It is not a secret among my friends and family how much of a fan I am of the rock band Pearl Jam. I have seen them perform all over our country and in Europe. I own, to my wife’s dismay, dozens of T-shirts, records, CDs, and other merchandise items. Their music and lyrics have been the soundtrack to some of the most sacred memories of my life. I have had the opportunity to meet them and hang out with former members of the band on numerous occasions.
What most people don’t know about me is that attending one show in particular ended up triggering a painful wound that took years to heal.
A few years ago, I was offered by a very good friend of mine to volunteer on a hearing-loss campaign that Pearl Jam was doing during their most recent North American tour. For me, it was an opportunity of a lifetime; not just to see the band, but to participate in a cause near to the band, and an ever-growing problem for those of us who go to concerts routinely (hearing-loss).
Even though I had a backstage pass, she warned me to be “invisible” if I were to wander around.
I did not listen.
I was watching the first few songs from the side of the stage, minding my own business. One of the band’s security guards somewhat-politely told me to get out of the area. I complied - for a moment - and then went to the other side of the stage.
After another song, I see, what I think is a bull, running straight for me. I did not have time to react. I stood there frozen with this bull-of-a-man locking eyes with me closing in.
Along with a couple of police officers, he escorted me out of the area and gave me one last warning to stay away.
This time I listened.
I immediately called my friend and left her a long voicemail. That was the last contact we had for almost two years.
I can handle embarrassing myself and making mistakes. When I hurt loved ones in the process, the feeling of shame stays with me.
The tape I began playing in my mind was, “You are an embarrassment. You don’t belong here. You messed up so bad that your good friend doesn’t like you anymore.”
Unfortunately, these messages were not new. These messages come up whenever I experience shame. And when shame comes up in the present day, I start to question my ability in many areas of my life.
The experience of listening to my favorite band, making a mistake, and disappointing a good friend was not easily recovered from.
I had to dig in and question where I was sourcing my worth as a person. I asked myself, “Am I defined by this event?” and “What is it about me that overlooks all the great experiences with the band and other areas of my life that I source joy from?”
This is how shame works.
We all have moments of shame - some big, some small - that we source many of the messages we give ourselves on a daily basis. These shame messages creep in during our relationships, our professional life, how we parent, and how we lead others. Unaddressed, shame can lead to unhealthy behaviors and can separate us from connecting with the world.
Even though I am a therapist, reaching out for help was not easy for me. But I did it anyway. And through a lot of personal work and willingness to be vulnerable, I have been able to become more comfortable with those shame messages and manage their impact. It is not perfect, but it is definitely progress. Addressing those messages head-on has helped me connect better with my own boys as they navigate starting school and all the challenges that inevitably come along.
A couple weeks ago, I was able to spend time with my good friend from the beginning of the story and get some closure for myself. We both belly-laughed over the experience!
Not all shame stories have a happy ending. And it is not always about how it ends either. It is about the process of confronting pain and shame that the real change happens.
Brian Edwards, LMFT, CATC, is the co-founder of the Wyoming Center for Clinical Excellence in Gillette, Wyoming. Brian specializes in trauma, group counseling, marriage and family therapy and substance abuse and addiction therapy.