For shame

I have buried two shameful secrets for most of my life. Today I’m coming clean.

Which is not easy for a recovering perfectionist.


The first involved the Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee. When I was in 6th grade I made it to the district level and breezed through the written portion of the contest. I got through a round or two of the spotlight spelling, but fell later on the easy-peasy word gauze. Shame filled me. How could I have failed so spectacularly? I was certain that everyone in the room was laughing at the stupid idiot girl who messed up on a one-syllable word.

My parents arrived shortly after my crash-and-burn (they must have had a scheduling conflict for they rarely missed any of our activities) and I was relieved that they had not witnessed my fall. I was more than relieved — I was opportunistic. I thumbed through the Scripps-Howard booklet of words and chose the most difficult one I could find.

I told my parents not that gauze was my downfall, but that psilophyton was. It made my shame more bearable to create the illusion that a more difficult word had knocked me out of the competition.


The second took place a few years later when I turned 16 and set out to get my drivers license. Of course, I aced the written test. All that stood between me and new-found freedom was the actual driving portion of the test. My dad had spent hours teaching me in our family car, and I’d gotten an A in Drivers Ed (they used to offer it in our high school). So I wasn’t worried.

When the time came, though, I bombed the test. I failed to yield to oncoming traffic when turning left. I’m lucky I didn’t cause an accident.

My shame was of epic proportion. I could not tell my parents the truth. Instead, I told them that the instructor must have had it in for me. I just could not face them or myself. I practically convinced myself that my story was true.

Only it wasn’t.

Looking back, and being a parent now, my mom and dad probably knew the truth of both situations (I have never brought it up again, but I suppose this post will open up a conversation!). And of course they loved me anyway, in spite of the failures and the lies about the failures.

I didn’t really get off scot-free. Easing the burden in those moments had the counter-effect of weighing on my conscience all these years.

But instead of now feeling more shame for the young lady who failed, I offer to her compassion for living in fear and forgiveness for hiding her shame with lies.


Why am I bringing these minor-in-the-scheme-of-things up now? Because I’m excavating.

By virtue of burying these episodes for decades, they gained much more power than they merited. Small potatoes, truly. But through the deepness and the darkness, two small kernels of shame became supercharged.

It’s time to neutralize by shining light.

Often, in the light, the things we are most embarrassed by or even ashamed of suddenly seem not so dark, so charged, so burdensome. If we are fortunate, we are able to look at the thing with compassionate eyes and forgive our previous selves for the transgression. We know that most of the time we do the best we can with what we have.

And I think this notion has implications way beyond any spelling bee or drivers test.

26 thoughts on “For shame”

  1. Lori, I just love this post. I love the idea of excavating. In retrospect, we’re these big deals? At the time, they were huge. Looking back on them now, given your life experience thus far, how do you feel about the magnitude of these two events?

    1. That’s exactly my point. The failures were small, really (well, bigger to a child/teen than they are to me as an adult).

      Rather, it was the LIES and the shame that made them so big — not the actual failures themselves.

  2. There are so many things that I’ve done or said (or not done or not said) that I feel horrible about.

    Most of them weren’t all that important in the grand scheme of things and I hope the other people involved have forgotten about them. Still, how could I have been so stupid/clueless/awful? How could I have made such a bad decision? How could I have made such an idiotic remark?

    More importantly, how do you learn to forgive yourself? (a not entirely rhetorical question)

  3. 4th grade, the word was “missile,” there were only two of us left in the competition, and I lost to Keith Gilman, who wasn’t generally considered the smartest kid in the class.

    I didn’t lie about it at the time, but I’ve never lived down the shame! (Well, maybe I’m over it now.)

    Very brave of you to come clean. I can’t wait to see what your parents have to say about it.

  4. 7th grade. “Idly” knocked me out. Oh the embarrassment. I still remember spelling it I-D-L-E-L-Y and looking up and seeing the assistant priest in the back of the room feign shock, like what? You got THAT wrong?

    Like niobe, I have things said/unsaid, actions done/not done that still keep me up at night. Because once you start thinking about that one time you were a real jerk, all the others seem to line up ready to take their turn in your consciousness.

    So maybe a thoughtful excavation is in order. This is really resounding with me right now. Thanks, Lori.

  5. I failed my drivers test twice, both when I was 19. Mostly it didn’t matter because my mother (and then my future husband) was happy to drive me around, but it was mortifying not to have a license when I had to turn down a job offer to babysit for one of my college professors because I couldn’t pick her kid up from preschool.

  6. My word was acalculia. I still don’t know what it means. And I went and failed to get my driver’s license 5 (!) times. I failed the test twice – the first time was bullsh*t – he said I failed because I slowed down to change lanes. But what was I supposed to do? There was an opening behind me (and there was no one behind me), so I waited for the opening to be next to me and scooted over. It’s not like I stopped. And then one time I drove over a big landscaping boulder when attempting to park. I totally own that one. And once my sister’s new car didn’t have the right registration. And then my learner’s permit had expired. Seems like there was some other event – I think I forgot some vital piece of paperwork.

    But, I have never been much of a prevaricator. I don’t embarrass that easily, so I’m not terribly afraid to admit what an idiot I can sometimes be. My excavation tends to involve how needlessly obnoxious I have been at times when I was feeling insecure about myself. It’s hard to shrug that off, even though it was a combination of youth and insecurity, because I can see my daughter might have the same tendencies. I hope I can figure out a way to help her get through more easily.

  7. LOVE this: “Often, in the light, the things we are most embarrassed by or even ashamed of suddenly seem not so dark, so charged, so burdensome. If we are fortunate, we are able to look at the thing with compassionate eyes and forgive our previous selves for the transgression. We know that most of the time we do the best we can with what we have. And I think this notion has implications way beyond any spelling bee or drivers test.”

    It so has implications beyond anything minor. When we hide things, we feel ashamed. Even if it’s something that is no big deal. This is why I’m “out” about the fact that I relinquished my daughter. I never want to feel ashamed of her.

  8. Ah, what a smart, smart woman you are! Thanks for the example. I had this experience when re-connecting with an old beau on facebook. (I lasted on facebook about 6 months when it first came on the scene, then quickly made my exit and much prefer my privacy). Anyway, I still felt some misplaced embarassment over that awkward, unresolved relationship, but as I pondered it, I realized how fond I had been of that guy, and so I focussed on that, and approached him to achieve some much needed closure and am really glad I faced up to that memory. That’s how we grow really isn’t it. So important 🙂

  9. What if we can’t forgive ourselves for the things we feel shame for? What if in admitting it and looking at it, it still feels large?

    That said, I will release that I also failed my first driver’s test. And I have a terrible spelling error on a school poster story. And I mispronounced the word “triumph” as “trumpet.”

    1. This is an excellent question that has had me thinking all evening.

      I suppose this would be where we focus on compassion — pray for it, meditate on it, really work it, if necessary. Compassion paves the way for forgiveness.

      Some of it, I believe, is just deciding to forgive and then figuring out how. Holding a grudge hurts the holder, even if the grudge is against oneself. So forgiving becomes an act of enlightened self-interest.

      Need to hear the poster story.

  10. So get this, 4th grade as well and I still tell my husband about how ethical I was back then- They handed us certificate of achievements BEFORE the spelling bee and they were in our hands. My word: ACHIEVEMENT. I said, I will not look down even though I knew the answer was right in front of me. I did not look down because I could not remember at that age whether it was the I before E etc… Anyway, I lost but my integrity was in tact and I walked out the 2nd round with my head held high – granted, being Indian, I was a disgrace to my people and all (HA! LOL)
    Anyway – so true- love the idea of excavation. Love all of this.

  11. at one of my first jobs, I was waiting tables and had a huge party of 12, which was super intimidating. I was announcing the specials and one was “jambalaya” which I had never tried. I pronounced it “jamBALya” and half the table chuckled and the patriarch asked “where are YOU from?” I was mortified. then, (ironically) I was always nervous about opening wine bottles (alas, no more, thank goodness!). I had an irrational fear that the cork would inevitably break off in front of the customers. sure enough, it happened and I had to nonchalantly excuse myself and work it out in the kitchen. I never told anyone but my shame weighed heavily. on top of it all, that patriarch? he was the OWNER. blargh. makes a good story now to come clean, I supposed.

    and yes, you’re right, the secrecy and shame are what give your incidents weighty significance, as they’ve burdened you for so long. very thought provoking.

  12. It’s amazing how the little things are the ones that haunt us forever and ever and ever. I got eliminated from our school spelling bee on a round when I could have written down the word. What happened? I forgot the second “c” in “cactus” because I was too arrogant to write down the word.

    Some things that I feel shame for, I wonder if I can ever get over it. Even when it’s a situation where I realize that my parents didn’t react appropriately and they really are the “problem” in the situation because it wasn’t that big a deal, I still can’t get over it.

  13. The couple of times as a kid that I lied about something to my parents (direct lie and not omission or stretching the truth) I felt so guilty I fessed up within minutes. I’ve never been much good at outright lying. Easier to just tell the truth or at least say nothing.

  14. I was JUST listening to a sermon from a pastor while driving up to Estes park yesterday. He was talking about conscience and how if it isn’t clear you’re living in darkness. Whether there is something you’ve done or haven’t done, your conscience is holding you back from living in the light and blessings. WOW! As a kid, these are things that really would haunt you, as a parent though, watching your kids, they aren’t that bad, RIGHT? I am trying to teach my kids that coming clean is refreshing and a lot of times will get you in less trouble than trying to hide the truth. Oh and the freedom from being out from under lies is HUGE!

    I guess this is the final sign, I need to deal with some things that I haven’t dealt with. It’s the second time I’ve heard/read about conscience. It’s amazing how these issues track you down, right?

  15. I cheated in reading boxes in the 3rd grade. And got caught. I wanted to get ahead … to make my parents proud … and instead I had to stay late after school. I STILL feel shame for that one. And for other things I lied about to cover up the truth of failure … my parents didn’t have much compassion for failure, but I try to remember to do so for my son, to make him feel safe about ‘messing up.’ I don’t always remember to do that, either, though … this is a good reminder that I *still* need to be compassionate to myself.

  16. Lori,

    You’re obviously doing some amazing work right now. We all have these types of secrets that could use being brought into the light. Thank you for showing us all the courage!

    May this bring you peace,

  17. 7th grade, acclimatization. I was so overconfident I immediately blurted out A-C-L, then stopped in shame and just sat down. To this day, I’m embarrassed even using that word.

    It is awful when little things like that haunt you, though. When I was 10, I had a bit of a tiff with a classmate. I don’t remember at all what the original conversation was or even was about, but in relaying it to my mother that evening, I wanted to impress her, so my final retort became ‘I take it you’ve never encountered sarcasm.’ I’ve told her half a dozen times since that I didn’t say that, that I made it up for her, but she doesn’t want to listen, and continues to regale others with the sarcasm line. Maybe one day I’ll live it down.

  18. It is so true that things that seem like such a big deal at the time are “small potatoes” in the future. I have a few things I feel shame for, but that is all in the past and there are more important things to worry about now. Thanks for the reminder.

  19. I have not heard of “excavating” but think it’s a brilliant idea. My spelling bee failure was so lame. You know how you’re not allowed to back up once you’ve said a letter? Well, I was a poor shy nervous kid with a tendency to stutter in situations in front of an audience. Closing in on the end of the area spelling bee, I got the word “majority” and promptly breathed a sigh of relief because it was so easy. And then I said “M-A-G—” My tongue betrayed me and I had to leave the stage totally humiliated.

  20. Wait, you are a recovering perfectionist?

    I so need to be in recovery for that. How do I begin?

    No, seriously?

    PS: I failed out in the first round 😉

  21. NOT to forgive simply imprisons you into an old sequence of continuously escalating shame/outrage. You allow the present to be overwhelmed by the past. To proceed with the new business of continued life you have to forgive yourself. It takes strength to forgive yourself. It requires a hefty dose of love to truly forgive.

    Amazing how many of us are willing to share moments of long ago shames…and magnanimously forgive ourselves. I think the real work comes in identifying the more recent ones, the current ones that still have power over us.

  22. Lovely, Lori. “So often it’s not the event, but the cover-up of the event, which is the downfall.” In legal terms it means one thing. In personal, it means we usually live in far more pain beyond what admitting the shame of the moment would have brought.

    Yet, we’ve all been there. Hopefully it can give us compassion for the fear others live in that may cause questionable behavior. And then more questionable behavior to cover the questionable behavior.

    I do have to give you credit, though, for your fast thinking! That was something to be proud of!

    Love you
    (and glad to see you excavating ;]

  23. I don’t remember any spelling bee mishaps, but I bombed on my driver’s test after sailing through driver’s ed. I swear the tester must have graduated from the Hitler school of evaluation, barking out orders at me. Totally unnerved me, and flunking (by one point in one case) completely shattered my confidence. I did finally get my driver’s license just before I got married but for a variety of reasons (including good public transit & a husband to chauffeur me around, nerves & a stick-shift car the first six years of our marriage, when I had always driven automatic) I have rarely driven since then. It’s something I have vowed to get back to in the next few years.

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