Shame is that nagging feeling that something is wrong with me and that bringing my secret to light will lead to ridicule and loathing. Shame thrives in a dark underbelly where it whispers, “Don’t tell anyone or you’ll be sorry.” Keeping our shameful secrets hidden offers us some protection, but it also keeps us isolated, stuck, and deprived of intimacy. Shining a bright light on our secrets, in a safe environment with caring people, gives us a chance to heal, a chance at redemption, a chance to move on. The feeling of shame withers in the presence of bright light.
I’m a grown man in late middle age. I have adult children and a thirty-five year marriage under my belt. Yet, until recently, I carried around a secret wrapped in shame. All of my life, including my adult life, I’ve been afraid of the dark. Yes, you read that correctly, afraid of the dark. This fear has steadily diminished throughout my adult life with the help of psychotherapy and my learning to take charge of my life. But it’s still there. About the only time I experience it now is when my wife is away from home and I’m alone through the night. A few years ago, I started talking directly about this secret with a professional peer group. More recently, I started mentioning it to clients as an example of my own struggles. I have been amazed at the power of bringing my secret to light. It has led to a great reduction of the fear.
Recently, while writing about this subject in my “Daily Pages”, my journal, I discovered an insight. The startle response that throws me into a panic when I hear bumps in the night is also the same physical response that gives me wonderful goose bumps when I listen to Beethoven’s Ninth or Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Down at the Twist and Shout.” My startle response has two sides. I never want to give up my excitability, even if it means having to live with some irrational fears. Shining a bright light on my secret helped me understand the complexity of my fear and led to appreciation of a valuable part of me. It did not lead to ridicule and loathing.