One day, I reached over to the water flowers that were in a beautiful, colorful vase. I accidentally knocked over the vase onto the hardwood floor, where it shattered into many pieces. Instead of discarding the shattered vase pieces, I placed them into my brown leather messenger bag.
As time went on, I realized that for every negative encounter I had with a friend, sexual partner, family member, co-worker, or stranger, I would leave behind a piece of that shattered vase. Then one day I reached into my messenger bag to grab a piece of the vase to give to someone, but my bag was empty. At that point I realized that each encounter that made me feel unworthy, inadequate, excluded, used, abused, and humiliated had received a piece of my vase. I was as empty inside as the messenger bag, with no more pieces to give.
This was the assignment I was told to write by my therapist many years ago. Allowing me to describe the “shame” I always carried around. I could not explain precisely what I felt, so I wrote this short story. By telling this story I could process my “shame” and realize what the shattered glass and broken pieces represented. As a young, gay, black man, I encountered people who encouraged me to change my face and body because it would make me more attractive; people who made me feel worthless because I was gay, and it was a sin, so I was going to hell; and people who told me I did not have the right to be a father because I chose to fornicate with men. I was not accepted by people I thought loved me unconditionally, but I realized my sexuality came with conditions.
There was a song I loved and hated by Christina Aguilera titled, Soar. In one of the verses, she says, “In the mirror is where she comes face to face with her fears. Her reflection looks foreign to her after all these years. All her life, she has tried to be something besides herself. Now the time has passed, and she’s ended up someone else with regret. What is it in us that makes us feel the need to keep pretending? Gotta let ourselves be.”
The vase represented all the broken parts of myself and the person I became, whom I regretted. Giving away a piece of the vase allowed me to give away my power to those who hurt me. I realized I was beautiful through my healing journey, just like the vase. Why would I replace something that was perfect from the start? I began collecting all those shattered pieces from all those hurtful and vengeful people, putting the vase back together and reclaiming the power that was taken from me.
Positive Feelings Interrupted
The definition of shame is “a self-conscious emotion; shame informs us of an internal state of inadequacy, unworthiness, dishonor, regret, or disconnection. Shame signals that our positive feelings have been interrupted” (Psychology Today, 2014). Shame continues to permeate throughout the LGBTQIA community. Shame within our community has created internalized hate, unworthiness, guilt, hopelessness, and fear, which leads to depression, anxiety, drug addiction, body dysmorphia, eating disorders, sexual promiscuity, traumas, self-harm, and a drastic increase in suicide.
My story of shame began long before the shattered vase in my story, and this is true for many of us in the LGBTQIA community. I believe the time we feel we are “different” from everyone else is when the shame begins; mine began when I was around five years old. I was told I was “acting too feminine,” “boys don’t play with dolls,” “take off those heels,” and forced to play sports and speak with a deeper voice. Out of fear of being bullied, rejected by my family, and not having friends, I did what I was told. I was forced to dim my light to make others feel comfortable around me.
In the LGBTQIA community, we’re exposed to traumatic experiences in multiple areas. There are societal stigmas; discrimination; repression; rejection; and abandonment from family, friends, and community members. As we continue to be exposed to these traumatic experiences, it causes enormous stress levels, internalized shame, and internalized guilt that seriously impact our mental health.
Though we all may encounter exposures that cause trauma in the LGBTQIA community, our experiences differ in how shame has made us feel unworthy. Some religious ideologies, institutions, and communities still believe and promote the idea that being LGBTQIA is unnatural, a sin, or goes against God. Rejection or fear of rejection from friends or family can reinforce the societal stigma of being LGBTQIA. We tend to choose not to disclose our identity for fear of being rejected and losing not only the love and respect of those close to us but also the fear of losing housing, education, and financial opportunities.
To avoid societal stigma, discrimination, harassment, or assault, individuals choose to repress and not acknowledge their sexual orientation or gender identity. They chose to seek heterosexual relationships or to live as the gender they were assigned at birth despite knowing that these identities were not genuinely right for them. I can relate to repressing my identity as well. The shame I felt for the feelings I internalized about my identity forced me to seek out heterosexual relationships, which only caused me more pain, depression, and risky behaviors to survive my traumatic life.
I have encountered people that choose celibacy (to avoid awkward sexual encounters) or to only have sexual or romantic relationships in secret. Transgender individuals may live their day-to-day lives as the gender they were assigned at birth but then become their true identity in private. This ongoing discomfort and denial of the authentic self negatively impacts relationships with others and overall well-being, ultimately adding to any sense of stigma and shame we already feel.
Letting Go & Never Giving Up
Mariah Carey wrote in her song Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s theme), “They can say anything they want to say. Try to bring me down, but I will not allow anyone to succeed, hanging clouds over me. And they can try hard to make me feel that I don’t matter at all, but I refuse to falter in doing what I believe or lose faith in my dreams. Cause there’s; there’s a light in me that shines brightly. They can try, but they can’t take that away from me.”
This song resonates with many in our community at some point in their lives. We have allowed people to succeed in hanging clouds over us and making us feel we don’t matter. The positive take-away from the song is not to allow anyone to falter our dreams or dim our light. The thought of unpacking shame can be scary, but it is very beneficial.
Unpacking the shame imposed starts with you, the one carrying all the shame and guilt. Shame can feel like you are carrying several bodies on your shoulders, weighing you down daily. Sometimes you feel as though it is better to give in to defeat. The benefits of unpacking shame allow us to feel alive again, start loving ourselves, stop seeking external validation from others, and stop just existing in life and start living with our purpose.
The hardest part of unpacking the shame that has manifested within yourself is deciding where to start and whom to trust. At the beginning of my healing journey, I found it challenging to look inward because I had lost so much externally. I had lost connections with family, friends, communities, and most importantly, myself. Finding a community and a chosen family (not biological) made it easier for me to process the shame. The importance of the community and chosen family allowed me to give myself permission to be vulnerable and trust again. I surrounded myself with people who understood and experienced the manifestation of shame and how that shame shaped me into a person I did not recognize.
It is easier to love someone else but harder to love yourself. Finding a therapist that provided a safe place and unconditional positive self-regard was beneficial for me. I had never shared my trauma history with anyone because I was ashamed of myself and my actions. I am not just saying seeking a therapist is beneficial because I am a therapist, but this shit works!
Recommendations for Healing
Therapy provided me with psychoeducation on my feelings, thinking, and the behaviors I was exhibiting. Therapy also provides support to feel less vulnerable and at-risk. People who experience trauma tend to become susceptible to being retraumatized. Identifying proactive coping tools and strategies to become less susceptible to being retraumatized, and processing the shame helps with improved mental health symptoms and effectively becoming more aware of the people we allow in our spaces.
To help elevate and manage the manifestation of shame, I recommend narrative therapy (journaling), support groups, reading about healthy and unhealthy relationships, healthy boundaries, self-esteem, and self-worth (reclaiming those parts of yourself). This part could be difficult, but I found it to be the essential part of my healing—only allowing people in my safe space that support and love me. Break away from the relationships that could continue to perpetuate the shame and guilt within yourself. For myself, it included family, friends, toxic relationships, and the wounded parts of me.
Frederick Harris is the Founder and Clinical Director of New Beginnings Counseling Center. He began his career 19 years ago as a case manager at a maximum-security prison providing services to incarcerated men of color and reunifying them with their families. His direct, warm, and honest approach has been effective in building and maintaining therapeutic relationships.