We all have stories that make us cringe when we think about them. They're the ones that we stuff deep down inside, saying "no one can ever know."
Lately I've been thinking about how burying those feelings prevents us from sharing our greatest gifts with the world.
Growing up in my parent's faith, we were taught to "report" all of our thoughts, feelings and actions that were outside of the religious doctrine. So when we have a crush on someone, we had to "report it." Same thing when we doubted the faith and questioned the absolutes we were given.
We didn't have confession or absolution. We had ritual penance, but for me it never felt like relief. It just helped me find ways to bury the shame, and bury the feelings, and then feel more shame around them.
While not everyone goes through an extreme childhood in fringe faith, we have a culture where shame is a topic that very feel people want to touch. Brené Brown has a wonderful TED talk on Shame, where the makes a point that shame must be discussed in order to move beyond it, and that it is intrinsically linked to vulnerability.
And, she says, vulnerability is directly correlated to our ability to create and innovate. So whatever your gift to the world is, whether it's your business acumen, your writing, your dancing, or your ability to inspire, if you hide in shame or avoid vulnerability, then you cripple your ability to give to the world.
Conundrum for many of us who would rather hide the shameful parts of our story.
It took me years to acknowledge the value my story. All I wanted to do was hide it. The funny thing was that it was showing up in my work, long before I ever was fully aware of it. Now it seems a tad obvious...
A few weeks ago I found an old sketchbook from high school and found drawings that have a very similar through line to my current body of work. But even while I was looking at these sketches from 15+ years ago, I felt that hot shame run through me. "No one can ever see these."
Part of me wants to dismiss them as the angsty art of an overly dramatic teenager, but they too are a part of my artistic story. And frankly, my art is no less angsty today anyway!
I'm sharing one of my old sketches with you today illustrate that these feelings and stories are within us. Sometimes they're there for years, waiting for healing and asking for us to address them. And even though I still cringe looking at this sketch, I think it helps demonstrate what I'm talking about.
Which brings me up to the present.
Recently a fellow artist reached out to me about collaborating on a piece for a series that acknowledges the ritual and folklore of Sin Eaters, in which one person 'eats' another's sin and thus takes it on, freeing the other.
In the series, one would write a story that revolves around a personal experience, and the another would create a piece about it, with the intent of freeing the writer from the burden inherent in their story.
So my task, since April, has been to write a story that hasn't been discussed yet in my work. While I think I know the story that I want to tell, I'm finding myself blocked around it, resisting the telling.
It's a story about being 16 and paralyzed by shame in the headlights of a frowning, disappointed God. There were years of prescribed penance after that, and of being labeled "damaged goods." So many of those feelings are encapsulated in the above sketch.
My adult-self who has moved beyond that faith can look back with logic and see that there was, in fact, nothing to be ashamed of. I have a lot of compassion for the kid that I was. It also makes me incredibly compassionate towards those who've experienced shame around something essential within them.
Therefore I've been thinking about how to get out from under the shame by acknowledging and telling our stories and art, because I believe that there is release in the telling. Hiding the shame only lets it grow and contort us. But perhaps it is the telling itself that is the biggest component of healing. So maybe it's finally time that I sit down and write out my story for this collaboration.
Here's a new, also angsty, piece about being bound by shame. I'm calling it "The Penitent Ones."
"The Penitent Ones" Fine Art Photography Print by Jen Kiaba.Click to Purchase a Limited Edition Print.
Whatever it is that we're carrying shame around about, lets find a way to forgive ourselves and let it go.
No, it's not easy. Yes, sometimes there is backlash.
The first time I wrote about my experiences and it was published, the backlash was much bigger than I ever expected. But you know what else was unexpected? The outpouring of kindness, the words of support, and the letters from others who felt like they found their own voice through my words.
Maybe, just maybe, when you share your story, you help heal someone else's as well.