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