“I abort everything,” my friend said to me the other night.
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
“First my baby, then my dream.”
“What was your dream?”
“To have a baby. Now I don’t deserve one,” she said.
Shame has a way of growing inside the womb like a fetus, like that baby my friend believes she no longer deserves, because she carries Shame around instead. With enough sick-food talk, by the time you give birth to it, it’s a grown sociopath, wrapping its hands around your neck till you beg for mercy. Shame over that one thing you did or didn’t do, or should have done, or could have done, if you weren’t so weak in character. If you had a kernel of courage. If you were a different person entirely. If you were kinder, more emphatic and had a moral compass that points true North instead of one with a needle that spins around in dizzying circles.
You know, like that PTA Mom. The one you admire; the one you look up to as if she were ten feet tall. The perfect Mom. Wife. Daughter. Sister. Friend. That woman whose world is a fine tuned instrument. She’s the one who has that something that if you had it too, you wouldn’t be lugging Shame around in your womb, waiting for that birthing day, waiting for Shame to kill every dream you ever had, because somewhere, deep down where you don’t dare tread, Shame whispers, “Let me remind you of your mistakes.”
And then a long list follows of where you fall short. You suck at parenthood. I mean, how could you have said that hurtful thing to your kid? Yup. You had to go and pop that movie in so you could make dinner for the tribe. You’re not that great of a friend, either, but you would be if you had more time. How come you can’t manage your time better? And while where on the topic of time, how come you can’t eke out a few more selfless hours to spend with your aging parents? And as a lover? Forget about it. On the sex-o-meter, you come in at about a 2 on a 10 rate scale. Your too-not-something-self curls up inside your own shadow at the end of the day as you get on your knees and make a rock-solid promise that tomorrow you’ll be a better mother, wife, daughter, employee, lover. You WILL be better at your X’s, Y’s, and Z’s.
For some of us, Shame plants its seeds inside the womb later in life after we’ve had ample time to fuck up in some substantial way that’s gossip-worthy. For others, like me, the seeds are planted earlier without our knowing, until one day Shames bubbles to the surface and we cock our head and say, “Hmmm, I wonder where that came from.” This kind of shame is a result of harm that was done to us and we internalized it; we feel ashamed because of it.
It took me decades before I understood when and where and how my first seed was planted. Shame didn’t kill me, but it wanted to. I saw it every time I stared into those black, bottomless eyes. If I jumped into them, I never would have hit bottom. I’ve always been a small person, and as I child, I was barely there at all. I was in the second grade. I wore a red velour dress with a white collar embroidered with Snoopy, and matching red shoes. Three boys stood around me in a circle, pointing fingers, laughing and hurling insults. “I’ve never seen a real midget before.” “Go back to Kindergarten.” “You’re a baby.” “Only babies where red shoes.” “Go home and cry to your mommy.”
I don’t recall where the teacher was at the time, because I crawled under my desk, stared at my ugly little red shoes, and ran a tiny-trembling finger over Snoopy, willing him to magically come to life and bite those boys. But snoopy was nothing more than threads on my collar. So I pulled my knees into my chest, slapped my hands over my ears, and cried my little-girl grief back into myself, where it traveled through my body and planted my first seed of Shame.
That’s the thing about the first memory of Shame, it burns the skin like a hot poker. I fed that seed for a good part of my life, because my child-self had taken that experience and decoded it to mean: “I am small and ugly and insignificant.” Of course I hadn’t connected my later years of being afraid to takes risks, or whip-lashing myself every time I made a mistake, big ones and small ones—of which I’ve made plenty—to that one moment when I crawled under the desk and wanted to scrape my nails against the floor and dig deep down into the bowels of the earth.
I continued to feed my growing seeds of Shame throughout middle school and high school. I opened my mouth wide, like a hungry bird and devoured comments made from my tall beautiful friends. “You ought to wear heels to give you a little height.” “I feel like an amazon when I’m around you.” “Where do you find clothes that fit? You must have to shop in the kids’ department.” “You shouldn’t really wear long skirts; it makes your legs look even shorter.” Though my friends were not trying to stick me with that hot poker, I became that ugly-red-shoed girl under the table, seven all over again, feeling the smallness of my being.
It would not be until I went to graduate school for a Master’s degree in Social Work that I’d be given the gift of understanding Shame, my own and others. I was able to give birth to my Shame and watched as it walked away, leaving me free to believe, to know, to embrace the shining light of my own soul in my small body.
Have you given birth to yours yet? If you haven’t, it’s time. Wherever it came from, whatever you did or didn’t do, whatever was done to you, know you have a perfect, unique blazing light glowing within your perfectly imperfect self.
If you’re willing, share a time of when you remember when your seed was planted.