When Oprah called me to the stage at her "Life You Want" event in DC, I knew that this was my moment to share with the woman who inspires me most how she helped me overcome the greatest challenge of my life -- the shame of being HIV positive -- and the success in my life that followed as a result.
Shame was like a drug. It altered my perception of reality. I was surrounded with countless friends and loved ones, but shame made me believe I was alone. Shame distorted my views on my self-worth. It made me believe that I didn't have any worth at all. I allowed myself to be abused and mistreated in relationships because I believed that my HIV status didn't entitle me to more. Even when men accepted my status, I often sabotaged those relationships because my shame made me believe I didn't deserve their acceptance.
I hoped that if I was successful and everyone liked me, maybe they wouldn't see me as low as I saw myself. As a result, I would overcompensate by being a people-pleasing workaholic. The word "no" rarely came past my lips -- no matter how inconvenient the request. In my professional life I was extremely ambitious. I rose quickly in the hypercompetitive world of management consulting while at the world's largest firms.
Loved ones kept encouraging me to be more open about my status as a path to healing my shame, but the thought literally petrified me. Would people judge me? Would my status distract them from the accomplishments I had made in business and my community? Really my greatest fear was: Would people stop liking me? It doesn't matter how much money you have or how many people know your name, we all want the same thing -- to be accepted and liked -- and I am no different.
One evening while at home feeling alone and hopeless, I came across a TV special featuring Oprah Winfrey. Oprah spoke of how we can only live authentically (at our full potential) once we face and work through our shame. She was referring to her personal journey to work through the shame of sexual abuse, but her words still held true for the shame I had about being HIV-positive. Oprah's words that evening had an immediate transformational effect on me. I realized that all shame is equally destructive regardless of its source, and can be healed in the same way: through confronting it.
After hearing Oprah's words, I became intentional about working through my shame. I attended therapy and slowly became increasingly more open about my HIV status to people outside of my inner circle. I then began to look for ways to be of service to people living with chronic conditions such as HIV.
From my own experience trying to secure life and health insurance, I knew how daunting of a task that could be for someone who is HIV-positive or living with a chronic condition. I was almost always turned down for life insurance, and many health insurance plans didn't sufficiently cover the cost of my medicine. I knew this was where I could be of service to people like me, so I launched The Hurston Group and our Chronic & Positive Care division that helps people living with chronic conditions, such as HIV, secure life and health insurance.
The response was immediate and beyond what I could have imagined. We quickly expanded from being a small insurance brokerage serving clients in DC, Maryland and Virginia to serving clients in 11 states.
After sharing my story with Oprah and the world, the public response was overwhelmingly encouraging. Support overflowed from people around the world that I had never met. They celebrated my courage, offered encouragement, and shared how they had overcome their own shame. Every message from each of them was a subtle reminder to me that the world opens its arms to us when we confront our shame and live authentically.
In the words of "Auntie O," as I refer to Oprah in my head, "what I know for sure..." is that our silence only gives our shame power. Silence is shame's greatest ally because it isolates us in our pain and renders us defenseless to confront it. Through confronting our shame we gain access to a world of power and support that is readily available to us all. Only then can we start living authentically within our full power and potential.
Malcolm "MJ" Harris is the Managing Director of The Hurston Group, a national financial services firm that specializes in health and life insurance and retirement planning for all people - regardless of their HIV status. For more information, visit http://www.NationalCareFinancial.com. Follow him @themjharris