Slaying the Dragon of Shame

Adrienne had her friend Anna over this afternoon, and as Anna’s mom was picking her up, we were talking about last week’s talent show at the middle school. It was clear Anna’s mom had been there to see her perform.

I could feel that hot, prickly rush start to crawl up my neck.

Her mom had gone? Not only did I not go…I didn’t know it was a thing parents could attend.

Worst. Mother. EVER.

You know that feeling. That hot flood of emotion when you’re late to an important meeting. When there’s an empty package of Oreos in your hand you don’t remember eating. When you forgot about the Halloween party and your kid is the only one in class without a costume. It’s not guilt (I did something awful). It’s shame (I AM awful). It happens to perfectionists all the time – it’s the reason we’re perfectionists.

It’s different than embarrassment – it’s not that mortifying but hilarious story you tell on yourself later for laughs. We rarely talk about it. Or, at least, we rarely did before Brene Brown. Her book “I Thought it was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame,” has brought us a powerful dose of the only antidote to shame: talking about it.

Brown explains that shame can be hooked to traumatic events, to abuse, to an illness or injury that makes you feel like you’re the only one in the world to have this thing wrong with you. But it isn’t always; women experience shame around many ‘ordinary’ experiences like motherhood, work, sex, appearance, especially when the unrealistic expectations for perfection in one realm collide with the unrealistic expectations for perfection in another. But one of the things that helps us be resilient to shame and its destructive effects is the willingness and courage to break our silence, to speak out about the very things that have caused us shame. In illustrating this, she relates a little about the history of the word courage:

The root of the word courage is cor, heart, and in its original form meant, ‘to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ These days, courage is most often associated with the kind of heroism that involves violence and blood – like St. George slaying the dragon with his sword.

But have you ever heard about St. Martha and her dragon? It’s a very different kind of courage.

Martha is the sister of Lazarus and of Mary Magdalene. We first encounter her in the Bible when Jesus comes to visit her home. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet while Martha bustles about, cleaning up, preparing food. Yep – everyone’s having a good time except Martha, who’s making dinner and doing the dishes. When she complains about this to Jesus, he reminds her, “Mary has chosen the better part.”

What!?

For most of my life, this story pissed me off every time I heard it. Typical, I’d think. Busting your ass making sure everyone’s fed and here’s someone not only not helping, but not even appreciating your effort, and giving you a hard time in the bargain. Sounds like the experience of Thanksgiving for about half the women I know.

As I’ve grown older though, I’ve started to see that story as a reminder to choose connection, choose presence, despite all there is to do. It’s not a zero-sum game; if Martha had sat down next to Mary, everyone would not have died of starvation, their skeletons still gathering dust in the same spot today. If they were hungry, they might have tipped the house boy to run to the market for takeout. They might have all gotten their bony asses up and headed to the kitchen and continued their conversation there. If Jesus could turn water into wine, imagine what he might have done with leftovers.

But that’s not all of Martha’s story – not by a long shot.

According to legend, some years later, Martha was summoned by villagers who were being terrorized by a fierce dragon. She must have had quite a reputation; I bet if there was a firebreathing dragon in my neighborhood, I wouldn’t be the first person my neighbors think to call. But the villagers’ trust was well placed. Martha slew that dragon – not with a sword, but with gentleness and compassion. She tamed and befriended the dragon, tying it to her sash and leading it away. A very different kind of courage – and the kind we might employ to tame our shame-dragons.

When it comes to my shame-dragon, a sword just doesn’t do me any good. I’m already seared by the flames of worthlessness, burned by feelings of inadequacy, the vultures circling as they wait to pick over what’s left of my dignity. How is a blade going to help? In order to tame the shame-dragon, I need the balm of Martha’s gentleness; the healing salve of self-compassion. Touched with a radical belief in my own okayness, with a fundamental unwillingness to add pain on top of pain, the shame dragon transforms. What was scaly and searing and ugly becomes humble, quirky, and even a little funny-looking.

So I missed the talent show. And it’s not the worst thing in the world.

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