Sharing the Shame
Mortified: connecting with others to find relief from shame
When I was 15, I wrote some pretty silly things in my diary (because I was 15). When I was 17, I went back through those entries and edited them, leaving critical comments about my intelligence and maturity as a 15 year old. Actually, a big chunk of the beginning of the diary is torn out because my 17 year old self was too disgusted with what she read. Reading through these entries the other day I was tempted to go back in and edit the edits with some fresh critical comments aimed at the 17 year old who was obviously being a jerk. Sometimes it’s hard to accept ourselves exactly how we are or how we were. It’s easy to judge, criticize, feel shame, and attempt to re-write history. But if I can’t be messy and immature in my diary, where can I be?
So, why was I reading through my high school diary? Because last weekend I got onstage and read it out loud in front of hundreds of strangers. I’ve been doing this for 6 years in a show called “Mortified”. Hundreds of people across the country from all walks of life choose to participate in Mortified. I’ve been struggling to put to words exactly why we do this and why the shows are always sold out, but as I develop as a therapist, I see how the entertainment value of this show is tied to our desire to connect with others and to find relief from shame. In fact, the show’s motto is “share the shame”.
Many of us spend our angst-filled early years and beyond believing that we are completely alone in our struggles, alienated from our peer groups as we try to define who we are. We desperately try to fit in, and in the process we limit the amount of space our authentic selves can take up. Even now in my Mortified performance I am putting on a show, looking for laughs, and oversimplifying myself for the sake of telling a good story. But through sharing, we can learn that the rejection we feared doesn’t always come. In fact, the kind of responses to my “act” I’ve received over the years and the warmth and compassion that fills me when I see others sharing on stage is healing.
It turns out, I’m not the only one who obsessed over the wrong guys and cried while listening to Third Eye Blind or felt confused about whether or not I wanted to try smoking weed. And even if you cried while listening to a different band, there’s a bonding in realizing that we all have stuff—we all know excitement, fear, rejection, bliss, humiliation. Many of us have looked back at past versions of ourselves in the form of acne-faced photos, neurotic diary entries, school plays recorded on camcorders, essays about The Scarlet Letter we wrote for English class and imagined that this particular snapshot is an accurate representation of who we were and who we are now. Shame is the voice that takes this momentary snapshot of our messiness and makes up a story about us: “you’re [fill in the blank—ugly, stupid, selfish, unlovable], always have been, always will be”.
Deeply moved as I was by Brene Brown’s popular TED talks and books on the importance of vulnerability in combatting shame, I began to notice this theme arising in other places. As a culture, I think we are trying to deal with shame. In May NPR’s All Things Considered did a story about a West Philly charter high school that is working to prevent school violence by focusing on empathy building rather than guards and metal detectors. Part of that curriculum includes an assembly where students actually “stood before 500 peers and shared their greatest fears, frustrations, and insecurities”. Believe it or not, sharing led students to actually feel closer to their classmates and more safe at school. They didn’t feel so alone.
This isn’t to say we should just start saying everything. Or that we need to share our deepest issues with strangers, on stage. We need to feel safe and to discern who we share with based on what we know about the other person and what we know about ourselves. Timing is big too. I can read from my high school diary now, but when I was 20 that would have probably felt too vulnerable. Back then, I was still tearing out pages, embarrassed just reading it alone. But perhaps, sharing my experiences with a close friend or therapist would have helped me realize I had nothing to be ashamed of and to grow some compassion for my younger self.
After six years of Mortified, I think the story I’ve been telling about myself is getting worn out. I’m back to culling my diary for a fresh perspective on myself.
If you have old diaries, songs, or just plain embarrassing stories (maybe you never told anyone), get together with a small group of friends you trust and take turns sharing. If that’s too easy, you can up the ante by trying it with people you aren’t as close to. Just make sure it’s something you want to do.
There is an incredible documentary about Mortified called Mortified Nation. You can stream it on Netflix or get it from iTunes or Amazon.