how to handle secret/hidden pain and shame
photo by Jennifer Santaniello
one of the fundamental reasons I see people carrying pain and shame in dangerous silence, is the fact that their respected or “coveted” position/title on this planet is perceivably (by them) under threat of dissolution due to the very nature and source of their pain and shame (pain and shame usually go hand-in-hand). the very nature and source of their pain and shame, by the way, is usually/always some form of abuse that they experienced and they are harshly judging themselves on — unconsciously or consciously. many individuals think that they need to maintain some kind of impossible image of perfection, or manage an impossible personal standard for living — simply because they are looked up to by many, hold a position of significant authority, or have great responsibility to serve many others. they have forgotten, due to their human “role”, that they are human first. this is dangerous on all levels, when we can not be human first. look at the number of suicides in banking and entertainment alone — or in “prominent” families with dark secrets. the first step to eliminating this danger is to realize that we all go through the same themes of trial and tribulation in this life — that there are others exactly like us, suffering exactly like us. when we suffer in silence, it is because we fail to realize how actually relatable our pain and shame really is. in fact, if we were to really look at it, sharing our pain and shame and transcending the illusion that our role or title is somehow immune to such is perhaps the most powerful thing we can do. of course, there are different ways that we can “share” this pain and shame, with diplomacy and proper personal boundaries, to balance the often boundary-less nature of the source of the pain and shame that represents the contrast itself (between the internal and external world of the individual).
the greatest human fear in existence is: being alone. period. this can mean physically alone, emotionally alone, psychologically alone, or another version of the word “alone”. it is a fear greater than death. it is what drives us in life — avoiding being alone or being abandoned by fellow humans on our planet. when we are extremely isolated in life to begin with — let’s say, for the sake of this particular post, because we are leaders or impossible “idols” of some sort — we are already all alone. you have heard the phrase “it’s lonely at the top” — it is very lonely at the top. many people spend their entire lives trying to get to the “top”, because they have felt it is the protection or insulation that they will need to not feel so alone — and when they arrive there, they are more alone than ever. if we pair our metaphoric position at the top of the mountain (which already screams aloneness) with secret pain and shame, it is a recipe for (internal) disaster.
so, what is our actual first step to realizing that we are not alone, and then how do we appropriately share such pain and shame in order to deflate the internal volcano that will only self-destruct us?
well, before I outline the first step, let me say this — I had another conversation today with someone who appears to “have it all”; a beautiful physical appearance, a very solid leadership role career-wise, financially sound/abundant, and seeming support from every direction. a life of “privilege”. that is the image that naturally emits itself from this person, and hence the “safe” reality of many of those around them actually depends upon such an image. but the private, and often secret inner world of pain and shame that accompanies someone like this can feel brutal, and I see it all of the time. it feels brutal because they think that showing vulnerability will make those around them feel unsafe, when in fact it might make them feel more safe. and this is the reason that I do this work — to let others know that no, their situation is NOT shameful…it will NOT be ostracized…they will NOT be abandoned by the world (both personal and professional) around them if they are to share the source of this pain and shame, which always comes in the form of human relationships (past or present). the person I spoke with today has been through a very uphill early life experience which, in many ways no doubt shaped their ability to navigate the professional world — but often our strengths ARE our weaknesses. recognizing this is step 1.
step 1: recognize that our strengths ARE our weaknesses — hence, our weaknesses have not been in vain! they have served us. and with that said, it is now safe to look at the ways that they are no longer serving us. when we recognize that our strengths are our weaknesses, we are able to identify with the fact that perhaps EVERYONE around us has the same thing going on! I don’t know of anyone at the top of their craft or field who has not landed there on exaggerated strengths which came only from exaggerated (and very formative — due to survival early-on in life) weaknesses. so, if we are to compare ourselves to colleagues or peers or people we admire, we might stop and think that they too, no doubt, have been in the same exact position as we find ourselves: at the top of our game, with a “responsibility” to many others, but with imminent recognition of the opposing weakness (which causes the pain and shame game) that we are not fully contending with. again: I know of no person at the top of the mountain who has not met their personal weakness (pain and shame), even after many years in denial of such. so step 1 is recognizing the opposition and paradox that our success or “title” resides in at all times, and how it is impossible that others in a similar role have also never or not yet been able to avoid the same paradox. in this way, when we really think about it, we are not alone. the perceived secrecy with regard to whatever pain and shame we are carrying starts to lose its grip on our fear of being exposed. in effect, shame is an illusion.
step 2: identify other “others” who have made their difficulties public. there are so many of them. let’s start with Oprah. enough said. look and dig for the stories and personal triumphs of others who transcended their personal pain and shame with success and vice versa. you might think “but that is OPRAH — I’m not Oprah. we have completely different trajectories and I do not desire to ever be a public person”. well, fair enough. but that is not the point. the point is, first of all, all things are relative. all things are relative. so taking aside the particulars of someone like Oprah, it is important just to look at her process and timeline trajectory. she has been through mountains of trials and tribulations, and she has been victorious each time. look at how her pain and shame have served her outer world trajectory. you have the same opportunity, in whatever way your purpose is set. sure, you might end up shattering a glass ceiling or two, but that’s often the byproduct of breaking through pain and shame. perhaps, like others who have made their difficulties public, or their public persona has made such public, you are being called to “share” your pain and shame — in any way you deem acceptable…
step 3: find the acceptable way in which you will share your pain and shame. when we have pain and shame, it eats us alive until we share it. period. once we share it, it no longer has power over us. maybe that person we share it with is just a therapist. or maybe that outlet is an anonymous 12-step group and you wear a wig or disguise and attend it and share your story just one time. or maybe you keep going back and realize that the feelings you feel are not only not real things, but launching pads to inspire others, and no you will not lose your status in the process — in fact, you will probably strengthen it. maybe it is a safe online forum (a-hem — I learned the hard way with this one, so be careful) in which you can be anonymous and write out all of your deepest pain and shame in the form of memories and experiences. whatever way you feel comfortable, let it out. any way that you can. in step 3, you might decide to take further action — start a mindfulness group at your firm or occupation, leading with subjects that you don’t want to get personal with, but that still open up the topical conversation on some level that end up providing relief for the pain and shame you have carried inside of you. remember: intention alone can provide us with relief. and ultimately, when people feel comfortable, they will share on the very things that you feel keep you so separate and hidden from them in the first place.
with the absolute illusion that everyone is living in, in terms of the very guise that social media is, it is easier now more than ever to feel uncapped isolation. it’s a lie. if people are not being vulnerable in some way beyond their fake pictures of happiness and unity on their public pages, then they are dying inside. if you are a leader of some sort, rest assured that it is probably YOU that others are looking at to help liberate themselves from their pain and shame — which we ALL carry on some level — versus hold up some impossible standard.
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