Have you been told you’re not worthy? Do you ever feel ashamed about who you are?
Today I interview Colleen Palmer, proprietress of Safe from Shame. Colleen has walked a challenging personal journey untangling the shame, self-doubt, and guilt in her life. As she began to free herself, she saw that she’s not the only one who needs to know they’re worthy of love and respect. And she dedicated herself to helping others see that they, too, are good enough.
Drew: What exactly is Safe from Shame?
Colleen: I’ve described Safe From Shame as a safe space and a welcoming community where anyone can participate without worrying about feeling ashamed or embarrassed. My hope is that it will serve as a comfort for those who need to hear that they can actually be proud of who they are, a resource for those ready to live a life without shame, and a supportive community where no one feels alone. It starts with a blog, but that’s really the least part of it.
It’s also a place where it’s safe to be anonymous. It’s hard to put yourself out there and admit to being ashamed. Sometimes the only way to feel safe is to feel anonymous, so I’m ignoring all the marketing advice out there, and letting my community decide how comfortable they are in sharing. In the end, I hope that’s what this becomes: a place to share your own story, and have it be received as a valid, and valuable, contribution.
You’ve dealt with issues of shame in your own life—can you talk about those? How did you face it and how did it lead to this site?
I don’t think I could pinpoint all the ways in which I’ve dealt with shame. Sometimes it’s little things, like being embarrassed to approach someone I don’t know, but ashamed that I don’t have the strength to do it. Sometimes it’s big things, like being bipolar, or surviving an abusive step-parent and an abusive marriage. The first thing I learned was that I didn’t actually have to be ashamed—that the feeling of shame was a choice. I’m a pretty analytical person, so after that I went through the times in my life that I’ve felt ashamed, and really examined why. Did it make sense? Had I really done anything to be ashamed of? Did feeling the shame actually change my behavior in any way?
I’ll be honest: I needed help. I was working with a therapist and I realized how important my partner was to the whole process. No matter how hard it got, I had someone that I knew loved who I was. If I respected her opinion, and she loved me, well, then I could probably find a way to love me too. She has to say it a lot—you don’t just magically wake up not feeling ashamed about a particular trait anymore. I realized that everyone needed someone to say “you’re fine as you.” And to say it as many times as necessary. So I decided to say it. Over and over again, as many times as someone needs to hear it.
At what point did you decide to start helping others deal with their shame?
Once I personally realized that shame was something I could deny, I was jubilant. I wanted to start loving all of me. I went through my past beliefs and looked for where they had come from and why I had them. I was so proud! Here I was, finally finally learning how to be a functional human being that actually felt like she deserved to draw breath.
And while I was going back to those old experiences, it hit me that I couldn’t have been the only one that felt that way. I certainly am not the only person to survive abuse, and I’m not the only introvert that feels like society has no place for me. As I re-experienced the pain of feeling so deeply mired in shame, I realized that there was someone out there who was still feeling that way. I didn’t know who she was, but I knew how she felt. And I knew that I had to do something to reach out to her and let her know that she didn’t need to feel that way. I wanted to help her learn what I had learned, without taking 30 years to do it.
Has your partner had similar experiences? Was she an influence on starting Safe from Shame, or is it a solo project?
My partner and I actually are fairly disparate in this regard. She is not quite as thin-skinned as I am, and her experiences as a child and young adult were significantly different. I’ve asked her to discuss some of the things she’s dealt with on the blog, so you may see some writing from her, but this is primarily a solo project. She is definitely in support of it though—even when it keeps me up all night writing!
Is shame ever a good thing? Isn’t it a part of our moral conscience?
I actually do believe there’s a place in society for shame; I just believe we’ve all gotten carried away with it. Shame stems from ritual shunning, and in tribal societies, it was a literal death sentence. It was also necessary for the tribe as a whole and acted as a means of disciplining behavior that put the community at risk. The same remains true today; shaming is a powerful tool for keeping communities safe and functional. If you are pursuing an action that is harmful to your community, then you ought to feel ashamed about that. Too often, however, we use shame to try to correct behaviors that have no bearing on anyone but the person doing them.
While I don’t personally like alcoholism, for example, if you want to drink in excess every night because that’s what gets you through life, then it’s not my (or society’s) place to shame you. The minute you get into a car and put other lives at risk, it becomes an action you should be ashamed of—you’re putting your pleasure above someone else’s safety. That’s a harmful act. But if you never endanger anyone else, and you drink yourself to an early death? I wish you wouldn’t, and I wish you felt you had other options, but I’m not going to say you should be ashamed.
Is Safe from Shame aimed at a certain group or demographic?
Not intentionally. I don’t think there’s any segment of our society that is free from being pressured to feel ashamed. In practice, I suspect it will appeal most to women who have had similar experiences to mine—at least in the beginning—because that’s what I tend to write about. I have hopes that my community will step up and broaden that scope. I can’t write in anything other than the abstract about the shame that men in our society face, for example.
There are also people that don’t need to hear the message that you can live without shame, either because they have great self-esteem and don’t burden themselves with shame, or because they’ve already found their own way out. I would still encourage those people to read the site. One of the things writing Safe From Shame has done for me personally is to make me aware of the ways in which I was unconsciously shaming other people. Safe From Shame doesn’t just mean safety from the shame that you feel, but also learning how to keep from adding to the shame.
Are some people (or types of people) more resistant to shame than others? What makes the difference?
I think some are. A lot of it, I suspect, has to do with the temperament of the person. This is in no way scientific, but I would guess that introverts tend to be more susceptible to shame, because we keep our feelings so tightly inside that we sometimes think other people couldn’t possibly be feeling what we’re feeling. Extroverts tend to “talk out” their problems. When you find you’re not the only one struggling, you start to feel less isolated.
It also has to do with what your society considers normal. Right now, there’s an entire set of “rules” you get taught growing up, from the gender you’re supposed to be, to how you’re supposed to relate to other people, to what makes a real family. If those rules change, you might suddenly find that the shame changes or stops. So those in various counter-cultures tend to be more susceptible to shame as well. When I was a child, for example, red hair was not considered exotic and beautiful; it was just weird. I was teased a lot for something totally beyond my control. Some time between junior high and now, red hair became prized, perhaps even because of its rarity. I now find more people mention to me the many wonderful personality traits redheads have. Sometimes, it feels hard to live up to!
Shame is a very personal issue. How do you decide how much of your own private life to put into your writing? Do you talk about personal matters a lot?
I find that I use myself as an example in almost everything I write. First, because I want my readers to know that they’re not alone. Secondly, I want people to know that I’m not just talking in the abstract. I’m not someone who’s never felt shame who’s suddenly decided to tackle a societal ill. I’ve felt the sinking despair that comes with believing that you have no worth.
It’s actually very, very hard for me to talk about all the ways I’ve felt shame. I wind up feeling ashamed that I felt shame, which is entirely counter-productive. I imagine a reader sitting there thinking you were ashamed about that? Chick, you’ve lost it. And then I think about the person who’s where I was, and I write it anyway.
So, for those who struggle with shame right now, what’s the best way to get started?
The process of internalizing the fact that you don’t need to be ashamed. That doesn’t sound like much at all, but it’s vital. For so many years I felt ashamed because I believed I should. I bought into it. Just knowing that the people who are telling you to be ashamed could possibly be wrong is an incredibly empowering idea. Once you really, truly believe that, you can being the work of putting the pieces back together and learning how to love being yourself again. And once you do that, you can start changing what you want to change. Not because someone tells you that you should be ashamed, but out of a genuine desire to help this person that you are be even better. But it all starts with the radical belief that you don’t have to be ashamed.
Find more stories, community + conversation at Safe from Shame. A question for Rogue Priest readers: have you struggled with the same issues Colleen talks about? Has criticism, shaming and shunning made you doubt yourself, or are you the type that isn’t so strongly affected? How do you deal with it?
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