Have you ever experienced a moment of shame? Did you recover quickly, or did you get caught up in a shame spiral? The latter happened to me this month. After writing an article about the folly of adding too many things to my plate, I dropped the plate. Well, that’s not totally accurate—I dropped one particular entrée from the plate. But I made myself feel like I’d dropped the whole plate, then dived face-full into it in front of everyone.
Annette Kämmerer writes that we feel shame when we have “transgressed a norm” that is meaningful to us. In my case, I have internalized the (unjust!) societal norm that Black women must always appear hyper-competent and unemotional, lest anyone use our behaviors or emotions against us. That means that daily, I contend with the pressure to work harder, smile bigger, and never, ever feel anything too deeply. When I slip up in any of those areas, I feel shame.
Fellow multipotentialite, have you ever felt the need to cover up the struggle? Maybe you are known for being gifted in many ways, but there’s a part of you that struggles more than anyone realizes. Your multipotentialite résumé might be incredibly impressive, but do you ever have an impulse to conceal the embarrassing periods of struggle or outright failure that are not listed?
Failure is common for multipotentialites for many reasons, but there’s more than one way to respond to it.
Guilt is feeling bad about what you did (or didn’t do)
Here’s what happened to me this month, as I had finished writing an article about reaching a balance of pursuing multipotentialite interests that filled my cup without draining my soul. I declared my life to be a very good life. And it was! Then, almost immediately, my cup started to overflow.
I got sick, so I started to fall behind with my commitments. Some busy periods in my life seem to have happened by accident or circumstance, but this time I had happily chosen all of the gigs I was juggling. Therefore, I saw it as my responsibility not to fail any of the people who were counting on me—including you, dear reader. That’s when I added guilt to my plate, which Brené Brown defines as feeling “self-conscious discomfort in response to our own actions, thoughts, or circumstances.”
I started to feel very uncomfortable with my triumphant declaration that I had found “the good life”. How could that have been the case yesterday, when today I wanted to escape all the responsibilities of that same life? What business did I have writing on a blog for multipotentialites when I couldn’t manage my own multipotentialite life? As an emergency measure, I negotiated an extended deadline for one of my part-time jobs. But, when I failed to meet that extended deadline, I leapt headfirst into the pit of shame.
Shame is feeling bad about who you are
Kämmerer writes that when we feel shame, we feel “exposed and small and are unable to look another person straight in the eye. We want to sink into the ground and disappear. Shame makes us direct our focus inward and view our entire self in a negative light.” That’s exactly what happened to me. When we feel shame, Brené Brown says that we respond in at least one of three ways to try to protect ourselves. As defined by Linda Hartling and colleagues, these are moving against, moving away, or moving toward. Let me explain.
Moving against is exactly what you’re picturing. It’s when you try to gain power over another person by being aggressive, or by shaming someone else before they can shame you. As I’ve explained, I’m finely attuned to the negative consequences of appearing aggressive in any setting as a Black woman. So I don’t use this strategy, but I have definitely seen it at work.
Moving away is also what you’re picturing. It is hiding away, silencing yourself, or keeping the object of your shame a secret in hopes that it doesn’t cause any further damage. This is my go-to strategy, and I’m not proud of it. Growing up, I learned that the “safest” thing to do was to remove myself, make myself silent and small, and to never share what I was struggling with, lest it be used against me. While this is a strategy that can help marginalized folks survive, it does not allow us to thrive, so I’ve been intentionally trying to unlearn it.
Lately I’ve found myself using the counterintuitive third strategy: Moving toward. That’s when we try to appease or please others, not to apologize for our behavior, but to escape feeling any more shame. For me, this meant that I made myself extra-good at every commitment I did manage to fulfill—as if it could make up for the shame I felt for letting another person down.
What’s your go-to reaction to shame? Does it change based on the context, or which multipotentialite project you’re tackling? Thinking about this is uncomfortable but helpful, because it’s a key ingredient in the antidote to shame: self-compassion.
Self-compassion is the antidote to shame
Dear reader, what I’ve written so far kind of sounds…what’s the technical term? Icky. And not at all uplifting. But I think it’s important to talk about, so that you know you’re not alone if you’ve ever felt this way. Now that I’ve taken you through my shame spiral, let me tell you about how I escaped it: I exercised self-compassion through mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness.
I practiced mindfulness by noticing – kindly and without (more) judgment! – what happened when I zoomed way past guilt into shame territory. While it made sense to feel bad about what I did (failed to meet an obligation that was important to me), what made me spiral was what I told myself about who I was (I felt like a failure, and—in an even worse transgression for my value system—a hypocrite). I did the hard work of truly listening to the nasty, critical words I was feeding myself to supposedly motivate me to do better, and I allowed myself to feel the heavy emotions—including the fear that I was some kind of emperor with no clothes—that came with them.
Kristen Neff says that “self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to ‘me’ alone.” She calls this shared human experience “common humanity”. Once I let myself observe how wretched I was feeling, I knew that it wasn’t healthy or productive to stay hidden or armored up against further shame. Moving away was not going to serve me in healing from shame. I reached out to a fellow writer, who let me know that they too occasionally experience similar feelings. Instantly, I felt so much less alone in the struggle. Reaching out is an antidote to shame because it “challenges the belief there is something wrong with us.” (Kindful Body, 2018)
The third ingredient to my shame first-aid was self-kindness, which Kristen Neff defines as “being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.” For me, this involved recognizing (or remembering?) that I am an imperfect person who makes mistakes…just like everyone else. I could not get closer to joy by continuing down the path of shame. I knew, in that moment, I had to care for myself until I was ready to begin again. And when I did, I was ready to respond to failure in a kinder, more useful way.
Growth is learning through failure
When I don’t let myself run on empty, I’m able to see failure as a form of learning. The other day, I met someone who truly embodied this idea. When I asked her an important question that she didn’t know the answer to, she took so much joy in not knowing the right answer. Because, as she explained it, I had given her the opportunity to learn something new! Failing to know the answer didn’t phase her, because it didn’t mean that she was a failure. She didn’t claim failure as part of her identity. Instead, it represented an opportunity to learn—and she loved learning!
Falling into a shame spiral this month gave me the opportunity to learn about how I react when I violate one of my core values, and what I need to recover from that. It taught me that living a more authentic life as a multipotentialite doesn’t just mean finding the perfect mix of activities and commitments. It also includes radical acceptance that even the most “perfect” mix will inevitably also include difficult moments, because we are all imperfect people. (Well, at least I am.) I’ve learned to honor my humanity in these moments by tuning into – instead of turning away from – my body and my mind, and responding to what each part needs. That’s how I’ll help myself find a way out of the next shame spiral.
Have you ever experienced failure or shame? What emerged when you came out the other side? What can I learn from you about escaping the shame spiral as a multipotentialite? Share with me in the comments.
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