My misplaced shame takes many forms. It’s the sickening feeling in my stomach when I say or do something awkward (which is often). It’s the annoying pinging in my head at the end of the day, drenching my memories in a distasteful flavor. It’s the loud voice of criticism when I read back over what I’ve written, or think back over what I’ve said and done.
In other words, it’s a major force that keeps me from moving forward.
I’ve only recently realized how misplaced shame can create a paralyzing fear of failure. It hides in plain sight, clothing itself in the more familiar guise of perfectionism or unrealistic expectations. So I continue to bend under the pressure of performance. I leave no room for humanity, no space for grace.
I’ll give you an example of what this looks like.
When I was seven, my family moved to a new house on the other side of the city. This meant I had to start third grade as the “new kid” at a different school. During my first week, we were asked to self-grade a math assignment. The teacher walked us through each problem on the worksheet and asked us to circle any incorrect answers. If we missed several problems in a row, she told us to circle the whole group of problems.
My chest tightened when she said that, and I looked miserably down at my paper. My face grew hot and tears ran mercilessly down my cheeks. Soon my teacher was at my side, utterly bewildered. Avoiding the blatant stares of my classmates, I choked out an explanation. Rather than drawing one large red circle around my missed math problems, I had circled them each individually.
Yes, that’s right. I was that kid.
At the time, all I understood was that I was horribly embarrassed and ashamed. I had made a mistake. I was less than perfect. In my seven-year-old brain, the issue entirely boiled down to drawing the wrong type of circle on my paper. The real issues that made me feel like a failure, however, were far more complex, buried beneath misplaced shame. If I had known how to dig them out, I might have understood more about my need for acceptance, my struggle to adjust to new environments, and the way I associate my sense of worth with flawless behavior.
In writing and editing, misplaced shame makes me hesitant to share my work publicly. It makes me afraid of honest feedback, transforming comments meant to strengthen weaknesses into proclamations of my inadequacy as a writer. It makes me embarrassed of my untamed imagination, makes me want to box it up and hide it away. And time and again, I do just that. I solemnly reinforce the sides with tape, telling the beast to keep quiet. But I don’t completely bury it in the closet. And I poke tiny holes in the cardboard walls to keep it from suffocating.
I know it’s going to take a while for me to uncover all the ways that misplaced shame has dominated my life. But I can start, at least, with what it’s done to my writing, my sense of imagination, my urge to be creative. I can recognize that there’s really no reason for me to hide my wild nighttime storytelling escapades, even if others find them strange. I can try my hardest not to cringe when I read back over old blog posts and find them less than inspiring. I can honor this strange part of me, this inseparable piece of my identity, rather than feeling embarrassed by it.