The other night I was thinking about how people must view me as a train wreck. Why would anyone want to be with someone who is such a disaster? If they could choose anyone in the world, why would they choose to join their life with mine, when I seem hell bent on setting the Guinness Book of World Records for the number of bad life decisions? I’m like a ticking time bomb. I should have a t-shirt made that says, “I am a bad decision…stay away.”
That was my oh-so-healthy internal dialogue. The more I beat myself up and degraded myself for my mistakes, the more I snuggled up with my old friends depression and despair. Then out of nowhere, a former therapist’s words poked through the unworthiness bubble I had created. It was during a session in which she and I were discussing my various fears that come up while out at social events with friends or strangers alike. I told her I am deathly afraid of spilling food on myself, throwing up if I get drunk, tripping over my own feet when I’m standing perfectly still, etc. She told me, “Do you think a single person you’re with has never once dropped food on themselves? Don’t you think the majority have at some point thrown up when drunk? I know I have. Many times.” She didn’t address the tripping issues, so I’m convinced that is a skill only a select few have mastered. She went on to remind me that every emotional and mental health struggle is collective. Humans experience these things together, yet think they are alone in their distress.
This all goes back to the idea of shame. Brené Brown (2010) describes shame as “that warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough” (p. 38). And shame, as I talked about in my very first post, is what stops us from reaching outside of ourselves and realizing we aren’t alone. It’s scary to speak up. Terrifying, in fact. Brown says that “shame is all about fear. We’re afraid that people won’t like us if they know the truth about who we are, where we come from, what we believe, how much we’re struggling, or, believe it or not, how wonderful we are when soaring (sometimes it’s just as hard to own our strengths as our struggles)” (2010, p. 39).
That hit me pretty hard, Brené, I’m not going to lie (side note…oh how I wish I was on a first name basis with Brené Brown). The fears she lists are exactly what had me spooning with depression a couple nights ago. I am so afraid that I will go on feeling worthless and insignificant as people continue to come into my life, learn about the darkness inside me, and then leave in search of greener pastures and light. Then, as life has a habit of doing, I received a message today. It came from the brilliant Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the main character in a novel by Louise Penny called Still Life. As I drove down the road listening to the audiobook, the Chief Inspector tells me, “This is the key: it’s choice. We choose our thoughts. We choose our perceptions. We choose our attitudes. We may not think so – we may not believe it – but we do. I absolutely know we do. I’ve seen enough evidence time after time, tragedy after tragedy, triumph after triumph. It’s about choice… life is choice. All day everyday… Our lives become defined by our choices” (Penny, 2007).
Ho. Lee. Crap. No one can make me feel ashamed but myself. Regardless of how others treat me, perceive me, or value me, I am the one choosing to let shame and fear rule my life. I’ve heard the quote from Eleanor Roosevelt many times that “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” but for some reason the Chief Inspector put it out on the table in a way that leaves no room for argument…no offense, First Lady Roosevelt.
I haven’t yet figured out how to choose to see my own worth, regardless of my mistakes, and to own the fact that if people don’t want me in their life, I don’t need them in mine. I know the choice needs to be made…and sooner rather than later. Brené Brown talks about an intriguing idea that she calls Shame Resilience – “the ability to recognize shame, to move through it constructively while maintaining worthiness and authenticity, and to ultimately develop more courage, compassion, and connection as a result of our experience” (2010, p. 40). The trick is learning to see and understand shame in the moment. That’s my new challenge: let shame wash over me, say hello and then a quick goodbye, and come out a better person on the other side.
Recently a friend of mine experienced something that she said brought her a great amount of shame. We talked about it for a while. She exclaimed, “I am a piece of s**t!” I told her, “Look. We all make mistakes. If making mistakes makes us a piece of s**t, then I’m a big one too. And if we’re all one, that means no one is. My piece of s**tness cancels out your piece of s**tness.” I quickly added that we needed to copyright that last bit and slap it on a t-shirt, like, tomorrow. But in all seriousness, “our imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together. Imperfectly, but together” (Brown, 2010, p. 61).
Here’s the thing: my friend was brave enough to tell her story. She had the courage to stand up and say, “I feel ashamed and this is why!” If she hadn’t spoken up, the experience would have festered inside her and gained momentum until it pulled her under. Toward the end of the conversation she told me, “I’m going to cry myself to sleep tonight. I’ve been holding it in.” To which I replied, “Then do it! That’s probably the best thing you can do for yourself! Cry all that shame juice out.” And again quickly added, “OMG. Put that on a t-shirt too! Cry all that shame juice out!” If you need to get rid of some shame, talk it out and cry it out. There’s nothing wrong with that and it doesn’t make you weak. Plus, you might end up with some killer t-shirt ideas.
I tend to seek out the humorous side of anything serious or, conversely, to see poetry and metaphors within my own emotions and experiences. It’s a coping mechanism. Perhaps the way for me to beat shame each day is to come up with funny tag lines or descriptive imagery. For example, today I was mulling over the concept that overcoming shame needs to be a collective effort between all people. If we try to tackle it on our own, it’s like someone who is standing on ice and puts all their weight onto one foot, hoping and praying they don’t fall through. Compare this with the collective approach where we all share our stories and find strength in each other’s shared experiences and emotions. This is like someone who lays down on the ice and spreads out their weight onto multiple points. They are far more likely to make it to solid ground without falling through and plunging into the ice-cold water that wants nothing more than to drag them down into its darkness. Next time I’m feeling particularly alone or unworthy, I must remember to reach out for help so the person (or people) can help spread the weight and get me/each other to solid ground. We need one another.
“Feelings of hopelessness, fear, blame, pain, discomfort, vulnerability, and disconnection sabotage resilience. The only experience that seems broad and fierce enough to combat a list like that is the belief that we’re all in this together and that something greater than us has the capacity to bring love and compassion into our lives” (Brown, 2010, p. 73).
Brown, Brene. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.
Penny, Louise. (2007, May 1). Still Life. St. Martin’s Paperbacks/Mass Market Paperback.