Monica Lewinsky, Shame, and Empathy

A friend doing some calisthenics this afternoon at Assisi

Do you regularly listen to TED Talks? How about the TED Radio Hour on NPR? I happened to catch the last 20 minutes of this week's episode on Sunday evening, and it left me in tears. 

Click here for a link to segment 4 of this week's episode. It's an interview with Monica Lewinsky that also features clips of her TED Talk.

I invite you to do your best to pause all judgment and then listen.

Set aside 17 minutes and listen to the segment 4 link I posted above. Truly. Make sure you listen to the interview in Monica's own words before you read the rest of this post. You'll get a lot more out of it by listening to her tell it in her own words.


Now that you're back - I'll share a few of her quotes that I found particularly poignant and then some of my own thoughts. I hope you'll share your thoughts as well!
  • "I couldn't run away from what happened" 
  • "It's very hard to be grounded in who you are when you feel you don't have a purpose" 
  • "Not a day goes by that I'm not reminded of my mistake and I regret that mistake deeply"
  • "The attention and judgement I received was unprecedented" 
  • "Shame, particularly on the scale which I experienced it, is like a heavy blanket...a heavy suffocating blanket...you feel very alone...very isolated...and I guess the image that comes up for me is covered in tar. The stigma is thick and intense. I think it's very hard to be in your own skin when you're suffering from the effects of shame."
  • "There were many moments when I thought it was just too much...and I couldn't imagine seeing a light at the end of any tunnel." 
  • "Anger slowly gave way to doubt about myself and my own experiences...it was because I had the support of family, friends, and professionals that I was able to make it through."
  • "She [Monica's mother] was reliving 1998...a time when she sat by my bed every night...a time when she made me shower with the bathroom door open....a time when both of my parents feared I would be humiliated to death...literally."
  • "I think the hope for me and what has worked so far is having more and more other experiences which are different...which diminish the impact of those past experiences."
  • "It started out as the anniversary of the worst day of my life...and that was a traumatic experience for all of us. And a few years after that...I, along with my family, decided that I wanted to reframe it....it's now a marker of the day I survived. It's the day my family and I use. And we call it Survivor's Day. Each year it's an acknowledgment that I survived something." 
  • "Even empathy from one person can make a difference." 
  • "Because it's time. Time to take back my narrative. It's not just about saving myself. Anyone who is suffering from shame needs to know one thing: you can survive it....you can insist on a different ending to your story. Have compassion for yourself. We all deserve compassion. And to live both online and off in a more compassionate world." 
  • Emotional resilience is something we can build. 
  • Resilience is a muscle we can build. 
  • For me, the goal of trauma...is to make the echo of it quieter.
  • To manage trauma, you have to be pretty vigilant...the reality is that it ebbs and flows so much.
The quotes in bold are the ones I found most moving of all.

I think my connection to Monica's words is rooted in my own journey of healing.

She and I had different experiences - but we both experienced the implications of shame...of being shamed...of feeling humiliated and worthless and lost...without a sense of identity or purpose. There are diary entries in my own journal from the past year that are so similar to Monica's words in the interview, "I couldn't imagine seeing a light at the end of any tunnel." I couldn't.

I admire that Monica was able to reclaim a traumatic anniversary. To rename it as Survivor's Day.

I also love that she says we can all insist on a different ending to our stories because we all deserve compassion.

Friends, we all carry stories. Volumes and volumes of stories. Many of which will never be on display for public consumption. Many of which we will never speak or write.

Be compassionate to others. All others. Think very, very, very long and hard before ever speaking a word of hurt or harm or judgment. Instead of tearing people down - let's commit together to building one another up. One resilient block at a time.

It's just like she says in the interview, "Even empathy from one person can make a difference."

It's true. It's profoundly true. One person's empathy changed the trajectory of my life. It gave me courage to keep going.

Be a source of empathy for others. Empathy is contagious.


  1. We just read The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown in our book club. It was a good read.

    1. I love her books!!!! I still need to read that one.