Recently I’ve been thinking about the feeling of shame.
Shame: A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.
A loss of respect or esteem; dishonor.
A painful emotion resulting from an awareness of inadequacy or guilt. (Source: Google/the web)
A few initial talking points –
1. Contrary to the third definitional phrase above, I think shame is a bit different from guilt. Guilt, to me, can mean feeling badly for deliberately not fulfilling an obligation. For instance, I feel guilty when I haven’t written to my middle school piano teacher in months. I thought about it a few times, but I deliberately did not write her back when I had those thoughts even though I “should” have. I also think guilt can also be something that you feel badly about that may have been out of your control. For example, if I was babysitting and fed a two-year old child three aspirin because she had a bad cold, which then caused her to need her stomach pumped, I would feel guilty for having caused her additional pain because I was the caregiver and “should” have known better. “Shoulds” are a part of shame too (“I should have acted better” is a thought/feeling associated with shame), but I think the “shoulds” of guilt and those of shame, differ slightly.
2. In keeping with the definitions above, shame (at least in my experience) definitely involves lots of pain. Note that “painful” was repeated twice.
3. Pulling words from above: I think distress, humiliation, esteem, inadequacy, and a consciousness of being foolish – are key to shame.
So why am I writing about shame?
Because it ties into something I’m trying hard to understand lately – victimology.
Victimology: The possession of an outlook, arising from real or imagined victimization, that seems to glorify and indulge the state of being a victim. (Source: Google/the web)
Side note: victimology can also be the study of criminals, but that’s not what I’m referring to here.
I am really great at being a victim.
I’m great at self-absorbing all the abusive, hurtful, even slightly less-than-positive feedback I can find. I can live within the realm of not good enough, and I can swim in it for days. Criticize me? You probably found a flaw I missed. Ignore me? I probably wasn’t worth your time. You can yell at me, right at me, and I’ll take it. (Didn’t say I wouldn’t cry or shut down, but I’ll take it.)
Here’s the thing – while on the outside I might be absorbing the negativity (and internalizing it), on the inside I’m fighting really hard. Because while I don’t always think the negative feedback is correct, there’s that little (not so tiny) voice causing self-doubt; making me wonder if what I’m taking in is actually true, and an internal war ensues between my emotions and my mind.
There’s lots of research and literature out there about self-esteem and self-image. I’m the first to admit: mine need work. Take academics for instance, in that realm I’m pretty confident of my abilities and my esteem matches my self image. But take relationships, I desperately want love and connection but I’m not sure that I’m worthy of it; and not just unsure, almost convinced at times, that I’m potentially unlovable because I’m defective (not smart enough, pretty enough, athletic enough, not caring enough, etc.).
Imagine the me I just described in the preceding paragraph – in some situations self-assured and confident, in others wildly fearful and self-defeating.
Now imagine my partner or friends dealing with this me who has these conflicting issues. Yeah. I mean, it sounds frustrating and exhausting to deal with. In some situations I’m stable and confident and in others I’m wildly insecure. In fact were I them, I’d ask myself “why can’t you feel as good about you across all situations?” “Why can’t you just turn off that ‘negative self-talk’ and believe that you’re worthy of love, and that you’re a good partner?”
Oh, how I wish it were so simple from my perspective, for this is where it comes in- shame.
I can’t turn off that negative self-talk because the feelings of personal inadequacy are so painful that they drown out the voice of reason trying to convince me that sometimes, even if I feel something inside (not smart enough, pretty enough, athletic enough, not caring enough, etc.), it might not actually be the reality.
So I revert to being a victim – I allow myself to remember all the times when I was treated poorly, or criticized, antagonized, etc., and I breathe it in and absorb it. I allow myself to feel self-pity, shame, insecure, inadequate – all of it – and then I withdraw entirely. I allow myself to be a prisoner of my emotional state, held hostage by feelings that feel overwhelming, enabling me to remove myself from the situation on a mental/emotional level and feed at the sores from my past.
A bit dismal, really. And it’s a vicious cycle of self-loathing.
There’s a problem though – I don’t want to live in this sphere of negative energy and debasing self-talk.
When I live in that sphere, I become a me that I’m even more ashamed of than the “imaginary inadequate me” in my head. For then I’m a me that: lashes out, blames others for my own short-comings, cries, throws tantrums (yes, I have perfected the ‘adult tantrum’), pouts, etc. And I succeed in furthering the thing that I want the LEAST: I create more distance and less emotional connection in my closest relationships.
So – how do I change this, how do I stop allowing myself to wallow in victim-land and start clearing the emotional cobwebs of shame and poor self-esteem?
Psychologists talk about the idea of conscious thought stopping – essentially, relying on that rational part of the brain and trusting it when it says ‘I think you’re overreacting’ or ‘I think you actually are lovable’.
There’s also the suggestion of increasing awareness for triggers of maladaptive behavior – finding out what cues cause your brain to short circuit back to those unhealthy thoughts and feelings, and then trying to once again rely on your more rational side, to help you reframe the situation mentally (“I’m just feeling inadequate because I’ve been cheated on before which makes me feel like I’m the kind of person people would cheat on (unworthy of fidelity)” ) since there isn’t evidence to support your feelings, just fear and past pain.
And of course, a big thing is actually changing behavior – making your partner/friends (in this case) aware of your triggers and insecurities, help them help you by offering actions they can take to minimize your tendency to react and revert to those unhealthy thoughts/feelings, and then the big one –
Taking responsibility for your own behavior and actively changing it.
*Sigh* I definitely have my work cut out for me…clearing away years of self-shame and victim-like thinking and feeling, is going to take time. But I owe it to myself and those I love, to try.
I’ll start at the beginning – “Hi, I’m recovering from a life-time of debasing self-talk, shame and poor self-esteem.”
And now, for the hard work…
For other thoughts on recovering from shame, check out: http://www.counselingcenter.illinois.edu/?page_id=1557
No, not a lack of sense,
I intuit and I receive.
Or even a lack of will.
It’s a lack of
And what if,
you can’t hear?
If I tell you I
forget to water plants
eat (too much) chocolate
believe in fate,
we’ll carry on.
“It’s human, you’re unique.”
what if, I tell you
I feel as one
when we’re two,
when we’re me and you.
I flip, then I flop.
What if I’m
trying hard to right
a childhood of misunderstandings,
and inadvertently, perpetuate
the greatest of them all?
the stakes are high
and I can’t
I want freedom, I want a future.
And I want you,
but not two halves of a whole,
x + y ;
two completes of something greater,
x * y.
But I’m afraid
to string the words into a sentence,
to lay it all down –
the mess and the clean.
And I’m afraid
to say there are pros and cons,
because everyone says
“it’s all roses”
though I think
there are thorns in private.
I want more.
I need more,
But I can’t
In reflecting on my romantic past pre-Dan, the vision of a pocket knife came to mind, and I started to write “Good Enough.”
I just wanted to drop a quick line to send a hug to anyone out there who has ever experienced anything resembling the situation described in the poem.
Not to turn this into a PSA of any kind, but for those currently in an unhealthy circumstance, and as someone who has come from unhealthy relationships in the past, please know that you are worth better. And things can be different.
Love does not need to be hurtful, or soul-destructive. Love can extend personal dignity and safety. And respect.
She was good enough;
He was bad enough;
Girl meets boy – boy spins yarns.
A hand beside her inseam.
The touch of a devious lover,
a pocket knife.
He carves with deft dexterity,
a sliver here,
a sliver there.
Come the years, and she resembles he.
In flesh, in cold.
“Have you been sick?”
“Are you getting enough rest?”
“Do you eat your vitamins?”
She’s been whittled,
A therapist pushes –
She justifies her pull.
Until, one day
She IS good enough.
She IS flesh
and (less) warm
and (less) trusting.
But he is crafty,
clever in his deceit.
The knife appears a feather –
“the better to tickle you with, my dear”
but she knows,
the butt of the joke.
To extricate, the plan.
By will, by choice.
Ceasing contact, and
No flesh to carve.
And minute by minute,
hour by hour,
day by day,
The future appears linked to the past.
Of course, there’s that well-known Churchill quote:
“Those who fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” – Sir Winston Churchill
and in practice we judge, or try to assess, one’s future behavior based on their past behavior (e.g., job interviews frequently look to prior work experience to indicate readiness for a new position, doctors ask us about our past diet/exercise regime prior to a physical, etc.).
But I’m not one who enjoys the past. In fact, though occasionally sentimental/nostalgic, I frequently try to out run my past in order to hurry-up-and-get-to-my-future-faster.
That running-as-fast-as-possible is not always the best approach, because as that initial quote mentions, if I run too fast and don’t take the time to learn from my past, I may repeat it (potentially to my doom or detriment). However, what if the past is exactly the kind of inspiration I need to piece together clues about my future?
Case in point – dancing.
Dan and I started partner dancing last Spring, sometime in the March/April timeframe. Initially we were just testing the waters and partner dancing became a fun thing to do on a date night, or to try and pick up from a series of YouTube How To videos. And then…slowly…it grew.
Dan now dances 5-6 nights a week, and I join him for at least 3 of those nights. We’ve taken classes in: Swing (West and East), Waltz, Rumba, ChaCha, Salsa, Merengue, Bachatta, Two Step, Triple Two Step, Night Club Two-Step, Hustle, Lindy Hop, and probably a couple more that I’ve since forgotten. Now we concentrate mostly on West Coast Swing and Two Step, though there are often others thrown in for good measure.
We attended Swing City Chicago (which I wrote about in a post back in October 2011), and are getting ready to attend America’s Classic in Houston. And I know there will be more dance events to come.
Here’s the thing though, I started dancing when I was just over age 3. Maybe you don’t consider a toddler bumping around the room to music as dancing, but I did lots of that, and then started as most little girls do, taking ballet.
I was in love with dancing as a girl. I had a jewelry box with a twinkling mirror and a tutu clad ballerina doing a perfect pirouette to a high pitched song, inside. I created mini-at-home dance routines with my brother, and I danced constantly (in the line at the grocery store, around the backyard, etc.).
And my dancing self was pure me. When I was dancing I felt at home in my own skin, free to move how the music pulled or pushed or glided me around the floor. I could also wear patent leather shoes (still a personal favorite), and express myself without words. A true mind to movement connection.
I danced ballet and tap up until the age of 11 or 12 and then switched to modern and jazz which I continued (with some tap mixed in) until I started college.
But truthfully, somewhere around the age of 13 I became engrossed (re: obsessed) with academics. I knew I didn’t have the athletic skill or form to compete in dance, and I didn’t have the training or conditioning to become a professional dancer, so I mentally diverted course and narrowed my focus on school. From then on, I was studying in some form or another, constantly. Dance classes became this regularly scheduled blip in my planner; merely an obligation to meet while charting the path to intellectual growth.
Once I entered college, I stopped dancing all-together telling myself that my litany of extracurriculars, rigorous course schedule, and desire to become a “career-woman” was more important. Sure a bunch of girls and I went to a downtown club once or twice, but the claustrophobic, dimly lit, alcohol-laden atmosphere wasn’t my style, and anyway – I was focused on my academic development. I had changed paths, I was going to be a scholar.
But then…while I was contently moving through my college years, then my Masters program…ticking off each box on the academic training spreadsheet for advancement, I was struck by a car.
Suddenly my next paper, exam, academic accolade became secondary to one of the most basic attributes of human existence: walking.
I don’t remember what it felt like when I learned to walk as a baby. In my earliest of memories (maybe age 4 or 5), I’m already mobile. So the experience of re-learning how to walk and shift my weight as an adult, was entirely new.
Knowing that I’d be able to walk again and getting fitted with a back brace to allow me mobility, were the first hurdles. Then moving from baby steps around the hospital bed, to walking short distances with a walker, to walking in/around my parents’ front yard while holding their hand, to walking short distances on my own, to finally going through physical therapy and removing the brace and moving unassisted, I walked again. The journey was eye-opening and educational (on a personal level).
And of course, the learning goes well beyond the physical, but for someone who had previously always taken walking for granted (I was dancing for goodness sake!), there’s nothing like acute physical trauma to remind you of not only the basics of existence, but also what makes you feel alive and human.
So, after I’d healed, finished school, and found a job, I did something I swore I’d never do – I took a tap dancing class.
And, you know what?
I fell in love with dance all over again.
Now that Dan and I spend so much time partner dancing, and due to some changes at the dance studio I was attending in town, I’m no longer tapping, but gradually dance is becoming more and more a part of my life . And to my delight, I’m starting to regain those parts of me that were happiest on the dance floor all those years ago. Those self-expressive parts that felt free, alive and excited to be moving and sharing through a simultaneous union of art and athleticism.
It’s harder now – my body is physically different from what it was when I was a kid, and my injury has impacted certain skills essential to dancing (i.e., balance), but wow, is it ever rewarding, and it just feels good.
So today, when I sit here writing and thinking about my future, my typical post-college disillusionment sets in and at first I want to cling to the vestiges of my former academic self. I want to do the familiar, I want to focus on my mind and neglect the harder, more challenging aspects of my day to day: my body.
But, here’s the thing I think I’m starting to realize- that my future, lies somewhat in my past.
As a kid, I got it. I inherently knew that dancing made me a whole(some) person from the inside out. I knew that it felt good, that it felt right, and I just did it.
In the transition to adulthood, my ego got in the way. I thought “I’ll never make it as a professional dancer,” “my skills are better put towards academia,” “my body just can’t do what it needs to”. And all those thoughts, while not necessarily wrong, allowed me to do many things – attend great schools, meet wonderful people, travel, learn new skills, create new projects and consider new ideas- but they ignored an essential part of me. An internal part of me that was crying out for self-expression, physical connection, and life.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m still struggling with my ego, but…I’m dancing again.
Perhaps this future-self, the one I’ve been trying so hard to seek lately, has been there all along, waiting…for me to return to the past and bring it forward with a new found appreciation.