Recently, I flashed back on a moment when I was sitting on a doctor’s exam table without any underpants—and asked to put the soles of my feet together. I was being evaluated for “club feet.”
My feet are wide. When I was little, I had to wear orthopedic shoes, not the patent leather Mary Jane’s that I craved.
Turns out I don’t have club feet. But looking back, I do think I had a condition called metatarsus adductus—which simply means that the front part of my feet curved in a bit too much.
What I don’t understand is why I wasn’t wearing any underpants. And why, years later, the only part I remember about all of this was how exposed I felt. I think I was probably about five.
Fast forward to the 1990’s. I was in the ladies room of the hospital, and laughing to myself about a story that addiction expert Anne Wilson Schaef had told about giving a talk at Hewlett Packard. She said she was in the ladies room just before the talk. And luckily a woman had told her that her skirt was tucked up into her panty hose. Otherwise, she would have walked up to the podium to give her speech with her derriere in full view. I left the ladies room and walked down the hospital hallway. Moments later, the Chief of Anesthesia walked by and said, “Dr. Northrup, your skirt is tucked up in the back.”
Oh my Lord. I had repeated the same pattern as Schaef. Except that for me, it wasn’t something that I humorously shared with a receptive audience. I went into a full-blown shame attack. And it lasted for the next 48 hours. I’m not kidding you. I felt as though I were two inches tall. I wanted to shrink into the woodwork. I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to face this doctor again. I sat with how bad this felt—and simply couldn’t talk myself out of it. Nor did I want to share the episode with anyone.
After about 48 hours, I realized that I had had a full-blown shame attack. And the person who was feeling so little and vulnerable wasn’t the adult me, who had hospital privileges and was a colleague of that other doctor. Nope—the part of me that was reacting was that little girl who had to sit on an exam table with the soles of her feet together without underpants.
I knew enough about the mind/body connection at that point to at least realize that my reaction to the pantyhose episode was not that of a confident adult. By allowing myself to really feel how awful that felt, I transformed a big load of shame.
Fast forward another decade or so. I’m at a Starbuck’s in California. And as I come out of the ladies room, I realize that—sure enough—my skirt is tucked up again into my underpants. (I’m pretty sure I had given up panty hose my then). But here’s the good part. When I discovered this, I laughed! I could have flashed the entire coffee shop and shared a hilarious moment with them. I knew then that I was free from that past shameful experience—and it felt glorious.
Shame is, hands down, the most uncomfortable feeling that any of us can have. And, because it produces continuous amounts of inflammatory chemicals in the body, it is also a health risk. Brene Brown, in her incredible book Daring Greatly reminds us of the following:
Guilt says: I made a mistake.
Shame says: I AM a mistake.
And because connection with others and our best selves is the most primal need we humans have, shame feels absolutely awful.
We all have unresolved shame—because it is used as a tool to control behavior. Does this sound familiar? Shame on you for not writing that thank you note. You’re a bad girl.
But here’s the good news. Shame cannot exist in conditions of light, sunshine, and humor. So the very moment that you share your most shameful moments—and can learn to laugh about them—then the spell is lifted. And you, too, are free.