For those of you who follow my instagram, you know I’m currently reading I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t) by Brené Brown.
If you have’t heard of her or any of her books, PLEASE, and I mean *PLEASE* check her out. She is a goddess. She is a hero. She is unbelievably honest, encouraging, and she is doing amazing work.
All of that being said, her book I Thought It Was Just Me, focuses a lot on shame. As Brené describes it, shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
For a lot of us, we feel a lot of shame around our bodies or our weight. That’s why I feel that part of recovery from an eating disorder is recognizing all the unhealthy and unrealistic messages that diet culture tries to send us. We might feel shame because we are told our bodies are supposed to look/feel/move/smell/bend a certain way. When our bodies don’t look/feel/move/smell/bend the *way we think they should* we might feel shame. Recognizing these messages can help us avoid this shame.
Shame, however, can stem from a lot of other emotions too, in fact, it can come up in areas that are totally separate from our body image. A lot of women experience shame in our roles as mothers (just think of mom shaming on facebook), our careers (the whole working mom vs. stay at home mom debate), our intelligence (we need to be smart, but not too smart so we “scare men off”), and pretty much anything else in our lives.
Let me give an example of a recent time where I felt shame:
I told my friend about a dream I had and she responded in a way that made me feel judged.
Instead of normalizing my feelings, she said something that made me feel alone and disconnected.
This immediately lit the fire of shame in my stomach. I was hurt by her words and felt that she was judging me. All I wanted to hear was “that sucks that you had a dream like that, thank god it was just a dream.”
I immediately felt distanced from my friend and felt like something was WRONG with me because I had this dream. Was there something wrong with me? No. All that happened was that my friend’s response wasn’t as empathic as I would have liked.
I told her that I felt hurt and judged by what she said and we quickly cleared things up: all she meant was that she didn’t want me to stress too much about the dream.
Shame can happen when we feel judged or disconnected from people. Have you ever shared an embarrassing story and had someone say “wow, I would die if that happened to me!” or “wow I would never do that!”? These types of responses elicit shame in us because they don’t allow for connection. Responses that allow for connection would be: “Wow, I hate when that happens. One time I experienced that feeling when…” or “Ugh, that happened to me once, here’s what I did about it…”
When we share our feelings, our failures, our hopes, or our dreams, we are doing so because we want to know we are not alone. We want to feel connected to other humans and hear “I’ve been there too.”
Connecting with people, however, can be really hard. We live in a society that would rather text than talk in person, and when people bring up emotions or uncomfortable situations, a lot of people immediately bow out.
A lot of people in the counseling field (myself included) believe that connecting with others takes courage. Sharing our emotions, reflecting on our past, and opening up to let others see us as vulnerable creatures takes GUTS. All of these things are an instrumental part of recovery, which is why recovery takes a lot of courage.
Feeling disconnected is a terrible feeling, and unfortunately, the only antidote is connection. How many of us felt terribly isolated and disconnected when we were sick? My guess is all of us. For me, recovery has been a journey of finding healthy and safe connections with people who love me and are willing to be vulnerable.
Every once in a while you’ll meet people who are afraid of connection. I can sense these people when they say things like “that doesn’t bother me!” about something that seems really upsetting. You know, when a friend breaks up with a partner and says they’re fine, but you know they’re not?
These people are also experiencing shame: they feel too afraid that their break up, the fact that they got fired, their bad grade, their fight with their friend, means that they are unworthy of love and inherently flawed. What these people are feeling is disconnection, but unfortunately, reaching out for connection is HARD and scary, and so people then feel even more disconnected. It’s all a terribly isolating vicious cycle.
Owning our emotions can be hard and scary and feel downright shitty sometimes, but as far as I’m concerned, I’ve lived a much happier life when I’ve dealt with my emotions rather than using unhealthy coping skills (like an ED) to deal with them.
I think a lot of people tend to disconnect because it can be easier than walking through the shitshow of emotions we have when we connect with others. Connecting with others emotionally requires reflecting on our own problems. It requires a true act of courage, but also being vulnerable enough to be honest.
What a lot of people in our society don’t understand is that owning our emotions and living our truths is more courageous than “not caring” or “not crying” or not having any type of emotional reaction to events whatsoever.
What I’ve learned over the past few weeks as I’ve been reading this book and reflecting on my own experiences that elicit shame is that dealing with people who deny their shame can be really difficult.
I, for one, believe that emotions are good, normal, healthy, and show strength. A lot of people wouldn’t agree with me. Sometimes I try to connect with people and they don’t seem that interested.
Another good example of a moment where I’ve felt shame is when talking a different friend. Last year we were talking about the pressure of a life timeline (you know, the weird rules that you *should* do this at this age, etc.).
This friend responded with something along the lines of “oh, well my life is going accordingly with my timeline!”
Again. Boom. Shame. All I wanted to hear was “Ugh, I know! Sometimes I put pressure on myself, too.”
And let me be clear: I’m not saying that she should have pretended to be worried if she didn’t truly feel that way, but her response put us in very different playing fields, and it made me feel disconnected.
Women are competitive, so we have a natural tendency to not want to connect with each other because we’ve been brainwashed by our culture to compete with all other women to be superwoman. We have to have a great career, a great relationship, great friends, a great body, be smart, but not too smart to make us unattractive to men. We have to be pretty, but not too pretty that it doesn’t look natural. We have to be strong and independent, but still rely on men. We have to own our sexuality, but not be sluts. We are constantly dichotomized and put against each other.
When I tried to connect with my either of the friends I’ve mentioned above, I was trying to connect. I was trying to relate to others, share how I was feeling/what I was experiencing, and hear that I wasn’t alone. But neither response did that.
And trust me, I am not faulting either of these people. They’re both women I love and admire, but both of them are also women in our society who have been subjected to the same messages as the rest of us that we should compete, shame, and point out the difference between ourselves and others before we point out the similarities.
I’m sick of that. I know how I’m different from other people. I see and hear and feel how I am different from other women. What I’m more interested in, though, is how I am similar.
What fears do we all have when it comes to our bodies? What are we all excited about in our careers?
We all are seeking connection, but half the time, we don’t know how to connect.
One of my goals for 2018 is focus on connection. We can immediately lean towards disconnection at times because it feels safer. Sometimes, disconnection can make us feel powerful, safe, or even smarter than others. It can make us feel secure.
But so can connection. Connection, however, is a deeper way to feel the above emotions. I’d rather feel powerful because I shared my recovery story with someone who is sick. I’d rather feel smart because I helped a friend by proofreading a paper. I’d rather feel secure because my friend and I have a hear-to-heart about something that happened to one of us.
Call me weird, but I’d rather connect.