I have a lot of theories on life. One of them is, “Nothing is as simple as it looks.”
I’ve stood by that statement for at least the last 25 years, since my first job as a substance abuse counselor.
The thing is, you don’t know what’s going on in anyone else’s life unless they tell you. But we tend to jump to conclusions and assume things. You know those people you think have all their shit together and that their lives must be easy and perfect?
Family dynamics are always complicated, relationships with significant others are at least as complicated, and the ways our emotions, thoughts, and feelings are affected by these important connections are even more complicated.
Too often, we believe what our brains tell us. Beliefs like “I suck!”, “I’m such a stupid moron!” or “I am so ugly!” do so much damage, it can literally take a lifetime to see through that self-doubt and find the truth.
And those are just some of the thoughts! Those faulty perceptions of ourselves can really color our emotions and how we react to them.
EMOTIONS ARE COMPLICATED
In all the research I’ve done, books I’ve read, therapy I’ve been in, I don’t think I’ve ever read or heard that an emotion happens in a vacuum.
For instance, at therapy yesterday, I kept vacillating between shooting angry daggers at Kim and squirming because she got “too close” and I got way anxious about it.
I started us out on the topic of Shame, which led to the following issues: Lack of self-compassion and self-esteem, why I don’t like myself, anger, feeling weak, and feeling like everything is my fault. And I continued to feel Shame to some degree depending on where the conversation went.
So, I went from being interested and curious about Shame to being embarrassed, angry, ashamed, frightened, and more angry.
My point is that I don’t think any emotion or issue is caused, exacerbated, or resolved by itself. No emotion lives on an island – they feed off each other. Things happen for a reason. There’s a reason you don’t feel worthy of love. There’s a reason you are not proud of yourself. There’s a reason you’re so depressed or anxious or panicky or you drink or use all the time.
But the answers are not simple, nor are they necessarily easy to understand. If they were, we’d all be one big happy family.
Our emotions are connected to each other. I have a lot of anxiety, which is based in Fear. For me, Fear is often a by-product of low self-esteem, which has its basis in Shame. Etcetera.
The question is, if you’re like me and have been working on understanding yourself for the last umpteen years, does the “why” really matter? Would it help to know why I feel so much Shame and anger? Would that help me grow as a person and move beyond my stuck-ness?
Or is it better just to be radical and accept your past (and present), make peace with yourself, and use your skills so you can grow, even if you don’t know the answers to all your Big Life Questions?
I don’t know. I think that’s a deeply personal decision each of us has to make.
THE BURDEN OF SHAME
Therapy yesterday was i-n-t-e-n-s-e. I had read a brilliant, insightful article from the Opinion page of the New York Times by psychotherapist Hilary Jacobs Hendel, which I discussed with Kim. They both hit on something I’d wondered about but could never put into words.
(And no, I’m not an affiliate, but I plan on getting Hilary’s new book, It’s Not Always Depression, as soon as I can.)
Hendel writes about how Shame could be at the core of some mood disorders (a lot like what DBT says), including depression. What she wrote really opened my eyes to that possibility.
As someone who constantly feels less-than, like I can’t live up to even my own (rather lofty) standards, like I don’t deserve to be “saved” – as someone who questions the meaning of my life every day and how I can get through it without the use of alcohol, drugs, or whatever else I can find to punish myself with, as someone continuously haunted by her past and holding onto it – I wonder where this all came from.
I can even blame myself for things that have nothing at all to do with me. It sounds ego-centric, doesn’t it? “I’m to blame for all that’s wrong in the world.” I don’t think that’s it, though.
It’s more like I feel like I should be able to handle myself and my feelings (and thoughts) after all this time doing insightful work in therapy, groups, DBT, CBT, psychoanalysis, psych units, ECT (which I will never do again) and TMS. I feel like a failure that I haven’t been able to “fix” myself, be able to work, and live a “normal” life.
And that just creates more Shame.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learned a shitload about myself after all this time. I am an expert on me, and I kind of consider myself a lay-expert on mental health in general.
But Shame begets Shame. It is so incredibly difficult to break out of the Shame cycle, and it takes more work than I’ve apparently been able to do so far. Which makes me feel more Shame, etc.
And there’s that question again: Is it worth it to dig deep and try to figure out “what’s wrong with me and why”, or do I accept my life as it is, use the tools I’ve been given, and keep trudging along the happy road of destiny?
When I got home from therapy, I was so angry I didn’t know what to do. So, I kept it inside, like I’m so good at. When I feel like that, it’s like I’m on a mission. I don’t say much, I keep my (nasty and destructive) thoughts to myself, set my jaw, and go on my way.
That kind of Anger scares me. It doesn’t matter if I’m mad at CeAnne for something, if I just had a really rough therapy session, or just talked to the worst customer service rep. at Comcast – I shut up and shut down until I figure out what to do next.
You know what I mean?
But I think I was so angry because I felt so much Shame. What do you do with that?
DBT says the antidote to Shame is to tell your secrets to someone you trust who will not judge you. I’m lucky; I have a few people like that in my life. That way, it’s no longer a “secret” that suffocates me from the inside out.
I highly recommend you find someone trustworthy to talk to, too. It’s liberating.
I recently made a list of things I feel ashamed of, big and little, and shared it with Kim. Shame is definitely my enemy, so I need to get it out. I know from experience that even the little things will fester and feed off each other until they grow into a big ball and send me further into my existential crisis.
Have you ever heard the saying, “You’re only as sick as your secrets?” I think I understand what that means now.
So, from now on, when I see Kim, I get to decide if I’d like to dig in deeper into some of the sources of my Shame or if I’d rather talk about something else. I may go through the whole list in a month, who knows?!
All I know is that my Shame keeps me down, way down. And I’m tired of that.
It’s okay to get it out of you, as long as it’s with someone you can trust – cross my heart. Or maybe write down what you’re ashamed of and hold a ceremony where you burn it or tear it up or put it in a “God box”.
Or we can keep holding it close to our chests and hope no one ever finds out how rotten we really are. As if that were true.
It’s okay, really. You can do it.