I watch a lot of TV shows on the universe, and am intrigued by an interstellar material called dark matter. They say it’s everywhere but we can’t see it. It skews what we see through telescopes and throws into question everything we thought we knew about astrophysics.
On an emotional level I see an equivalent. It’s shame, that feeling that says “Who do you think you are?” The voice that urges you to stay small. It says nobody wants to hear from you. Stay in the back of the room. Let others do the talking, even if you don’t agree with them. Wear a black wardrobe. Don’t stand out. Blend in to the background. You’re ugly. You’re fat. You’re boring. You have no talent. You have no purpose.
You know that voice. You probably hear it in your head. I sure hear it in mine, and I’m learning to call it out for what it is — bullshit. It’s that voice that travelled down the generations, an early message from pre-verbal childhood. It’s been there so long, we might think it’s part of our personalities. I used to believe I was insecure, that those voices kept me from being conceited, and they kept me operating under the radar….where I belonged. Bullshit.
Who else in your life lives with those rules? I’m guessing a caregiver or an early role-model. Maybe your siblings. They believe these shame-based messages. They’ve passed them onto you so you can assimilate with the family beliefs around normality. They have good intentions and they may not have conscious intentions to keep you small. It just feels right to them.
Age gives you a new perspective on upbringing and growth beyond the family sphere. I’m at a point where I can look back at my life as a seedling and see how all the wrong messages sent me on an unhealthy path, one where worrying was good and not talking about feelings was normal. I wasn’t even clear what my feelings were. So begins repression.
But as I grew, I entered the age of rebellion and thank God for that. I was almost 30 years old when I overcame a strong family trait, one that muted questions and urged me come up with your own thoughts around truth. Our family likes to argue about “facts” without investigation. It’s a know-it-all trait I see in many.
I announced to my family I wanted to become a journalist. I launched into a career where I would ask questions. A lot of questions, and those questions will be open questions — those which do not require a “yes” or “no” response. I would prod and poke the sensitive spots of strangers in ways that would horrified my parents. And then I’d use my talent for writing to share what I saw and heard with newspaper readers.
You know what? My parents were awed by my audacity, but eventually became proud of my journalism career. I realize now I’d jumped a barrier they could not bring themselves to overcome. And the reason it was so easy for me is that it was NORMAL. I displayed a healthy curiosity, one that had been quashed by generational shame. That’s why many aspects of being a journalist felt so good.
There were other aspects that were not so great, like intruding on people’s lives when they’re suffering shock and grief from a sudden loss. I believe that writing about someone’s untimely death wasn’t enough. We as a society need to know who they were in life, what was lost in that accident or homicide. Someone’s death should not be a bigger deal than who was lost, but it often is. Such is the nature of news gathering.
I turned to alcohol to numb the guilt and grief. Booze is also a great tool for disconnecting us from our challenging emotions. It seems to create distance, and let us think we’re okay when we’re not. It’s a tool we think we need. I know a lot of people who once did hard jobs, such as police, who have become sober. I haven’t had a drink in three years. Sobriety though can only take you so far — the emotions we numb thaw slowly. As I write this, I have wipe wetness from the corner of my eyes. My body says I feel sad, but I can’t feel it.
So I overcame family shame to become a journalist, and went on to immerse myself in societal shame as I poked and prodded other people’s pain. Those memories are harder for me to process.
The key to healing is awareness. For me, I’m aware of how I deflect self-compassion in favour and hide under a blanket of shame. But that blanket smells old and musty. Peeking out is a little scary and disloyal — don’t I belong under that blanket?
So the reason why I write about shame today is to face the beast for what it is, a generational lie passed to me through no fault of my parents. I can find my own truth. I can learn to connect to those feelings. I can throw off that blanket of shame.
For more on this, watch this TedTalk by Brené Brown. I love her. https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame?language=en