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Confronting the silent epidemic of Shame


‘Shame’ was a word I often heard during my teens. It was mostly my mother who used it, and always in the context of “Have you no shame?” I hated hearing that word, as it was only used whenever I had done something that did not meet her expectations. During those moments, I’d feel visceral sensations pulsating through my body, and all I’d want to do was simply run and hide. The thoughts racing through my mind would be ‘I am not good enough’ and ‘I am a mistake’.

Shame and vulnerability researcher, Dr Brené Brown, defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Growing up those painful emotions and beliefs where present whenever I felt out of synch with my environment. I felt it on those occasions I did not join the other boys in playing football and simply wanted to jump rope with the girls. I felt it when I did not want to watch an action movie, but instead wanted to read a book. I’d developed alopecia when I was ten which made High School a nightmare with all sorts of name calling and bullying. The beliefs that went through my head included ‘I am damaged’, ‘I am broken’ and ‘I am flawed’. I learnt how to cope with those beliefs by escaping into my imaginary world and the land of science fiction. During this period, I started to recognise that I was not drawn to girls, the same way my male friends were. Instead I had a growing curiosity about boys. I did not know anyone around me who felt this way and came to see it as even more evidence that there was something wrong with me.

Whilst others may not have gone through the same experiences as mine, as gay, bi and queer children and adolescents, many of us have had moments where we did not feel in synch with our environment. In those moments, as meaning making beings, we draw conclusions from that experience. For some, the initial belief might have been ‘I am different’, and the conclusion from that – following other experiences – might have led to beliefs such as, ‘I am a mistake’, ‘I am bad’, ‘I am disgusting’. The list is endless. Those beliefs are devastating and a natural way to cope with them would be to find some strategy to suppress or escape them.

For me, I gradually learnt that, in order not to feel the impact of those painful and uncomfortable beliefs, what I had to do was learn how to meet the expectations of others. In the words of Brené, I became very good at “Hustling for worthiness.” I learnt that, in order to feel worthy and good enough, I had to please, perfect, perform or prove myself. Whenever a particular strategy did not work, I’d simply find another and then another. In ‘The Velvet Rage’, Alan Downs reiterates the essence of ‘the hustle for worthiness’: “Famished for authentic validation and without a reliable sense of self-direction, he develops a sophisticated radar for those things and people who will make him feel good about himself.” In ‘Straight Jacket’, Matthew Todd, gives his own take, “We can’t be gay and average or, God forbid, below average. We should be rich and/or beautiful with a perfect body, excel in everything we do, be lousy with talent, have exquisite taste in everything and also impeccable style; we must be either comfortingly masculine or camp in a way that isn’t threatening, or is at least amusing; we must make an effort to fit in. I think many of us have become overachievers who are tortured by crippling perfectionism because we think this is what we must do in order to survive.”

These survival strategies and ways of hustling do not disappear as we grow up. For many of us, they simply become a more complex and ingrained way of dealing with the pain of any limiting beliefs beneath the surface. For me, as time went on, those behaviours became a core part of my navigational system and identity. Hustling became second nature. Things came to a head fifteen years ago, when a significant relationship ended. During the months I was mourning the end of our time together, I confronted the fact that I had spent most of the relationship pleasing and performing to keep the peace with my partner. I felt that if I showed my true self I would be rejected and that would confirm that I was unlovable, not good enough and unworthy of love. I started to think back to previous relationships, friendships and how I had been with my parents. I noticed there was a pattern to my behaviour, and so began my inquiry to reconnect with the real me – the person I had long abandoned and forgotten.

What I have learnt in the work I do with gay, bi and queer men on The Quest is that many of us need to have some form of disruption or breakdown in order to pause and take stock of the stories that have shaped us to become who we are today, a catalyst that will invite us to delve into how shame might be unconsciously navigating how we are living our lives. Otherwise, if our coping strategies are working and giving us the results we crave, our conclusion could easily be that ‘all is fine, there is nothing wrong, I am happy’. Observers of our lives might also draw those conclusions, as they will not see the beliefs driving our behaviour.

I often hear straight people in the UK say, “Well, gay people can now get married, there is more visibility of LGBT people on the screen, younger people are more accepting of difference and many people are now quick to call out homophobia, what is the problem?” Well, the data consistently tells us that there is still a problem. When we look at issues around anxiety, depression, loneliness, and substance, sex and alcohol addictions, they disproportionately affect gay, bi and queer men compared to their straight counterparts. Matthew Todd writes, “Many of us have suffered from years of post-traumatic stress disorder, every type of addiction known to man, obsession with beauty and success, crippling anxiety disorders, eating disorders, depression and isolation. Perhaps we think that if we admit to these things they would certainly be used against us by those who seek to deny us equality as proof that homosexuality cannot ‘work’ (never mind that all these phenomena are present in every part of every society, regardless of sexual orientation).”

In addition to the years of ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ that Matthew describes, there is also the crippling effect of the silent epidemic of shame in our lives as gay and queer people. Engaging in a conversation about how shame affects the lives of gay and queer people might lead some to the conclusion that it’s the same as someone saying, “I am ashamed to be gay.” I am making a distinction between the two. When we look at the synonyms for ‘ashamed’, we have – apologetic, remorseful, mortified, humiliated, which are different. Another definition used by Brené is, “Shame is the fear of disconnection.” Fear that, if I show or express my authentic self, I will be rejected. I see a clear difference between ‘ashamed’ and ‘shame’. I believe that it is possible not to feel ashamed, and yet feel shame.

In her research, Brené talks about the ‘1, 2, 3’ of shame – we all have it, no one wants to talk about it and the less we talk about it, the more we have it. There is indeed something about the word ‘shame’ that can trigger an emotional and mental reaction. It can feel shaming to have a conversation about shame, and equally shaming to acknowledge feelings of shame. And yet, if we do not have these conversations about shame, we never get to explore what lies beneath some of our behaviours and release ourselves from any pain that might be holding us hostage. I don’t believe it’s possible to bypass this process. If we attempt to do so, those stories and their associated pain simply lie dormant, waiting to be activated when we are triggered by the ebb and flow of life.

For us, as gay, bi and queer people, it is important that we find benevolent witnesses with whom we can share those moments from our history where shame has been the driving force underlying our behaviour, witnesses who will listen empathetically as we talk about what shame feels like to us and what triggers it. Healing comes from those conversations. This does not mean that we immediately become transformed and shame no longer rules our lives. Instead, we gradually start becoming more conscious, responding instead of reacting. With time, the intensity of the shame we feel starts to shift, the frequency reduces and the length of time we feel it shortens. Sadly, not going beneath the surface and breaking the silence of the shame epidemic means being trapped. In the words of William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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