The sky is gray and I feel myself slipping back down the slope a little. I have spent too much money this month and I lie awake at night worrying about it. I worry about the kids, their grades, the amount of time they spend on the computer, worry that I have done nothing but somehow teach them lazy ways and so I nag them, feeling terrible as I do so.
It’s been interesting teaching BrenÃ© Brown’s Shame Resiliency class at The Recovery Cafe. Like so many of these classes, I learn more that I teach. The material is beginning to sink in. It’s helpful to understand Brown’s definition of shame:
Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.
Shame is a core emotion that stems from our primitive monkey brains, inducing feelings of fight or flight (rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, sleeplessness, feelings of anxiousness). Shame gets planted as tiny seeds by our parents, friends, family, the media, a whole slew of sources. With repetition, those seeds flourish within us and is so destructive because unlike guilt which comes from something we do, shame comes from something we believe we are. With guilt, we are removed from it, so are able to recognize it and change our behavior. Shame is more insidious. It hides itself, and we use many tools to hide ourselves from it. We blame others, we criticize, we deflect. Or else we blame ourselves. We berate ourselves at 3 o’clock in the morning and wake up feeling like we’ve been run over by a truck.
BrenÃ© tells us that the antidote to shame is empathy. And mostly that is empathy for ourselves, but its also for others. It’s being aware of our own feelings of shame, pulling them out and looking at them in the daylight where they are a little less scary. I keep trying to capture and name my shame, but its elusive, like trying to pick a fish out of the water. It flips and slips away. It has something to do with laziness, not working hard enough, allowing myself to be overwhelmed with single parenting, using it as an excuse to be an inconsistent parent, or to be a sad or grumpy parent.
I feel shame around my inability to enter into a relationship, as if there is something fundamentally wrong with me, a tiny kernel of bitterness that poisons all who come near. I now know that feelings of shame stem from fear â€“ fear of disconnection, unworthy of acceptance. The more shame I feel around relationships, the more I feel disconnected and the more I feel disconnected the more shame I feel. It’s a catch 22.
As I teach this class I am realizing that so many of my worries, particularly around the kids and around relationships are tied up in shame and guilt. I feel shameful that I am too lazy to crack the whip and be the tiger mother who does what it takes to help their kids excel. I fight with myself between trying to raise kids who will be competent enough to make it in the world and having an expectation that they will do great things, achieve straight As, be star athletes, etc. It’s as if in achieving such things, my children will create a path for me towards acceptance. I hate to admit that I might be living vicariously through my kids. How might my child’s success in school/life help ME connect with others? Put that way, the notion is ridiculous. Yet, in the end, shame always stems from a yearning for connection.
In this same vein, I feel sad when I date someone and can’t quite make the connection that I am longing for, one that’s deep and meaningful, one of shared values. I get mired in my inability to make a connection, feel anxious and the 3am thrashings begin again.
I guess the question really is how to sprinkle yourself in empathy when stuck in the hole of shame? I tell myself I’m not perfect, but I don’t think I’m trying to be. I tell myself that it’s OK to be overwhelmed, that a person isn’t meant to raise two kids in a vacuum, but awareness brings me no peace. Empathy in that case feels like an excuse to continue the way I am, letting things slide, which only adds to my feelings of laziness. In the relationship realm, I tell myself that I haven’t met the right person, but the shame creeps back when I wonder if perhaps I’m not going to meet the right person, because I seem to linger in this poisonous state of mind.
There is much made in the course material of being authentic and telling your story, telling your truth. I have told these truths about myself in spades, written books laying myself wide open, but here I am, wedged in, shame filled. I wonder, does a person ever slay the shame beast? We all have them, and they live within us like parasites, feeding on us and growing. Maybe rather than trying to eradicate shame, its more a matter learning to live with that beast within us, aware of its presence and cautious of its power.