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.

Fear vs Anxiety (part 2)

When I encountered the stranger in the post (Fear vs Anxiety part 1) at the bookstore, I broke my Stranger Policy.

My Stranger Policy mostly applies to situations when I’m alone outside.  I treat all strangers as potential threats – any kind of threat – violent, pick pocketing or another scam.  This policy applies to everyone  – men, children, old women, teenagers, groups of women.

Strangers approach me quite often when I’m alone.  When I walk to my language school from the train station (20 minute walk) I am approached at least once, if not more, as I walk through a tourist area of Brussels.  My policy is not to respond.  When approached I say ‘No’ and walk away.

Whenever I break the policy I ask myself: Why did I do that?  I never feel good about breaking it which is totally counter-intuitive to helping others.  All the signs were there that this woman (from part 1) was a potential threat.  Yet, I still continued, for quite a while, to respond to her inquiries.

The positive part of this experience was: had this situation happened to me a few years ago I would not have stopped the conversation short and left; I would have sacrificed my time for her needs.  There was definite progress in my actions and when I walked out of that store, I felt good about ending it before it continued even further.

After the incident, I read the Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker where he focuses on listening to true fear and its signals and I was challenged:

  1. My first conscious weird irratation happened when the stranger did not respond to my apology immediately.  She had a delayed response.
  2. My second conscious sensation was when she asked what I was reading.  This signal was a bit louder in my head and yet, I ignored it and answered.
  3. When I was listening to her, my mind started to look for and analyse the potential threats – she is trying to sell something, she is trying to scam me?  My mind was running through a list of all potential threats.

During her attempts to engage me in some sort of conversation, my mind was racing.  I was, for the majority of the interaction, focused on what she could do to me.

If I had experienced true fear, would not have the flight-fight response kicked in?  Yet, everything inside me felt like fear (heart racing, etc.)  And still, I didn’t respond after 2 signals, I stood there and continued to answer her questions.

My initial reaction was habitual: ignore the irritations and my own uncomfortableness and meet the needs of the other person.  My thoughts began dispersing every direction – Is she trying to sell me something? is she trying to con me? is she trying to rob me? what if she has a weapon?, etc.  This worrying went on for the duration of the conversation.

Daniel Goleman (from the book Emotional Intelligence) writes:

“And so the worrying mind spins on in an endless loop of low-grade melodrama, one set of concerns leading on to the next and back again.”

giftfearGoleman does clarify that worry can work – when it leads to a solution (what he calls constructive reflection).  The problem arises when we are never nearer to a positive solution (chronic worry, anxiety disorders).

Gavin de Becker, in the last chapter of the Gift of Fear, illustrates the same distinction with clearer lines:

“Worry, wariness, anxiety, and concern all have a purpose, but they are not fear.  It may well be something worth trying to understand and manage, but worry will not bring solutions.  It will more likely distract you from finding solutions.”

And no doubt, I didn’t find a solution immediately.  In my old ways (before recovery), I would never have found a solution until I was forced – the bookstore kicking me out at closing time or DH coming to look for me.  De Becker draws the line further:

“People use the word fear loosely, but to put it in its proper relation to panic, worry, and anxiety, … … … , real fear is not paralysing – it is energising.”

I often find myself in endless loops of worries and low-grad anxiety in a lot of situations.  But after reading this book, I started to question whether my anxiety, at times, is not masking a true fear signal.  De Becker references listening to our instincts and signals of true fear but this ‘listening’ is rather difficult for me because I never learned how.

Somehow the signals I felt with the stranger went unchecked – not listened to – after 2, actually 3 fear signals.  The first signal (that I didn’t realise until after) was she invaded my physical boundary – this was actually the first signal my body had noticed, if not my mind.  When she came walking down the aisle, I was sitting on the floor and her purse swung and almost hit me in the face until I quickly moved away (DH wondered if she had done this on purpose).

At times, real fear can be paralysing too – if we haven’t learned how to listen to our inner voice.  I think abused children learn repetitively to dampen the signals that come from the amygdala (emotional centre of the brain).  And albeit, some dampening is necessary in keeping certain signals in check (learning to delay gratification, self-control), it can go to extremes in abusive households.  Signals that are essential to survival (emotional survival as well) can be manipulated in abusive environments.

Even with the constant manipulation, the body doesn’t stop responding to stimuli that is dangerous / inappropriate* (as the amygdala is fully developed at birth).  In such environments, we are taught to reprogram that signal into something else (as our intellect is developing after birth).

The comment thread of the post on amygdala hijack (Through the Looking Glass) sums it up nicely:

If you are taught that you aren’t worthy of protection, then you will fly into a panic whenever you feel yourself in such a situation. The panic comes not from “overreacting,” but from the inner conflict between the natural survival instinct and the conditioning that we are somehow not worthy of protection/survival. -Kitty (Brave New Kitty)

In cases where anxiety is developed from real, authentic fear signals* (life and non-life threatening), the confusion (inner conflict) between the two creates an advantage for those who abuse.  Teaching a child to ignore / suppress fear signals can cause disproportionate reactions (appearing as overreacting, frozen or shut down) thus, providing them the necessary upper hand to manipulate the situation further to create the desired effect.   I often gave into their demands just to ease my own anxiety – a decision, an action has been taken – providing temporary relief from the anxiety.

Children who are abused are taught to re-wire emotional signals that lead to many complex problems in adulthood.  This manipulation (reprogramming) can manifest itself within the body in different ways.  Often developing from the repeated lesson: teach her to disregard reality and herself.

Hugs, TR

*In the book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker refers to several examples where psychological boundaries were crossed before the act of violence (physical harm) –  stipulating that crossing of psychological boundaries is a true signal of fear.

Further reading:

Weathering the Storm: Living and Coping with Anxiety

Through the Looking Glass: Name That Feeling: the Amygdala Hijack

Caliban’s Sisters: Pattern Recognition vs. the Parental Present

Brave New Kitty: Embrace Your Anxiety

In Bad Company: Fear vs Anxiety (part 1)