Let’s Play The Shame Game.

A friend sent me this TED talk recently. It hit a nerve.

Let’s talk about shame.

To start with, I don’t really want to talk about this. Sitting and writing this, right now, is vulnerable for me, and scary, and I actively feel kind of ashamed that it’s what’s on my mind right now.

I’m feeling some severe guilt right now. I should be working on any one of the thousand things on my to-do list. I owe people some emails. I have some text messages I need to respond to. I’m writing these words instead. 

But I think it’s deeply important. I think I need to talk about this, with myself and with all of you.

There’s a specific kind of low-grade guilt that I deal with a lot of the time. A lot of these guilts are the garden variety sort: I’m sorry that my dishes piled up in the sink again. I’m sorry that I got that parking ticket because I lost track of time. I’m sorry I didn’t listen carefully to that voicemail. I’m using the words “I’m sorry” because that’s how I feel: that my specific sorrow is a direct result of my own actions or inactions, and that sense of guilt emerges because I have failed to live up to my own expectations. 

Those are the little ones. Those I can deal with.  Those are just apologies to myself.

There are the mid-level guilts, and those are more complicated, and harder to navigate. I’m sorry I wasn’t actively listening to my friend or my colleague. I’m sorry I didn’t do a better job on that project.

Those are harder. That guilt comes from failing to live up to the expectations of others. It requires seeking forgiveness from those who are not obligated to forgive you, and being in that position is scary, and vulnerable, and uncomfortable.

And when that kind of guilt takes over – I did something bad – it quickly devolves into shame. I AM something bad.

That particular kind of shame is hard to talk about, because it feels like weakness. I’m not a weak person, and I don’t want to be perceived that way. But I’m a human, and I feel shame. Unless you’re a sociopath, you probably do, too.

There are thorny specific shames. I’ve felt shame about my dating life. I’ve felt shame about being a woman. I’ve felt shame about my body. I’ve felt shame about my childhood.

And the big one. At least for me.

I feel shame in my professional life. I feel shame in my career.

And that is a big revelation, one that I’m only just beginning to unpack.

I make my money as a costume designer. I work for regional theatres, for college and universities, in theatre and in dance. I collaborate with directors and actors and dancers and designers and technicians and administrators, working together towards a common goal.

I believe in that goal. I have to believe we all do, or else we wouldn’t be here. With our tools and our skills, we create worlds and tell stories.  We pose big questions, inspire action, explore ideas, and start conversations.  We challenge our audiences to question themselves, to invite further discussion, to seek truth and beauty.

And I believe in that, in a really big way.

And yet.

I have sacrificed a lot for this job. My time. My resources. My energy. My health. Sleep. Relationships. Weddings. Funerals. Steady paychecks. Health insurance. And I’d be hard-pressed to find someone working in this field who hasn’t.

Because most people I know who work in creative industries have tied their self-worth to the idea that the work comes first, and that their identities and their art are intertwined and inextricable.

Which means that when things go wrong, it’s not merely a case of identifying a problem and finding a solution. It means that when something bad happens, the idea of blame and fault become present and powerful in a deeply personal and often traumatic way.

And that’s where shame comes in.

Every actor I know has a story like this, right? Something along the lines of, “I was so sick, like throwing-up-in-a-bucket-offstage sick, but – you know, I made it! I mean, it turns out that I had to be hospitalized later, but – at least we didn’t cancel the show!”

That’s shame talking. And that kind of rhetoric is appealing in our youth, when the real threat of illness and death doesn’t seem real. It’s appealing when we tell the story at the bar, when we can laugh and pat each other on the back, what a triumph, what a great story.

But I don’t think it’s sustainable. I don’t think the idea of asking someone to be superhuman, to never get sick or tired or hurt or ill, is ultimately healthy. I’ve worked for and with people who get that. I’ve worked for and with people who don’t.

When I was younger and just starting out, I was frequently ashamed to admit that I worked a series of low-paying retail and customer service jobs in order to finance my fledgling freelance design career. I would listen to the complaints of the working designers I admired and respected, who had the life I so desperately wanted for myself, thinking, “What could they possibly have to complain about? They have jobs, awards, a fulfilling career. They must have known that choosing this lifestyle demands sacrifice. I wouldn’t complain, if I were in their shoes.”   

I am older and support myself now entirely through freelance work. I’m so far from perfect. I make mistakes. I overcommit myself. I stay up too late. I work on many projects at the same time, which always feels like I’m cheating on seven boyfriends at once. I am less passionate than I used to be, because I started to see this as a business instead of a love affair. I have less energy than I used to have, because I am not twenty-three anymore.

And I’m often deeply ashamed to admit that all of the above is true.

We don’t like talking about this. We don’t like talking about failure. We don’t like talking about our work, the thing for which we have sacrificed so much, as anything other than incredibly worthy of the sacrifice.

And when we do complain, when we encounter failure and need to point our fingers somewhere, it’s easy to blame the system.

Because, look, the system IS flawed. It’s flawed in a whole bunch of ways, but I can only really speak from my own experience. Working as a costume designer in a small to midsize regional theatre model typically means that I’m also doing the jobs of the shop manager, the wardrobe supervisor, the hair and wig designer, the makeup artist, the stitcher.  In various unspecified and unseen ways, I’m often also filling the roles of craftsperson, therapist, bookkeeper, sassy hairstylist, concerned friend.

And sure, most people are many things at once, and the thing is: I love the creative challenge of figuring out how to make magic happen, how to do my best work for the good of the group. When I can succeed, it’s a drug, it’s addictive, it’s filling and sustaining and endorphin-pumping and magic. When I get it right: I create. I make things that didn’t exist before. I flourish. I thrive.  I remember why I fell in love in the first place.

But when you’re asked routinely and repeatedly to go above and beyond, it’s easy to lose track of what your responsibilities actually are. It’s easy to feel like you’re failing because you’re just not good enough, when the truth is simply that you are a human and humans make mistakes, particularly when they are working within a system that is not optimized for success. And when you encounter failure, the shame feels personal. The shame is devastating.

I place a tremendous amount of pride and self-worth in my ability to get things done, on time, under budget, with a smile. When I fail to do those things, because I am human, because I make mistakes, because I am tired, because things go wrong, because I get sick, because my head’s somewhere else, because I’m dealing with issues in my personal life, because any number of any possible things – it’s hard for me to not feel deeply ashamed and think to myself, “I suck.” And believe it.

And sometimes, the expectations aren’t reasonable: the budgets are too small, the paycheck is too little, the challenges aren’t surmountable, the timeline is too tight.

And sometimes, the expectations are totally reasonable, and for whatever reasons, you fail anyways.

Sometimes, the problem is just you.

Cue the shame spiral.

*

We got into this business because we love it.

We got into this business to engage and inspire.

I know people working in this field who are thrilling, vibrant, funny, passionate people. At twenty-two and at eighty-two, living lives that are filled with excitement and meaning.

I also know a fair amount of people working in this field who are burned out, who are tired, who are unhappy. Who are financially dependent on parents. Who are ashamed to admit when they need help. Who hide for as long as they can when a bad review shows up or a colleague says something unkind. Who muscle their way through one more project, and then another, and then another, who have forgotten why they do what they do, but cannot stop until the work is done.

Who don’t have a support system when things go wrong.

Who drink too much. Who do drugs to escape. Who go home with one another just to feel something.

We’re creative people. We’re, as a rule, sensitive. We require some handling with care. We’re prone to depression. We’re prone to bad decisions.

That’s not always a bad thing. Those are also the qualities that have produced some of the greatest works of art of all time. Those are also the qualities that can elevate us, allow us to soar, can bring moments of bliss and joy and beauty into the world.

So how do we reconcile those things?

If we are the people who create works of art that challenge and inspire, who point the lens towards society and ask hard questions, I have to wonder what’s wrong when our art is asking hard questions of our audience that we are unable to ask of ourselves. 

And I have to think that talking about it is the first step. That we can and should distance our self-worth from our jobs. We can and should acknowledge when there are imperfections, with the system in which we make things, in the way we see ourselves and one another.

If we can admit failure, we admit vulnerability, and if we can truly see that as a strength and not a weakness, it can allow for growth and change. If we can have that tough conversation about our failures, professional and personal, we can look at that failure as an opportunity to learn. We can allow it to facilitate what we do best: we can connect with one another. We can build a better system.

*

Sometimes my work is bad. It does not mean that I am a bad person.

Sometimes I fail at things. Everyone fails at things. When others fail to live up to my expectations, that does not mean they are bad people. When I fail to live up to my own expectations, that does not mean that I am a bad person.

Knowing all that is one thing. Believing it is something else.

And I think if we can work on really and truly believing those things, it might allow us to be more compassionate. It might produce better art. It might produce better people.

Is it terrifying for me to push the button that says, “Publish Post” right now? Yeah. It is. It’s really scary. It feels like admitting weakness. It feels like admitting defeat. It feels like I’m telling the world, “I am a failure. I am not good enough.” It feels like telling the people who view themselves as my competition, “You win.”

But I hope that maybe, just maybe, this feels like an act of courage. That if I can talk about failure, if I can talk about shame, so can you, and so can we.

And maybe we can help each other up the next time we fall.

 

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35 thoughts on “Let’s Play The Shame Game.

  1. I feel like we need to be friends and sit over a cup of coffee (or 3) and talk about all of this and many of your other blog posts. I’m feeling many of the same things as you, but in the music world.

    I haven’t even watched the TED talk you posted, but reading your words today is so real, so honest, and so crazy accurate. Kudos to you for being brave enough to put them out there. I know you will have many people who agree with you and will thank you for this post, but if it helps you to know right now that you made an impact on one person, I’m here to tell you that you didn’t fail this time 🙂

  2. It’s “funny” that you say you were so nervous to publish this post, because I really just felt like I was reading my own brain to myself the whole time. Oh, do I understand the feeling of shame. For a really long time, for me, “there is bad” turned into “I feel bad” which became “I am bad” – and stuck. For years, I wrestled every second with my depression, hoping to find the flaw that I was positive was hiding in me somewhere, causing me to feel how I did, to function how I did.

    Turned out there just wasn’t a flaw.

    How much I succeed as a volunteer, how animals respond to me at work, the fact that I am trying to build a career off freelance writing jobs… I understand the undue shame that comes up, telling people you’re an artist. It’s such a vulnerable job. Your work is you. Your work is what you can make out of nothing from inside your mind, can turn into tangible words or objects from a pattern that didn’t even exist until your imagination made it.

    It’s weird, that we should be so ashamed to tell people that we are the workers of passion and soul. It can be so much harder, so much less predictable, than other jobs. You’d think we’d be proud.

  3. This is such a topic that needs open and honest discussion. Because no one talks about it, we don’t know how to deal with it. So thank you, you have given me some wonderful prompts to discuss with the important people in my world. x A

  4. Brilliant post, thank you for sharing something so personal. It is comforting to read this and know I’m not alone in these feelings, especially being a fellow artist/creator. It’s so comforting to know it’s not just me, many people feel like this. You are courageous for sharing.

  5. Thank you for being truly vulnerable. It is in our perceived vulnerability that we grow the most & often assist others in their growth. I am so glad that you stated that you wanted to stop seeking your self-worth outside of yourself. I am a self-worth author, speaker & coach and I can tell you that you are not alone. Most people seek self-worth from outside sources & we really have to adjust our own negative self talk to change our self-worth from within.

    Brene Brown is one of absolute favorite people right now because she is bringing up the topic of shame for many so that we can deal with it head on.

    No one is bad, everyone makes bad choices, everyone fails. It’s all part of being human & I am so grateful for all of my bad choices & failures as they are always a catalyst for intense & powerful growth.

    Keep on keepin’ on sister, you are doing great work in your life.

  6. I decided to watch the TED talk and felt compelled to write as well, but that fear and vulnerability paralyzed me from writing. Thank you for writing on this topic. Great post!

  7. Yada yada yada, Fritz is brilliant. Now lets talk some issues here.

    Guilt is a waste of time. Guilt doesn’t make you feel better, nor does it rectify the problem that started the guilt in the first place. It is important to rectify wrongdoing and it is important to notice when you have done something wrong. However, to me, guilt is more of a manipulator. It is negative altruism. One expresses and shows guilt purely for the victim party to see, with the end game of forgiveness and pity. As Freud said, God does not punish, we punish ourselves. We use to guilt to make others see how terrible we feel. Ergo, wasted time and emotion.

    Also, do you really believe that the guise of “creativity” is a blank check for angst-y, drug-addled, sex laden crazy behavior? I find it quite odd that with in our artistic experience so many of us claim our irresponsible behavior as just a “part of the biz” because we don’t have a “support system”. But what alternative is there? We have a union. We have people who actually care about what we are doing. In what area of human life does anyone really know what they are doing, or have the support and resources they really need? NO one. Ever. We are all, in some way or another, faking it til we make it. It is within this universality of suckitude that I find ultimate solace. If everyone’s life is hard, and everyone is fucking up, then huzzah, everyone is guilt neutral.

    • Hey, sweets – good to hear from you.

      I don’t at all believe that we get a blank check for irresponsible behavior, though I think I know a lot of folks who believe we do. I point out those specific behaviors because I think they are interconnected: it’s easier, frankly, for me to drink too much than it is for me to try and address the problems or change the system. And I think that’s problematic, and I’m trying to do better. By writing and having conversations and proposing solutions instead of drinking and complaining. And you’re right: we do have people who care about us. We have a great community here. I’ve got folks like you in my life, for starters, and I wouldn’t change that for the world. Which is kinda why I wrote the piece. Because if I’m dealing with it, I’m willing to bet other folks are too, and rather than just accept the status quo that “everything sucks and everybody fucks up and that makes everybody the same in this big puddle of suckitude and that’s reassuring and so I guess I can continue fucking up because so is everyone else,” I think we can work towards “maybe if we talk about it, we can make things suck a little less, and fuck up less.”

      You’re right: guilt can become that annoying, self-pitying, “forgive me, I’m unworthy” thing, and no one wants to hear that. But I also think it can be a useful barometer for “huh, I feel guilty about something right now. Something’s wrong. I wonder how I can fix that, and learn from it.” That’s about internal, not external, processing.

      (A final thought. You have a union. I don’t. That’s a whole other kettle of worms. I’m not saying this to make you feel bad, just to point out that the system is complicated and while I’ve got incredible folks in my life to fall back on, I don’t have collective bargaining rights or any of the other protective measures that a union provides. You’re right: no one has their shit together all the time. But does that mean we should accept that as fact, or try to improve things? Isn’t that kind of the point of the union, to band together to try and make conditions better for the greater good of the whole? And since that’s not something that’s an option for me, writing shit like this is the closest I can come to trying to change the system without just giving up and abandoning it altogether.)

      (also, incidentally, i think you’re great. i love you, friend. let’s hang out soon and talk further. xo).

  8. Uh, yea. What you said and then some. The only way I ever got away from all that not feeling good enough or abused was with my union membership. But then that cut off the art part…but hey, I made great money. It’s a vicious circle.

  9. Only those that know what goes on behind the scenes will probably ever truly value what you do for a living. One day you will feel worthy enough and someone will approach you to teach others your craft. I worked for a post secondary institution in my previous life where the primary instructor for costume design finally retired at age 82. And they still brought her back for special projects even when her eyes and hearing were failing. Her craft was a part of who she was.

    Never feel shame for doing something that you love. That is truly a gift that many people never receive. And if you haven’t already, take the time to read “The Gifts of Imperfection”, because it is a gift. 🙂

  10. I love that your friend JFo decided to rebut you on this post and that you responded. Debate is one of my favourite forms of discourse and somehow just that short exchange between you both helped to clarify my feelings about the failure/shame spiral.

    It’s the same old story about dark/light, good/evil, sunshine/rain…you can’t have one without the other. Unfortunately we see both failure and shame as negatives when we should be looking at failure as another form of learning. I mean, you can’t fail if you don’t try, right? And if you try how is that a bad thing?
    Shame and guilt are a waste of time. They’re self indulgent and time wasting and use up energy we could be spending in positive ways…but it’s impossible to avoid to some degree. Only sociopaths have the ability to never feel shame or guilt.
    So we feel it, we process it and we learn from it, that’s what makes it worth it. What we don’t do is place shame or guilt on others or likewise accept it…because that’s just dickish behaviour.
    As for dealing with it? Let’s be honest, that’s where the self indulgence I mentioned earlier comes in. If we drink or take drugs or sleep around its not because we are ‘dealing’ with it, it’s because we like doing those things anyway and what better time to add that pinch of delicious sin to life than when shame is on the menu too?
    As long as you learn from it.

    Yada yada yada, you are brilliant Miss K. You make me think and you teach me lessons. You’re my favourite (shameless) indulgence.
    B. xo

  11. This is more of a random collection of thoughts, so forgive the lack of structure:

    It feels like you’ve really hit the nail on the head about how a lot of designers (including myself) tend to feel about our work and how it’s intrinsically tied to our sense of self-worth.

    We’re in that Xmas party time now, where one is forced to do that “what have you been up to/what do you have coming up” dance that to me feels quite shallow/not-so-subtly competitive; I’m making a concerted effort this year to talk about anything but that with people, but it still sneaks in.

    As artists, I agree that we have that challenge of the enmeshing of our work and our artistic passion; it’s so hard sometimes to keep them separate because, ultimately, they are so closely related. When do you “clock out” of your job when you’re doing a lot of it in your living room? I sometimes ask people in our business what they do for fun and they have a hard time coming up with an answer. I do too: the reason a lot of us got into this line of work is because it began as the thing we did for fun and then it became the thing we also do to pay the rent. In some ways it’s an amazing thing to say, but it also opens one up to a really intimate and vulnerable place.

    And, to the larger thrust of your post, it’s so easy to be hard on oneself. I don’t think I’ve ever done a design that I would consider “complete”, and I always beat myself up about what I could have done differently. Walking away at an opening is so hard because we put so much of ourselves into both the process (energy-wise) and the product (time-wise). Over the years, it’s become something I’ve learned to (partially) embrace: that even though my work isn’t perfect it’s done for now…until the remount or the next show with that company.

    You’re absolutely not alone in this: I think it’s an exception to the rule when I meet a designer who can take that weekend off and not worry about the show. And you’re right that it’s not entirely healthy; the closest comparison I can make is professional athletes, who devote similar mental and physical time and effort into their work, but of course they retire in their 30s.

  12. Reblogged this on Kaity Cooks On and commented:
    Linking, once again, to Katherine at I Am Begging My Mother Not To Read This Blog, because she writes, more beautifully than I could ever hope to, about the pressing issues of working in theater/the arts.

  13. Reading this post hit a lot of….not so much nerves, but more feelings, I guess.

    I’m also in costuming, studied to be an assistant designer, have worked wardrobe and do stitch work. Right now I work in a costume rental house, and while it is my field, it’s…..a job.

    It’s hard, because on the one hand I like my job. It’s steady, it’s dependable, and while it may not give me benefits or anything good like that, it pays the bills (even though I have to live at home). But on the other hand, I want to be out in the “real world” doing what I’ve studied to do for the past 3 years. But then I read about the struggles and stress and unstable job security and it freaks me out.

    Plus, I also have a lot of guilt issues. I make a mistake, and I carry the guilt with me for days. I did a stitching job not too long ago and my boss and designer were looking at it and going, “It’s good, but you could’ve done this differently.” Admittedly, it was a “well not doing that technique again” project, it was something I’d never made, and boss and designer weren’t being mean, just giving me tips for the future, but I still had to keep from telling myself I wasn’t good at sewing, that I made a mistake doing this, that I’m awful, etc etc.

    I’m really not sure where I’m going with this, but I can relate to this entire post. What makes it harder is that I don’t have much of a support system either. I’d kill for people to call or text or something and go, “I suck so much at this,” and just hear someone tell me that I can do this. I tell myself I can do this, but I don’t believe it.

  14. I never feel guilt when someone doesn’t like a set I’ve built, or a prop I’ve made. I just feel sorry for them that they can’t see the perfection I have created for them. I may go back and make some minor changes to sooth their ego, but it’s THEIR ego that’s the problem. MY ego is doing very fine, thank you very much. I am my own support system.

  15. Ahhh, the struggle of the artist.

    I dealt with this yesterday as I updated my linkedin profile with all my creative work experience. Over a decade of credits in stage, film, tv and new media projects as a writer, producer, web designer, editor and actress. In over ten years of experience, 99% of it has not been paid work.

    I’ve allowed my shame and guilt over being an artist keep me from taking myself seriously and doing what it takes to make it a career. Yep, it’s hard to be an artist, it’s hard to be a freelancer and it’s hard to be an entrepreneur. Some days, months and years it’s worth it, some days, months and years it isn’t.

    My drive is that I can’t live any other way. I’ve tried, believe me I’ve tried, I’ve almost killed myself (literally) several times trying to push my artiste inside myself so I could join the corporate ranks and just go get married, have kids and work a consistent corporate job like all the other minions. 😉

    I can’t do it, I just can’t. So I keep on keeping on because art is my literal lifeline and I can’t survive emotionally any other way. Yep, it’s painful, but it’s better to feel pain than nothing at all, the opposite of love (for life) is indifference, or so I’ve heard…

    I agree this conversation needs to exist though. One shouldn’t have to feel shame over being a creator, breaking the mold.. or getting burned out when the work doesn’t yield a reward and sucks the joy out of the rest of life.

    Thank You for this, this is beautiful and so are you. 🙂

  16. Thank you. I am really enjoying reading your whole blog, but this post especially rang so true. Exactly what I needed to read right now.

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