A Lifelong Battle with Shame
I was hired to be a clown at a small-town festival. Yup, you read that right. My agent had booked the gig over the phone with very clear instructions.“Sean is a roaming entertainer. He doesn’t have a show.”
In my imagination, the festival organizer was a balding man with a unibrow and a cigar hanging from his mouth. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. No problem. How much is he? That’s all? We’ll take him!”
I arrived and the parking attendant directed me over to the stage area.
The. Main. Stage.
I felt a cold trickle start to work its way down my neck and the beginning of a migraine as I stepped out of my car. I was probably worrying about nothing. This was just where they had the performers park. And then I saw the large sign by the stage: “Blanko. 1pm”
(Yes, my clown name was Blanko. I thought I could slide that little piece of trivia right past ya. And no, I won’t explain where the name came from.)
I stared into the back seat of my car in growing horror. I had a unicycle, my juggling clubs and a rubber chicken. How was I going to do a 45 minute show?
The only routine I knew was as a juggling team and our shtick required a minimum of two jugglers, flaming torches and a volunteer from the audience with a carrot stuck in his or her lips. There was NOTHING from our show that I could use here.
I heard the audience laughing at the performer currently on the stage. I was likely in shock. I remember my vision narrowing as darkness removed everything from my peripheral vision. I had less than an hour before I was on. My brain kept repeating two questions over and over. Should I drive away? Should I bail?
It was the worst 45 minutes of my life. There’s something that happens when a show REALLY bombs. People start to stand up and leave, but that’s not what hurts. It’s the people that won’t leave.
There were at least a dozen left in their seats. They could no longer escape without drawing undo attention to their departure. And so they sat there, praying that I would somehow pull it together and NOT SUCK. Their pity became so palpable that speech became difficult, and let’s not mention what was left of my juggling ability.
And because they wouldn’t leave, I had to keep going, to truly cement my fall from grace with a full face plant from 12,000 feet onto a hard stage.
This wasn’t just embarrassing or a bad failure, this was bathing in shame and humiliation in front of a live audience. I crawled off the stage fully intent on burning my clown gear. In fact, this was the last time I was ever seen as a clown.
What is Shame?
There are many kinds of shame.
There’s the shame of high school where we make someone feel horrible because insecurity.
There’s the shame that society uses to call out aberrant behaviours. The judge who releases a list of “johns”. Or a public register for sex offenders.
And then there’s the shame of failing so spectacularly and publicly that you want to crawl under a rock and never come out again. I call this capital “S” Shame.
This shame is one part humiliation, two parts imposter syndrome and a dash of anxious foreboding. Season with questionable judgement and you have a potent Shame cocktail ready for any occasion.
The clowning example is just one in a long list of moments where I took a risk and ended up with an overtly public and even vulgar display of my ineptitude.
This form of Shame sucks the marrow out of our bones and melts us into a ball of quivering nerves. But here’s the thing: I believe that this particular type of Shame is actually a positive force.
It reminds us just how bad we are at calculating risk. It tells us when we have more than overstepped our capabilities.
And it shows us that we are still taking risks. We are alive. We are pushing the boundaries. We saw that warning sign, the fence and the frantically waving guard and just leaped over the edge of the cliff anyway.
But there is a darker version of shame that sticks to the shadows and back alleys of our mind. It feeds on our fears and self-doubt, focusing our mind on risks that don’t actually exist.
There is NOTHING redeeming in this form of shame.
It tricks us into believing that we should be feeling shame even though we have not taken a risk, nor have we failed spectacularly. It uses illusions and the potential for failure in the future to mire us in so much anxiety that we are unable to take risks or move forward on our dreams.
This form of shame is often characterized by our feeling immobilized by fearand doubt. It starts us such a small thing but can quickly smother us with a heart racing sense of anxiety and dread.
And it does this is by creating a compounding loop of shame. Every day we don’t move forward is another validation of the need for us to feel more shame.
What To Do When Facing Shame
If we take a risk and it blows up in our face, then there’s nothing to do but ride it out. I tell myself to straighten my shoulders and take it like a man.
(I often wonder about that phrase, “take it like a man.” I can see Shame riding me like a bitch, slapping my ass and laughing at my tears. Fitting for a gay man, but perhaps not for most people. But I digress.)
If we take a risk and miscalculate our abilities, there’s nothing wrong with experiencing a bit of capital “S” Shame. It will soon pass, lesson learned.
The clown incident was painful beyond measure, but I learned from it. I could have just stuck to what I was contracted for and let the organizers deal with correcting the stage signs. I also learned that I prefer a life without greasy makeup all over my body.
But what about the other side of shame? The dark side that lurks in the recesses of our minds and makes us contemplate leaving this world. The one that can debilitate us and prevent any action or momentum on our dreams and desires.
This shame is bullshit. As I said before, it is built entirely on illusions.
We have to recognize that its power comes from the stories we tell ourselves.And then shatter the illusion by telling new stories.
One way to do this is to take small steps that prove to ourselves that we are more than what the darkness whispers at us.
They should be TINY risks. Reaching out for help, going for a daily walk or even writing in a private journal are all examples of good first steps.
They should be things we can commit to daily or weekly.
- Take a new route to work. Get lost.
- Spend ten minutes every morning just writing madly in a book or private file on your computer or phone.
- Visit a new part of your town or city every week.
- Approach someone you don’t know and say, “Hi”.
- Follow someone online who takes lots of risks. Find their Instagram.
- Write to a pen pal.
- Join a writers group.
If there is ONE thing that I would urge us to do above all others, it is to surround ourselves with people who take risks.
And by all that is holy, drop the people who keep questioning you or who laugh at your aspirations. You don’t need them.
Find the crazies. If you don’t have any in your immediate circle of friends, there’s plenty of them on Medium.
Here are just a few somewhat randomly selected rebels to follow: Jules Alexainie Heath Houston Jason Theodor Todd Hannula 🤓 Leah Stella Stephens 🐀 Michelle Stone Meg Barclay Tremaine L. Loadholt Gemma Kennedy Gutbloom Classical Sass Sherry Caris