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.

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.

The Word For The Year Is Boundaries

I was reading through The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown today when I came upon this:

“The heart of compassion is really acceptance. The better we are at accepting ourselves and others, the more compassionate we become. Well, it’s difficult to accept people when they are hurting or taking advantage of us or walking all over us. This research has taught me that if we really want to practice compassion, we have to start by setting boundaries and holding people accountable for their behavior.”

This hit me hard because I have had a long-term struggle with boundaries. As a child, I learned that it was not okay for me to set them. So as an adult, to avoid conflict, I have continued to shift my boundaries to accommodate what someone else wanted or expected of me. Doing so made me bitter without any understanding that the bitterness was coming from my giving what I wanted and needed away to keep someone else comfortable. Giving others their peace took away my own. Not setting boundaries kept me stuck. Understanding that keeping boundaries is essential to being compassionate to myself and others empowers me to stand my ground, to make room for myself, and to find that peace I have been lacking.

Over the past year, I have been working a great deal on boundaries. I didn’t come at this through the knowledge that it would allow me to better practice compassion. I came at this because I finally got to a point in my life where I realized that not having any boundaries in place for myself was no longer a tenable situation. The pandemic, and lockdown particularly, taught me I need boundaries to stay sane and to be pleasant towards others. I learned that I need space. I need silence. I need peace. And I need to stand up for myself to have these things in my life. If I don’t set boundaries, if I am not willing to ask for (and demand, if necessary) what I need from others, then I will forever be a grumpy, negative person who feels powerless. I don’t like that. I don’t want that, and I don’t want to be that person. So, I am learning to set boundaries and to accept that those boundaries will piss some people off and completely alienate others and that is not my concern. My concern is keeping myself and my sense of self safe from those who would use my difficulty in advocating for myself against me.

“The only people who get upset about you setting boundaries are the ones who benefitted from you having none.” ~Unknown

“You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep others warm.” ~ Unknown

I might start saying no more firmly this year. You might hear me saying things like, “I understand that is what you want, but that doesn’t work for me.” I may full well make some people uncomfortable by refusing to do what they think is fair and right because I believe it doesn’t align with my core values and what I need. This will be hard for me because I was raised to believe people would only like me if I made myself likable by acquiescing to their whims. But I’m old enough now to understand that it’s not only acceptable but imperative that I set boundaries where I need them and tend to them to keep them secure and impenetrable. I will ruffle feathers and others may use my boundaries as talking points to turn others against me, but I no longer care about that. I’m exhausted from being the willow tree that bends. I’m ready to be the rock that the tree learns to grow around.

Judging A Book By Its Cover

My imperfect book about imperfection
My imperfect book about imperfection

To help me along on my journey toward Zen (with a capital Z), I’ve been reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. If you don’t know anything about Brené, here is an excerpt from her web site bio: Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Brené is a self-described shame researcher. Her books illuminate some of the struggles of the human condition and suggest pathways toward living more bravely and authentically. Because I’m 45 and still muddling my way through midlife crisis, I know I could use some of that knowledge. I want to be more at peace on the second half of my journey through this life, so Brené’s become my guru.

Last week the federal government deemed my husband nonessential. He has been home with me since then, and my time for leisurely reading has been greatly curtailed. Tonight when I finally picked up my book again, I felt like I was starting over. I took a good, long look at the cover and noticed that there appeared to be stains on the cover. I didn’t recall those from before, so I scratched at them a bit to see if they might come off. They did not. I inspected them from several angles in different light and decided they looked too perfectly splattered to be accidental. I even sniffed the book. Nothing out of the ordinary. Same old book smell. And so I decided, “How clever of the book designer to create an imperfect cover for a book about imperfection.” I mean, seriously…that’s just genius. Good for them for thinking of it. Still…in the deep recesses of my brain, something kept bugging me because I didn’t remember those stains. I ran off to my laptop to verify this ingeniously designed cover and to put my perfectly pesky mind at ease.

Of course, I discovered that the cover was not designed to have stains on it at all. Apparently I put those stains there. I’m not entirely sure if they are residue from one of my daily soy lattés or from some of the neutral paint we’ve been slathering on the walls of our main floor while hubby has been temporarily unemployed. Either way, what’s interesting to me here is that I was so certain I could not have spilled anything onto my book that I thought it was an intentional publishing gimmick. It was easier for me to believe that the stains were a purposeful design feature rather than the result of my own, personal sloppiness because I don’t do things like damage books with foreign substances. I take better care of my things than that.

Oh. Dear. God. I need this book a lot more than I thought.