Shame is the irrational fear that all your friends will eventually abandon you.
It is panic after an abnormally long silence. It is being frightened during every conversation that you will say something wrong to turn friends away. It is a fear of trusting and of telling the truth, even to those who have proven their love and loyalty to you. It is doubting your most trusted friend’s words because the terror is so huge you can’t swallow.
This fear does not come naturally, but is the result of repetitive judgmental abandonment by past friends. It is the dark remnants of the betrayal of those you’ve trusted, of those who’ve shamed you. It is their misunderstanding, their hatred, and their fear, but it is your scar.
I cannot count the number of friends who’ve ended their relationships with me because my life didn’t follow the path of their ideals. Some of it was fear, their own shame pulling at their guts as they backed away, their eyes averted. But some of it was outright damnation.
I was pregnant when I married my husband. At the time, we were heavily involved in a Christian group on the college campus where we attended. Our “situation” didn’t go over well. Some of our friends shamed us outright, demanding our apologies for what we’d done; others just drifted away. Only a small few still accepted us. My husband graduated that year and moved on, but I remained and endured dark looks and whispers from former friends who would no longer speak to me. They used coldness to shame me.
Four years later, this shame still ate away at me. In a new town and in a new setting, I reached out for support and trusted what I thought was a tried and true friend with my story and that shame. She immediately cut off all contact, ignoring my phone calls and avoiding me when we saw each other at gatherings.
I came to believe that my behavior … that I drove these friends away. It was what I had done, not who they were or what they believed.
I trusted only one more person until six years later. And even four years after that, you’d be surprised how much it still matters to some people, though my daughter turns 14 this summer.
More recently, I’ve experienced similar reactions to my discussion of and decision to divorce. After telling me I wasn’t trying hard enough, one friend humored me and gave me one more luncheon before she cut me out of her life for good, though I believe the friendship ended long before that point. Her “shame on you” couldn’t have been more clear unless she’d actually said the words.
The idea that friends would abandon you when you need their support the most is absurd. Who would do that? More of my friends than I would like to admit. And because of this, the shame I still feel with regards to friendships is palpable, enough that at times I still fear I can drive my friends away. It follows me around like a shadow. I panic and shy and distrust and cling because the fear is so engulfing.
I don’t know the cure. I don’t know how to stop being afraid. I haven’t figured this one out yet. I have friends I trust with my most private thoughts and that I would trust with my life, but I’ve never stopped fearing that every one of them might abandon me in the end or that it might be my fault.
But I think a change is starting in me. I have good friends now, people who have shown their acceptance, who have stayed and who have returned my trust with their own, and I am encouraged.
I have been worried about the space a good friend has suddenly needed in the past week. This morning, I expressed my concern and was told my reaction was “extreme.” In that moment, I realized how afraid I was that this friend would be lost like so many others. I was honest about my fear. The response: “You are not losing me, ok?”
Relief flooded me. So this is what a real friendship is like. There is hope for healing.