Your Mental Health’s Plea: Drop the Capes of Shame

Glennon Doyle, previously known as Glennon Doyle Melton, is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and founder of the well-known She is a recovering bulimic, alcoholic, and drug user. She discusses shame, life, and the bruises and epiphanies that lead us toward realizations and decisions. While I was listening to a presentation of hers from 2013, the opening statement left an impression on my heart:

“When I was eight-years-old, I started to feel exposed, and I started to feel very awkward. Every day I was pushed out of my house and into school, all oily, and pudgy, and conspicuous. And to me, the other girls seemed so cool, and together, and easy. And I started to feel like a loser in a world that preferred superheroes.”

Glennon goes on to say that she learned to wear superhero capes at a young age. And contrary to what a superhero cape suggests for modern-day culture, Glennon describes capes as the things you put over your real self, “so that our real tender selves don’t have to be seen and can’t be hurt.” Examples of capes she gives are pretending, addiction, perfectionism, overworking, snarkiness, and apathy. Presenting a superhero cape as a symbol of shame and not strength was not one I’d heard before. 

Understanding & Silencing Shame

Shame is powerful and can make you think and behave in a way that’s not best for who you are and the person you want to be. Ask yourself what cape you throw around you to shield others’ view of your true self. Is your cape woven with sarcasm and negative-self talk? Does addiction or bullying line your cape? What are you wrapping around the real you, and more importantly, why do you feel the need to hide the real you?

For many, their response to the previous question relates to the shame they experience because of the stigma surrounding mental illness. In former first lady Rosalynn Carter’s book Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis, she says stigma is “the most important damaging factor in the life of anyone who has a mental illness. It humiliates and embarrasses; it is painful; it generates stereotypes, fear, and rejection; it leads to terrible discrimination.”

Shame over a mental health diagnosis contributes to the severity in which mental health conditions run one’s life. Scientific American has the following to say about shame, and their thoughts are ones that many wrestling with mental health conditions can relate to:

  • “We feel shame when we violate the social norms we believe in. At such moments we feel humiliated, exposed, and small and are unable to look another person straight in the eye. We want to sink into the ground and disappear.”
  • “Shame makes us direct our focus inward and view our entire self in a negative light.” 
  • “Women are quicker to feel humiliated than men, and adolescents feel shame more intensely than adults do. As a result, women and adolescents are more susceptible to the negative effects of shame, such as low self-esteem and depression.”

How do we stop hiding who we are and honor both the beauty and the struggles within us? How do we prevent a mental health diagnosis from triggering a crippling sense of shame?

Psychology Today offers five ways to “silence shame:”

    • “Getting beyond shame means acknowledging it and sharing our experiences with the trusted people in our lives, the ones who know we aren’t perfect and love us anyway. Their empathy will allow us to keep our sense of shame in perspective, as well as help us come up with strategies for dealing with it.”
    • Is shame or guilt what you’re feeling? 
      1. “It’s an important distinction. Researchers define it this way: Shame means ‘I am bad.’ Guilt means ‘I did something bad.’ Being ‘bad’ means you see yourself as incapable of changing or doing better. The remorse and regret that can come with guilt, on the other hand, can motivate us to make reparations or follow a new path.”
    • “We all want others to admire what we bring to the table, whether on the job, at home, in our communities, or in the world. But what happens if they don’t like our contribution? If our self-worth is attached to what we create or offer, the answer is that we may very well be devastated by a sense of shame that can cause us to retreat or lash out: ‘I’m an idiot. That’s the last time I suggest an idea in a meeting’ or ‘My idea may not be great, but yours is a lot worse!’ Even if they love our offering, we then become slaves to the desire to keep pleasing. Either way, if we define ourselves by what we do, we have put the power of our happiness in the hands of others.”
    • “One of shame’s sneakiest tricks is its ability to hit us where we are most vulnerable. A new mom who secretly feels out of her depth is more likely to feel shame when her parenting style is questioned. A man who worries that he doesn’t measure up as a provider may see his spouse’s comment about the neighbor’s new car as an attempt to shame him rather than an innocent observation. In short, our insecurities prime us to default to shame. By being aware of what our shame triggers are, we can help nip this process in the bud.”
    • “Shame is, at its essence, a fear of disconnection. By reaching out to family and friends, to our communities, to society, or to our idea of a higher power, we can make connections that allow us to learn to accept ourselves and other people as well.”

Shame is not genetic. 
Shame is not necessary to survive. 
Shame does not accent your life; it cuts it off at the knees and steals its oxygen. 

Release your cape of shame and scream: NO MORE! 

The world wants to see the real you, but more importantly, you need to see and be proud of the real you. Life is too short to be anyone but yourself. Especially when it comes to mental health conditions, refuse to let shame create unnecessary obstacles to the best you. Those flaws, rough edges, and mistakes you’re hiding are what will connect you to others, bringing more light and acceptance into your world than ever before.

Author: Evelyn Lindell
Certified Health & Wellness Coach