Thursday, February 25, 2016

SOME SHAMEFUL THOUGHTS ON SHAME

I just watched a rerun of an Oprah interview with the author Brené Brown on the show Super Soul Sunday, which airs Sunday mornings on the OWN Network. I’ve set my DVR to record this show because I have many times been inspired and uplifted by the people that appear there. And Brené has become one of my great inspirations as I have spent the last few years striving to become more emotionally healthy and spiritually strong. Just google her name. She’s written some amazing books, done some TED talks that wow me, and there are many things on her website and on Oprah’s website related to her that are worth the search. It’s my belief that each person will be led to what helps them at a particular time if they are willing to seek it out. In the case of this remarkable woman, and things I’ve learned from many other people, I’ve become aware of whose books and/or interviews have inspired me, I refer to the 13th article of faith: “If there is ANYTHING virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” 

After first becoming aware of Ms. Brown and her vibrant, glowing spirit and how it comes through in her work, I read a book she had written on shame and its impact on women in our culture. I was drawn to this because I became aware years ago that I was raised in a home where the environment was very much about shaming. I hold no ill will or judgment toward my parents; they were both wonderful people with great strengths and they did the best they could with what they knew. But I also learned long ago that in order to become a mature, emotionally healthy adult, we must all come to a point where we can look at the weaknesses of our parents, and the mistakes they made, in order to understand how such things impacted who we became and why. You can’t overcome something or change it if you don’t understand it. It’s about gathering information in order to understand; not about blaming or holding grudges. When you can comprehend how you were raised and why, forgive with your whole heart the mistakes made, and move forward, it’s a huge step in the progress of this life, and I believe way too many people get stuck in this very thing and can’t—or don’t—move beyond it. Many of them don’t even realize they’re stuck.

So, back to shame. Because I grew up with shaming attitudes, and those attitudes were perpetuated by people around me, I then subconsciously gravitated toward them in my adult life. At this stage of my life I’m stunned to realize how much I’ve been drawn to people and situations where I allowed others to talk down to me, make me a willing scapegoat for their own issues and mistakes, and leave me wondering what was wrong with me. It’s one thing to make a mistake and acknowledge it and learn from it; shame is an entirely different beast—and it IS a beast. Ms. Brown defines the difference like this: (paraphrasing) Guilt is being able to say, “I did something bad,” and therefore work to correct the behavior, fix the problem etc. Shame is believing “I am bad.” And that’s it. What a huge epiphany for me. I’ve spent my whole life feeling like there’s something wrong with me, and the proof was in the way other people treated me, and all the challenges that continued to come up in my life. While I’ve learned certain principles throughout my life journey that should have helped me overcome this, I’ve realized in the last few years—while glued to my bed and detached from much of my life—that the problem persisted because I couldn’t put all the pieces together correctly. I’m making progress on that, and Ms. Brown’s research on shame and its impact on women helped me immensely. 

I learned years ago from attending a class for displaced and abused women (as part of research on writing about domestic violence; amazing what I learned that helped myself) that “We teach people how to treat us by what we will allow.” The principle struck me deeply and I integrated it into my writing a great deal. I applied the principle in my life—or I thought I did. Now I can see that I applied it to some things, but other things were too insidiously integrated into my life for me to be able to see. The silver lining in being taken down and out of your life as dramatically as I have been, is that you are able to see life more clearly if you’re willing to look. I would recommend just looking, as opposed to being forced into such humble submission before doing so. Now, what I can see—and I’m still working to try and correct decades worth of handling many things wrong—is that I certainly DID teach people how to treat me by what I would allow, and what I allowed is appalling. As I earnestly prayed and pondered for many weeks and months to be shown the beams and motes in my eyes (New Testament reference; look it up) so that I could see myself and my life clearly—without rationalization or justification for me or anyone else—I was astonished at what began to come clearly to my mind in answer to those prayers. I saw a woman who had to fight to stand up for myself, and then when I did I would stew over it endlessly, wondering if I’d done something wrong because someone with a stronger personality disagreed with me or had said things that were confusing or hurtful. My efforts to stand up for myself ended friendships, created strain with certain family members, and encouraged me to take advantage of my poor health in order to remain distanced from a world I didn’t know how to handle. 

I could go on and on about this, and it will probably come up again in my blogging journey, but let me just try to make a valuable point out of what I’ve written so far. Ms. Brown taught me that shame grows in the dark; the more we hide it, the more ashamed we feel, and it eats at us. When we can talk to someone we can TRULY trust with our personal stories of being human, making mistakes, and being hurt or betrayed, and we feel genuine empathy and compassion—not patronization and pity—then the shame is brought into the healing light of day and it has no power over us. I’ve been blessed with some people in my life who give me that kind of true trust and empathy, but the list is very short. I’ve learned that some people, for all of their good intentions, don’t really hear what I’m saying, and their response only makes me feel worse. They don’t intend to be that way, and I don’t judge or harbor ill feelings for that. The whole human race is caught up in varying degrees of denial and dysfunction, and most people are just trying to figure it out and do the best they can do. I simply propose that we prayerfully and carefully seek out the people in our lives we can truly trust, so that we can speak truth—real truth—and feel heard and understood, so that the shame we feel—whether it’s due to our own mistakes, or the way we’ve been mistreated by others—will be able to come into the light with real perspective and understanding, not distortion and judgment. 

As for me now, I am working to create a new network of people in my life with whom I can exchange real truth and share the journey of healing. I worry sometimes that people who have known the old me will not necessarily be comfortable with the new me. But as long as I’m striving to be charitable and kind, I can live with that. I’ve come to see that it’s a tricky balancing act to stand up for who you are and what you believe, and also to be completely kind and respectful to others for doing the same. But the absence of anger and judgment is key to making it work in many, many facets of life. So, here’s to standing in a place of real truth and not being ashamed of it. 

3 comments:

Heather Dunn said...

This is something I've always admired about you. As you know, I also grew up in an environment where shaming was very common, but you opened my eyes to a better way of living! You were always such a great example of unconditional love, and acceptance. That attitude is so much more constructive to growth and I've always looked up to you for it! You are definitely one of my heroes and I still think about our time together often. I hope I can give my children the gift of love like you were able to give to me. Love you Anita!

Strawberry Girl said...

I have several of Brene's books and I've heard her TED talks. I think I'm slightly scared to face the monsters in my life because I haven't listened to the audio books. Well, the reader on one of them lisps her s's so there's that (hard to listen to). It is hard to face down the inner voices of doubt about ourselves and to make the changes that are needed to our thought patterns. First there is recognition, second is actually knowing what to do about those thoughts so that they can change. A lot of times the best thing that I've found to do is to acknowledge the thoughts and tell myself of their untruth. I left a man who had abused me, my sister, my children and I thought that hanging on to that marriage was the right thing to do until the cognitive dissonance that I felt got to be overwhelmingly and obviously flawed. It helped that I was trying to explain to a friend (on our daily walks togther) why I was allowing things to happen that I didn't really want to happen. I've felt vulnerable about writing things on facebook, on my blog, about speaking up about my ideas at work. I've been taken advantage of because of this. Acknowledgment of the issue does help, but it is a lifetimes work to overcome and understand natural tendencies to feel ashamed.

Anonymous said...

I love the differentiation between shame and guilt. Guilt helps motivate us to be better.
Keep fighting those demons, you are an amazing woman and should be treated as such.