Sensitivity, Shame, and Recognizing Strength
Today I’m pondering weakness and strength. My world was turned upside down a few months ago when I realized I had these things mixed up. What I thought was weak was strong. What I thought was strong was… well, perhaps not weak, but definitely not stellar. We do the best we can, you see, and we follow examples around us.
I was born with what I thought was an unfortunate defect- my heart was on my sleeve. I heard about it often throughout my childhood. Or maybe it was only once? No matter. The words entered through trusting ears and became seared on my frontal lobe.
“That heart on your sleeve…” *tsk-tsk*
I tried everything I could to get it off, figuratively and literally.
That damn heart wouldn’t budge. “It’s my lot in life,” I thought, as I trudged along, personifying defeat.
Too many therapy sessions to count.
Too many therapists to recall.
No one could help me spring that damn heart off my sleeve.
No one seemed as alarmed as I was that it was there.
It’s hard to put into words the impact this has had on my life. You see, up until very recently, I felt innately wrong. Yes, wrong. As in, something went very wrong. At some point during my fetushood, I wiggled a funny way, and my heart slipped entirely from its cage! Quelle horreur!
When one walks around feeling wrong, a creature sneaks up, and over, and in. It is Shame. And it’s a trickster.
I have felt Shame’s presence in my life more potently than I care to express fully here. I felt it physically as crushed ribs, tight stomach, burning face, prickly eyeballs. Shame is familiar and seductive, and it knows me so well. Shame speaks in a way which seems Truth. It convinced me to make myself small. Wispy. Air-thin. Unnoticeable.
Shame had me on strings, and it jerked me around for years. I was a puppet on a stage, longing for the freedom to dance, yet strung up in an impossible-seeming way. I waited for someone to cut me down. I ached for saving. I twisted and turned, further entangling myself. It was humiliating.
I am lucky to know many people, and count myself a member of a vast creative network. I shared my shame-struggle with a small online group. A friend in that group recommended the book Daring Greatly. I set up an online book club, and last Summer I read the book with a few friends. To say it was life-changing would be an understatement. I can truly say that Daring Greatly, and another book, Self-Compassion, saved my life. It’s not as though I was clinging to razor blades with one hand, and these books with the other, but I can say that there is a way of daily living that is death-like. Shame caused me to withdraw from loved ones, and myself. It made me speak abusively to myself, and to others. Shame was the heel in my back, and I was pressed into mud daily.
Daring Greatly taught me what Shame really is. It is not guilt. It is not a platform that helps us jump to betterness. Shame is not useful, for anything at all, really. Shame is disguised as a helper, but in truth it just keeps us stuck. I realized I needed to seek support as I faced Shame head-on. I found a new therapist and sat primly in her office.
“What brings you here?”
“I want to stop feeling pain.”
I was introduced to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. I learned mindfulness techniques. The single most important thing I learned in those therapy sessions was that pain doesn’t stop. Furthermore, by trying to stifle pain, I was also stifling joy. When I ran from pain, I also ran from happiness. I was under the impression that I could pick and choose from my human emotions. I was a visualizer and an avoider.
“I CHOOSE happiness!”
A stance taken
A forced smile
And yet, a numbness as I tried to let happiness in, then slam the door in pain’s face.
Over time, I began to let myself feel. Everything. As I turned to painful thoughts with a compassionate disposition, I found healing. I have learned that the heart on my sleeve is a beautiful thing. I have apologized to myself for all the years I tried to pry it off. I’ve started to settle into my true self; expressive, emotional, and fiercely loving. I flex my arm and feel the pulse of Truth. I wield my heart in helpful ways. Every day I am saving myself. The strings were cut by me.
I am likely trying to say too much in one blog post. This is my mental health narrative, and it spans almost 36 years. There are pieces I’m leaving out because they’re still too acute to expose. The main thing I wanted to express today is my surprise in learning that my perceptions of weakness and strength were backwards.
Learning that the very thing I hated most about myself was actually my strongest attribute has brought a freedom to my life. It is a freedom from the strings of Shame, which are very rarely felt these days. It’s not that Shame isn’t there. We all have Shame lurking about. What’s changed, though, is my ability to recognize Shame, to call it out, and to seek support as I resist it.
If you experience shame, I want to tell you that you’re not alone. Shame would tell you that you’re the only one, but common humanity has other ideas. Resilience to shame is possible. I can tell you this as someone familiar with rocking on bathroom floors. There is another way. I am grateful to have found it.
Thank you to Lori, and to the friends who read Daring Greatly with me last Summer. I am especially glad to have Misa and Vickie in my life as I build resilience to shame.