About 15 years ago, I told my therapist about the social isolation I was struggling with. It had been a few years since my mental breakdown, and I didn’t want to be seen by my friends until I felt better. I didn’t know what to say to them, so I avoided them. I was too ashamed of how far I had fallen from my old self.
In the meantime, months passed by. How much longer was I going to wait until I found the courage to stop isolating myself and let them see me? Was I ever going to overcome the shame that was holding me back?
My therapist listened patiently to my dilemma and then said six words that have never left me: “the cure for shame is exposure.”
It suddenly hit me: the very thing I was avoiding was the thing I needed to do. I had it backward: seeing my friends would come before I’d learn to overcome the shame, not after.
But what did she mean by “exposure”? How much of my ongoing battle with mental illness would I have to reveal to them?
In the years that followed, I’ve learned there are two kinds of exposure necessary to deal with shame: being seen and being heard.
Dare to Be Seen
Leaving the house when you’re feeling down is an act of courage. You’re allowing people to see you, even though shame is telling you that you’re unattractive and worthless.
A step up from going for a walk is going to see a friend. Simply being in their presence in whatever mental, emotional, or physical state you’re in will reduce your shame.
By showing up, you’re proving to yourself that no matter how deeply ashamed you feel about yourself and your life, you still believe you deserve to see your friends. When your friends say they’re happy to see you and still care about you, this belief will be confirmed, and your shame will decrease even further.
Dare to Be Heard
Beyond leaving the house and showing your face, you can combat shame by using your voice to share what you’ve been going through. I’ve found that my friends have been far more understanding than I feared when I opened up to them.
Shame tells us that no one cares about us. By finding the courage to open up and share your feelings and fears, you’ll most likely find that your friends respond with empathy and concern. You’ll prove your shame wrong.
The ultimate level of combating shame is to speak your truth on a larger scale to the public at large. I’ve come to believe that the deeper the shame, the broader the exposure needed to set a person free. At least, this seems to be the case for me.
How I’m Dealing with Shame Now
I have taken on the scary but rewarding challenge of sharing my shame about my struggle with mental illness on a massive scale – through public speaking, social media, and my blog. I have moments of fear when I worry it’s a level of exposure I can’t handle. However, when I realize what is gained from confronting my shame this way, I find the courage to carry on.
It’s been a long journey of wrestling with my shame to get to the point where I’m willing to share my story more openly and not hide away as much as I used to.
The interesting thing is that shame doesn’t age: you get older, but it clings to you just as tight until you learn to deal with it. Even after all these years, I still hear that voice in my head saying, “You’re just being lazy. You’re pathetic. If you tried harder, you wouldn’t feel depressed.” Sometimes the value of sharing my feelings with someone else is just hearing an outside voice say, “You’re not lazy or pathetic. You’re doing the best you can. You’re doing great!”
That’s part of what made getting through the pandemic living alone so difficult: I was cooped up with my shame without being able to see friends in person. I had to take managing my mental illness alone to the next level.
For me, this took the form of pouring myself into my writing and sharing myself with people that way. By the end of quarantine, writing was helping me process my shame so much that I found myself wanting to use it to encourage and inspire other people. I’m now in the midst of a career transition to focus on doing just that.
Why Talking About Shame Is More Important Than Ever
Coming out of the pandemic, I believe dealing with shame will be a great challenge worldwide: so many people lost their jobs, their loved ones, their hope. If we can all find a way to share what we’ve been through, it will not only reduce our shame, but it will help the people around us to do the same.
I believe that if we hear other people talking about the things they’re ashamed of, it can help cure us by proxy. We have the power to heal each other. It just takes the courage to decide that shame will not deter us from the deep healing waiting for us when we dare to show the world who we really are.
Now, when I tell myself I can’t see my friends because I’m not doing well with my mental health, I try to remind myself: that’s precisely why I should.
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About the Author: Mel Bender is a writer, blogger, and artist living in Toronto, Canada. She is the founder of the blog the depressed cougar, where she writes weekly posts to raise awareness and reduce stigma about living with mental illness and dating as a mature woman. Visit her blog at thedepressedcougar.com.
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