Sunday, January 27, 2013

Shame's Eviction Notice

I was listening to BrenĂ© Brown talking about shame and had a flood of thoughts and emotion suddenly fill me.  I think about how much I've let shame guide my thinking, make my decisions.  I thought back on my first real experience of recognizing the shame.

I was 25 years old.  Yeah, I had been alive a quarter of a century before I recognized even an ounce of shame in myself.  I know I was oblivious to it before because I worked with a professor, very closely, in my undergraduate program, researching guilt and shame. I am a published Jr Author on an article about shame but none of it ever applied to me.

I was driving from Saint Louis to Kansas City over Labor Day weekend and one of my friends, a coworker, was making the trip with me.  We were about 15-20 minutes from my childhood home when my friend said, "So, what did your dad do for a living?"  I felt the familiar feeling of my heart sort of skipping a beat, my face flushing (with shame, unbeknownst to me though!) and my mind racing for what answer I would give this time.  The memory of 7-year-old Nobody filled my mind, completing school test forms and coming to the line "Father's Occupation _______".  I'd pause over that blank for 3-4 times longer than any other.  Should I leave it blank?  Should I lie?  Should I tell a half-truth?  I was certain any one of those would get me "caught" and I've have some 'splaining to do.  Most of the time I settled for "half-truth" and would write "Self-employed" or "Construction".  My dad didn't work for anyone else, so if he worked, it was "self-employed" and he could build, rewire, plumb, repair anything. So, I could justify that answer, if anyone red-flagged it.  I was sure one day I would get caught.

So here I was, 25 years old, college graduate, working at a law firm, enjoying a lot of personal accomplishment and success in life.  What my father did for a living smacked me down to a helpless, hopeless, useless, nothing, with everything to hide.  I decided in that moment, with that friend, "screw it, I'm diving in" and answered, "Gosh, I...I've always been so embarrassed to admit it but my dad didn't really work to support our family. He'd do odd jobs now and then, but we never had money or any real type of income growing up."  I felt like I had just vomited, been exorcised, ran a marathon, and had an un-anesthetized c-section of sextuplets.  I sat there depleted, vulnerable, scared.  What did I expect? I think I expected her to look me up and down, sneer at me and say, "You're pathetic, why are we friends?"

I had spent year after year after year protecting myself from that response.  I was really good at keeping myself safe.  From everyone but myself.

My friend turned to me, seemed to register surprise at my obvious emotional response to "coming clean" and said almost off-handedly, "Why on earth would you be embarrassed about decisions your father made that you had no control over?"

It was as though the heavens parted and a thousand angels descended singing hallelujah and the weight of all that shame I had carried and all the guilt from hiding my shame was revealed for the uselessness that it was. There was no place for it in me anymore.  It was an epiphany if ever there were one.

This comment spiraled my thoughts over the next several weeks, even months, back to my life experiences and conversations I'd had.  I thought of ways I'd behaved, things I'd learned, and how differently they looked now, looking back with my new found knowledge.

I'd like to say this experience started me on a track of being free from shame, but it didn't.  It's just been in the last year, other life experiences that have opened up that door again.  I am seeing things so differently and realizing the burden I have carried for so many years as I've felt shame that wasn't mine to feel, and carried it, at great emotional expense, into relationships and into place that it had no place being.

As I'm listening to BrenĂ© Brown speak, I hear her say, that if you can push past the shame that says you aren't good enough and "who do you think you are" and carry on, when you look up, 99% of the time, the critic you see looking down on you----is you.

I'm ready to rid myself of the shame I don't need or deserve. It has done nothing good for me.  It has held me back from successes I would enjoy. It has inhibited me from relationships I could more fully enjoy.  It has clouded my judgment, shriveled my confidence, tainted my view of others.

I'm ready to turn that critic looking down on me into my biggest fan. Feel free to join me.  You're invited.