I’ve been studying shame lately. I tend to get obsessed with a subject and delve into it until I can see it from every angle. Shame is tough to do that with due to how dense a topic it is. I’m not talking about shame we feel when we did some little thing wrong or had an accident of some sort. I’m talking about core shame. Toxic shame. Shame based living. There’s a lot of good stuff out there on the subject if one is interested. I’ll share some of it at the end of this.
I’m interested in shame because I have been dealing with it in my own life recently around my gender transition. I’ve said this already but I’ll say it again. I’m not ashamed of being transgender. My shame comes from early childhood. I was raised by a narcissistic mother who was grieving the loss of my dad who died suddenly when I was 14 months old and left her to support two children on social security and no skills with which to get a job. It was 1963 and not many women worked outside of the home so it wasn’t something she had been expected to do. I can only imagine the stress that put on her with a little baby to take care of. Was she narcissistic before my dad died or did it develop as a defense after the fact? I have no idea. My brother is convinced that she was a saint so he is no help at all in figuring out this mystery. And I guess it’s really irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. What matters is that as early as I can remember I felt unsafe to tell the truth at home in fear of getting in trouble. My pattern of telling lies persisted into early adulthood. Guilt trips, shaming and irrational behavior (changing the rules haphazardly) were typical tools she used in her efforts to control me.
I think a lot about when I started to feel like a boy inside and how that exactly manifested itself in my life. I can’t remember a beginning point of it. I can’t remember ever not feeling like I should have been born a boy. I wanted a penis but don’t remember laying in bed at night praying that God miraculously turn me into a boy. I didn’t think it was possible. What I wanted was to be able to do, act and dress how I wanted whether I was a girl or not. The adults called me a “tomboy”. It was said in a derogatory way. God how I hated that term and the snide tone of voice that accompanied it. I was told that I’d outgrow it one day. I sort of did. When puberty hit my mother pressed me hard to start looking and acting more lady-like and I did really try. She told me I should wear earrings because people will know I’m a girl despite my short hair. So I got my ears pierced and wore earrings every day for most of my life. I was paranoid to leave the house without them. She pushed me to date boys earlier than I think I should have. It was obvious to me that all she was concerned with was making sure that I didn’t embarrass her by being too boyish. It went against my nature but I did it. Once I was out of college I let all of that go for the most part but I was still deeply ashamed of my masculine side. It was so ingrained in me that I would get extremely upset if anyone mistook me for a man. I would get angry and in the person’s face about it, defending my female gender while feeling deeply ashamed that I wasn’t performing female better.
I have shame so deep in me that I don’t know where it ends. Toxic shame is a profound sense of being worthless at your core. I was raised with the belief that children are to be seen and not heard. I was not to be a bother to my mother or any of the adults that came to our house. I don’t remember our family being huggy or showing love towards each other often. I wonder how much attention I got as a child. I remember having to make myself occupied a lot, being lonely, and creating great adventures in my head. I was creative but quiet, often preferring to stick with the adults than to hang out with the other kids. I never really learned how to socialize and play with other kids. My street was short and I wasn’t allowed to play with the other kids on it because they were trouble makers. They actually were bad kids and I got in trouble every time I defied my mother’s orders to leave them alone.
So now, all these years later I’m realizing, with the help of some pretty amazing people like Darlene Tando, Brene Brown and John Bradshaw that the shame I feel is built on a lie. I’m not worthless and never was. There’s no such thing as too masculine. To quote Darlene Tando in an email she sent me:
“You have to remind yourself that your mother was shaming you for something that didn’t exist. It wasn’t real. She was shaming a “girl” for being “too boyish”. We know this isn’t even possible, to be “too boyish”, some girls are just more masculine than others. That said, you WERE NOT A GIRL, YOU WERE A BOY. So you were acting natural and she just didn’t know who you were. ”
I was shocked at how simply she unpacked that shame I was feeling walking around as myself in my present day skin. I feel really vulnerable and naked when I go out into public looking “too masculine”. I’ve devised all of these rules around what I can and can’t wear. What is acceptable and what isn’t. How I should behave. I’ve spent a lifetime protecting my male side from scrutiny and hiding it from the light. And now that I finally have given myself permission to live authentically I’m struggling with all of this shame.
But Darlene is right. I have been ashamed all of these years for who I really am and not allowing myself to behave in the way that came naturally to me. It’s monumentally difficult to put that shame to rest but this is a good start. Becoming aware of the shame is the beginning. Uncovering the lie underneath it and shining light on it is what will heal it. There is nothing inherently bad about me, even though I’ve felt like there was for most of my life. Brene’ Brown says that shame keeps us from connecting with other people. How true that is! I’m really fortunate to have a handful of really true friends who honestly know me and love me despite my flaws but the vast majority of people in my life really don’t know me at all. I honestly want to change that. I want to connect with people and let my natural personality shine through. I’ve hidden it for long enough and who knows, maybe I’ll make a few new friends along the way. And those who don’t like the real me? Well, you know where they can go.
Valuable resources for further depth into this subject:
Brene’ Brown’s TED talk: Listening to Shame
John Bradshaw’s 6 part series on Healing the Shame that Binds You
and his groundbreaking book on the subject of shame
Gender Blog by Darlene Tando…not really about shame but she’s AWESOME so check her out if you haven’t already.