Worth (part 3)

Shame, shame, go away,

come back another day.

Shame doesn’t work like that.  Oh, how I wish it did some days (ok, all the time).  I didn’t know what shame was until two years ago.  I had no knowledge about it, yet, I spent my life developing an intricate system around denying it.  The body is a remarkable machine, we can suppress an emotion the split second before we feel the physical sensation come on.  And shame comes with a full body experience.

My chest gets tight in order to close off oxygen to my body.  It freezes it, no motion is allowed for a second and no thoughts run through my head.  It happens quickly, maybe less than 30 seconds.  It feels like I’ve temporally lost control and I have to remember to ‘choose’ to breathe again.

When I eventually exhale, I never seem to bounce back from it before the minute is over.  My body is still trying to catch up with my breathing.  When it eventually does, it feels like time has slowed and my thoughts gently reenter the space between my ears.  They are trying to catch up too.

I didn’t understand how much of my body is required to let myself feel an emotion, it was something I learned when beginning this chapter.  I spent the following year working on my shame triggers (vulnerabilities) using Brené Brown¹ exercises.  Within a few months, I put together a list of shame triggers and spend the rest of the year adding to it and completing the hardest aspect of her exercise – identifying its origin.  Digging meant unwrapping memories that were neatly tucked away.  Visiting painful memories was torture.

The least surprising part of this was seeing that many were influenced by my parents, cultural/societal upbringing, childhood friends – many of my triggers had to do with early childhood memories.  The most surprising were the ones added in adulthood – my MiL influenced a few.  Brown focused on the fact that we must find the origin of the trigger, otherwise, we will not gain any knowledge or understanding of our true self.

One ‘positive’ aspect of going through this was the ability to discern someone purposefully shaming me vs someone hitting a shame trigger unintentionally.  Because I had now seen, read, re-read, and stared at my list, I knew certain subjects were going to be tough to handle, which with some awareness allowed me to hear the words being used rather than only ‘hear’ my shame (influencing my blaming behaviors).

Around the time my list was somewhat complete, I had dinner with friends and we began talking about psychology as one of the friends is interested in the subject as well.  I explained Brown’s shame trigger exercise.  She then asked if I could give her an example.  I told her a few of my shame triggers and briefly the origin and she said after hearing me: Wow, those shame triggers are ones that you deal with when you first meet someone, those subjects come up usually in a first interaction.

Her comment floored me and I am so grateful for it.  I hadn’t looked at my shame triggers like that.  How they factor into social interactions and how I face shame a majority of the time when I first meet someone.  It changed how I viewed my vulnerabilities.  And maybe why I am drained from social interactions especially when it involves meeting new people.

After this discussion, I spent quite a bit of time focusing on what happens when I first meet someone.  It was so weird to ‘tally’ how many new people I actually met over the course of one year and I’m an introvert!  From new students/professors at language class to social groups to new friends of old friends, the number was enough to see a pattern.

I felt shame, in different degrees, in almost every single situation where I met someone for the first time.  I can imagine that that emotion could be read across my face and communicated subconsciously to the other person.  Thus, helping narcissists hone in on me as a potential target.  It is exactly like PWC (@Polly Want a Narcissist?) said:

“Do I gravitate towards them? Yes, it’s as simple as that. I could walk across a crowded room and collect three Narcissists on my way, I’m that good at finding the N in the room.”

I finally get why!

2013: The Year of Shame

A closing to my “Year of Shame” (as DH likes to label 2013) included what I now consider (hindsight) a ‘pop quiz’ to the work I had done prior.  During our FOO visit in December (2013), we met up with an old group of friends where one of them had a new fiancée whom I had never met.

When we shook hands, she said to me, “I’ve heard a lot about you.” and that would begin the long evening ahead and my battle with shame.

She managed to touch on every single shame trigger that could come up in a first encounter and then some.  What initially seemed unintentional became intentional when ‘weird’ questions were directed towards me to dig for more information – not to get to know me but more like an interrogation.  It felt like I was being suckered punched and the only thing saving me was the fact I decided I wasn’t going to drink alcohol that night.  As her words gravely affected me, I remembered that I don’t have to stand here and take ‘getting to know me’ as chiseling away at my self-worth.  I left and went to the bathroom several times (albeit hardly drinking my coffee).

It was in the sanctity of a bar restroom that I was able to lock myself in a stall and let myself feel shame, allow myself time to regroup.  It was my escape for a few minutes from a woman who seemed to know how to touch my shame triggers exactly like my mother.  She was smooth.

It is situations like these that I fear (anxiety).  It is someone taking an ‘innocent’ question and going too far in the guise of ‘small talk’ or ‘friendliness’.  Sending me into a spiral of self-loathing.  It is why I talk myself out of social situations.  I can see the shame coming from a mile away.  And I still run in the other direction.

After what felt like a long night, I walked back to the car in my fabulous shoes understanding a lot more about myself – not all great but more conscious of it, more aware and alive.  The cold, winter night air hit my face, awakening me in a way, reminding me that I was still holding on to the one important thing – my self-worth.

Something I need to remember as I continue facing shame:

“Every time you meet a situation, though you think at the time it is an impossibility and you go through the tortures of the damned, once you have met it and lived through it, you find that forever after you are freer than you were before.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt

Further Reading about Shame

Caliban’s Sisters: Shame and the Decisions We Make

Related posts @IBC: Worth (part 1); Worth (part 2)


¹Brown, Brené, Ph.D., L.M.S.W. (2007). I Thought it Was Just Me (but it isn’t). New York: Gotham Books.


Worth (part 2)

When I first started exploring the meaning of self-worth while I was reading Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection, I had to admit it seemed like ‘of course we don’t measure a person’s worth by a product or a thing, let alone do it to ourselves.’  Because when I wrote it down, it seemed almost ridiculous.  Consciously, yes; subconsciously, it was a whole other messed-up story in my head.  Even my ’emotionally healthy’ friends seem to define worth – I found the ‘having a job’ part especially common in all my friends or ‘I am a good parent’ as the other common one.

I am so guilty of defining worth.  Here is my definition:

And now, I am trying hard to redefine it as: I am enough, as is.  And some of the things on this list have been easy to let go and others are extremely hard and some are unobtainable.

When I wrote it out, I couldn’t believe it.  How could I achieve worthiness when I am an only child?  But it kind of makes sense, making it unobtainable.  I can’t tell myself I am worthy, right now or ever with that on the list.  And well, I don’t want to live like that, starting now.

Some of things on this list (formerly known as my worthiness list) hit me hard.  When I moved overseas with my bf I had to leave my job – it was the first time since I was legally allowed to work to NOT work.  I had to have a plan.  I went back to school which put aside the feelings of unworthiness until graduation.  When I graduated I went into a depression.  I was in another country where I couldn’t speak the language and I was unemployed.  My state of depression became clear to me after I wrote Worth (part 1).  A lot of my struggles when I became depressed were associated with my own feelings of worthiness.  I found a job 6 months after graduation and I felt better – sort of.  Go figure.  I hit that checklist point!

Another one that was difficult to remove was helping others.  Which is directly related to how I was friends with people (especially Ns).  I had to STOP providing for them.  When I did that my relationship with Ns started changing.  My worth as a friend is not defined by how much I help them.  A while ago I read something about the concept of helping others.  I can’t remember where but it was something like, helping friends/people doesn’t mean doing everything for them/providing for them.  It means helping someone when they are not able to do it themselves.  For example, I drove my N friend, Marian, to the grocery store and gym.  We lived in a small village.  You can walk from one end to the other in 15 min – no joke.  Everybody walks/bikes to grocery store and shops/gym.  But yet I still did those things.  I mean, when I look back, she had a bike!  And I realized that helping friends is something that I like doing but not attached to my worthiness or others.

When I read Brené Brown’s books, The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly, two things hit me in relation to my recovery from maternal narcissism.  I defined worthiness as a product/thing (my worthiness list above) and I held my perception of people up to it – measuring them up/judging.

When I judged myself (measured myself against my worthiness list) and others, I was behaving destructively.  When I didn’t measure up, I went into bouts of depression.  When I judged others against it I behaved destructively towards them – cruel and blaming.  And that was my greatest fear coming true – behaving narcissistically.

According to Brown, when we question our own worthiness (and everyone does, even emotionally healthy people), we encounter shame.  And shame is what leads to destructive behaviours towards ourselves and others.  Brown defines shame as:

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.

Through the course of reading, I told myself: Oh, I have shame – I listed 3 things that I am shameful of.  And, I thought to myself, okay, T Reddy, you get shame.  You can now focus on developing shame resilience, which is what she says is the fundamental component of living wholeheartedly, emotionally healthy.

But I was so wrong.  Way, way wrong.  Repressed shame exists.  And we often numb the feelings of repressed shame in many ways – eating, smoking, alcohol, keeping busy, watching TV, Facebooking, organising etc.  There are many ways to numb the feelings.  These activities are numbing when you look at your intentions.  I like to watch TV but am I watching it for a show I like or flipping through channels aimlessly trying to find something (and I do that a lot).  When I Facebook, am I connecting with friends or am I just scrolling and flipping through pages for hours and hours at a time.  There is a difference.

And I was like, great.  I do numb.  But what is my repressed shame?  After reading Daring Greatly I went back and re-read The Gifts of Imperfection – but this time, slowly and stopping to think about what she was saying.  The first time I read the book in one day.

She said that shame can sneak up on you and there are physical symptoms.  And it can be easy to miss.  I was a bit stumped.  And then something happened while I was on Facebook.  I was checking my news feed when it said that my bf’s sister-in-law connected with someone that is connected to my bf as family.  When I saw the name, I was like, I know her but how can she know her when she came into the family 2 years ago and I 13 years ago and I am not connected to her.  I quickly closed Facebook and said ‘I will ask my bf and let me go organise my closet.’  I stopped myself at organising.  I had recognised that organising stuff is a way of numbing for me (there was no need to organise my closet).  And then I went back to Facebook and re-read the feed.  And let it sink in.  And then all of a sudden, the physical symptoms kicked in.  Brené Brown was not lying.  There are physical symptoms of shame.  And mine included the feeling like my throat was closing up.  It almost felt like I couldn’t breathe.  And I couldn’t move, I was almost rigid like a statue.  It was painful.  Incredibly painful.

It took a while but I let myself feel.  I didn’t organise anything that day and I didn’t talk to my bf about it.  I eventually told him this story a week later.  I realised that had I repressed my shame and if I had spoken to him that evening it would have led to a mega-fight because I would have somehow attacked and blamed him for the fact that I am not included and accepted in his family.  And I have shame around that.  And that is related to my worthiness checklist of being close to family – his or mine.

I am new to feeling shame and it is so scary.  I thought about this a lot and in fact since I re-read the book it is constantly on my mind.  Through the many thoughts I was having I realized how my repressed shame caught up with me, 6 years later.

My former worthiness list included speaking another language.  And I think that my list is related to how my own mother defined worthiness.  My mother speaks 3 languages – English and the other 2 are Indian dialects.  And growing up I did not learn to speak her native dialect.  When I was small she spoke to me in it and today, I can understand the language but I don’t speak, write or read it.  When I got older, I asked her why I don’t speak the language she said ‘you never wanted to speak it.’  And she continuously reminded me that I don’t speak it.  In fact, when I saw her this summer she insulted me again by saying ‘oh, you don’t speak our language.’

When I moved to Europe, I was quickly reminded that I don’t have the skill of another language – from applying for jobs, from interacting with people who speak 2 or 3 or 5 fluently.  Many, many times I felt shame when I was reminded of this fact or someone called me out on it.  After a few years of living here I acquired this skill and worked in the language.  But my shame didn’t stop there nor did I feel worthy (now, I am working on a third language skill, I raised the bar, go figure).  6 years later, my shame came back to shame someone else.

When I was in a group situation of new people, we had to formally introduce ourselves.  I was the first person.  I stated my name, nationality, job, why I am here and I added languages I speak.  In this group setting, I could have left out job and languages.  Since I started, everyone followed suit and filled in the same info.  When the last person went, he stated at the end, ‘I guess I’m the only one who doesn’t speak another language.’

At the time, I felt bad because I regonized that I had done the same thing to him as many people had treated me after moving here.  But my behaviour was from my shame – that I am bad and not worthy of someone connecting with me because I don’t speak another language.  Today, I feel even worse about it but I am trying to keep it in perspective.

After 6 years, my shame was still there even though I had checked off an item on my worthiness list.  What I had actually done was incredibly eye-opening: I defined it for the rest of the group in a very subtle way.  And imposing my own definition on someone else is narcissistic – valuing another’s worth based on it is judgemental, it is very cruel.

And from this, I realised that even if I thoroughly understood narcissistic behaviours through my interactions with my friends/ex-friends who behaved continuously narcissistic or my own mother I would never understand how I was behaving narcissistically or even when.  The shame would always come back if I couldn’t recognise when it happened to me and process it and work through the shame (shame resilience).

After going through my first shame experience, consciously, I feel queazy but at the same time liberating.  Weird, eh?  It is so unbelievable uncomfortable and messy but I can sort of began to see the freedom on the other side.  I have a long, long way to go but I have a next step in recovery.

Oh and btw: I am currently unemployed, an only child, have been in recovery for 2 years now, am not close to my family nor my bf’s.  Well, according to my def. I’m not worthy.  That’s a lot of shame.  Even after writing down the list above, I found others to add lurking around.  Go figure :).

Thank you for reading and your continued support.  Your thoughts are always welcome.