Since delving deeply into the work of Brené Brown—a brilliant and delightful academic who studies shame, vulnerability, authenticity, and courage—I now have a greater understanding of what’s happening when something or someone pushes my shame button(s).
Here’s the TED talk she gave on shame, which currently has over 6 million views. Watch it when you have 20 minutes because this is an uncomfortable subject that is of extreme importance.
Brené defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.”
I can identify a shame attack by its accompanying physiological symptoms: my heart races, my eyesight blanks out for a second, time stands still, tears fill my eyes, and my pits sweat like crazy. I often can’t speak for a few seconds because of the lump in my throat. And then my mind alights on the belief or old story that has been triggered, almost always related to unworthiness and unloveability.
So, looking through this lens of shame, I’ll tell you a little story that happened a few months back.
One night I was tidying my apartment, specifically the table beside the front door on which I feed the cat (so the dogs can’t eat his food) and compile towering mounds of junk mail, random paper, and books.
On this table was also a beautiful hand-woven basket from Central or South America given to me by my friend Katie. It is small, shallow, oval-shaped, dark brown, and pliable, with a handle running along its length. I love this basket and have moved it from place to place for well over 15 years. It has been where I store spare keys, pens, paper clips, buttons, and whatever else I have no other place for.
Now we all know how it is to do mindless straightening, right? My thoughts were wandering and I was chill and relaxed, heading to bed soon, just decluttering as part of my nightly wind down. I was discarding junk mail, reducing and reforming piles of paper, and wiping down the table. Whereas I typically slide the basket to clean under it, on this particular night I chose to LIFT it.
What I discovered beneath the basket caused me to simultaneously squeak (or scream, who can remember?), vomit in my mouth (or at least feel the need to), and possibly do the “Oh my god that’s disgusting!!!” full-body vibratory shake.
For there, underneath the beloved and sacred basket, was a NEST of baby cockroaches. Forty or fifty of them were crawling all over each other in panic. AAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!! So. Effing. Disgusting.
(This is where I would insert a picture…but that would be gross. I’ll let you imagine.)
Fortunately my “calm in times of emergency” mode kicked in and I very slowly (despite the screaming in my head) lowered the basket back onto the table and ran into my bedroom to fetch my handheld vacuum—the one with the wand.
I turned it on and sucked up all those baby cockroaches—every.single.one—even though they were running for their lives in every direction possible.
Knowing that these are quite possibly the most resilient creatures on the planet, I knew I couldn’t just turn off the vacuum and think everything would be fine. Sucking their little bodies into the vacuum bag wouldn’t kill them—and I couldn’t handle the vision of an angry mob of baby roaches emerging from the vacuum tube to hunt me down in my sleep—so I kept the machine running while I grabbed packing tape. (The advantage of a tiny apartment is that everything is only a few steps away.)
As quickly as I could, I stopped the vacuum, opened it up, and slammed some tape over the opening of the tiny bag before removing the bag entirely from the vacuum. Unfortunately the tape was clear, so I could see the panicked roaches crawling all over themselves in an attempt to escape. I swallowed a bit of bile and asked forgiveness for what I was doing. Then I ran the bag out of my apartment and threw it in the trash receptacle behind my building.
I took a deep breath, physically shook off my disgust, and then headed back inside for Roach Murder Part II: Momma Roach. I knew that everyone I’d sucked up with the wand was a baby (“please forgive me, please forgive me”), so I knew Momma was likely IN THE BASKET. (I have heebie-jeebies even retelling this story—full-body goosebumps.)
I picked up the basket gingerly by the handle, made sure my iPhone was in my pocket, and headed out into the frigid black night (it was probably around 10pm when this waking nightmare went down). I headed straight for the alley, where I commenced to set the basket on the pavement and illuminate its contents with the flashlight feature of my phone. All I could see was my stuff. So item by item, very slowly and deliberately—and as though a coiled snake might attack my hand at any moment from the shadows within —I emptied the basket. Once the last item had been removed, I flashed the light all around the inside of the basket and saw panicked Momma running in circles around the inside walls like a tiny NASCAR driver.
Feeling like my actions were already damning me to hell, I dumped her out and crushed her under the sole of my shoe. No more Momma. Again I pleaded for forgiveness (I don’t take killing lightly) and did the shakeoff dance of disgust. (I also threw away the basket, which I now regret and which Katie understands is not a reflection of any lack of love for her.)
Once my adrenaline rush subsided, the shame attack began. I felt all the aforementioned physical symptoms of shame and then I became aware of the thought that was front and center in my mind: “I am a slob. I am a horrifically disgusting excuse for a human being to have cockroaches in my apartment.”
To give context for this thought I’ll explain that I live in Colorado, where roaches aren’t super common (or so I thought). Sure, maybe in restaurants, maybe downtown, maybe wherever—but NOT IN PEOPLE’S HOMES!! I’d heard of some of the older apartment buildings in Capitol Hill becoming overrun with roaches, but to my knowledge Denver isn’t a roachy kind of place (except for the marijuana kind)—unless people are absolutely filthy. Meaning that I must be a filthy slob and roaches are clear evidence of that. I mean, I do leave the dishes unwashed sometimes for a couple days too many and my tiny place gets cluttered easily…
As Brené says, “Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment.” She talks about how if you were to put shame in a Petri dish with secrecy, silence, and judgment, it would grow into every crevice and crack of your life and influence every thought you have and every choice you make.
So what was my initial reaction to the roach situation? Secrecy: “I can’t tell anyone!!” Silence: (see secrecy). Judgment: “People [in Colorado] with roaches in their homes are slobs and I have roaches in my home.”
Brené again: “Shame depends on [you] buying into the belief that [you are] alone.” I bought into being alone—hook, line, and sinker. I immediately googled “how to eliminate cockroaches” and settled into my usual pattern of solo problem-solving (using the collective wisdom found on the interwebs).
Do you know the antidote to shame? As Brené has learned from her research, “The antidote to shame is empathy.” Put shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy and it will have zero chance of survival. (I’m loosely quoting Brené there.)
I ended up telling my friend Michelle about the incident (a few days later?). She responded with empathy and indeed my shame diminished. (Brené knows what she’s talking about!)
One weekday morning a couple weeks later I was gifted what I consider to be a miracle (I allow them to come in all shapes and sizes). As I was leaving for work I noticed a van parked on the street. The picture on the side of the van? It was a cockroach lying on its back, dead. My adjoining neighbor’s door was open and I could hear men talking, so I hollered into the apartment, “Hey! What are you here for?” The main guy rushed out of the apartment and said in a lowered voice, “Why do you ask? Have you had any roach problems?”
Hallelujah!! The proverbial light went on and I realized how immensely self-absorbed and ridiculous I had been to assume that the roaches proved something horrible about me. Turns out this exterminator had treated two of the five units in my building not once but TWICE for roaches—and the first time he used the method of making them scatter. He said that because I shared a wall with the neighbor he assumed was the originator of the problem, it was likely that I would get some, too.
So I laughed at myself for my shame attack, I laughed at myself for my self-absorption, and I laughed at myself for NOT ONCE thinking that having roaches in my apartment was a reason to call the landlord.
(By the way, no more roaches have been spotted in my place…)
So much gratitude to Brené Brown. Check out her website HERE. She’s given TED talks, she’s written books, she teaches online courses, and (in my humble opinion) her work should be taught as part of the public school curriculum. The class could be called, “How To Be a Better Human” or “A Big Chunk of the Operating Manual for Life That Nobody Ever Shared with You.”