My Fear of Friendship

Shame is the irrational fear that all your friends will eventually abandon you.

It is panic after an abnormally long silence. It is being frightened during every conversation that you will say something wrong to turn friends away. It is a fear of trusting and of telling the truth, even to those who have proven their love and loyalty to you. It is doubting your most trusted friend’s words because the terror is so huge you can’t swallow.

This fear does not come naturally, but is the result of repetitive judgmental abandonment by past friends. It is the dark remnants of the betrayal of those you’ve trusted, of those who’ve shamed you. It is their misunderstanding, their hatred, and their fear, but it is your scar.

I cannot count the number of friends who’ve ended their relationships with me because my life didn’t follow the path of their ideals. Some of it was fear, their own shame pulling at their guts as they backed away, their eyes averted. But some of it was outright damnation.

I was pregnant when I married my husband. At the time, we were heavily involved in a Christian group on the college campus where we attended. Our “situation” didn’t go over well. Some of our friends shamed us outright, demanding our apologies for what we’d done; others just drifted away. Only a small few still accepted us. My husband graduated that year and moved on, but I remained and endured dark looks and whispers from former friends who would no longer speak to me. They used coldness to shame me.

Four years later, this shame still ate away at me. In a new town and in a new setting, I reached out for support and trusted what I thought was a tried and true friend with my story and that shame. She immediately cut off all contact, ignoring my phone calls and avoiding me when we saw each other at gatherings.

I came to believe that my behavior … that I drove these friends away. It was what I had done, not who they were or what they believed.

I trusted only one more person until six years later. And even four years after that, you’d be surprised how much it still matters to some people, though my daughter turns 14 this summer.

More recently, I’ve experienced similar reactions to my discussion of and decision to divorce. After telling me I wasn’t trying hard enough, one friend humored me and gave me one more luncheon before she cut me out of her life for good, though I believe the friendship ended long before that point. Her “shame on you” couldn’t have been more clear unless she’d actually said the words.

The idea that friends would abandon you when you need their support the most is absurd. Who would do that? More of my friends than I would like to admit. And because of this, the shame I still feel with regards to friendships is palpable, enough that at times I still fear I can drive my friends away. It follows me around like a shadow. I panic and shy and distrust and cling because the fear is so engulfing.

I don’t know the cure. I don’t know how to stop being afraid. I haven’t figured this one out yet. I have friends I trust with my most private thoughts and that I would trust with my life, but I’ve never stopped fearing that every one of them might abandon me in the end or that it might be my fault.

But I think a change is starting in me. I have good friends now, people who have shown their acceptance, who have stayed and who have returned my trust with their own, and I am encouraged.

I have been worried about the space a good friend has suddenly needed in the past week. This morning, I expressed my concern and was told my reaction was “extreme.” In that moment, I realized how afraid I was that this friend would be lost like so many others. I was honest about my fear. The response: “You are not losing me, ok?”

Relief flooded me. So this is what a real friendship is like. There is hope for healing.

In Memory Of

Some of the most difficult shame to heal from is that resulting from emotions we don’t feel worthy enough to have. We argue that we haven’t hurt enough or that others have dealt with more. We criticize what we feel, call it something else, or deny it completely. We see a world with so much pain and convince ourselves that ours doesn’t matter comparatively. We develop the idea that there are requirements for certain emotions and that we don’t meet them.

This is a challenge I know well, one I still face on a regular basis. There are events in my past that basic reasoning tells me were harmful or damaging, and that I am validated in feeling angry or violated or sad for. Reasoning also tells me I’m allowed to call them what they really are.  But though I understand these things have had a profound effect on my life, most of the time, I still struggle to admit, sometimes to even recognize, that I have a right to hurt.

I’ve been taught to respect the fact that I have a good life, for the simple reason that others have it much harder than me. They’ve known more pain, been hungrier, been sicker, had more terrible things happen to them, experienced more sorrow, etc. I have learned to belittle my emotions and have believed that to express my pain or admit I even feel it is to be selfish and self-pitying. I have believed that, at times, I am unworthy to feel what I feel.

I have believed a lot of things that aren’t true. And in the past months, I have learned that there isn’t a single emotion that anyone is unworthy of feeling, not even me. To experience life, to breathe, gives us the right feel.

This week I recognize one of these such events in my life: the one-year anniversary of having lost a baby. It was not a pregnancy very many people knew about—I only knew for five days. I didn’t spend months planning or joyfully tell my family. I didn’t even have the chance.

I had a tubal ligation eight years ago, so when I found out I was pregnant last summer, I was more shocked than anything. My youngest child was ten years old at the time, and long abandoned thoughts of packing kids into car seats and changing diapers and buying tiny clothes filled my head the day I found out. Until that afternoon, when the call confirming my blood test came through. Pregnancies post-tubal ligation are rare, the doctor told me; I would need to follow up with a specialist.

So began a week of ultrasounds and almost daily blood tests and doctor appointments, a week of waiting for test results and answers, a week of already loving a baby I might not get to meet. As the doctor suspected, the pregnancy was ectopic—the embryo was growing in my right fallopian tube—and therefore, not viable. Because of the danger of an ectopic pregnancy, I had surgery later that day, less than 120 hours after learning I was pregnant.

Bodies and hearts both heal, but hearts sometimes take a little longer, especially when you don’t think you’re worthy enough to feel the pain you’re experiencing. In the aftermath of that week a year ago, that was the struggle that stayed with me.

There were so many reasons to believe I didn’t deserve to hurt, that I shouldn’t admit to it. The pregnancy was unexpected, I already had two half-grown kids, I only knew I was pregnant for five days, and I knew from the beginning there was a high likelihood the pregnancy wasn’t viable. What did I have on someone who’d had multiple miscarriages or someone who had been pregnant for months and then lost the baby?

And so I felt ashamed for feeling sad after losing the baby. I didn’t believe what I’d been through was enough to earn the right to feel sorrow.

Like so many other times in my life, I used my shame a catalyst to avoid the truth. I blamed the emotions on other things—a stressful week, last-minute surgery, recovery time—and when that didn’t help, I denied the pain completely, anything to abate the shame. I couldn’t even bring myself to say I’d lost a baby; instead, I told others I’d experienced an ectopic pregnancy.

Accepting the sadness and my worthiness to feel it came slowly. I think it started when I told my kids shortly before Christmas what had happened—they’d been out of town during the actual event last June. They understood right away how this experience could make someone sad, and they never questioned their sadness—or mine.

The change in my perspective wasn’t complete until several months later when the kids and I made a decision to honor the baby’s memory on Memorial Day, a solemn action that finally made feeling sad okay.

The thing about shame is that once you’re honest with yourself, the lies you’ve told yourself fall apart, and the shame has nothing to hold over you. I realize now that I’m worthy to feel and express what’s inside me. I don’t need to compare myself or my feelings to anyone else’s. I also don’t need to earn any sort of permission or right to experience emotion. What I am and what I have is already enough.

A Simple Remedy

What if there was a remedy for shame?

What if we were all capable of administering it?

What if we all did?

My sister shamed me today. Not directly. It was a share on Facebook, a passive-aggressive slap of her sister’s face:

Marriage isn’t 50-50.

Divorce is 50-50.

Marriage has to be 100-100. It isn’t dividing it in half, but giving it everything you got!

The quote seems innocuous and about marriage, but I am in the process of a divorce, and my sister has already made it clear to me that she believes divorce is a sin, no matter what the reasons. She’s also said she loves me very much anyway. Which makes me wonder, shouldn’t she take my feelings into consideration and be careful of how she declares her judgment? Shouldn’t she do this because she loves me? Or maybe just because I’m human and for that reason alone deserve to be treated as if I matter. Shouldn’t she have a little compassion?

Compassion. “A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.” (Dictionary.com)

What if the remedy for shame is as simple and accessible as having compassion? Shame is a damaging, painful emotion that rests at the core of feelings such as fear and anxiety, and is present in psychological disorders such as depression, PTSD, and eating disorders, to name a few. It is what keeps victims of abuse silent and it damages self-esteem and encourages self-hatred. But what if the world reached out to those who are hurting and offered “deep sympathy and sorrow” and a “strong desire to alleviate the suffering,” instead of passing judgment?

I can’t honestly say my sister’s post was meant to hurt me. There is a chance she didn’t even think of me or my divorce as she pressed the “Share Photo” button. But even if I had nothing to do with it, does that mean consideration of others doesn’t matter? I’m not the only person in the world getting a divorce. I’m probably not the only one of my sister’s 438 “Friends” who is in the process of a divorce, or at least considering it. I think people deserve some thought before they’re spoken against simply for their actions. Many people going through divorces gave 100% to their marriages. Some of them gave more.

But it really doesn’t matter, does it? Because if even one of those people is hurting, it’s enough of a reason to show compassion, to think twice before sharing.

And we are hurting.

My sister’s post was the first thing I saw when I opened Facebook this afternoon. It stared at me from the screen as if it were lioness just waiting for its entrée to run so it could give chase. I froze; my breathing stopped. I stared back, reading the words again and again as a heavy weight settled over me. Do I disserve this rebuke? Did my marriage fall apart because I didn’t give all of me? Is my sister right?

I walked away from my computer, made myself breathe again, told a trusted friend how much I was hurting. I got control of the shame and, “Did my marriage fail because I failed?” turned to, “Does my sister really love me so little?” I doubt it. Rather, I think she lacks compassion where her beliefs and inexperience are concerned.

This isn’t uncommon, not by any means. We all judge what we don’t agree with, what we don’t understand, what frightens us. The stay-at-home mom judges the working mom, and vice versa. The man in the $1,000-suit judges the man vacuuming the office floors during the night. The virgin teen judges the pregnant teen. And on and on, and vice versa to all. But what happens if judgment is replaced with sympathy? What if one person helps another just because people need help? Compassion happens when we stop looking at the action, behavior, or words, and look at the person standing before us. That person is a human being, and I don’t think anything beyond that should matter.

If we try to understand what we don’t, to open our minds and our hearts to what other people are going through and just be kind, it could make a difference. We aren’t required to call out those whose actions we don’t agree with or to damn those who believe differently than us or to degrade those who don’t look like us. There is no good reason to shame people because of the decisions they make in their own lives. And if we stop such things, see people’s struggles, and strive to mend and ease instead of break, if we have compassion, imagine the damage that could be healed, the pain and suffering that would never happen.

Shame is used to express judgment and control behavior. It is also what we feel when all of our good has been hidden from us. Showing compassion instead of shame can reveal that good, it can free us.

As an additional note, I know from experience that sometimes our greatest amount of judgment and shame comes from ourselves. Have compassion for yourself. Be kind and understanding. Aim to ease your suffering; have sympathy and sorrow for yourself. You deserve it.

You Are Worthy

Shame is a parasite. A sickness that bores its way into you, bedding itself inside your core, presumably, perceivably dormant, but licking steadily at already sore, already raw pain. It eats away at kindness and love, those which you might give yourself, except for the growing illness coiling its way around your spirit like a snake, suffocating the life out of you. You become a shadow, only the edge of you showing definition, the rest a single amalgamation of what gives pain: it’s you, everything about you, not one thing making you worthy enough to breathe the same air as the world. And still shame moves through you, elongating, expanding, reaching every end of you. It owns you, yet wants more. Even the tips of your fingers pulse with its poison, hands trembling, wanting only to be steadied.

The cavities that hold your heart and lungs grow smaller, and the twists of your brain become curves to slither along, and the illness deepens, until you’re afraid to breathe, until you don’t want to, until you can’t. Shame does not stop or rest or cease its progress. It will consume you. It will kill you. A silent death, where you can see and hear and walk and talk, but the inside of you is cold and stiff with rigor mortis, frozen and waiting for it to end. And you can either live like this or die like this. You know these are your options, and you hope that your life is short, because the parasite is unbearable. And breathing is difficult. And you are bleeding out and you know it.

A hand, warm and gentle and soft, wraps itself around your fingers, stilling their shake. It reminds you that you aren’t alone, that your death may not be as silent as you fear. It makes you want to live. Just a little longer. Even though you are being eaten alive. And then the hand has a voice, and that voice tells you, “You are worthy,” and you take the first breath you’ve breathed in years. A decade of years. And then that hand is two hands and four, and ten voices, then fifty. The parasite recedes enough that you can see it inside you, and the black and white of the shadow’s edge turns to shades of grey, and subtle curves abrade its flat surface. The sickness will give you the fight of your life; it is your life, but death is no longer imminent. The rigor mortis has been reversed by the press of an army that stands with you at its center, with you both a welcome member and a beating heart to guard.

Shame doesn’t come free with a simple tug. Instead, it is with the use of a fine scalpel that each piece must be delicately removed. And you can’t miss a single piece, because the tiniest grain will grow full again. This blade is not metal or bone or stone. Instead, it is love and acceptance, built to break the shame that holds you bound to your living death. Cut by tiny cut, the threads of death and pain and hate come loose, and the heap at your feet grows until it is a mountain and you wonder how all of that could have been inside you. No wonder you couldn’t breathe.

The places where the parasite have been feasting are newly exposed and raw again, and you stumble, because there is pain and fear in the freedom you feel, and you recoil, your shaking fingers fumbling and the scalpel falling out of reach. The shame returns with a vengeance and rages and reigns in you. But the warm hand is back, or it has never left, and it puts the scalpel back into your hand and wraps your stiffening fingers around it, and at first you can’t cut on your own, so it guides your hand, cuts away the beast, whispering words, feeding love into the blade, because you can’t find yours and don’t remember how. Then the voice tells you again that you are worthy, and the knot that has caged the memory shatters. The scalpel is yours again, and the shame is coming off faster this time, because you understand, you know what is beneath. You pull frantically at the winding death inside you, ripping piece after piece.  You are still bleeding; it wants to take you with it, but the blood begins to run clear, soon pouring from you like water, washing away the remnants of your illness.

As you pry the last of the shame from your soul and drop it on the ground, a burst of flame turns the mountain of death to ash. You breathe in freely, your lungs filling, and when you release that breath, it carries the ash away, completely, without even a fleck to start anew. You are free and it is the shame that has died, not you.

Courage

One of the greatest challenges I face in my struggle with shame is actually facing it. It comes on like an attack, sometimes slow and creeping and sometimes blindsiding me all at once. My response tends to follow the line of fight or flight, and more often than not, I choose flight—repressing it or numbing myself to all emotion. At least, this has been the truth in the past. I’m learning to fight now, to face shame despite the pain and fear it causes.

In doing this, I have found that courage is one of the most readily honed weapons in my anti-shame arsenal. I have always sported a certain amount of bravery, facing down that which makes me anxious or frightened. As a child, I faced my fear of public speaking. As an adult, I said goodbye to my family for nine days and put myself on a plane to attend graduate school for the first time. A few years ago, I moved my kids 1,800 miles away against my extended family’s wishes. And after a three-year battle with myself and my shame, I recently told my husband I wanted a divorce, a feeling I’d been hiding for over three years.

A good friend once told me that courage is not the lack of fear, but rather, it is facing fear and overcoming it. Shame gives me much to be frightened of: the emotions, the physical reaction, the sensation of unworthiness. So as I learn to deal with the shame, learn to cope and move on every time it hits me, I am grateful that I have the courage to do.

Last weekend my very conservative little sister shared her heart with me, elaborating on her beliefs on divorce. She is a strong, Christian woman who has faced adversity in her own marriage. She and her husband worked things out. They have three beautiful children and one more on the way, and they’re happy now. Her heart is that divorce is a sin, no matter what the reason. This goes beyond even our strict religious upbringing, where my sixth grade confirmation teacher gave at least a handful, albeit a small handful, of legitimate reasons to divorce.

I’d been expecting this conversation with my sister for some time, based on her reaction to my decision to separate from my husband and my knowledge of her religious stance, but it was still difficult to face the inadvertent pounding of shame she was determined to give. It had to be done consciously, steps taken so that I didn’t reverse the progress I’d already made.

First, I needed to remember I am not my sister. It is an uncomfortable piece of acrobatics to balance knowing that you are not alone—shame thrives on you believing that you are the only one who makes mistakes or are hurt by others’ abuse; you take the blame—and knowing that you are not anyone else but you. My sister’s beliefs are not mine, and my shame is not hers. What she believes about marriage makes me sad, but I cannot let it change what I believe about myself. I know what I’ve been through and I know I’ve done the best I can. I cannot be any more or less than who I am, not even for my sister.

I also needed to be honest with my sister about what I actually believed, and that took facing my fear of not being accepted by her, my only sibling. I knew this woman had been through a lot; I knew she had powerful beliefs that I didn’t agree with; I knew that she would judge me; I didn’t know how far that judgement would go. But I was done lying. And so when my sister, who knows quite a bit about why my marriage is over, told me ending a marriage for any reason was against God’s will, I risked her support and love and told her I didn’t agree. I thanked her for sharing her thoughts, told her I was happy she had peace, and said, “I hope you can also make peace with my decision …”

For the first time since I told her my husband and I were separating, my sister told me she loved me no matter what. It’s a little bittersweet knowing she is judging me, despite her love. But it’s something to grow from, and that I can hang on to; though, even reaching that point took more courage; one more step.

My sister’s words that Friday night stayed with me over the weekend and combined with the stress of telling my kids about the divorce for the first time Saturday morning. By Monday morning, shame almost owned me again. That’s when I chose to finally be honest with myself.

If shame is something you struggle with, I imagine you won’t find it too difficult to believe that it’s possible not to be truthful with yourself. But I had buried the shame so deep I felt almost no emotion when I woke up that morning. I didn’t want to believe the shame my sister had tried to pour over me had actually affected me. I wanted her love to be stronger than that. And I wanted to be strong enough to protect myself. But in the end, I knew I hadn’t been as impervious as I’d hoped.

So I mustered the courage to speak up, and I called the shame what it was. Out loud. I admitted I was judging myself based on my sister’s words and my conservative upbringing, that I was sad my sister couldn’t just say she loved me without the caveat, and confessed everything I had felt while telling my kids about the divorce, from the anger that my husband refused to say any of the hard things to the sadness and shame of knowing I’d hurt my kids. Within minutes, the shame no longer had a hold on me.

Shame will use your thoughts, fears, beliefs, memories, even your love against you, destroy you from the inside out, unless you stop it. When shame is your adversary, it takes courage to own who you are and what you believe, and it takes courage to be honest, whether it is with yourself or with someone whose opinion matters to you. You can’t let the shame control you or stop you. And you definitely can’t run away; it’ll just sneak up behind you. You need to face it, call it what it is, and be true to yourself. You need to have courage for you.