Share Your Shame

November 15th, 2008 by Steve Pavlina

What personal stories have you locked away in the secret vault of your mind, vowing never to share them publicly? What would shame you terribly if it were ever posted on the Internet and connected with your real name for anyone to see? What events or habits from your past or present would you feel embarrassed to talk about?

This is precisely what you need to share with others — openly and publicly.

Authenticity

If you can’t share your humiliation publicly, you haven’t gotten over it yet. And if you’re not over it yet, you’ve still got this gaping wound in your heart, and it will always keep you from being 100% authentic.

Being authentic — or transparent — isn’t just about being honest. It’s about having nothing to hide.

Concealing the truth from others creates a wall between you and them. Tear down that wall by sharing what you thought you could never share, and you’ll experience a much deeper level of connection with everyone you meet.

Shields Down

There’s no such thing as selective shielding. If you have to shield any part of yourself from being discovered and judged, you shield your entire being. You cut yourself off from creating true loving connections with other human beings. Your shields isolate and disconnect you from everyone, including yourself.

Lower your shields.

I know you think that when the shields come down, you’ll be pelted with a volley of phasers and photon torpedoes. But what’s the real worst case outcome? Harsh language? Ouch.

When you share your most shameful stories, you may be surprised at the response you get. Instead of a backlash of judgment, it’s more likely you’ll receive a compassionate response. Other people don’t want or expect you to be perfect. They want to connect with you and to be able to trust that you’re being honest with them. When you hide all your personal defects, you come across as fake, phony, or shielded. People may still communicate with you on a superficial level, but they won’t go out of their way to help you as a fellow human being. Why not? Because they won’t know the real you.

From Sorrow to Joy

When you share your shame with others, you transform your resistance into acceptance and your sorrow into joy. You learn that there’s a reason you had to endure certain experiences, even if they were self-inflicted. Your painful experiences can actually help you connect with other people on a deeper level than you imagined possible.

My book Personal Development for Smart People opens with my most humiliating story. Here’s the very first page of the book:

Do you remember the exact moment you first became interested in personal development? I certainly do. It happened in January 1991 while I was sitting in a jail cell. I’d just been arrested for felony grand theft. This wasn’t my first run-in with the law, so I knew I was in trouble. I was 19 years old.

I began stealing shortly after moving to Berkeley, California, during my first semester at UC Berkeley. I didn’t steal for money or to build a reputation — I stole for the thrill. I was addicted to the surge of adrenaline. The compulsion to steal was so strong that shoplifting was part of my routine, nothing more than my daily espresso. Usually I didn’t care what I stole; it was the act of stealing that seduced me. On a typical outing, I’d lift a dozen candy bars and then drop them off in a public place, figuring that other people would eat them. I didn’t eat the candy because I didn’t think it was healthy.

As I sat in jail for several days that January with nothing to do but wallow in my own stupidity, the reality of my situation came crashing down upon me. In high school I’d been a straight-A honors student, president of the math club, and captain of the Academic Decathlon team. My future as a computer-science major looked unbelievably bright, but somehow I’d torn it to shreds. Now I was expecting to spend the next year or two behind bars.

That wasn’t exactly the brightest moment of my life, so why would I begin the book with that story?

Many personal development books are written by authors who project an air of perfection — idyllic examples of order, achievement, inner peace, wealth, and so on. To me this is a form of shielding, an artificial wall, a fake standard no human being can realistically aspire to.

I think it’s more inspiring to share failure stories. I like to demonstrate that we can fail again and again and still keep going. I believe the ability to embrace failure is even more important than the ability to visualize success. You can visualize success all you want, but if you’re afraid to fail, your visualizations will never become reality.

Be Willing to Fail

When we fall into the pattern of hiding our past failures, we set ourselves up for long-term stagnation. We have to be willing to say, “If I fail at this, it’s okay. I’m human. I don’t have to be perfect. I can fail and keep right on going.”

I’ve had some spectacular failures in my life, including being expelled from school, getting arrested multiple times, and going bankrupt. And yet I’m still here. I haven’t given up on life.

If you can’t share your shame with others, then you’re telling yourself that failure is a bad thing… that failure is something you must avoid at all costs. But what about your future failures? Will you feel compelled to hide those too? Does this mean you won’t even attempt certain things if you know in advance that you won’t be able to hide your failures?

If you’re going to fail, then why not fail spectacularly in public — for all to see? Make your failures a real event. Let other people learn from your mistakes. Let others see that you’re human after all. You might even make some new friends and allies as a result.

Failure isn’t something to be avoided. It’s a natural part of life. To resist failure is to resist life itself.

Failure is our greatest teacher. We learn a lot more from failure than we do from success.

I learned to run a business successfully by failing in business for many years. Lesson: Forget about trying to make money, and just focus on creating and delivering value to other people. The money will follow. Money is simply a medium for exchanging value, so if I can create and share an abundance of value, I can enjoy abundant exchanges too.

I developed better social skills by struggling with mediocre social skills for years. Lesson: Stop trying to make new friends, and just assume that everyone I meet is already my best friend. This is how people want to be treated anyway. Don’t try to break the ice; assume there is no ice.

What Are You Hiding?

No matter what you’re hiding, the odds are that someone else has already shared worse. If a hitman can speak publicly about the dozens of murders he’s committed, surely you can open up about your anorexia problem, your abusive relationship, or your Internet porn addiction. Others have already shared their stories on these topics, which enables them to help others with similar challenges. Why not you?

Do you need permission to do this? Okay, I hereby grant you permission to be human. You have the right to be a total screw-up. You have the right to harbor the most politically incorrect thoughts. You have the right to struggle with the most socially unacceptable addictions. And you have the right to admit it in public.

Will there be some judgment if you go public? Sure, most likely. I get a little flak for some of the things I’ve written. Some people apparently view my mistakes as an invitation to condemn me. For example, since I was a thief in my late teens, then I must still be one today, somehow secretly ripping people off or selling snake oil or something along those lines. But because I’ve accepted who I am, including my past, those people don’t get to me. I see their criticism as being entirely about them and having nothing to do with me. I think that getting some flak is okay because the benefits of sharing those stories vastly outweigh the drawbacks, especially in terms of the new friendships I’ve made.

Also, if someone would reject me for being who I am or for doing what I did, then I say, “Let’s get the breakup over with, so we can both move on.” It’s good to purge unsupportive relationships from our lives, so we can focus on creating and enjoying more compatible connections.

If you’re worried that you’ll lose friends and contacts by outing yourself, let me suggest that you’re trying to hold on to relationships that aren’t worth maintaining. Any relationships that would reject you for being true to yourself are — by definition — abusive relationships. You’ll be much better off when you let them go.

I love that I don’t have to worry that someone will dig into my past and find some humiliating story that will annihilate my carefully crafted public image. I can just be the same person in public that I am in private. I don’t need to shield myself. Imagine how stressful it would be to try to live up to a false image. It’s no wonder that many celebrities have turned to drugs.

Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are

You don’t have to share your painful stories all at once. You can build up to this gently. Instead of trying to be authentic overnight, focus on becoming more authentic. Tell a story that would embarrass you a little, but it wouldn’t kill you to share it. Listen to the feedback you receive. Do you feel a sense of relief afterwards? Do you feel more connected to other people? Do you feel a little more open and free? Do you feel less stressed?

For every embarrassing story that you can’t imagine ever sharing publicly, just say to yourself, “I know this is an unnecessary block to love, but right now I lack the strength to let it go. However, I intend to become the kind of person who can eventually share this, thereby transforming my sorrow into joy.”

Be at peace. :)


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