I'm letting go of the shame I've carried for more than 20 years
*Trigger/content warning: this post describes an assault.
“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can't survive.” – Brené Brown
I’ve been thinking about shame recently. Through conversations I’ve realised that I’ve been hanging onto shame for something that happened half my life time ago, and I’m wondering how much it has continued to impact me without me realising it.
When I was 21 my friend and I were mugged at knifepoint by two men. A knife was held to my friend by one assailant and I was dragged along the ground on my back by the other, as he tried to take my bag which was wedged onto my shoulder. When it eventually came free they ran off with my bag while my friend and I ran to the flat where her then boyfriend lived.
Now, if I tell you that we were in a dodgy part of London and we were walking through a poorly lit car park at 6pm in winter, what’s your first reaction? Because pretty much anyone we told about the attack, including family and friends, expressed shock that we would do something so stupid as to walk through a dark car park in this sketchy part of town. What were we thinking?! How foolish, how dangerous, how downright idiotic of us!
Bam! Right there, shame fell on my shoulders. Because even though the remarks were brief and followed quickly by kindness it was enough to make me believe that I was at fault, that I was to blame, at least in part, for being mugged. That I had, in a way, brought it on myself.
Before we got off the train my friend and I had discussed what was the best route to take: option one – the road route that had street lights and took around five minutes, or option two – the route through a poorly lit car park that took less than two minutes. We weighed up the two options, not liking either, and chose the shorter route. Which we were assured, by those we spoke to afterwards, was the wrong choice.
So, a frightening and traumatic experience which I had spent much of life fearing would one day happen, and then did, was compounded by shame from the belief that I was partly to blame. That shame came from how I internalised the reactions of those with whom I talked about the mugging.
But that wasn’t the only source of shame I felt for this experience. I also blamed myself for not reacting in a way that I had imagined I would, that I wish I had when the two men attacked us. Through the years I had been to self-defence classes and I always carried a rape alarm but when it came to the moment for me to put these tools into action, I froze. I didn’t fight or fly or do anything. I froze while one man held a knife to my friend and another pulled me over and dragged me across the ground. I didn’t scream or kick or set off my alarm. Thankfully my friend set hers off and without that the whole experience could have been a lot worse.
I did nothing, in this moment of danger when I needed to defend myself I froze. And I felt shame for that too. I blamed myself for not standing up for myself, for not doing more (even if it was just to set off my alarm), for allowing this to happen to me while I did nothing to help myself or my friend.
So I piled a double dose of shame on myself –for believing I was partly to blame for being mugged because that’s what the reactions of others told me, and for being helpless in the moment.
And only recently have I realised that I’ve been carrying this shame around with for the 23 years since that experience. I’m exploring the impact this has had on me but I wanted to share this with you because shame shrinks when you shine a light on it. By keeping these feelings of shame to myself I allow them power over me and I’m not going to allow it any more.
I now know that there is no shame in what I experienced, that I was not to blame for being mugged and that I wasn’t weak for freezing in the moment. (By the way, if you think I was partly to blame for what happened to me that’s okay, it’s your opinion, I just don’t agree with it.)
I’m human. I did the best I could at that time. We made the decision on which route to take with the information we had and we believed it was the best of two bad options. I wish that I had reacted differently during the attack but who knows what would have happened if I did? Freezing in that moment was a human response and it doesn’t make me a failure.
I wish that we hadn’t gone to visit her boyfriend that day. I wish that we hadn’t chosen to walk through the car park. I wish that I had reacted differently during the attack. I wish that the response from others hadn’t been to partly lay the blame at my feet. I wish that I hadn’t seen myself as weak and a failure for this to happen to me. I wish I hadn’t internalised the blame and shame and carried them with me for more than two decades.
Now I’m choosing to let go of the old beliefs, to release myself from the shame burden and to empathise with the frightened, shame-filled, hurting girl I was. I choose to be my own best friend (as I suggest to you so often) and to give myself all the compassion, kindness and love I deserve and need.
This isn’t something that will vanish with one declaration but it’s a choice I will keep making until I no longer need to make it. I’ll keep shining the light on the feelings of shame until they wither and dissolve.
Shame takes many different forms and it grows and strengthens in the dark. If there is something for which you’re carrying shame my wish for you is to lay it down. To bring it out from the dark, in whatever way feels safe for you, so that compassion and kindness can shine a light, eroding its power and freeing you from its burden.