Safe from Shame

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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12 thoughts on “Safe from Shame

  1. I think ‘shame’ is just a way for some people to control others and feel better about themselves. ‘SHAME ON YOU!’ said at various times by parents, teachers, friends, religious leaders, the public,…. I think perhaps the ones who say it most may be a bit jealous about what it was you did!
    I was brought up in the 50’s and 60’s and whoa, there sure were problems growing up at that time by parents who were raised by very strict families, involved in restrictive religions. Imagine going through Catholic grade school and high school, it was obvious we would go CRAZY when finally away to college! My favorite prayer at that time was ‘THANK YOU GOD!” I am finally free.
    So, good for you Colleen, you have worked hard to remove yourself from societal and religious criticism. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to have parents who were loving, open minded and accepting?
    Whay do you say Drew? How did we do? We sure are proud of our two children!

    Kate Jacob

    • Hey Kate, I actually do have a great, accepting father. He just picked very poorly with one of the women he married!

      And having only met one of your children, I can say you two did pretty darn good with him. Sometimes, I think he has enough self-assurance for two or three people. :)

    • Dear Kate: I have to say something and that is, I believe and know you have done an awesome job raising two beautiful and respectful people that I am honored to have known. I’ve always been envious of Drew because of the excellent relationship you have! My parents came from the generation of the 20’s/30’s, so I was raised with a lot of emotional distance and strict religious rules, I can relate to how you must have felt. When I finally entered college it was a big breath of freedom! I just want to say you are a great mom.

      The world needs a lot of moms like you.

  2. In answer to your questions (ones I have thought long and hard about):

    “Have you struggled with the same issues Colleen talks about?”
    I most related to the state of being bi-polar, especially when it comes up while I am feeling emotionally off and fear an episode coming on. I feel like I have to over-explain and apologize to people, especially ones I’ve just met, in desperate attempts to gain their understanding. I’ve long been rejected and bullied for being too emotional and too fat. It has led me to hide from the public. It takes extra efforts to get outside and interact with people, but it is not impossible. Sometimes all it takes is finding a place and people I am comfortable with, somewhere I can be myself no matter what I look or seem like.

    “Has criticism, shaming and shunning made you doubt yourself, or are you the type that isn’t so strongly affected?”
    I hate to admit it, but, yes, it affects me more so now than it ever did before. I think I used to be able to ignore it more when I was younger because I had the emotional support of a boyfriend and a group of friends to hang out with — safety in numbers — or so I thought. After losing friends and several family tragedies, relationships become more precious, so anyone who steps up to leave over a petty reason or over a disagreement hurts me to the core. My closest relative is my younger brother. We are estranged now for six months over him accusing me of lying about something, yet he won’t indicate to me what it was about, so I can’t correct the mistake I made or apologize until he opens up to me about it. Meanwhile he pretends like I don’t exist. A very painful thing considering we lost our mother two years ago this month.

    I believe shunning is the worst thing you can do to someone. I’d rather deal with someone who out right criticizes me because they give me something concrete to fight back with. If someone shames me, I think it is usually over a misunderstanding, so I try to solve the problem or make it up to them, that is, IF I did something wrong to be ashamed about. But like shunning, SHAMING someone is also very cruel. My father likes to shame me in public for being overweight. He’s from a generation that thought shaming would get someone ashamed of their self enough that they would do everything they could to make a change in their life. Instead, it just makes me feel worse and less inclined to change.

    “How do you deal with it?”
    In public, I pretend it doesn’t affect me at all. At other times, I bend over and weep. The tears come hot and fast, and it’s only after weeping that I have enough of a release of pain to clear my head, relax, and remove myself emotionally from the situation. I use Dialectical Behavioral Therapy techniques, including meditation, to control myself, yet I still feel the pain, I just don’t allow myself to suffer more than I need to. I then distract myself with a detailed project that will take up a lot of time and energy for me to complete, something completely unemotional. After the distraction, I return to review the situation and can better deal with it reason. I usually discover I am not deserving of the shame and shunning the other person dealt me, that it is their own bias that was the problem, not my own. And that most of the time it is all due to misunderstanding. I know in my heart I do nothing with malice or false intentions within my heart. Also, I am not a liar, yet there are times when I tell tall tales to impress others to get them to like me more. This is forgivable, yet it catches up with me, and I am usually the one that feels more embarrassed. The worst shame is the shame I put on myself, that takes longer to lift. But even I could be wrong about deserving that shame.

    Colleen’s quote: “Just knowing that the people who are telling you to be ashamed could possibly be wrong is an incredibly empowering idea.
    …it all starts with the radical belief that you don’t have to be ashamed.”

    Really moved me to tears because there are times when I am caught up in feeling ashamed, especially when I feel I am not good enough to be friends with someone whose work and writing I admire. Every time I write in my blog with the idea I have to aim to be “perfect” I will make mistakes, leave holes in my logic, and will fail at my goal because I am too concerned with proving to someone else that I am worthy of their approval. Why be so concerned with being accepted? It’s out of fear of losing a friend due to a mistake, misunderstanding, or out of revealing to them I am flawed. The result of my attempt to do what I think they expect leads to me not being myself and, ultimately, not being true to the friend I am desperately attempting to impress.

    Despite my flaws and miscalculations, and so on, I don’t have to be burdened by shame. The feeling of shame and rejection interferes with my creativity and cancels my joy of life. I may not be able to stop others from unfairly singling me out over something they do not like about me, but what I can do is not let it get to me, still feel sorry that they don’t like me, and just move on being the awesome person I’ve been hard at work at being. It is of no use letting shame hold me back!

    Thank you for a very thoughtful interview. It gave me great pause to think and remember not to let shame get in my way anymore.

  3. Valentina, thank you for such an honest response. I’m glad that the interview was able to help in some way. The shame from those we love can often be the hardest to walk away from.

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