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.
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.