Shame has been used throughout generations and across cultures as an instrument to control those of us who identify as women. Shame is deep rooted in the way it shapes how many of us feel about our bodies, sex, money, motherhood, love, lust…the list goes on. It works because society presents us with neatly defined boxes of how we’re supposed to be; to look pretty, be small, comply, have children, love appropriately, and lust in private (if at all), and if we don’t fit into these boxes, we feel undeserving and unlovable. We are not woman enough.
Like most women, shame has played a dominant role in my life. The day after my sixteenth birthday I had an abortion. I was so ashamed that this had happened to me because women of my age weren’t supposed to be having sex, let alone getting pregnant. So, I kept silent, only telling my boyfriend at the time, and my best friend. I felt so bad that I thought I would rather die than let my parents know – how would they be able to love me after this? My parents are loving, understanding, compassionate people, but shame prevented me from seeing them as a source of help and comfort, and instead made me feel that I was unworthy of the love they gave me, because I had gotten myself into such a situation.
I had struggled to communicate with my parents as a young teenager, so relations weren’t great, but after the abortion, I became even more detached. I was completely consumed by shame, which meant that I not only disconnected further from my family at a time when I needed them the most, but also, that I was unable to process or deal with the feelings and emotions I had surrounding the abortion, because I shut down. Instead of sharing and feeling less alone, I adhered to a narrative that kept me quiet and allowed the shame to fester.
This is the power that shame has, it silences and isolates us. It keeps us apart from the ones we love and prevents us from building healthy, close relationships. But here’s the thing, it’s only when shame is exposed, and we speak our truth, that its control is diminished.
My shame bred feelings of self-loathing and unworthiness that fed into all aspects of my life. I made the wrong decisions around men, I didn’t learn how to express my feelings and desires, and I allowed myself to be treated in certain ways because I felt I was lucky to be loved at all. It also affected the way I perceived my future. I would turn my nose up at the idea of having children, because deep down I think I felt that I didn’t deserve to have them, I wasn’t a good enough woman to raise a child.
But it didn’t need to be this way. In my late twenties I decided that I needed to work through some of these feelings because they were becoming overpowering, and I went to see a therapist for the first time. I began to open up and speak things out loud that I’d never said before. It was really tough, but it also felt empowering. Here’s what I learnt…
- Identify your shame
As I’ve described, shame can play out in all aspects of our lives, so first of all it’s really important to get clear on the root cause. This can take some time, but often if we really confront ourselves, the true answers are never that far away. For example, ask yourself the following questions and explore the answers that immediately come to you:
- Do I feel worthy?
- Are there parts of me that I keep hidden?
- Am I afraid of judgement from others?
- Acknowledge how you feel
Capture your answers to the questions above in whatever way you feel comfortable (write them down, make a voice note, say them out loud), but make sure your answers are externalized rather than kept within yourself. This is an important step in relinquishing the control that shame has over us.
- Hold space for your feelings
Allow your answers to bring up emotions that you might have buried for a long time. Instead of judging yourself, as we so often do, just allow yourself to sit with those feelings. Acknowledge them, and then imagine them washing over you and disappearing. They don’t need to have power over you, and they certainly don’t define who you are as a person.
- Talk to people you trust
Approach one or two people (friends or family) that you really trust and reach out to them. This will help you to build a connection and prevent the shame from isolating you. By choosing to expose your vulnerability to someone else, you’re also creating a space for them to open up to you. What I found when I started to speak openly to my friends and loved ones about things that had happened in my past, was that so many people shared their truth also. It was really beautiful.
- Forgive yourself
The most important step, but perhaps the hardest, is to forgive yourself. You are deserving of love, you are worthy of living a life that fulfils you, and you are able to let go of those feelings that have held you back in the past. You are enough.
I’ve never spoken publicly about my abortion before, but with one in three women experiencing an abortion during their lifetime in the UK, and one in four in the US, we need to start talking more openly about it, just like we need to start speaking more openly about the shame we carry as women. We need to start shedding light on our shame, it doesn’t control or define who we are. We are all deserving, loveable, and amazing, remember that.
Amy is a coach and storyteller living in London, UK. She works with people to help them define what’s important to them, and then build a life that makes them feel good on the inside. After experiencing a mental health crisis in her late twenties, as a result of being burnt out emotionally and physically from life in the corporate world, she has spent a number of years building a life and a business that she wants, proving that it is possible to live a slower, more authentic, and connected life in London, one of the fastest paced cities in the world.
Amy’s passion is the work she does as a personal coach and storyteller where she holds space for people to explore and identify their purpose and personal values. Through her blog, and social media, she aims to share her own experiences openly and honestly in order to connect with and offer support to others. She believes in shedding light on things that we may feel ashamed about in order to first heal inner wounds, and then empower us to connect with others on a deeper level.