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 Dihydrogen Monoxide Discomfiture

Me and the kid who gave me an opportunity to grow today

Ever feel like a giant dummy? Ever have one of your kids provide the reason for that feeling? Today, Thing Two and I were discussing the chemicals in our foods. Well, we’d actually started talking about the chemicals and chemical processes involved in making dog food, but we eventually got around to discussing human foods. I started carrying on about fertilizers and pesticides that contaminate our food. And that was when my son decided to test me by saying, “Yeah. There are a lot of them, especially dihydrogen monoxide.” My brain began scanning some of the chemical names I could remember from books and articles. I was coming up blank, but not wanting my son to think I was some sort of uneducated buffoon, I quickly responded, “Yeah, sure. Among others.” That was my big mistake. BIG. Because Thing Two then points out that dihydrogen monoxide is the chemical name for water. Yep. It sure enough is. It’s right there in the H2O terminology. And had I taken a minute to think, I would have figured it out. But I was in the middle of dinner prep and distracted. Plus, I took chemistry for a hot minute in 1985, and that was the last I ever thought about any of it.

I felt like a jackass. No. Wait. I felt like a stack of jackasses, piled one on top of another to infinity. It hurt my pride to realize I was foolish enough not to really think through what he was saying. It made me ashamed to be old enough that I couldn’t remember the chemical name my addled brain was searching for, and dihydrogen monoxide sounded like something I should be concerned about. And it is because, you know, you can drown in a teaspoon full of the stuff. At any rate, upon realizing my colossal foible and listening to my son’s gloating about getting me with his funny joke, I felt hurt. When he reminded me about the H2O thing, I remembered he had told me he and his classmates were teasing another kid about dihydrogen monoxide a couple months ago. So, not only had I failed to think it through today, but I had totally forgotten that he he told me about this before. Not once stupid, but twice stupid I was.

And while this is a story about my senior moment (handed to me courtesy of my high school senior), it’s also about something else. It’s about how I handled my humiliation and shame. There was a time in my life when I likely would have gone into a bit of a rage over this. I might have yelled at whoever set me up, trying to make them feel bad about embarrassing me. I might have wanted them to feel the same shame I felt. I might have stormed or pouted my way out of the conversation. I didn’t do that today. I sat with my mistake and felt ignorant and uneducated for a while. Then I acknowledged that I am human and I don’t know everything, nor do I remember most of what I learned in high school 36 years ago. After about 10 minutes of feeling like a complete dolt and an embarrassment to myself, my gender, and my children, I stopped. I made my peace with it. I moved on and let it go until just now when I decided to tell the world about it here. This is growth, my friends. This is what it looks like when you face the things that have plagued you your entire life and you get to know them up close and personal.

I grew up in a house where one of the worst things you could do was appear foolish. I learned it was better to not try something than to try it and fail. This has been a real issue for me since birth. But I am getting over it. I’m learning that it’s okay to say something dumb. It’s okay to trip and fall. It’s okay to suck at something. It’s even okay not to know something you should know because we all do it sometimes. It’s what being human is, and I am a human. I’m learning to be fallible, to embrace myself, even the things I don’t like, like the notion that I don’t, in fact, know much. I’m learning to laugh at myself. And growth happens when you take the thing you’re ashamed of and share it. So, there you have it, folks. Proof that I’m a learning robot. Next time I will definitely remember what dihydrogen monoxide is. And next time it will only take me 5 minutes to beat back my shame. The time after that there may be no shame at all. Perhaps then it will just be me being perfectly okay with being imperfect.

Exorcising The Ghosts Of The Past

What I used to record portions of the Live Aid concert in 1985

In the days before the Internet and FaceTime and Zoom and texting, people wrote letters. A stamp, a pen, and a piece of paper were all you needed to share the contents of your mind and heart with someone who was worth the effort of your time and questionable penmanship. As is the habit for many people, I saved quite a few of the letters I received over the years from friends and boyfriends. I kept them in a box that once held my cassette player (back in the days when cassettes were a thing). Over time, that box got rather stuffed with random correspondence. I didn’t open it very often to read its contents, but I dragged it with me each time I moved. It would relocate from the top of one closet shelf to another, from apartment to apartment. There was something about knowing those letters were there if I ever wanted to trot down memory lane or perhaps clarify a memory that had become distorted or foggy.

When my husband and I got engaged and decided to move in together, he was helping me move boxes into my car when he came across that one. He asked me why I was bringing it. After all, if these letters represented relationships that had long since gone defunct, why was I clinging to them? I honestly could not give him a suitable answer. If I’d said I was keeping them for sentimental reasons, that would only make the box more of an issue in our relationship at the time. I didn’t know how to respond. In the absence of a viable response, he asked me if I could add them to the dumpster along with the wooden case holding 100 cassette tapes I no longer needed since he had a CD player he was willing to share. I acquiesced because he had never asked for anything from me, we were getting married and he was my future, and it seemed like a small sacrifice I should be willing to make for someone who had never been anything but kind, loving, supportive, and patient with me. With a pang of disappointment, I lobbed them over the wall of the dumpster, turned around, and tried not to look back. I was twenty-six then, he twenty-four.

In the years since, we both have felt deep regret over that event. He has felt horrible for asking me to toss a box of papers because he felt a little jealous about its existence. I have felt anger at myself for not defending my right to keep them because they were harmless mementos from my youth. But there is no unringing that bell. They are long gone. So now we just carry around the shame regarding that missing box instead of carrying around the box itself, which we have both agreed is so much more emotionally cumbersome than that damn box ever was.

This decision, made in our youth when we were not emotionally mature and had no real experience to gift us with greater perspective, has laden us with invisible baggage that we have hauled for decades. It’s something he doesn’t like me to mention because he feels just that bad about it, but I don’t blame him because the box is gone. I blame myself for not being self-aware enough to tell him it was part of my life I wasn’t ready to jettison. But it’s time for us to unload our disappointment in ourselves and the choices we made when we were younger and not able to see so far into the future. Seriously. Who can see twenty-seven years into the future when they aren’t even twenty-seven yet? The guilt and shame we feel needs to go. That box has long since been replaced by countless wonderful memories and experiences as our life together has been filled with love and fun and two absolutely-perfect-in-nearly-every-way adult sons, not to mention dozens upon dozens of cards and notes we have written to each other and saved. Therefore, I am declaring it time to move on. I may not be able to read those missives again, but I have something much more important. I would never trade my current life, our family, our shared experiences for those pieces of paper and neither would he. It’s way past time for us to toss the shame and self-flaggelation in the dumpster and move forward.

Under Construction

Still on the merry-go-round and working on my exit
Still on the merry-go-round and dreaming up a great dismount

I haven’t felt like writing much lately, so I haven’t. I’m in the midst of some unsettling discoveries, which aren’t as much discoveries as admissions about myself. There are things that I haven’t liked for a long time. I knew they needed to change, but I was so paralyzed by the thought of admitting my weaknesses and so adept at focusing on other parts of my life that I kept pretending these negatives were invisible. They weren’t. Other people saw them. And I still knew they were there. They were like the mess you shove in a spare room right before guests arrive. You think you’re fooling everyone by having everything in order, but deep down you know what lurks just behind the closed door. And you remember it with nausea when someone asks you, “what’s in this room?”  You are vulnerable and imperfect and mere seconds away from someone discovering what a pretender you really are. It’s a terrifying place to live.

Human nature reacts strongly against what it sees in others that it suspects and fears in itself. It’s a predictable pattern. We chastise others for lack of compassion while we ignore that it’s our lack of compassion that allows us to criticize them. We accuse others of being selfish when it’s our own self that feels neglected enough to point out that we’re not getting enough attention. The thing that most deeply annoys me about others is the victim mentality…people who whine about the bad things in life, as if bad things only happen to them and not to others, and who stay stuck in their quagmire because it’s easier to be the victim than it is to leave that role behind and go forward boldly and change. I know many people who suffer from this affliction, so it’s something that makes me shudder regularly.

As I’ve been navigating this bumpy and unsettling road to Future Me, I’ve paid particular attention to how vehemently I react towards particular failings in others, knowing that my reactions towards them likely hold a mirror squarely back on me. So I’ve been sitting with that thought for a while, letting it bubble its way to the surface while I was able to grow in acknowledgment of it. With some introspection, I’ve had to accept that as much as I despise victims, I’ve quietly lived as one among them for years. The only difference between me and the victims who get under my skin lies in their honesty about their misery. They’re more in touch with their emotions, so they complain about it readily. Me? I’m an emotional stuffer. I’ve sat quietly while layers of shame and self-loathing accumulated like sediment at the bottom of a slowly dying river. Now I realize I’m too filled up to function as I have in the past. It’s time to have my own Frozen moment, dredge up the muck in my way, and let it go.

They say the only way out is through, so I’ve been going through. And through. I’ve been sitting, thinking, and crying in some sort of rinse and repeat cycle for weeks. And it sucks. What will suck more, though, is if I squander my ephemeral time on this lovely planet without finding a way to love myself for who I am, emotions, weakness, messy rooms, and all. I need to live with my whole heart free and my mind open and aware. I can’t forgive others their failings if I can’t forgive myself for my own. Pain happens. We grow up with the hand we are dealt, but where we ultimately land is our own responsibility. And while complaints and ignorance are strategic coping mechanisms, they are not useful to us in the long run. This is where the victim becomes the victor. I need to put in the hard work. Do my time. Eventually, I will be improved for my effort. In the meantime, when I’m not here, please know that I’m under construction. As with most construction projects, it will probably take longer than the first-promised deliverable date. I’ll be back and better than ever in time. I can’t wait for my grand reopening.