The Opposite of Shame

Friday, April 3, 2015 - 5:24am

The Opposite of Shame

It was one of those perfect spring Sundays. I had just come from hanging with two girlfriends. John sent a great video of Maya, snaking down a slide and laughing in the park. The windows were rolled down and the wind was blowing in my hair. And then the goddess threw a cherry on top: Kelly Clarkson “Since You’ve Been Gone,” one of my favorite songs to go crazy to on the dance floor in my 20s, came on the radio. I was belting it out and feeling more than fine when… CRASH.

That’s right, I managed to run smack into my neighbor’s parked car while trying to take the sharp right required to fit into our tricky space in the driveway. My mind hurried to catch up to the terrible sound of metal crunching. It couldn’t be, could it? Did I really just do that? Kelly went on singing incongruously. My perfect spring Sunday was violently over, like the moment your mom hits the off switch on the television with feeling after she’s told you to go up to bed multiple times and you’ve lingered.

I slunk around the rest of the night — feeling stupid, feeling guilty, feeling, almost as if I were being punished for something. "I was having too good a time," this weird voice inside of me said. "I should have made better choices. I shouldn’t have been so la-di-da while driving."

John Cary, the author's husband, washing his pride and joy with baby Maya in hand.

(Courtney Martin)

John, meanwhile, was as nice as could be about it. “It’s only money,” he said, even though our car — the first one he’s ever owned — is his pride and joy. He takes meticulous care of it, even strapping Maya to his chest in the baby carrier while he sprays it down at the neighborhood car wash.

My neighbor was obscenely kind, too. “I was wondering when that thing would get a scratch so I could just stop worrying about it,” he said, beaming a totally authentic smile.

But the shame monster in my head wouldn’t let up. Especially not the next morning when I found out how much the damage would cost. "I work so hard," I thought. "How could I be so stupid?" I sat in my office, head in hands, and tried to cry. The tears didn’t come.

I’ve always had this catastrophic tendency towards my own mistakes. In middle school, I shoplifted alongside a couple of girlfriends at the local J.C. Penney. We got caught, but managed to slip out of any punishment (hello, white privilege). I felt so guilty that I actually ended up telling my parents. I vividly remember sitting at the kitchen table and sobbing, “I will understand if you never trust me again!”

At moments when I’ve unintentionally hurt people with my writing, I’ve gone back to this dark, bottomless pit of a place. I imagine myself to be monstrous, almost like a reverse Midas. Everything I touch turns to shit. It makes me want to stay inside, stop creating, stop taking risks. I rationally know I’m not vindictive or careless, but this pit isn’t a rational place. It’s all stomach aches and regret and self-hate.

(Keturah Stickann / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).)

If there is any gift of going into the pit, it’s that when I emerge, I feel more human somehow. It’s like my ego is squeezed out like a wet rag. I’m less judgmental of others, reacquainted with just how hard life can be. I don’t crave transcendence; I just crave relief — a humble knowing that I am not perfect, and don’t have to be. And so I will just do my best and hope it’s enough.

It’s like the range of human emotions lives on a spectrum. On one end, there is shame; on the other, there is love. The only things that seem to drag me back towards the light side is time and the tenderness of people who know my heart.

Maya woke up at 1:30 am a few nights ago and John volunteered to go soothe her. I lay in bed, listening to their interaction. When she first registered that he was in the room, her cries got louder and more desperate. But then John started talking to her: “Momma loves you. And Dada loves you. And Kima loves you. And Oma loves you. And Didop loves you. And Nana loves you. And Gramps loves you…”

He went on like this for a good 10 minutes straight, just naming every single person (cats and dogs included) that he could think of that loved our little girl. Her cries turned to whimpers. Her whimpers disappeared.

This, I thought as I lay in the darkness, is the opposite of shame. To acknowledge all the people that love you, despite and sometimes even because of your mistakes, is to crawl out of the pit and into the light. You honor them by forgiving yourself. As hard as it can be.

(Kerem Tapani Gültekin / Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).)

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection



This blog post helped me even out some of my own shame this morning. Thank you for sharing it!

Wonderful to read this essay this AM. It's been amazing to observe in myself the difference between shame and guilt over something when I've screwed up somehow. Guilt being the feeling of knowing I screwed up, shame is the sense of who I am being screwed up. Forgiveness is a big part of changing the shame, and I'm continuing to learn loving kindness and compassion for myself and others when something goes wrong . . . thanks so much for this reflection.

that was a good read.... forgiving oneself is even harder than forgiving others but being a christian girl I know that if God loves you enough to forgive you, you better love yourself enough to forgive yourself. your not perfect but then again no one is. thanks.

I needed that!

Excessive shame is such a destructive emotion. Seems that it begins with well meaning parents who believe that the more the better. I admit that I used it with my children, which, of course, leaves me with feelings of shame. Wow, it's everywhere! Loving and forgiveness of oneself seems to be the only answer. And isn't that what we want to teach our children? Jesus is my teacher.

The accident and your reaction seems a bit different from the shame issue. In my experience, we really get mad at ourselves when we believe we have made clearly bad decisions. The remedy is in gravitating toward a more modest evaluation of our rational mind's position in our lives. We have limited knowledge, power, and responsibility, and trying to go beyond that limit is a symptom of not dealing with our anxieties properly and instead trying to limit them by an illusion of control.
Another issue is that violent, self-harming internal conversations are typically a symptom of internal voices that are being marginalized and silenced ... when a voice is heard and respected (not necessarily followed) it becomes less malignant.

So true. Thanks for this piece. I get caught in the same hole of shame and this s a good reminder of what it is to be human

Oh yeah, I recognize that shame. Working my way out of it by honoring the love that others have for me, is really hard sometimes and deeply humbling. And yet, I know it's my best route, day after day.

This is a nice post. Could you have a better example of shame, though? With age, we experience big ones. A woman who stays with a man who abuses her too long until finally leaving him feels deep shame, though she did her best to leave earlier. Getting drunk and sleeping with your best friend's wife creates deep shame. Today is Good Friday. In that story is the ultimate forgiveness for everyone, especially ourselves.

I've carried shame around like a boulder on my back for 50years. It's been hard for me to lift the load alone and I've not turned to God until now. His presence and forgiveness this season has been a blessing for me.

Thank you for sharing that--it mirrors what I've been unraveling lately. 50 years of guilt, shame, embarrassment in this every-growing burlap bag on my shoulder, which I carry around always. Self-forgiveness is so incredibly difficult. Best wishes in your healing.

We are often too hard on ourselves, and tricky as it is, forgiveness of self is the only way out of this "pit." It takes practice and patience because that rascal emotion called shame sneaks back in and we get to learn the lesson again. And again. Transcendence comes in small steps. But it does come to those who seek.

As someone who found my imperfections seriously hard to take for much of life, and as someone who found instead that compassion flows from our oneness as imperfect humans and not from some lonely perfect mountaintop,I value what you wrote here. Its ending is injust the right place. Loving and being loved, when you really accept them, are simply more important. Thanks.

Wonderfully descriptive article on the "pit" of shame we all have. Thanks for letting us see inside of your struggle with Shame. It is familiar to me and many others. Sometimes it still slips up on me when I do something really dumb...even as old as I am. I have to remind myself that I am allowed to be human. We are full of imperfections and warts. I am still loved. Thank goodness. Thank God I am forgiven. But, that is another story.

No matter how much healthier or stronger I seem to get, I'm still not immune to these shame storms. They always start with a small (sometimes big) mistake and end with me perceiving myself as what a therapist once called "Godzilla Aimee." She suggested I think of the Will Ferrell anchorman meme that has him with a beer and says, "Well, that escalated quickly" anytime I catch the irrational shame storms at work. I printed it out and keep it by my desk. It really helps me to laugh at the absurdity of my thoughts when overcome by shame. Sharing our stories about it also helps diffuse the power. Thank you for blogging about this!

There are times when I've made mistakes and feel foolish or ashamed. In these cases I seek and hope for forgiveness. But I believe this is different than the dark monster of shame. This monster lives in our minds, telling us that WHO WE ARE isn't good enough.

Thank you, Courtney, for sharing your vulnerability. We all have been there and need to learn how to forgive ourselves and others, as well as love ourselves, not always an easy task.

I get so consumed with shame over my mistakes that I can get really depressed. I know everyone makes mistakes, sometimes big ones, and life will go on. But I can't help it. I never thought of forgiving myself as a way of honoring those who love me. I owe it to them to move on and be thankful.

Moral of the story: when behind the wheel, please--just drive. Same for everyone. When you get in a vehicle, it isn't simply the world of moving emotions; it's the world of moving metal. Staying alert is a matter of life and death, quite literally.

Maybe those initial intuitions were signaling something wise. Driving is a social activity, and shame is a social emotion. When people and property are impacted, some degree of shame would seem appropriate, depending on the facts. That said, it makes little sense to ruminate too long over a "fender bender." But driving is an inherently serious activity, and how gloriously lucky it was that no one was injured in this story. By taking notions of self and perfection out of the narrative, what's left are the makings of a meditation on mindful driving, or more generally, mindful living. Here is a teachable moment if ever there was one, and what a gift it is, if recognized and used as such.

I disagree with shame being an appropriate response, I don't believe shame is EVER appropriate! Shame says you are bad, guilt says I mucked up, I made a mistake. I don't believe anyone is bad I believe people are just terribly damaged and confused.

Thank you Courtney. I needed to be "risen" on this Easter Sunday from my own feelings of ambivalence about some of life's difficulties.My own pattern of self-forgiveness involves a long stop at the icky feeling of paralyzing ambivalence. Your story is my Easter gift. I kicked me out of my frozen state.

Wow! I sooo appreciate this heartfelt story and message. I am so good at beating myself up over a mistake, and then reaching back through time for other mistakes I have made, as if to prove how pathetic I am! Thank you for sharing this beautiful practice of remembering all those who love me, just the way I am.

Difficulty with forgiving myself results in efforts to avoid being a repeat offender.

I can so relate to that crunch of metal and the shame that engulfed me afterwards. Thank you for sharing.

This is profoundly true (and well-written). When people are lost, whether in the wilderness, in addiction, in personal despair, it is shame that keeps them from being found. People who are lost this way cannot find their way out alone. Someone must reach out in love, sustain their value to humanity, and there-by show them the path home.

When God forgives me, why can I not forgive myself? Only child, Southern guilt,must be perfect hang-ups? Thank you for this reflection. Hanging onto the guilt and rubbing my nose in the shame does not reflect the light of Jesus. Taking responsibility and trying to repair the damage I have done to others or myself is what repentance is all about. So is the letting go of shame.


This is so beautiful and cogent, Courtney. It's a sometimes tricky task to go from acting like shame doesn't exit to acknowledging it does it exist and often for good reason to recovering from that through understanding we are loved anyway (and need to offer that love to others when they experience their own bouts of shame). The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises address this with a week of praying about the things we have done that have caused harm, distanced us from God, perpetuated inequality, etc and I just went through that week. About Thursday I felt I could handle it no more, I was too distraught with all my errors and wrongs (and I'm a few decades older than you so have really had the time to wrack up some good ones . . .), but I re-read the materials of the week and focused again on the point: to remember, yep, we screwed up, we hurt, we walked around with privilege and thought we 'deserved' the good things in life, but in reality, every day, we are given a gift. It is given by grace -- not earned -- and we should realize just how loved we are, exactly as we are, and maybe offer a bit more of that to everyone else, walking around with the same sense of dread or shame from time to time. My best to you. Please keep writing. I love your work!

You have a real gem of a husband. Your daughter is going to grow up knowing how loved she is. And that will keep her strong in the face of everything life throws at her.

We so often neglect those who shelter us with their love because we're so focused on fixing what's wrong. Naming those who love us is far better than trying to use affirmations. Nothing can take the place of love.

Thank-you so much for this wonderful honest and heartful story!Your partner reminding your little girl how she is loved and boyhood many people is so potent. I love what Brene Brown says about the difference between shame and guilt, guilt is a feeling that I've done something bad whereas shame says I AM bad. Shame is no fun! I also think shame is epidemic! Stories that expose our feelings of shame are so liberating, because shame is that dark monster you describe and it can't survive in the light of day. I believe we need to celebrate mistakes! To give shame a big kick and claim our right to make mistakes because everybody makes them and its part of being human! Like you say the people who really count in our lives love us because of our mistakes not inspire of them!

Excellent rendering !

Paradoxical that you view your shop lifting experience as 'white privilege'. The law used a method that is used on teenagers of ALL races - it 'scared you straight' so to speak. Enough of the white guilt for being white. Love yourself.

I just ran across this today, Dec. 14. The timing was perfect. Self-forgiveness is brutal but I know I must do the work to finally quit beating myself up for every little thing that I can remember from my entire life. Unfortunately in this case, I have a good memory. I envision them gathered in a burlap bag which I carry on my shoulder, every single day. The bag grows bigger and the burden larger. I so long to be free of it. What you wrote was exactly what i needed, especially the last sentence. Thank you.