Shame and writing

I write a lot. I write here. I write for 15 minutes every morning in a personal journal. I write in my children’s scrapbooks, capturing bits and pieces of the memories to describe the photos I choose to tell their stories. I write lists and meal plans and notes on our family calendar. I write professionally every day, public education resources for the web, documents for the media, proposals, strategies and content for other professional publications. I have a separate journal at work in which I write everything I’ve done in a day, and jot notes for ideas and inspiration related to my career.

Some much of my life is woven tightly into my writing, it’s fair to say that it defines and influences almost everything I do.  I use it to find and understand myself, to explore and discuss new ideas, to tell my stories, and to support my family.

But as much as writing sustains me, it’s also my greatest shame trigger. It brings me equal parts joy and fulfillment, as insecurity and discomfort. Because so much of what I do is wrapped up in writing, it’s the measure I use to evaluate my life, to determine my own self-worth, to feel valued and skilled. It’s a hard measure to live by, both personally and professionally, because it’s highly individual, and a matter of perspective. What I write here, for example, is so very different than what I write professionally, their objectives distinct and unique, but all of it open to critique and interpretation. Sometimes I have a hard time navigating the two and finding balance. Mostly I never feel good enough.

I’m reading I Thought it Was Just Me by Brené Brown, which is prompting me to think carefully about my own shame, and how it impacts my life. More importantly I’m thinking about building my own shame resilience, and moving closer to a place of comfort and self-satisfaction and away from a place of self-judgment in my writing.

Last week I had a deeply shaming experience. I was feeling tired and spent from a busy, and difficult week. On its own this is always a recipe for overreaction. Toward the end of the day on Thursday I received some feedback on a large project I had been working on for months. Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t have been significant enough to illicit such a visceral emotional response. But I took it personal, felt judged professionally, and retreated deeply into shame. So deeply, in fact, that I fell asleep that night crying and struggled through the first anxiety attack I’d had in months. The next morning, I woke up shaky and exhausted.

Brené writes:

When we are in shame, we don’t see the big picture; we don’t accurately think about our strengths and limitations. We just feel alone, exposed and deeply flawed.

This is what my writing does to me, because it matters so much to me. I want to be a good writer, I want to do well. In fact, I want to do better than well. I want this to be my thing. But how can it be when it makes me feel incredibly insecure.  Should a person’s thing be the very activity they feel the most confident about?

Try as I might, I’m having difficulty moving to a place where I believe, in my gut, that doing my best is good enough, and makes me worthy. I’m the kind of person who deals with shame by moving toward it, by seeking to appease and please. I spend too much time worrying what others think, and not enough time validating what I know to be true, inside.

It’s unhealthy and troublesome, the core of all my struggles.


So I’m reading attentively, and thinking carefully about how I can build my own shame resilience. I’ve already come so far, this time last year I would never have recognized what was happening on Thursday, and today I’d still be stewing and worrying. But now I see it for what it was. The feedback and the commentary that followed made me feel flawed and incapable, and so I had a physical and emotional reaction. I was steeped in it.

Now that I recognize it, know it, I can continue to monitor my triggers, I can gain a better understanding of how it affects, and perhaps do a better job of reigning it in, moving past it quicker and forgive myself the struggle.


25 thoughts on “Shame and writing

  1. Oh, boy. Do I know shame. Do I ever. If you garner more insight, please share.

  2. Christa says:

    Oh, honey.

    It’s hard to know what to say, except to ask you to please tell yourself forgiven, forgiven and make space for the inevitabilities of life and the ups and downs it brings.

    Love to you, and peace.

  3. ShannonL says:

    It’s interesting getting to know you through your writing because I would never know these things about you. You come across as so confident, so self-assured. I don’t know how you do it, really. Nobody likes to be critiqued or receive not-so-great feedback, but you can’t take it personally. It’s not a reflection of you as a person, it’s merely another person’s opinion of your work and perhaps something you can use to build on in the future. I think writing is definitely your *thing*! And you are constantly taking steps to grow and improve so you have absolutely nothing to worry about. Just run with it and enjoy it. Who are you trying to please besides yourself anyway? And do they really matter in the big scheme of things? Hugs to you, my friend!

  4. Gina says:

    It’s not just you. It’s women. Your post made me think of this article that I just read:

  5. Writing is such a deeply personal measure of who we are (those of us who define ourselves as writers). It’s a vehicle for so much self-worth, good and bad, and carries with it so much weight. I’m sorry you’ve had that experience this week. I’ve definitely had mine as well.

    • Christine says:

      And I suppose I’ll have many more! But I am trying really hard to remind myself that I do this mostly for me, whether here or professionally. I do it because I love it and that should be enough, right? 🙂

  6. Pamela says:

    So much of what you write hits home to me. I used to write annual reports etc. for a public company. Once the CEO threw the draft of the annual report at my head just as another VP in the company stepped in for a meeting. I went into a massive shame spiral after that one and hid out in the bathroom for a while. The next day, the CEO came to my desk and told me he loved the annual report. The same one.

    So feedback can be fickle.

    And no, I don’t think that “your thing” should be the thing you are most secure about. I think the fact that you feel insecure means that you are learning. You are living on the edge, where you are truly alive. I also think that things we are secure about get boring quickly. As Rolf Gates says, we are all learners in this lifetime …

    PS I am reading the same book you are:)

  7. Ann says:

    I totally relate to this post. When I am tired or burnt out, I much more easily shame-spiral. I’ve been working on a post lately about praise. It seems like the opposite of shame, but really it isn’t–at least the way I process it. Praise is so elusive and for me it’s never ever enough. I’m realizing that after that initial endorphin/dopamine surge, my body reacts to praise in a similar fashion to shame–from IM AWESOME to HOW WILL I TOP THAT? I CAN NEVER TOP THAT. IM A FRAUD AND EVERYTHING IS NOW OVER.

    I love what Brene Brown writes about shame and this cycle. Very helpful stuff.

  8. Yukari says:

    Loved this post. I am a huge fan of Brené but haven’t read that one yet. I have written about embracing vulnerability myself, and I am so glad you wrote about this. I think you are a beautiful writer.

  9. I sometimes struggled greatly with this. A friend once passed on this affirmation: “I approve of myself.” She told me to repeat it a dozen times a day. I actually repeated it more times, putting the emphasis on different syllables to get different shades of meaning. I forgot about it for a while, but the next time I had a crisis I began to write this phrase 20 or 30 times a day. It’s a powerful message. It should help you remember that in the workplace someone else might have decision-making power, but that does NOT mean your work isn’t great in the first place. It should also help you take pride in your personal writing … in the whole process of drafting, improving, tearing it up, starting over, whatever it takes. You are doing exceptional work on your personal journey and you should not just love and forgive yourself but APPROVE of yourself.

  10. I’m so sorry you had that experience last week at work, but I’m impressed that you were so quickly able to identify your triggers and get to the root of your emotions.

    When you talk about the insecurity you feel about your writing even though it’s your “thing” (and it is, my friend, it is), you made me think of the way I feel about parenting so many days. I love my kids more than anything in the world and I think I’m a good mother; nevertheless, I never feel less confident than when I feel like my parenting is on display. You care so much about your writing that I think it makes sense that you feel deeply any criticism (real or perceived).

    Write on, sweet lady. Write your way out of shame and into confidence. And I’ll be here to read every word.


    • Christine says:

      Maybe it’s because these things, they just matter so much to us. A year ago, I really would have wallowed in it for days. It feels really empowering to know that now, to see how far I’ve come and to be able to put it into action.

      Thank you always for being a friend, and offering kindness and support.

  11. I don’t know the particular flavors of the depth of what you’re feeling, Christine. But I will say that this is very much a woman’s issue, a mother’s issue in our contemporary western culture.

    I don’t know any mother who feels that she does enough, that she’s good enough, that she is deserving of even some of the simplest bits of herself – for herself. And that’s a problem. A huge problem.

  12. harrietglynn says:

    I heard somewhere that shame and perfectionism are opposite sides of the same coin.

    As for shame, it’s the deep down root of everything isn’t it? This is the thing that holds me back above all else and it goes deep into childhood and teenagerhood (for sure), explains my addiction to saracasm as protection, my inability to go for anything …. ((spirals downwards))….so much work to do.

    • Christine says:

      It certainly is. Until I started reading Brené’s work, I didn’t have a name for it. Now that I do, I feel I’m finally starting to understand myself and it makes it easier. The work is worth it Harriet, I promise you!

  13. Eydie says:


    I read your blog today for the first time, and with each word I read, I thought to myself, this women knows how to write. She is a writer. Not only did I become captivated by your story, I was inspired by your strong sense of confidence.

    I seriously thought to myself, this is someone I need to follow. She knows how to write. She knows how to express herself. She knows where to put all the commas.

    I was a bit taken when I came to the words, “shame, discomfort, and insecurity. These are the feelings I experience far too often, when writing. For me, not knowing where to put the “commas” is huge.
    There are times when it may take me days of re-reading and editing my posts before hitting the “publish post”button.

    Thank you so much for sharing. This visit has been a huge inspiration for me.

    • Christine says:

      My goodness! Thank you so much for your kind words. What matters to me most is hearing how this resonates with others, because we need to be more open and talk about the struggles we face. That’s how we learn we’re not alone, and how we can move toward a better sense of community.

  14. The experience you talk about with the anxiety attack resembles what I felt at my first legal position. Much of what I experienced was shame and inadequacy because I dealt with a very caustic boss. But I recognize, many years later, I allowed her to put me in a place of shame. For me, writing has provided me with a calmness of spirit, but also given me moments of pause. I too want it to be my thing. Everyday, by reading and interacting with other writers, I am humbled by what I don’t know. And how much I have to learn. But Christine, you are a source of inspiration. And I will always read your words. Thanks for your truth.

  15. Justine says:

    I know what you mean – much of my life, personal and professional, is tied to my writing and sometimes I put so much weight it how it’s perceived that getting lukewarm responses or critique that’s less than stellar makes me feel inadequate. I wish I could take criticisms better and to face my flaws just as well but it’s hard when I’m so emotionally tangled with it. If you find your way out of this shame-laden path, please let me know. I’d like to rise above it too.

  16. Petula says:

    Very good post and nicely written. To get to a place of this self awareness takes work and true mind delving. I’ve never put the word shame on my feelings before – as it comes to my writing – but something about this resonated for me. It’s the feeling I have for not completing what I should or what I wanted to.

  17. Garrett says:

    I thought it was just me, too. Beautiful, insightful post, thank you. Please keep writing.

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