I find the stereotype that “millennials have never felt true pain” to be absolute bullshit. In my experience, there is no worse feelings than the the emptiness of grief or the burning of shame. These feelings are so horrible that even just talking about them is hard. Grief isn’t as bad to speak of. We’ve all felt it. We feel it when we lose something or someone that matters deeply to us and there is no way of getting them back. Things hurt for a while, everything changes, and then life slowly builds itself back together piece by piece. It’s a painful process and the revised version of your world never fully recovers from what it has lost. But all of that suffering is external. In some ways, I think shame is a more painful feeling. Because shame is internal, shame is private, and there is nobody to blame but oneself.
When I was little, I was an avid Disney fan. I still am. But I remember being confused by all the talk of “dreams coming true” and “following your dreams”. I took the phrase literally and thought I was being encouraged to try and make the dreams I had at night become a reality. I remember telling my brother “I don’t understand…I never have dreams. I only have nightmares”. I was a morbid kid. Now I had a lot of different kinds of nightmares. Getting lost in a gigantic building of doors was a common one. A lot of those dreams would also feature some sort of monster chasing me. But nothing was worse than the “shame” dreams. The dreams where everyone I respected hated me. The dreams where people realized what an utter failure I was and wanted nothing to do with me. The dreams where people saw the “real” me and were disgusted by what they saw. Those dreams were always the worst.
I’ve dealt with a lot of shame in my life, especially in Middle School. High School as well, though to a lesser degree. When I would get a bad grade I would studiously avoid my teachers for weeks. I would lose sleep over one disappointed glance. If I had a crush on anyone I was immediately convinced that they hated me to my very core. Or they would once they saw sense, anyway. Teacher conferences were my worst nightmare. What kid wants to sit out in the hallways while they listen to the people they respect quietly condemning them for every mistake they’ve ever made? It was horrible. My worst nights came from days when I failed miserably in orchestra, class, or play practice. I would go home and feel terrible about what a complete loser and failure I was. My worst memory for many years was a detention I had in 7th Grade. It was alone with a teacher who had it out for me. We had to walk past two teachers I respected in the hallway and I felt their disappointed stares burn through me. The entire detention was an absolute nightmare and it ended with me in near tears. Even the teacher felt pity for me by the end of it.
My first year of college I was walked on tippy-toes everywhere I went. I was trying to start anew and attempting to hide all parts of me that I wasn’t so proud of. I was terrified that I would slip up and people would see the “real” me and hate her. So I kept myself quiet and put up the “shy innocent sweet girl” front so nobody would see the darker sides of me. It worked, but I was constantly fearing the moment it all fell apart. That moment finally happened when I got fired from my first retail job and all my worst nightmares came true. There were guilt trips everywhere I turned. I felt like a complete waste of space and like a total failure. I literally broke out in rashes from all the shame, stress, and anxiety. I still have pictures of this on my phone as a reminder to never go back to those days. Nobody should make you feel so ashamed that you show physical effects.
I spent the next year of college finally dealing with these insecurities and bottled up emotions. I found people who supported me, believed in me, and cared for me unconditionally. Who pulled me up off the floor whenever I fell down and pushed me to get up and try again. I started loving myself and cutting out the haters in my life. It was a great learning experience about respecting and loving yourself. And we all lived happily ever after. Yada, yada, yada…
So today at work, my shift was a nightmare. There were no shift managers, so instead I had to work with the head manager and the assistant manager. They forget to give me a break and I ended up not eating anything until I got home at 6pm. So I skipped breakfast and lunch. The effects were clear in my work performance. I was also forced to work alone when a huge crowd hit and I got a little overwhelmed by it all. At the end of the shift, the one shift manager who already doesn’t like me came in to take over for the night shift. When he cashed out my register, it was found that I was $7 short. So now I’m also in hot water with everyone at work. In that moment, it felt like my world stopped. It has been three years since my horrid experience at the supermarket. I’ve grown. I’ve learned. I’ve changed. Yet here I stand. In the exact same place. In that moment, I could see it all again. The fall. The anxiety. The stress. The shame. I seemed to hear the manager telling me to double check as though I were miles and miles away. After all this character development, not a thing has changed.
I don’t think shame is an emotion that you defeat. Like fear or sadness or even grief, shame is just an emotion that you need to accept. It will come back. I’ve had many times when I’ve thought that I’d beaten it back for good. And yet it has always returned. Like a fucked up boomerang. This time I will not let my shame define me. I will not allow it to lead me down a path where I spiral out of control again. I am stronger now. I will be stronger. I know my own worth and I know what I am capable of. I did not watch “Friday Night Lights”, “Avatar The Last Airbender”, and “Veronica Mars” for nothing. I did not reread the whole damn “Harry Potter” series for nothing. I will not let the people that I met in college down just because I had a little hiccup. I have managed to get people to believe in me and I have managed to change minds. It’s about time I started believing in myself. So I made a mistake. So what? That doesn’t mean that this is the beginning of the crash. If anything, this is a chance to get off my ass and prove myself. If nothing else then for myself. It’s about time I learn from my past mistakes. I’ve read this story too many times before. This time I’m changing the ending.
“Pride is not the opposite of shame, but it’s source. True humility is the only antidote to shame”-Uncle Iroh (Avatar: The Last Airbender)