When we speak shame, we cut it off at the knees, Brené Brown says.
Our palms sweat, hearts race, stomach drops, and we feel flooded with emotion. From here, maybe we run away, keeping our secrets to ourselves, we appease, attempting to mold into whatever we think the world is looking for, or we fight back, lashing out, putting up our armor in an attempt to protect our hearts.
Last Saturday I found myself sitting in my local laundromat — a place that has developed incredible symbolism for the state of my heart and mind as of late. My apartment doesn’t have accessible laundry facilities, so I drag my basket of dirty clothes to the land of coin-operated machines a few blocks from my house on a weekly basis.
When I fold my laundry I think a lot, likely because my hands are busy and my brain has all the room to roam. I often wonder if the others around me are navigating the intimate corners of their minds like me. It looks like we are awkwardly folding our underwear in a shared space, but really we are in the thick of it, working to solve life’s mysteries one roll of quarters at a time.
How to Cut Toxic Shame out of Your Life
Brené calls the shame triggers we harbor deep in our being our shame gremlins. They whisper in our ear, “you’re not good enough,” and giggle under their breath as they watch us shrink. They hold us back from speaking up, opening our hearts, and telling our story. They are as debilitating as they are ugly, and we all have them, adopted from our upbringing and escorted into our own adulthood.
As I sat in the laundromat, head down, foot-tapping, headphones drowning out the buzz of a dozen dryers, two familiar faces walked in the door. A few moments passed and I felt them standing over me. My palms sweaty, my heart racing, my stomach in my worn-out Chuck Taylors.
They were colleagues from my ex-husband’s former employer — the employer that fired him months ago, which sent us out of town, which ultimately led to the routine carting of my laundry to a public place, too poor for a house with a washing machine, divorced. They handed me a roll of quarters as a part of the company’s “Random Acts of Kindness” marketing campaign. I didn’t want to take the quarters. I wanted to slide under the chair and scream. My gremlins came together in harmonious laughter, watching me shrink and shrink and shrink.
They can recognize their gremlins when they show up.
They can reality-check the messages that are feeding these triggers.
They reach out for support to tell their story.
They speak their shame.
Shame exists in our lives, regardless of how hard we fight it. It’s our responsibility to become familiar with it. If we desire to live wholeheartedly, we must know when to recognize when shame’s at the table, because, without a doubt, it will find its way there on occasion.
As the laundromat customers doted over the kind-gesture from the men with the quarters, the floodgates were opening. I thought about leaving the quarters on the table. “I don’t want their fucking money,” I steamed. I thought about abandoning my clothes, jumping in the car and going until I didn’t feel the grips of toxic anymore.
When we speak shame, we cut it off at the knees, Brené says.
I grabbed my phone and texted my best friend:
Doing my laundry in the laundromat makes me feel like I’m trash. It makes me feel like I can’t support myself. It makes me feel weak. I’m 28 years old, living in a rental house, with a roommate. Being seen with a pocket full of quarters, surrounded by my own dirty clothes, makes me feel toxic shame.
When he was fired from his job, I was so angry. We worked so hard in our careers to be the best, probably because we were better at being the best for work than for each other. Knowing that they know he was let go makes me feel toxic shame.
I couldn’t keep my own marriage together. I don’t know how to love, and I don’t know how to be loved. I’m alone and I am heartbroken. Being seen without him, with a new name, back in this town makes me feel toxic shame.
I went back to my pile of clean clothes. I folded the bathrobe we stole from the hotel he proposed to me at, I thought about the work I’d put into my career over the years, building something from nothing, I thought about the night I had before, smiling like a boy-crazy teenager in the company of a new man. I looked at the wide grins on the faces of my laundry-comrades, armed with rolls of shiny, new laundry-change, and I took a deep breath.