The One Where She Finally Asks For Help

Rabbit Ears Pass Winter Wonderland, taken by my talented husband, Steve

Forgive me readers, for I have sinned. It’s been five weeks and change since I bothered to post anything here. While I couldn’t get my shit together to write, you may be relieved to know I literally couldn’t get my shit together for much of anything else either. It’s been fits and starts for me for years now, and I’m spent from trying to figure out how to start my engine again. It seems as the rest of the world is beginning to bounce back into some sort of trial, post-pandemic life and get going again, I’m still standing in the starting gate questioning whether I heard the gun go off. It might have. I probably wasn’t paying attention. I don’t know. What day is today anyway? What am I going to make for dinner? I’ve got no clue. Will I actually put on something other than pajama pants today? Probably not. I’m too tired to put in the effort for myself and I’m too tired to care about it.

What’s the point. It’s not even a question anymore. It’s just a statement.

I’ve come so far in my emotional journey, breaking down my life’s components, decade by decade, to help me understand how I got to be 54 without having any idea who I am. Still I am coming up short of knowing myself honestly and without filters. I understand how I got this way. I know exactly what led me here. There’s no undoing it. First I had to accept that my childhood was run by emotionally immature adults who used me as a foil for all their issues. Then I had to grieve the loss of the childhood I wished I’d had. Then I had to work my way through the traumatic memories to take away their sting. Then I had to accept my own part in remaining that lost little girl. Then I had to begin to make amends to myself and to others who I used to bolster up my assumed identity. And, well, it was all worth it, but I’m spent and I’ve been spent for years.

I found this today in an Instagram post by The Holistic Psychologist. I wish I had written it. I couldn’t find the words, but I am grateful she did.

A Letter of Forgiveness to My Younger Self

I forgive myself for the time I spent in survival mode. I forgive myself for the times I used other people, alcohol, and other destructive behaviors to avoid the pain I felt within. I forgive myself because I learned that closeness meant chaos and dysfunction, and I re-enacted that dysfunction over and over again. I forgive myself because I witnessed adults who couldn’t self-regulate, so I dissociated to not feel and not connect to other people. I forgive myself because I was left alone to deal with my emotions, so I became fixed on not being abandoned by other people. In the process, I abandoned myself. I forgive myself because I learned my role was to be easy and to be liked, so I betrayed my own values to gain that approval. I forgive myself because I allowed my mother wound to impact every relationship I ever had, then avoided responsibility and blamed other people for issues they didn’t create. I forgive myself for my past and know that through taking responsibility for my life, I give the younger version of myself a new future.

That sums up where I am now. That is how far I’ve come. I get it. I see everything. How I became lost and how I kept myself lost is no longer a mystery. But I’ve remained stuck here in this place, biding my time and hoping I would snap out of it. Here I still stand, waist deep in a quicksand of exhaustion and apathy. Going NOWHERE.

Because of this, I determined that if I can’t move forward on my own, I’m going to have to ask for help. This week I did something I never thought I would do (back in the old days when I was 100% certain I was someone I was not). I started taking an antidepressant because I need a push to start living again. Not just breathing and going through the motions, but actually living my life. Being present. Being invested. Being enthusiastic. Being healthful. Being observant. Being open. Being brave. It’s too early to tell if they are helping yet and, indeed, I might need a higher dose to stop my stalling and get on with it. But, it’s a step. A step I desperately needed to take. And I am hopeful. Hopeful that I will find that lost little girl and tell her to go for it, all of it, and stop apologizing to everyone for existing in her skin. Hopeful that someday soon I will be writing again, and through my writing I will find my way to the beautiful me I’ve never known yet long to meet.

My Autobiography: In Five Chapters

Along my path to a healthier me, a me who isn’t stuck operating from the trauma responses I adopted as a child, I found this poem. It has been my goal post as I move through the stages of recovery.

Autobiography in Five Chapters by Portia Nelson

Chapter I

I spent most my life unable to move beyond Chapter I. I was self-unaware. With no understanding the dynamics that had been in play when I was a child had heavy consequences, nearly everything I encountered was a challenge for my nervous system. Normal interactions and situations triggered my fight, flight, or fawn defenses. Without those defenses, I would have collapsed in on myself like a dying star. I had no real idea who I was underneath the overthinking, perfectionism, people pleasing, boundary ceding, bullying, and negativity. Worse yet, I didn’t see there was anything unhealthy about my MO at all. I was stuck for a long, long time.

Chapter II

Six days before my 46th birthday, I was sabotaged in public by a family member. Because my eleven year old son had been used as an unwitting pawn in the scheme to humiliate me, something in me snapped. It was my roller shade moment. After decades spent repressing abuse I endured as a child, the window shade I had pulled down to protect myself from repeated trauma flew up. I could not unsee what had been lurking behind it. I was bumped into Chapter II, forced to acknowledge my past and reckon with my trauma responses and their repercussions. I couldn’t stop using them to protect myself yet because I still needed them. So, I kept behaving mostly the same way I always had, only now I was aware how unhealthy my reactions to every little thing were. I didn’t know how to stop them, but I knew they were wrong. Every time I caught myself in an epic overreaction, the shame was overwhelming. I read a stack of self-help books and realized I needed to start regular therapy. Through therapy, I faced my past. It was painful and slow going. Every time I hurt my husband or my sons because I could not control my responses, I felt like the worthless person I was told as a child I was. I was a skipping record, stuck in a groove, doomed to repeat my patterns.

Chapter III

After some research, I decided to shift to a new therapist who offered EMDR therapy, which has helped thousands of people suffering from PTSD see their trauma in a different light. I’ve spent most of the past two years in this chapter. It has been an endless cycle of acting out my old habits, catching myself, acknowledging my behaviors and thoughts are not helpful, apologizing to myself and others for my missteps, and then forgiving myself and trying again from a more mindful place. Sometimes I would react in a more healthy manner immediately. Other times I had to sit with the negative pattern I had repeated for 5-10 minutes before understanding how I could do better and then ameliorating the situation for myself and those I had been unfair to. I saw my progress and was encouraged, but I also knew I could be in this chapter for decades until I was skilled enough spot the hole before falling into it.

Chapter IV

Recently, and with some extra assistance, I’ve had some legitimate success walking around the trauma hole. I can bump myself out of my well-worn groove and react differently in the moment. I’ve made it to Chapter IV. I don’t live here full-time, but I am finally here. I catch negative thoughts mid-stream and I make a choice to walk around that hole. Holy shit. There is no way to explain what a monumental life shift this has been for me. While I still stumble into my old patterns a few times a day, I also stop them a few times a day. I’m owning my mistakes because I know I’m not expected to be perfect. I’m beating myself up less, looking in the mirror and seeing myself in a positive light more than a negative one. I’m stopping my inner bullshit before it gets loose. I’m holding myself accountable. Best of all, though, I’m holding others accountable too. I differentiate between a me problem and a you problem. And I am able to stand up for myself, walk away, and let someone else deal with their own inner bullshit. I no longer think I am broken or horrible or perpetually wrong. I am still working but I am more present. I am proud of myself.

Chapter V

A lot of people have lofty goals for their lives. They know what legacy they would like to leave behind. Me? I don’t concern myself with any of that. I just want to get to Chapter V and hopefully live there for a bit, with a reasonable level of control over my actions, some mindfulness, and a lot less reactivity. If I get to a place where my childhood trauma responses are a faint whisper or dull memory rather than a full-fledged fire alarm, I will have walked the path I believe I was meant to walk. My goal in this life is to recover, to do better for myself, my spouse, and my children, to break a cycle.

The light at the end of the tunnel is growing brighter. I know someday I won’t have to negotiate my way around the hole at all because I will have already walked down another street.

An Ongoing Exercise In Dismantling Self-Doubt

“You’ll never be a first class human being or a first class woman until you’ve learned to have some regard for human frailty.” ~C.K. Dexter Haven, The Philadelphia Story

This week, my therapist and I began working on my ever-present self-doubt. Self-doubt, I’ve only recently come to acknowledge, has played a big part in my life. It’s not that I always felt confident or comfortable in my skin or my actions. I didn’t. But, through trauma, I became so adept at pretending to be sure of myself that I honestly bought my own fiction. I maintained this alternate sense of self that existed completely disconnected from my true self. My persona was a cardboard standee I would place in front of people, somehow absolutely convinced that they took my bravado at face value and would never peer around the side of the 2-D cutout I’d presented to them to discover there was nothing there to back it up. In fairness, I think some people figured out that my insides didn’t match the outside I presented to the world long before I understood that I had been play acting for others most of my life. Their superpower was being comfortable enough in their own skin to recognize an imposter when they saw one. My superpower was pretending I was perfect when, deep down, I felt like shit scraped off a shoe.

In my therapist’s office the other day, we did some guided meditation to address my lifelong self-doubt. First we did a basic relaxation technique, starting with visualizing my happy place. From there, she asked me to conjure up a meeting place, a place where I would feel completely at ease. I envisioned a warm, cozy room inside a log cabin house with a fireplace, a plush sofa, and floor-to-ceiling picture windows through which my view was the surrounding mountains in their fall splendor. When I was good and comfortable in that mental space, she asked me to invite my self-doubt to join me there. Self-doubt, my imagination decided, arrived in a dark cloud that obscured the sun and dimmed the room, making it feel chillier. She asked me to give the dark cloud a name, so I named it after the place where my self-doubt originated in my early youth. I was required to sit with my self-doubt with a neutral mindset, neither allowing it to overwhelm me nor allowing myself to ignore it. And that’s as far as we got in my session before we had to end for the week, but even that small effort made me consider my self-doubt in a new way.

I wasn’t born with self-doubt. Self-doubt was thrust upon me at a young age, the result of incessant criticism, which led to an understanding I was not good enough or worthy of respect, attention, or love unless I did what others thought was best or wanted. Self-doubt is what I got when I tried and didn’t reach the mark others thought I should. It’s what happened when, instead of being told, “You’re human and humans don’t always get it right and that is okay,” I was informed, “You should have known better” and admonished “You’re embarrassing yourself.” I have since come to understand that my relentless perfectionism is a by-product of continually being told I could and should do better, rather than being gently reminded that life is a process and you learn and grow over time. I wish I had heard more thoughtful “Go easy on yourself, you’re trying” and less demeaning “Everybody knows THAT.” The perfectionism I ended up with in a useless attempt to be good enough for everyone else (in order to believe I was good enough in my own skin) was backwards.

The truth is when you feel good enough in your own skin, you don’t have to be perfect for anyone else to appreciate you. You live your truth and know that you screw up sometimes but you also get it right sometimes. From that place, you learn to forgive yourself and others for the crime of human frailty. It’s challenging to think of myself 10 or 20 years ago, when I was 150% convinced through my perfectionist mindset that I was mentally healthy the way I was. I was throwing down that cardboard cutout of a perfect me as reality and challenging others the way I had been challenged. It was misguided, but it was all from a place of deep hurt and misunderstanding. I didn’t know who I was. I only knew who others thought I should be. And so, with my own sense of self dampened and obscured, I became full of self-doubt that could only be lessened by my attempts to be perfect at everything and for everyone.

Self-doubt is insidious. I know it plagues even the most well-adjusted among us, but it’s such a pointless place to work from, whether that place be a waiting room we occasionally occupy or the impenetrable fortress we inhabit. I’ve come to the place where I can acknowledge it’s a shame that I didn’t get better messaging as I was growing up, but I’ve also come to believe it’s incumbent upon me to give to myself the grace and forgiveness and gentleness and kindness I did not receive back then. It’s up to me to lift that dark cloud. No one else can do it for me.

Listen to Mustn’ts, child, listen to the Don’ts.
Listen to the Shouldn’ts, the Impossibles, the Won’ts.
Listen to the Never Haves, then listen close to me.
      Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.

A poem by Shel Silverstein

Go Ahead — Ask For Some Help Already

This post is for all of you helpers. You know who you are. You are the ones who take on more responsibility than you need to, who feel overworked and under-appreciated because you don’t know how to share the load, who don’t know how or when to ask for help or even that asking for assistance is not only important but healthy.

I am your people. I grew up believing I could only count on myself. I had no problem helping out others. I learned that if I wanted something done the “right” way, I had to do it myself. It never occurred to me that perhaps someone else might have a better way of doing something or that I might learn something useful from their efforts. I didn’t know how to ask for what I needed, so I told myself I didn’t need anything from anyone else. If someone disappointed me, which happened on occasion precisely because I didn’t know how to ask for what I wanted, I labeled them as untrustworthy and went my own way. It was a vicious cycle. Each time I tried to trust someone and was disappointed, it was further proof I could only count on myself. And so I went through most of my life taking on more and more, trusting less and less. Since no person is an island, I created for myself an untenable situation. I became stressed out. I continually felt put upon. The truth is, eventually, we all can use some help. Wise people understand burden sharing provides insight, camaraderie, and a sense of belonging. Taking on everything solo fosters isolation, frustration, and bitterness.

Every night as I’m finishing with dinner prep and we are about to serve, my husband asks if he can plate some food for me. Most nights I still say no. Most nights I tell him I can get my own. I grew up feeling self-sufficiency was proof of competency. Other people ask for help. I don’t need help. That was the lie I told myself. The more I took on, the more others relied on me for that service and the more exhausted I became. My life only began to improve when I started letting others share the burden.

I’m still learning it is okay to let others do for me. They might not do it exactly the way I would have done it, but that can be good. Sometimes when I let someone else do something their way, it’s a growth experience. Other people can be a great source of fresh ideas if you let them bring their gifts to the table. I’ve learned a lot through watching others do things their way. Sometimes I adopt their method because it makes that much more sense.

So, my challenge to all my control freak comrades is this: find a few moments this week when you are feeling overwhelmed and ask for help. You can start small. Ask for help bringing in groceries or walking the dog. If you’re meeting a friend for lunch, suggest a place closer to you for once rather than driving across town to meet them like you have always done. People who are willing to seek help and rely on others occasionally create for themselves a sense of belonging. I think we could all use a little more of that feeling these days.

I promise you this. Once you start asking for assistance, once you start allowing others to be there for you the way you’ve been there for them, you won’t go back to your old ways. It’s liberating to let go of unnecessary responsibility. And, believe me. When someone is insisting on contributing, it’s because they want to. Understand that accepting their offer doesn’t mean you’re incompetent; it means they feel they have something positive and useful to offer. Maybe it’s not about you at all. Maybe it’s about them and their desire to be involved.

There’s nothing wrong with asking for what will make your life a measure easier. Sharing life’s burdens makes life better. You just have to be willing to let go of a little control. No one of consequence will think less of you.

Evolution Isn’t Just For Finches

If anyone is wondering, I am finally sick of my own bullshit.

I am tired of my whining about people who put me in a box, closed the lid, and then sat on it to keep me in my place. I got strong enough to topple them, to push my way out, and then I complained about being held down for so long. I spent so long bitching about it that then I was holding myself down. I think that is a common pattern for people recovering from abuse. You have to process it to make your peace with it. And part of processing is wallowing. It’s the wallowing that makes you sick of yourself. And getting sick of yourself is a good thing because it pushes you out of the track you’ve been running in and allows you to begin a new track.

I understand now why I operated the way I did. And now I know how to operate differently. I don’t always get it right, but forward progress in any measure feels like a win. I will never let anyone speak for me again or tell me who I am or what I like or what I should do or be. I might solicit advice, but that doesn’t mean I’ll take it. No one is an expert on me, not even me. I am in the middle of an evolution.

All the best people are.

Escaping The Judgment Juggernaut

“It’s amazing to me how much you can say when you don’t know what you’re talking about.” ~ Phoebe Bridgers

Don’t throw these from a glass house

True story in fifteen words: I was most confident about who I was when I didn’t know who I was.

At that time, my only operational mode was filtered through a mindset of internal superiority. It wasn’t that I felt superior to anyone. Truth was I felt superior to no one. No. One. I protected my fragile sense of self by drawing distinctions between others and who I believed myself to be. Once I learned more about myself, though, once I was at last able to see the cracks in my unconsciously crafted facade, everything changed. I knew my structure was vulnerable, so I started treading more carefully after a thought popped into my head. I recognized that I should not believe everything I think about others or about myself. I started questioning more and being certain less. I accepted that I lived in an enormous glass house, and from this precarious position stone throwing might be ill-advised.

I am still not consistently able to catch my hypocrisy or haughtiness in the moment, but it doesn’t take me more than a few minutes to get to a more open headspace, to recognize where I took a wrong turn, and to embark on a more authentic and honest path with myself and others. This often requires apologizing for a conclusion I jumped to, admitting I made an error, and then pointing out how the comment I made arose from my insecurities. This was difficult at first, but with practice it is becoming much easier. As a side benefit, it allows those in my circle the opportunity to get to know the real me. Like an unboxed refrigerator in a discount warehouse, I’m a little dinged up but in decent working order. There is nothing broken about me. I just had to accept that it’s not my flaws that define me.

I am working to embody the Ted Lasso school of thought: be curious, not judgmental. When I feel that judgment coming up, I am more equipped now to stop myself and be curious about my thoughts and why they jumped straight to negativity and derision. I know the demons that sabotage my better self and throw me into judging mode: shame, guilt, fear, and ego. When I go from zero to judgment faster than a Tesla in ludicrous mode, one of those dastardly devils is behind it. But now that I know my triggers, I’m quicker to catch myself and say, “Whoa there, Nelly. That is wholly unnecessary.” I am able to remind myself that I am safe now, the judgment that secured my ego and made me so damn confident about everything without having reason to be is no longer a necessary survival strategy. If I make a hasty choice or assumption, there is no need to project negative emotions onto someone else to cover up my error. I simply made a miscalculation due to the muscle memory of judgment that kept my fragile ego in bubble wrap for decades. It happens a lot when you’re recovering from a fear-based world view. It’s astounding how a little self-kindness and compassion dosed out accordingly can reduce the adverse effects of fear-based living.

I am able now to give myself and others more grace. We’re all human. We all have baggage that directs our behavior. The path to freeing yourself of judgment is facing that baggage, inspecting it carefully, understanding why you’re carrying it around, and then setting it down. I am grateful to those who bravely and in plain view undertook this journey away from fear-based functioning before me. Glennon Doyle, Kristin Neff, Anne Lamott, and Brené Brown saved me from living the entirety of my life in a glass house I inherited but in which I never wanted to live.

Don’t believe everything you think. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re talking about.

The Genie In The Bottle Is Me

“Finding yourself is not really how it works. You aren’t a ten-dollar bill in last winter’s coat pocket. You are also not lost. Your true self is right there, buried under cultural conditioning, other people’s opinions, and inaccurate conclusions you drew as a kid that became your beliefs about who you are. Finding yourself is actually returning to yourself. An unlearning, an excavation, a remembering who you were before the world got its hands on you.” ~Anonymous

I bet she is a whole lot of awesome

I love this quote. It succinctly captures the problem with being human. We start out as infants, individuals (although we don’t know it yet) with likes, needs, and wants. We aren’t blank slates because we are unique and full of our own potential. As we grow, however, the second sentence above takes over our lives. We learn, through society, our parents, and others with whom we come into contact, to contort ourselves to fit in, please, and survive. With each subsequent outside belief we adopt and internalize as part of our reality, a piece of our individuality shrinks and folds further back inside our deepest depths. If we’re lucky we’re able, through the nurturing attention and love of important people, to remain somewhat true to who we are. If we’re told, however, that we are wrong or unworthy, those pieces we hid deep inside ourselves as a means of surviving stay hidden for a long time. Perhaps our entire lives. That is the real shame. Think of all the human potential that is tucked into our deepest recesses because we fear it is odd, off-putting, or unacceptable.

Reflect for a moment on the people you know. How many of them do you feel are living their unbridled individuality without hesitation or restraint? Certainly, some of us are doing a better job of it than others. I know several people who are 100% disconnected from who they are. They’ve robed themselves in the defenses of their politics, religion, biases, assumptions, and fears. I lived this way for a long time too. I had no choice. I was so influenced by the narratives I was sold. And, honestly, when you are bullied as a child to believe you are only worthy of love and attention if you behave a specific way and color within the lines, that becomes your standard method of operation. Stay within the prescribed track if you want to be acceptable.

So then, the trick to living an authentic life is found in the last sentence of the quote above. We have to stop long enough to question our beliefs. We have to sift through the stories, look at them objectively, and determine how they became ours. Was it part of our original makeup or was it something we put on because someone told us to? I have been doing some of these investigations in my own life, making lists of beliefs I hold about myself and dissecting them to find their origin. Once I can trace them back to someone (or something) else, I can then ask if that belief is serving me or if it is restraining me. This is the deconstruction before the reconstruction.

I spent most of my life working to be smaller than I am, to fit into the too-tight molds others constructed for me. Lately, though, I’ve been feeling rather cramped. My inner potential, the person I was before the world got its hands on me and dimmed my shine, is begging to stretch.

I have taken to thinking of my current situation as a bit of a genie-in-a-lamp narrative. There is something inside the lamp. I know it, although I haven’t seen the totality of its contents. I am using a soft polishing cloth to return the lamp to its former shine. The more I rub the surface, the more I realize how brilliant what lies beneath must be. Eventually, with my repeated effort, I will unleash the contents obscured within. Then and only then can I be my true self…at least most of the time.

To Err Is Human, So Apparently I AM Human After All

“The most valuable thing you can make is a mistake. You can’t learn anything from being perfect.” ~Adam Osborne

I didn’t sleep well the two nights Luke and I were in Portland. I don’t often sleep well when I’m away from my own bed or on nights before travel. Friday night, after our tour of Reed and before our 9 a.m. flight home, my mind was in overdrive. I finally fell asleep around 12:30 only to wake at 2:08 a.m. all bright eyed and bushy tailed. I didn’t fall asleep again until around 4:40 when my body decided maybe it could get in another hour and twenty minutes before the alarm. When I got home yesterday with only three hours of sleep, I was looking forward to sleeping in. Then I remembered I had something on my calendar for 10 this morning.

I woke up at 8:15 after a decent and overdue 8 hours. My neighbor, Luisa, was hosting a breakfast baby shower for my next door neighbor, Amy, at 10. So after acquiring my morning latte from my husband, I started to get ready. I did my make up and hair and then stood in my closet for about 30 minutes trying to figure out a) what one wears to a baby shower in 2022 and b) if I had anything that would fall on that aforementioned list. After flailing around and moving clothes from hangers to my body to the floor and then back to hangers again, I eventually settled on cropped jeans, a cute top, and an old pair flats. I downed the last of my coffee, declared my overall personal appearance passable, and walked two houses down at 10:05.

Imagine my surprise when Luisa opened the door in her pajama pants. The look on her face told me she was not expecting me. And why would she be? The evite clearly stated, I discovered to my chagrin later, the shower was at 11:30 a.m. Crap. I have zero idea how I landed on 10 a.m. as the time for the party, but I did and I put it in my calendar wrongly as such. God bless Luisa for being such a good sport about it. She even offered to welcome me in an hour and a half early, but I was mortified by my error and ducked out and walked home, tail between my legs. I spent the next twenty minutes trying to figure out how I had managed to translate 11:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. And then I gave up. I decided it didn’t matter how I had done it, nor did it matter that I had done it. It was in the past and I would just have to apologize again to Luisa and attempt to move on.

I showed back up at Luisa’s house at 11:30, embarrassed but prepared to let it go. And I worked really hard to do just that. There was an impressive spread of food and time to catch up with my neighbors. We played a couple fun shower games, and I was happy for the opportunity to talk more with a neighbor I have only met briefly before. Sadly, I had to duck out early because I had made an eye appointment for 1:30 back when I thought the shower would be over at 12. Sigh.

Still, I am going to call it progress. Being so blatantly incorrect about timing for an event is not something I have done many times before. As a rule, I am adept at scheduling and planning. I did perseverate for a bit about how I managed to err on the time, but I pulled myself together. In the past, after such a foible, it would not have been unusual for me to find an excuse to skip out entirely because I couldn’t face the embarrassment of admitting my mistake. Today I managed to keep it in perspective and face the appropriate, light-hearted teasing for my mix up without feeling like the world’s biggest idiot. Today I was only a lowercase idiot and not an IDIOT. This is forward motion.

I am grateful when I am afforded the opportunity to witness, in real time, my personal growth. It is not easy for me to admit mistakes because it was not okay to be wrong in the house where I grew up. When you grow up being told “you should be ashamed” and “you are an embarrassment,” shame becomes a blanket you drag with you everywhere you go. Truth is, though, that everyone messes up from time to time. It is human. And I appreciate the universe reminding me I am only human too. I just wish it didn’t seem to be reminding me so often lately.

One actual pregnant woman and a bunch of goofballs

Slaying The Shame Monster

“Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child you have stolen, for my will is as strong as yours and my kingdom as great. You have no power over me!” ~Jim Henson

Me at a time in my life when I almost made my shame escape

As I mentioned the other day, I’ve been reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. It was given to me by a thoughtful, supportive friend last month, and I’ve slowly been making my way through it. The beautiful thing about Brené Brown is that her struggles and her authenticity seep from the pages of her books, making her words both relatable and heartening. She touches on so many difficult and uplifting emotions in the book that reading it has been equal parts soul-crushing reality and soul-inflating inspiration. Read about shame, guilt, perfectionism, fear, blame, and addiction and recognize how much those habits and emotions define and control you. Then read about hope, joy, play, creativity, resilience, authenticity, and self-compassion and see where you might be able to grow in a more positive direction. More than once while reading I’ve exclaimed out loud to myself in response to what I have read. Holy crap. That is me. I operate that same way. I so relate. I need to work on that. That makes so much sense. I have some work to do. I am really good at that.

The part of the book that hit me the hardest was the portion about shame. I know Brené began her work as a shame researcher, delving into the components of shame and how humans deal with or deflect it and how we can grow out of and away from it in healthy ways. So I fully expected to read about shame in this book. What I didn’t expect was to discover that for the majority of my life shame was my constant companion and operations manager. Ouch.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by this discovery. I grew up commonly hearing, “You should be ashamed of yourself” and “You’re embarrassing yourself.” Most of my reactions to events in my life were approached from a shame vantage point. Boyfriend broke up with me? Of course he did. You were acting like a needy jerk. It’s a wonder he didn’t leave you sooner. New job too much for me? Of course it is. Who do you think you are? You have no life experience. You can’t be expected to manage other human beings. Can’t stick to a diet and lose that stress-eating weight? Of course you can’t. You suck at dedication. Struggling with parenting? Of course you are. Your mother always said you were too selfish to raise children and it turns out she is right. Brené’s definition of shame snapped me like a wet, locker room towel: “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” It was through this lens that I grew up and approached my adult life. I was an imposter, one misstep away from everyone I knew discovering my deep secret. To deal with this, I became a perfectionist. (That is another blog post entirely.)

I was continually baffled that anyone would want to be my friend or date me. I couldn’t see what they saw. I only saw my unworthiness. Still, I must have been presenting something else to these people too. They didn’t seem to see what I was seeing. The incongruity was not lost on me, but it never once occurred to me that maybe what they were seeing was the true Justine and what I was seeing was a story I had been sold. It took decades for me to figure that out, and I’m still shredding the pages of that story and working on my rewrite.

Perhaps the most life-affirming part of this book for me has been the section on Cultivating a Resilient Spirit because this is where I shine. I grew up feeling unworthy, less than, and invisible, but I persevered and took risks. Somehow, despite all the negativity and fear, I knew deep in my core I was capable. In my late teens and early twenties, I arrived at a place where I almost was able to recognize the big lie I had been sold. I was brave enough to imagine for myself something bigger. I took steps in that direction. I stepped away from guilt and forced obligation and walked towards autonomy and growth. I stepped up. At age 22, I graduated from a four-year university, the first in our family to do so. By 23, I was starting graduate school. At 24, I voluntarily sought help and signed on with a debt relief organization to pay off tens of thousands of dollars I had accumulated in loans and credit card liability. I was adulting and taking ownership, being resilient, and moving forward.

Then I realized I’d run out of money for graduate school. Rather than rising up and trying to find a way through that financial quagmire, I took my mother’s advice and I quit because I couldn’t afford it. I fell right back into the pattern of being a fearful, self-pitying, self-loathing coward and I stayed there for another two decades, operating from the familiar mindset that told me I wasn’t worthy.

I’ve spent more of my life in that shame mindset than I have spent believing in myself. I let other people’s negativity inform my choices. I asked for advice from the wrong people. I spurned the pleas of the right people who tried to guide me towards my better angels. Now I’m grateful for the difficult day that opened my eyes and taught me who was not to be trusted with my dreams and hopes. I learned to lean towards the people who raise me up, and I walked away from those who make me feel less special, talented, helpful, kind, and important than I am. I ignore those who don’t get me or who think they know me but don’t. I face my shame, talk about it, and deconstruct it. And all of this has led me to a place where I am starting to understand who I am and to like myself.

Shame grows through secrecy, silence, and judgment. Understanding this gives me a pathway out of it. You deny it oxygen by addressing it, sharing your difficult stories with others, and walking away from those who would keep you grounded in it. I am happier more often now, able to be joyful and at peace. I make better choices and I forgive myself more easily when my choices aren’t the best. I appreciate others. I try to apologize when I screw up. I am still working on self-love and I am having a devil of a time beating the judgment out of myself and my life, but I am making progress. I’m embracing my humanity and feeling part of a bigger whole rather than feeling like a lonely pariah. I am proud of myself, dammit. It feels good.

Sharing my darkness and vulnerability is terrifying, but blogging about these shadow monsters here has changed my life. Shame has no power over me anymore because I have named it, gotten cozy with it, and discovered its weaknesses. It will never leave me because it is part of my story, but it buzzes quietly in the background now, just white noise that my brain blocks out.

Out Of The Rubble, Into The Reconstruction

My happy place

A few months ago, my sister sent me a journal so I can practice some narrative therapy. Narrative therapy helps an individual become an expert in their own life through telling the stories they have carried around. Putting the stories of your life into writing gives meaning to your experiences and influences how you see yourself and the world around you. When my sons were younger, I used my blog as a form of narrative therapy to help me rearrange my negative perceptions about their struggles and create a better path forward for all of us. More recently, I’ve used blogging to tell stories from my childhood as a way to validate those experiences and increase my own voice and messaging around those pivotal events that shaped who I am. Through these exercises, I’ve begun to understand myself more fully. I am more aware of why I am the way I am and more capable of making adjustments in areas where I’m not fond of the trajectory I’ve taken. The process is helping me have greater self-compassion because I understand that my fears, coping mechanisms, and judgments didn’t originate in a vacuum. These behaviors arose to protect me. Now that I understand why they existed in the first place, I can begin to jettison habits that once protected me but no longer serve me .

One thing my sister and I have challenged each other to do is start some reconstruction. We are creating lists that outline what we like so we can recreate ourselves fully as the people we actually are and not the people we were told we were. We are rewriting our stories. That may sound odd or even disingenuous but, when you have spent your life in a pattern of reaction borne out of the fallacy that you are not an expert on your own self, you need to start with the basics to reclaim your identity.

Today my sister threw a gauntlet down. She sent me a photograph of a page where she has started listing things she knows she likes. To keep things equitable, I too started a list. My criteria? Things that make me happy or give me a sense of hope and possibility. Here’s what I have so far:

  • sunrises
  • dogs
  • a sunny day in the mountains
  • medium roast espresso
  • attending concerts
  • puzzles and word games
  • all types of travel, including long road trips
  • writing
  • cheese
  • smelling lily of the valley and lilacs
  • long, hot showers
  • deep conversations about faith, life, death, philosophy, space, current events, politics, or anything that avoids the pointless drivel of small talk
  • skiing, camping, hiking, cycling, kayaking, snorkeling, being active out in nature and not in a gym
  • documentaries and foreign films
  • anything with the flavor of passion fruit
  • the color of a green apple
  • lectures presented by experts in their field
  • Coca Cola and Bugles
  • the Buffalo Bills
  • hammocks
  • Wes Anderson films
  • wool socks
  • satellite radio
  • flip flops
  • down comforters

I will keep adding to this list in my journal as items come to mind. In the meantime, I know that being bold enough to enumerate here these items is the first step reclaiming my story. I know who I am. I know what I like. No one knows me better than I do. And I’m finished letting others dictate to me who I am.