The Price of Shame
White House intern Monica Lewinsky has recently returned to the spotlight after decades of obscurity to share her personal experience of bullying and public shaming. If you’re too young to know who she is here is her biography and an overview of the scandal that precipitated her becoming, for a time, one of the most recognized and reviled women in America.
She was 22 years old and too young to realize the consequences of her actions when she “fell in love with her boss” who, unfortunately for her, was also a man, who at more than twice her age, didn’t seem to care about the consequences their actions would have for either of them.
These many years later, she is finally ready to reclaim her narrative and that is why her story is so meaningful to me and the work I do. People who have been targeted for bullying, shaming and abuse are always left feeling that their story has been stolen and distorted and struggle with how to overcome the powerlessness of feeling so betrayed.
The truth will set you free, but first you have to reclaim it.
When shame is being served, it is always served with contempt and humiliation. Humiliation is one of the most painful things anyone can experience. It is a betrayal of all trust and the person targeted is left confused and struggling to regain their ground amid a fiction where they are guilty and don’t even know the crime.
Children are especially vulnerable because their sense of self and identity is still forming. A child’s brain development doesn’t finish until about age 25. The last part of the brain to mature is the executive functioning area of the brain in the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that enables problem solving and recognition of future consequences. So at 22, Monica was still developing and was not much more than a child herself.
Thanks to a “friend,” turned betrayer, Monica was cast into the public spotlight and the result was a universal public shaming. This was before the internet so she was spared the instantaneous reaction of “mobbing” but today’s kids are not so fortunate. We have seen countless suicides by children and young adults who cannot imagine that there will come a day when they will no longer feel so alone, isolated and vilified.
These were kids and they were directly harmed by other young people. They were also indirectly harmed by adults and bystanders who minimized and ignored the abuse. As a result they were publicly shamed to death. If they knew that time would heal their emotional wounds and that things would get better, they might still be alive.
Like Monica, they experienced the extreme ways that shaming and bullying can be wrought on people who are unlucky enough to be in the line of sight of someone who would take advantage of the opportunity to shame. When someone creates a story about us that involves shame, then you know that there is something wrong with that story.
I know I’m a good person
Our story is our identity and what grounds us and sets the course for our life. It impacts the people we choose to spend time with and what we see when we look in the mirror. Our story tells us about our goodness and our strengths and how flawed we are and whether those flaws are obvious enough to allow us to be loved. Am I enough? Am I good? Do I deserve to be treated this way?
If you have been emotionally abused or bullied as a child then it is hard to know because the information that shaped the story of YOU is not trustworthy. How do you know what is you and what is not you? One measure I have learned to use is this: Is there shame? If the answer is yes – then it is not good information. If the answer is no then I stay curious and ask for more clarification. If you were shamed by your parents then the work to recover and undo those narratives is long, but worth every minute to reclaim your right to exist and your right to be happy.
People who abuse and bully use shame and contempt as a means to push you down in order to elevate themselves. It isn’t funny and it isn’t truth. It is abuse.
Every good story has a beginning, a middle and an end. The best stories have a long middle. Monica stayed alive and now she is recovered and is healing. It took a long time. It always takes a long time but that is what makes a good story. Now her story includes using the trauma from her past to help others and to create change. Her story keeps getting better and better.
If you have suffered from early life trauma or abuse, what will the rest of your story be? Keep going, keep moving toward the things and people who make you happy and, above all, keep living.