Playing the Shame Tapes

I often don’t read or go near anything that can be self help in nature.  Sure I will be lured into reading something like “the top 10 things that people do to thwart happiness” because I’m curious.  But generally few resonate with me enough that they make me think and internalize it.

But The Power of Vulnerability by Brene Brown did and does.

I love her TED talk. I love her story telling. I love that she took something that is deemed anecdotal in nature and found patterns and data and it works.  And she doesn’t present her findings – findings that are quite amazing – in a way that is “ok – this is how you live your life”, she present it as “this is the data that goes along with people who find happiness and manage stress and have connections. Do with it what you will”. It makes sense.

Forgive my quick lessons in her lingo.  It is important to set the language as it is necessary to see the connection.

Vulnerability is viewed as a negative as a stand alone emotion, but what she discovered is if you ask about an example of vulnerability, it tells a different story.  People gave her stories about telling kids about their mom’s stage 4 cancer and feeling vulnerable to the questions.  People said it was asking a spouse for help because of illness.  People said it was the feeling as they waited for the doctor to call with mammogram results.  It’s asking a spouse for sex. It’s laying people off. It’s being laid off.  It’s asking someone out.  None of these are things that represent vulnerability are negative. They require strength and courage to do.  And so what people do when they feel vulnerability? We numb it. We drink. We eat. We go on a spending spree.  We look for ways to numb in a negative way.  And we look at ways to make the uncertain, certain.  We blame others for how we feel.  (Blame, she defines, as the discharge of pain and discomfort.)  And we pretend we do not have an impact on other people instead of being authentic and real and saying “we’re sorry” when we impact someone negatively.

We strive for happiness and belonging, but we try to achieve it by closing ourselves off from exactly what we seek, and do so in an attempt to protect ourselves from pain and hurt.  We wear armor to keep us from that pain.  And by doing it, we keep ourselves from finding the things we strive for – connection, love, worthiness, and happiness.  We do it by not believing that we are enough.  So we wake up frustrated we didn’t get enough sleep, and go to bed feeling guilty more did not get done.   And we numb. It’s a cycle that keeps feeding itself.

She calls shame “gremlins” or “dementors”.  They show up and cause havoc in our lives.  They suck happiness and joy from it.  They have our shame tapes to play in our heads when we have to do something outside of our comfort zone.  And they make us feel vulnerable and want to numb.  And that feeling just makes those gremlins wring their hands that we are feeding it.

What are shame tapes?

She gave a great example of a shame tape when describing the process she goes through writing.  Writing is not a natural thing for her to do, yet she does a lot of writing – articles, papers, etc.  When she sits down to write, her shame tape plays in her head – “I’m not a good writer. This is going to turn out badly. People are going to wonder why they are reading this piece of crap.  Why are they even wanting me to write about this? I’m not the right person?”

Now how does she deal with it? She exposes her shame – her shame tape to light.  She says it aloud.  Her research showed that saying it aloud reduced the physical response by 80%.  Saying it aloud to a person who shows you empathy makes the shame go away. You feel better.  But to do both – is to be vulnerable.  It is to shine a light on the thing you keep inside and try to hide in an attempt to silence it.  It seems and feels counterintuitive – but over and over and over again the data supports it.  Hell, it supported it so much that it challenged her personal thinking to the point where she sought out therapy.

Why does this person speak to me?

For those who have read my blog for a long time will recall when I took off the armor that I used to protect myself – and I revealed who Emmy was.  Not the Emmy at work. Not the Emmy as daughter. Not just the Emmy as Moe.  I laid myself out there – for me – for my own happiness.  I did it because I needed to be genuine and authentic and because I knew until I did that – until I risked being judged for the facets as I am, I was not going to be happy until I was able to be me – all of me – open, poly, kinky, parental, managerial, etc.  So, I came out and found happiness.  It was nice having a place I could be Emmy.  I didn’t care about comments (still don’t). I didn’t worry about people who may judge – they don’t live my life, so I can give them a place to stick their judgements of me.  I just needed to be me.  Warts and all – stress, happiness, sexiness, and sadness. All me. No hiding.

It was incredibly freeing.

Until things in life started triggering my own shame tapes to play.

Until I started feeling like I had to put the armor back on.

Brene Brown found people feeling shame did one of three things: we move away (disappear from community and events), we move towards by trying to people please, or we move against by using shame to fight shame.  Disappear and disengage is something I knew about.  But instead of doing that – I tried to people please.  To make people happy and try to fight the feelings of shame, I would do what people expected.  If someone blamed me for something, I would take it even if it wasn’t mine to take (which most time blame is not)  (Blame is defined as a discharge of pain and discomfort.) If I talked too much, I stopped talking.  If someone thought I was to blame for something, I took it on and apologized.  If I was told I argued too much, I didn’t even do it to stand up for myself.

And this shame spiral I was in?  Just kept going and going and going.  Why? Because I still wasn’t happy, I was feeling less connections so I tried to do it more to find happy again, then I started feeling unworthy of love.  Even after many of these negative shame provoking things went aways, the shame tapes were not entirely silenced.  I refused to speak of them too – thinking or speaking would give the shame power, or that was my thinking.  Being vulnerable would show weakness and no one expects weakness.  Weak people are too much work to have in your life.

And what was this shame tape that gets me into trouble all the time?

It’s a doozy.

When I was growing up, I was a tomboy. I was always outside playing ball with the boys in the neighborhood or playing catch with my dad.  You were more likely to find gravel in my hair than a pretty barrett.  I had scraped knees and ripped jeans.  I watched baseball and football – and fought the simple act of having my hair combed. And I had no problem speaking up.

And my mom hate it.

She wanted a girly girl. She wanted a partner in crime.  And I would hear about it.

“I really wanted a daughter who was a girl – not a tomboy. Why can’t you be like your friend who like her hair pretty and to dress nicely? Do you really think they will want to be your friend if you are always in ripped jeans with scraped knees?  I really wish I had a girl who was a girl who wanted to shop, and cook, and knit and do girl things.”

I love my mom. I really do. I love her so very fucking much.  But even now, when someone implies – intentionally or unintentionally – that they would rather go to a party with another woman on his arm because that one would draw envy from people, my mom’s voice on my shame tape reminds me why.  She reminds me that no one wants a girl who speaks her mind.  She reminds me that no one wants a girls who can compete head on with the guys and come home with a black eye.  She reminds me if I did that less, I’d have a date.  Or if I lost weight, that would help too. Every fucking flaw will fly because I am not a girly girl who wears makeup, gets giddy about clothes, and be the eye candy people want come out -in my mom’s voice.

And because my dad was my mentor in terms of showing my how to squash vulnerability – I turn those words into something else.  I try to bury them. I try to make excuses for the situation that triggered the reaction. I use excuse of me burying it because I’m supposed to be open – and that isn’t good open behavior. I further shame myself into silence.  All because, at that moment – in that situation – I did not feel good enough or worthy of love for something so fucking superficial.

I have attached my worthiness of love and attention and compassion to ignoring the shame.  Don’t bring it into the light – keep it in the cave.

Shame loves caves from what I am learning.

Because I have never spoken all of these horrible things on my shame tape, I allow it to control me in unexpected ways. I allow myself to assess situations as being MY fault instead of just a situation that happens.  And I look to what I should have personally done differently to ensure that others didn’t feel bad – and instead I feel shame.

The only thing I have done that is positive thanks to this particular shame tape  – is make sure my girls never feel like the person they are is tied to their worthiness.  I love them – I tell him how much I love their style, who they are, their opinions.  I don’t care if DJ wears all black for weeks on end because that does not make any less worthy of love.  I don’t care if Indigo decides wearing all her favorite pieces of clothes on one day even though they clash – who fucking cares? Her appearance isn’t her.  It makes her no less worthy.

And you know what? I admire the fuck out of the fact they both put themselves out there – open themselves up to ridicule but not letting it stop them from being their authentic selves.  And DJ and the fact I am so fiercely protective of no one shaming her into closing herself off – to conform.  And Indigo is protected just as much – G and I talk about that a lot – trying to make sure she is spoken to without shame.

Even though I am protective of them, I am not kind to me.  My shame tapes play. And when I am vulnerable and feel betrayed by it…..I am shattered.  All of those tapes with my mom’s voice plays again.

Oh, and I should mention the other thing that spoke to me in her lectures?  Yeah, yet another thing…I know.

Empathy kills shame, but sympathy amplifies it.  We all want connection and sympathy is not the way to do it.  Sympathy turns up the shame tapes because it makes you feel less worthy.  I feel isolated and not helped but hurt.

Empathy is this:


To hear, “I’m sorry you are feeling like a failure” is to say “that must suck to fail because I have never felt failure ever”.  Then it usually triggers a new shame tape and makes the problems worse – the internal battle worse.

It’s funny because when I heard her say these things about sympathy versus empathy, I was like YES!  With all that I am still processing, I hate it when someone says “I’m sorry” then changes the subject as if they are sorry I dropped a coffee on the floor.  I hear it as “I’m sorry I asked you how you were doing because I really didn’t want to hear bad as I am unwilling to relate to those feelings – I mean, I was just being polite but now I’m judging.”

Instead you want to hear an empathic response: “When I felt extremely connected with someone and was open and vulnerable with my feelings, I felt so unworthy of love when they disengaged and left my life.  I felt there was a hole it leaves just like you do.  I hate that feeling. It is an ugly one.”  When I have had someone be empathic with me, it is like they have crawled under the covers with me, where I am hiding, and said “I hid too when this happened”.  No solving – just them opening up to me with their own experience of lose and heartache.  When she touched up on this subject, I always wanted to shout YES – THIS!

I guess maybe I should have added a warning.  This is a brain dump as I am processing all of the things that are echoing in my noggin.

But more importantly, I needed to expose my shame tape to light.  Because the one thing I do agree with – if we share more of those dark, nasty thought that drive our response in real life, we will connect with people who truly understand.  And then those thoughts – those fears the thoughts provoke – they will all lose power. I do totally agree with that info she found in her research.

Plus, who doesn’t need to feel a bit more empathy in our lives?

Everyone could use some.

And I leave you with this:

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Valentine Muchiri says:

    I would like to read more about exposing shame tapes to the light. Is this in one of Brene Brown’s books?

    1. emmyrtws says:

      It is. Now to remember which one. I think it was The Power of Vulnerability – or Rising Strong. Don’t think it was Daring Greatly. All are great to be honest.

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