pie graph describing emotions behind anger (like shame)

The Antidote to Shame – Share Your Story (thanks Brené!)

I recently watched John Mulaney’s newest comedy special on Netflix called “Baby J.” I like John Mulaney, I think he’s funny. He’s got at least two or three other specials on Netflix from earlier years, but he hadn’t done anything in a while due to some crazy life circumstances he went through. His newest special, “Baby J,” is really him opening up about what the last 2-3 years had in store for him.

Obviously in the last 2-3 years, we ALL went through a little thing called COVID-19. So in a sense, all of our worlds were kind of rocked. But John Mulaney had a particularly difficult time, and he begins sharing that experience in the first few minutes of his show. He kicks it off by describing his process of finally having to deal with his drug addiction and going to rehab. And he does it in a way that is funny! I loved that he just came right out and talked about the elephant in the room. His entire special is about what’s it like to go to rehab, how he really didn’t want to go to rehab, and how badly the drug addiction had a hold on him. And I respect him so much for doing a special all about that. Yes, it’s funny – but it’s also so beautiful and real.

I have no experience with drug rehab, but I admit it did remind me a bit of going into the mental health hospital when I had postpartum depression. So maybe in the tiniest way, I felt like I could relate. I could relate to people being worried about me. I could relate to having to be away from friends and family in a facility that kind of felt like a prison, and where many of my basic rights and choices were taken away from me. But I was only in the hospital for a week. John Mulaney describes being in rehab for months.

Tom Felton's book: Beyond the Wand

It reminded me of another person who recently shared their experience of rehab and addiction: Tom Felton. Earlier this year I read his memoir, Beyond the Wand, and like with Mulaney’s special, I also remember being appreciative that he would share his story and be honest. His story started the same way John Mulaney’s did – with an intervention by friends and family. A bunch of people all gathered in a room for hours on end, trying to convince someone they love to agree to get help. Which both Felton and Mulaney eventually did.

Both Felton and Mulaney describe the intense anger that they had in those moments of confrontation. They both knew they were in bad places, and I don’t think either of them were surprised that they suddenly found themselves at the center of an intervention. But they both describe feeling livid.

What is it about others telling us that we need help that makes us get so angry? Why is anger our first emotion when people who love us want us to get healthier? Is anger covering up our shame? I would guess it’s something like that. And I think Brené Brown would guess that too.

In her book Atlas of the Heart, she talks about believing that anger is a secondary emotion. In describing anger she says:

The more data we collected, … the more certain I became that anger is a secondary or “indicator” emotion that can mask or make us unaware of other feelings that are out of reach in terms of language, or that are much more difficult to talk about than anger. We live in a world where it’s much easier to say “I’m so pissed off” than “I feel so betrayed and hurt.”

Atlas of the Heart (p. 221)

If you’re not a Brené Brown fan, there’s definitely still time to become one. I’ve read two of her books, listened to her podcast Unlocking Us, and of course I have watched the Ted Talk that has been viewed by millions – and it’s all good stuff!

I think it’s so interesting that our first instinct to protect ourselves from shame is to get angry. But Brené would suggest that the real way to overcome shame is through empathy and vulnerability. “If we reach out and share our shame experience with someone who responds with empathy, shame dissipates.”1

So Mulaney and Felton both found ways to share a potentially embarrassing and shameful experience, in a way that let people empathize with them. Even if you’ve never done cocaine or had a drinking problem, the way their stories are told allows us to envision what it would feel like to be in their shoes. They simply become human – we can all relate to having moments where we are so stressed or in such pain that we want to numb it. Some of us do that via drugs and alcohol, and some of us do it in other ways. But we all do it. We’re all human, we all try to avoid feeling pain, physical or emotional.

If the idea of sharing a shameful story with someone doesn’t appeal to you, I would encourage you to see if you can think of just one safe person you might be able to share with. If no one comes to mind, maybe just writing out your story and reading it to yourself will allow you to give yourself a little of the empathy you need. Therapists are also great listeners too!

Thanks for reading

1 Brown, Brené. Atlas of the Heart, page 138.

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