Trapped in Shame: How I Found Mental Freedom After Prison

“If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” ~Brené Brown

I was in two prisons.

One physical. One mental.

The physical version was Otisville Federal Prison.

I was living so out of alignment with who I was and who I wanted to become and self-sabotaged in a colossal way, defrauding one of the largest tech companies in the world.

My mental prison, my personal hell, was the all-consuming power of shame. Hurting the one I love, disappointing my family, and letting myself down. Ignoring the voice inside that told me not to commit the fraud.

I believed with all my soul that I destroyed the most extraordinary gift life has to offer us: love.

I was trapped in my head and couldn’t see a way out or even a reason to try.

With every ounce of my being, I believed, “I am undeserving of love, happiness, forgiveness, and peace. I destroyed love and will never be worthy of it again. I deserve a lifetime of punishment.”

This was my prison. This is where I lived, falling further into darkness every day with no end in sight.

Shame is an insidious disease that lives, breathes, and grows in the darkness. Shame thrives in isolation, separation, and disconnection.

Shame wants to be alone.

Unless we do something about it, it will eat us alive from the inside out.

What do we do with something that lives in the dark? Something that craves isolation, separation, and disconnection?

We shine a light on it. We shine a light on it by speaking about it. By being open, by having the conversations we’re afraid to have.

Shame withers and dies in the face of vulnerability.

When we are vulnerable, not only do we shine a light on our shame, but we also give others permission to do the same.

When we shine a light on shame, when we are vulnerable and open up, we take the first step out of the darkness.

And we realize that we are not alone.

I couldn’t jump headfirst into vulnerability; I was too afraid. But I knew that if I allowed shame to consume me, it would never release its grip on my life.

How did I get to where I could be vulnerable, open, and share?

Here are the first three steps I took.

Accepting Reality

I spent my days in prison wishing I wasn’t in prison.

I spent my days wishing I hadn’t made the choices I made that landed me in prison.

I wished and dreamed for life to be anything other than it was. I was fighting against a past and circumstance that couldn’t be changed.

I would never have freedom from shame if I continued to fight for what couldn’t be changed. I had to do what I was so afraid to do.

I had to accept reality.

I didn’t want to. It felt like giving up; it felt passive. Fighting equals progress. But does it? What was I fighting against? As much as I wish there were, there is no such thing as a time machine Delorean.

Accepting reality isn’t giving up; it isn’t passive. It was an act of courage for me to say, “I accept that I betrayed myself and chose to commit a crime. I hit the ‘enter’ button, the single keystroke that started it all. I accept I made the choice to continue in the face of the universe screaming at me to stop. I accept that I am in prison. I accept that I hurt the woman I love, my family, my friends….”

A weight lifted off of me when I wrote that. I wasn’t trapped in the past. I felt something I thought was impossible in prison: freedom.

Self-Trust

I lost trust in myself. How could I possibly trust myself when I am the one who did this to himself?

There is an emptiness that is all-consuming when you don’t trust yourself.

It’s a horrible feeling.

One day, scrolling through Twitter, my friend posted, “Surest path to self-confidence I know: making and keeping commitments to ourselves.”

That struck a chord. My friend walks the walk; this wasn’t just lip service.

From that one tweet, I committed to facing my biggest fear: public speaking. It took five years, but I eventually delivered a TEDx.

The TEDx was incredible, no doubt, but there was so much more than that. It created a way of life for me.

When you make and keep commitments, you change your inner narrative to one that’s empowering.

You change your story to being a person who TAKES ACTION.

You build trust because you kept your word to yourself. When we trust ourselves, we have confidence in ourselves.

When we have confidence in ourselves, we believe in ourselves. We trust ourselves.

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is hard. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve done as I’ve rebuilt and reinvented my life.

I had to forgive myself for the choices that resulted in my arrest by the FBI and my sentence to two years in federal prison and cost me everything: my marriage, my homes, my cars, my sense of self-worth, and my identity.

I had to forgive myself for planning on killing myself.

I didn’t think I was worthy of forgiveness. Who was I to let myself off the hook with all the damage I had caused?

I had to take the first two steps of acccepting reality and cultivating self-trust.

When I took those first two steps, I understood that forgiving ourselves is one of the biggest acts of love and compassion we can do for ourselves.

When we forgive ourselves, we demonstrate that we are worthy of love and compassion.

Forgiveness cultivates our self-trust as well.

Forgiveness liberates you from a past that cannot be changed. You learn to let go of that baggage weighing you down.

There’s great freedom when we let go.

From these three steps, I reached a place where I could be vulnerable and, in turn, walk out of the prison of shame.

When we own our story, we own our life. When our story owns us, it owns our life.

Huge difference.

About Craig Stanland

Forgiveness is freedom, and freedom to me is everything.
Craig Stanland is a Reinvention Architect, TEDx & Keynote Speaker, and Author of “Blank Canvas, How I Reinvented My Life After Prison.” He specializes in working with clients who’ve chased success, money, and status in their 1st half, only to find a success-sized hole in their lives. He helps them tap into their full potential and connect with their calling to create their extraordinary 2nd half with purpose, meaning, and fulfillment. Connect with him here.

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