I’m not ashamed, but I was until I talked.
I connected in a private chat recently with a real character from my memoir. I was intrigued when I learned that we each held a different memory about a shared experience from many years ago.
That we remembered events differently wasn’t too surprising, but the disputed memory wasn’t the crux of the interaction. What stood out instead was the person’s discomfort with having the discussion at all.
“But we were just kids. Can you put on your objective hat and have a conversation with me about it?” I asked.
“No, I don’t think I can.”
“It’s really important to me that I represent the truth in what I write,” I said. “If you were to read the published work, I’d want to know that I got the story right.”
“Part of the problem is that I wouldn’t even want to be named,” they said. “But that’s not the only reason.”
With my writing in such a preliminary stage, I don’t even know if the scenes with this person will make the final draft. So, I thanked them for the interaction we’d had, we politely wrapped up and moved along with our lives. I didn’t ask for an explanation of their reasons—which could be many and varied—but it got me thinking about when people are uncomfortable opening up. In my experience, there’s one giant, glaring thing that has kept me quiet. Shame.
In fact, I began writing memoir to explore my shame and the impacts of holding it all in. But, as I wrote, I realized that many of my stories involve other people. To share my memoir publicly will mean a long process of seeking permissions from people like the character above. And some of them may not be comfortable with my peek into the past.
My instinct says loud and clear that I’d be doing a good deed by releasing old messy bits and bringing them out to examine and process. I suspect that others would eventually feel released from their shame too, but I’m concerned of how they might feel driven further into it in the immediate. There could be a run on counsellors if I ever publish!
And perhaps I won’t publish. Perhaps the unburying of old stories will be too painful for people, and I won’t want to be the one to deliver that pain. Perhaps it’s not my role. But with a lengthy work-in-progress, it’s still too difficult to know which characters will survive—literally and figuratively—the final draft. When I get to that point, I will be very curious to approach each living person and see how my writing lands for them. Perhaps re-living a few moments from the past won’t be a problem for them at all. Some might even enjoy it.
But I realize I may have an advantage because I’ve been doing a lot of hard work on myself already. I have purposely pushed through some massive hurdles to free myself from shame. First through writing. And then by talking. In my experience, talking was the only way through it. And talking to the right people is what mattered.
When we share our stories, we expect to produce a reaction in the listener. We hold things in because we’re afraid of what that reaction might be—the words or tone that could make us feel worse, more defective, less worthy. Those voices can send us further into shame as they stick with us and continue to beat us down. That fear keeps us quiet.
But sharing with the right people can have a profoundly different (and positive) effect. I’ve been so lucky to have kind people reflect back to me. Each time I’ve told a story that I felt bad or uncomfortable about, the listener was able to see the event through a different lens. When they offered their perspective, it often led to me shifting my own view of the event and how I saw myself in it.
I feel so defective for doing that. “How do you know that your action wasn’t actually a good thing at the time?”
I’m so embarrassed that happened. “You were just a kid experimenting.”
I can’t believe I did that—I’m so weird. “I can’t believe you did that—you’re so brave.”
I’m sorry I said that awful thing to you. “It was what you thought and felt at the time. I respected your honesty.”
I couldn’t tell anyone—not even you. “That’s a difficult thing to bear by yourself for so long.”
I’m grateful to have been surrounded with such empathetic listeners. Thank you. Thank you for recognizing my shame and helping me move away from it rather than deepening it. With your support, I’ve learned that I won’t actually be struck down by … (parents, peers, God, judgmental people, lightning, etc.). I feel lighter. More accepted. More whole. More me.
I’d love it if everyone could set shame aside and shine with who they really are. All those parts of our past that make up who we are now. I lied. I cheated. I stole. I said hateful things. We can admit those actions and see how they shaped us to know better and do better. We don’t have to dwell on them, but they don’t have to dwell inside us either.
Write it. Tell it. Share it.
Not to expose yourself but to reveal yourself.
Not to hurt your parents but to show them who you are.
Not to chase your friends away but to widen their view.
Not to shock people but to connect with them in an “I feel like that too” moment.
Because you’re definitely not alone. You only feel alone because so few people talk openly about their shame, leaving so many stuck inside their heads, thinking nobody else would understand. Move beyond shame. Find the right people to open up to. Be the whole you.