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.

Taking Back the Pieces

Somewhere inside me is a person who is strong and confident and who knows she is. I want to find that. I want to be her. I am slow and I stumble a lot. Years of shame and vindictiveness have left me battered and bruised on the inside. More than that, it has left me doubting my ability to breathe. But I can’t let them win. “Friends” and “family members” have taken so much from me already. To give them more would be equal to starving a child. That I would rest by and let them take choice pieces of me is the result of years of normalization training and false teachings, of selfishness and expectations I will never meet.

“Dear friend, wife, daughter, coworker, sister: Since you desire to be kind and good, since your heart is gentle and we know you are strong and skilled, give us your lungs and your heart and your soul. You will still be able to walk and talk and breathe without them, but you will serve us better for not having them. We’ll be able to mold and mutilate you into the form we desire, damage you to the point where you’ll never have need of or wish for anything more.”

In the episode of M.A.S.H. titled “Dreams,” in Hawkeye Pierce’s nightmares, he is forced to give up his arms, the one thing he needs more than anything to do the work he does: operate on injured soldiers, save lives. He is told to remove them and then he literally pulls them from his coat sleeves.

“That I would rest by and let them take choice pieces of me …”

It is not easy to repair the destruction of nearly two decades, to uncover the pieces that have been beaten upon and torn, and stitch them back together. It takes time and delicate work, performed with still-shaking hands. It takes turning your back on and sometimes beating off those who would have you back in their strangling grip. It takes biting your lip until it bleeds blood from your broken heart to prevent you from handing yourself back to the enemy when you are asked. You must break the habit.

It is a war with a daily battle. I know what inside me is real and true, but each day I must pick up my weapon and steel myself for the fight. The days are long and slow. Sometimes I gain ground and sometimes I lose it. Never all of it, but enough that the line that marks my progress wavers before it progresses again. I am the Union Army in the American Civil War, just weeks past the Battle of Gettysburg. My victory is imminent, but not to be won without blood and tears.

I will not give in; I will not surrender. I will not give up any more of me, and I will take back what is mine. I will fight until the dust settles and the air comes freely into my lungs. And I will find myself, who I am, who I was, and who I am going to be. I will no longer give up my vital parts to become what I am not. I will be me. I will be whole.

Hardest to Love

The hardest person for me to love is not my soon-to-be ex-husband or my work supervisor who punished me because I knew things she didn’t or my mom, who accused me of moving away just to take her grandchildren away from her and ruin her life. The hardest person in this world to love is someone much closer: me.

I haven’t done anything extraordinarily evil; I’m a caring, loving mother; I work hard and get things done and do all of my jobs well; I even try to do good things. My friends seem to care about me and my kids to love me. Clearly, I am loveable. So why do I struggle so much to love myself?

This is a question I’ve been struggling with for years, and as one might expect, I’ve learned there are many parts to the answer, most of which I have yet to explore and understand. I know now I carry a lot of shame and make a great number of accusations against myself: How could I have been so stupid? Why did I do that? I always do things wrong. How could I have fallen for that? This mistake makes me a terrible person. This decision makes me even worse. My behavior in this situation should be punished.

When a situation goes awry, I instinctively take the blame and feel ashamed for the damage I’ve done. I say “instinctively,” but shame isn’t an inherent emotion. It is learned and reinforced. It is a weight taken when it doesn’t need to be. And it is a punishment. Whether it is taken on yourself after years of molding or put upon you by another, it is meant to scold and degrade you, to make you feel like less than you are, to feel unlovable and worthless.

It is the feeling of worthlessness, I think, that is my greatest barrier to loving myself. Or, rather, the sense that I have to meet certain criteria to be worthy. This belief is a setup for disaster. My standards for myself are high, perfectionism rampant in my blood. I must learn and accept that this is an unreasonable expectation, that perfection is impossible for everyone, that I am worthy merely by being alive, and that nothing makes me unworthy to be loved. I am a slow learner.

I discovered shame was at the core of many of my emotional and social struggles three years and three months ago. I didn’t admit it to myself until about a year ago. I didn’t admit it out loud or to anyone else until I learned how deep it ran, just three months ago now, when a friend told me I had the right to feel completely comfortable and safe and to speak up if I wasn’t, that it was his responsibility to make sure I was okay and that he was at fault for not being sure, not me. He told me I was loved and deserved to be okay and that I was worthy.

I am worthy. I had never believed those words until he said them. And once I did, I recognized times in my past when I hadn’t felt worthy to be respected, when I’d taken the blame for someone else’s disrespect, when I’d felt ashamed for someone else’s violation of my rights or body. Understanding the reasons why I’d felt this way came later, but most importantly, for the first time, I recognized that what had happened to me in the past wasn’t my fault, and that believing it was had shaped both my perspective of the world and my perspective of myself. Warped my perspective, I should say. Because seeing myself as worthless to everyone and everything, including myself, is not in any way seeing the truth.

This conversation was my breakthrough, but a breakthrough doesn’t mean you’ve healed—and by healed, I also mean having learned to love myself—or even that you’re well on your way to healing. It means you’ve managed to crawl on bloody hands and knees a little farther along the path of healing. I still have a long way to go.

A few weeks ago I stood in front of my bathroom mirror and used a pen to spell out the word “Worthless” on my stomach, backwards, so I could read it when I looked at myself. That night I thought of all the things I’d done wrong and all the things for which I was to blame, of the little use I was to anyone or -thing. I wrote about it and then cried at how terrible I thought I was and then punished myself with emotional pain that went straight through my defenses.

One of the things I have learned is that shame feeds on secrets and lies. So I reached out that night. I messaged a close friend a while later and told him what I’d done and what I was feeling. He told me I was none of the things I thought I was, but instead important and worthy and loved. He told me to wash the ink off, and with the erasing of the word, I felt a weight lift off me and peace settle. I hope some day I’ll love myself enough to be able to take that step on my own, or better yet, to not feel that deserving of punishment for things that aren’t true.

You may question how I could see so little worthwhile in myself. It’s a long story and I don’t know the entirety of it yet. That is the purpose of this record of my journey, to learn in my heart what know rationally: it doesn’t have to be like this. I am lovable.

As you read this, some of you might feel as if you know exactly what I mean, maybe feel my pain or know what it’s like to discover something good about yourself when you thought there was none. Some of you might not get this far because you hurt so much from your own struggle with worth and shame. I know seeing another’s shame can make my own feel more acute.

But I hope you have read this far, and I hope you’ll read more, today and next week and beyond. I hope you’ll come with me and heal with me as I look at shame and worthiness, as I learn more about how they playout in my life, and beyond, to find what it takes to love yourself.

I can’t promise you an easy journey, nor can I promise you mine will be flawless. I’ll have bad days. I can promise you honesty, though. No smoke screens or rose-colored glasses, just truth, even when it hurts.