Over the last couple of years, I have been processing and moving through shame. I didn’t even realize that shame was a part of me. That shame is what kept me hiding all of these years. It’s taken many journal entries, self-help books, workshops, moon circles, and therapy to land on the following: For as long as I can remember, shame has been a part of my fabric.
The deep sense of shame has been an internal one. One that I’ve carried around with me for most of my life, and in a way has shaped the person I am today.
From birth, I knew what it was like to be “other.” I am the product of an affair. My mother had me when she was 24 years old, and my father was 41. He was married and had a 16 year old son, and my mother was the other woman. To complicate matters further, when my mom broke things off with my dad, he went back to his first wife, his first family. My stepmom was never the evil, wicked stepmother portrayed in Disney movies. She was the first wife, high school sweethearts with my dad. She had claimed him long before before I was born, long before my mother was even born. The shame of being the product of an affair carried with me throughout my childhood. I felt shame that my mother decided to fall in love with a married man, shame that I was the reason a family broke up, and the most shame looking into my half brother’s eyes knowing I am the human reminder of all that went wrong in his life. Whenever I’d go to my dad’s house, I could feel the lack of forgiveness in the house. My stepmom never forgave him, never forgave my mother, and I was stuck in the middle throughout it all. It was messy and as a child, the only way I knew how to process the shame was to hide, to play it safe and small, and to try and make everyone happy.
One of my earliest memories is of my mother standing in front of my classroom explaining to my classmates (and friends) that the color of our skin does not dictate whether we are family or not. This was her response to the bullying I was experiencing. I was born light skinned, but birthed by a Pakistani woman, and the children in my school had a hard time with the fact that she was indeed my mother. For my entire life, race has always been something that caused me deep shame. Being half Pakistani was always something that was whispered, as though it was a dirty word that should be kept on the DL. I can recall countless times that I was told I was lucky to have the skin tone that I do, and that I wouldn’t be beautiful had I inherited my mother’s complexion. I used to wish my mother was white, just so I could fit in. Just thinking back to those thoughts shatters me now. When I was little I used to think my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world. And yet over time — because of the whispers and shame imposed on me due to the color of her skin — I started diminishing her beauty subconsciously. Over the last couple of years, I’ve wondered if she could sense this from me, if she could feel that there were times I wish she didn’t have the color of her skin. I wonder whether race played a bigger part in our in relationship than I care to admit. If people had never bullied us into thinking only white is beautiful, would my relationship with her have been so strained?
Being able to say “me too” is the biggest shame reducer there is, and I hope our stories make you feel that your vulnerably is empowering.
Shame wasn’t only present in my upbringing either, but very much present in my later teens and throughout my 20s. I didn’t graduate from college, and for the next 10 years I walked into every room feeling like I wasn’t smart enough to be there. I’m ashamed to say that even on my most confident days, I can still feel like this.
And then in my early 20s, I experienced something that unfortunately many women (and men) have experienced. I was raped. I knew him, and felt like I deserved it. There was alcohol involved and I betrayed my intuition by being in the same room as him. It’s still hard typing out or saying the word rape. I still refer to it as “that night” and some days, even after all of the healing I’ve done, this gives me the most shame. That he always wins, even when I speak my truth.
I have worked to learn, unlearn, and rewire my trauma so that I don’t carry shame the way I used to. I entered my 30s feeling lighter, more free.
The interesting thing about shame though, is that it can creep in when you least expect it.
Earlier this year, I experienced Grand-Canyon sized shame around not being able to conceive. It felt like my body had failed me, like I had failed my body, and that I definitely had failed my husband.
I also lost my father during this time and it shattered my whole world. I experienced depression for the first time and felt so much shame for not being able to hold it all together.
Shame can be experienced in small ways, like when you fall in front of a crowd, but also in big deep-rooted ways that shape the person you are or the person you become. It can creep in quietly but ever so sharply. Shame does not discriminate. It’s universal and yet so rarely talked about.
Brene Brown, a renowned social worker who encourages vulnerability, defines shame as:
an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.
Many of the things I had felt immense shame by were things that happened outside of me, to me but not things that I actually did. And yet, I internalized them and blamed myself for all of them. I felt defined by the experiences and the whispers. This quote, her work, has helped me sit with the shame. Listen to it. What was it saying to me? What was the shame trying to teach me?
After a lot of journaling and years of soul searching, I have come to these conclusions:
I am not defined by my upbringing. Being the product of an affair does not devalue my worth in this world.
I am not defined by the color of my skin, and neither is my mother. Being mixed and being a woman of color is beautiful, and I will do everything in my power to ensure my one-day children live in a world where they are not valued by how light their skin color is.
I am not defined by my sexual experiences. Being raised in a patriarchal society means that some men were taught to view women’s bodies as disposable, and girls weren’t raised to fiercely listen to their intuition. It is not my fault I didn’t have the proper tools to fight back. I do now.
I am not defined by a missing heartbeat in my body. Though the desire of wanting a child is high, I am not defined by how or when it happens. My body is not flawed. It is perfect just the way it is.
I am not defined by my experiences. Everything and anything that has happened to me does not define me as a person and does not define the essence of me. These experiences may have influenced me, but I am far more than the lessons they have taught me.
The shame I have felt from all of these experiences feel like they’ve shaped every fiber in me. And by addressing the root of my shame, I have been able to navigate my way out it. Navigate my way back to myself. The purest version of me, long before the whispers. Before it, and yet past it.
Sharing my story, the good, the bad, and most importantly, the deeply shameful, have helped me heal. Stories help unveil and dethrone the shame.
When others speak their truth, it rips into the rest of the room like a burning forest: fast and steady, leaving everyone more inspired. Because of this example of vulnerability, we can address our own shame with a deeper sense of self-compassion and self-love. Sharing my story was possible because of other stories. Recognizing myself in those other stories guided me in learning to share my own.
I hope this website, our digital tent, is a place where stories help you feel inspired to start a dialogue with your own shame. Being able to say “me too” is the biggest shame reducer there is, and I hope our stories make you feel that your vulnerably is empowering. I hope this is a place where you feel inspired to learn, and most importantly unlearn. A place where you feel safe to share, to listen, to pause, to reflect, and to address your most shameful inner conflicts. Shame is universal and the moment I truly realized that, the veil was lifted. My hope is that this space does that for you too.
photography by Britney Gill