When Amy Ferris asked me to contribute an essay to Dancing at the Shame Prom: Sharing the Stories That Kept Us Small, I wasn’t sure that I had any shame. Then, when I thought about it, I realized that I did. I just hadn’t framed it that way. I agreed to participate.
After I handed in my essay, I heard back from co-editor Hollye Dexter. “I think you are holding back,” she said. “Can you go a little deeper?” So I did. Along with twenty-six other women, I wrote openly about issues that had impacted my life.
Now that the book is out, I have taken off my memoirist hat and am writing as health journalist. Reading the stories that encompassed familial alcoholism, sexual abuse, parental suicide, distorted body images, hoarding, alienation, and racial identity anxiety — I wanted to get to the psychological root of how shame shapes who we are and how we live our lives.
I interviewed four practitioners who shared insights that were both clinical and revelatory. We focused on how shame specifically impacts girls and women. Many of their observations and verbiage overlapped. To a person, they all began the conversation by drawing a distinction between shame and guilt.
Shame is a feeling or belief that screams, “I am bad.” Guilt is evidenced as, “I did something bad.” Shame is feeling worthless. Guilt is external; you can fix it.