Actress Alyson Stoner ("Step Up") opens up about a universal topic: shame, a narrative originally published in Issue 21 of Zooey Magazine.
This is my friend, Shame. Have you met her?
She’s timid and nearly mute, for fear of people learning too much about her. She’s insecure; she can’t quite believe she’s worth loving. Most conspicuously, she’s trapped. I’ve told her numerous times about freedom outside her moonless, starless chamber, but she’s paralyzed in isolation. Aloneness is what’s comfortable, but she’s never really comforted.
Shame has been my friend since I was a little girl. It’s bewildering to picture life without her as she’s attended every milestone. When I landed a lead role, she reminded me that my small-town spirit would be pulverized by a ruthless industry if I stuck with my dreams of acting. She coached me on 9-mile daily runs to help me stand out and rank higher in discipline and fitness than my lazy, vapid peers. When I was asked on a date, she painted heavy make-up across my eyes to ensure my true self wouldn’t be borne, postulating my flaws would repulse whoever saw, of course. A secondary benefit from that night’s artificial glamour: I was protected from being vulnerable; my emotions remained forever a mystery to that young man. So, you could say Shame is looking out for me. Has she looked out for you?
I’m grateful to Shame, because I might have taken risks and fallen flat on my face in front of many crowds had she not steered me away from transparency. My teachers would’ve seen I was a mess, laboring over papers for hours versus being naturally bright as they often figured. In this vein, I built a false self for all areas of life (sports, friendships, career), and that girl braved the world like a champion. Unruffled, she led her generation in beauty, savvy, and wisdom. She was me, but, you know, the better me - the one who’s enough. And Shame contributed to her formation.
While average pairs catch up with their neighbors, Shame insists there’s work to be done. So I don’t waste time seeing family and peers anymore. Instead, I’ve brought a sleeping bag into her room and we stay up at all hours discussing what I need to improve on. Right now she’s fixing my hideous prudishness. She’s a bit of drill sergeant, but the public only ever sees the finished product, which is usually more appeasing and acceptable to society, so I don’t complain. Nobody has to know her methods—nobody has to know my weaknesses. I appear strong, and I don’t burden anybody with my struggles either. Does she keep any of your secrets safe in the dark?
Shame taught me I’m to blame for many of the harsh realities and tearful circumstances around me. That was depressing to absorb. My only relief during this wrestling match against myself is to utilize a temporary pain reducer. She calls it medicating. It’s the thing I do when I need to take the edge off, when I don’t want to break down, when I just want to check out. Living vicariously through others on the Internet does the trick. Sleeping is a great evasion. Shopping, caffeine… I haven’t touched a drug or bottle and I’ve found a great balance between numbness and depression. It sounds demented, but I swear I’m just trying to help myself be better.
Between you and me—promise you won’t say anything—I kind of haven’t detected much positive progress toward the goals Shame has set for me. I have good intentions, but I either fall short of her standards or I end up obsessing over something I’m not, and I get stuck in the cycle of being hypercritical, self-pitying, and destructive. See, she flashes a photo of perfection in my view, but she uses fear of punishment to motivate me. And, I just don’t think it’s accomplishing what she promises. Sometimes I reach the goal, but I’m too preoccupied with my flaws to enjoy the moment. It sucks the happiness and positivity right out of everything.
Frankly, when Shame’s around, I change. I can’t really find peace of mind. I’m always under pressure. I feel like I’m under a microscope, with her poking at my flaws like a jester. No matter what I do, she’s never pleased. And she keeps me all to herself.
I miss my sisters. We used to hang on the weekends and go on spontaneous adventures in the city. They see me running myself to the ground, but I won’t tell them it’s because of Shame. They remember when I was so carefree. I had big dreams… confidence in my own skin… my heart radiated love and warmth. I wasn’t afraid to let people in.
The ruthless criticism and pursuit of perfection vow to make us better, but when they take control, it seems like our best days are behind us. That’s when Shame moved to the center of my life. I realized I had so far to go—so many issues, so little time, and energy to tackle them all. I fell to my knees discouraged.
I miss falling to my knees in gratitude. I miss hugging my knees in the corner not because I’m frightened, but because I’ve been laughing too hard my stomach hurts. I miss feeling truly known by people. In fact, I miss truly knowing people.
Shame is quite possessive. She has a way of puppeteering my identity and causing a great deal of discontentment in the process. Then, there’s this quiet rage that gets blanketed under my medication, and that stirs relentlessly (though few outsiders perceive it). For being such a loyal companion, she sure does come with a lot of baggage. And I don’t want to be defined by her anymore.
I want to see the sun on the other side of the black curtains, which means I’m going to have to let the light shine in on her. I’m going to have to let a few special, trusted people see her, and talk to them about the way in which she’s led me for so long. She’s going to insist on darkness. She’s going to persist in the corner alone, curled up and knees tucked as always. Just like Fear is afraid of itself, Shame is ashamed of herself. But Shame and I are not the same entity. We are separate. And it’s time for me to move out of the shadows.
If you’ve known Shame like I have, and you’re exhausted by her friendship, there’s hope of moving forward. In the meantime, we can’t regret knowing her so closely. We’ve learned a lot from sitting at her feet and coalescing into one guise. Shame’s eyes, which can blend with ours, are the life-sucking Art of Comparison, where nothing is as it is, but can be only better or worse than the person or object or status next to it. Through that lens, we reap jealousy, insecurity, and pride. Her hands and feet, which can intertwine with ours, are unreasonably high expectations and impatience, regarding the journey and time necessary to mature. We pave a trail of disappointment, frustration, and self-loathing. Her heart, which latches onto ours, carries us into seclusion.
These are all red flags we can notice now. I know something needs attention when I see any of these symptoms of Shame’s presence and control. If I see it in others, I can teach them about her tactics and help them break free of her grip. Because we as human beings are designed for a life much greater than anything Shame offers, there’s a road of freedom, joy, self-love, and peace, and Shame has no part of it.
Tell me, where is Shame in your life right now? What has Shame caused or set into motion? Would you like to join me in opening the curtain on Shame, and seeing what beautiful transformation can happen when we let the light in?