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 1)

I re-found narcissism this week.  It’s been a long week.

Since I discovered narcissism in my life 3 years ago I feel a bit jumbled in recovery.  But this week I began to see a start to the unraveling of the jumble.  I would like to share this with you.

At the beginning of my journey I focused on and understood the message from my mother and many of my N friends – that I am not loved by you for who I am but what I can do for you.  You do not see me as a daughter or friend, etc.  You do not see me as a person, just as an object to fulfil your desires.

And from this premise I launched my recovery.  You are the mother I didn’t really have even though you were physically there.  You are not my friend, you are my enemy.

And these messages were good because it got me here.  It helped me end friendships when I knew that I would be left with none.  It helped me see I never had a mother and not to seek one in her.

And that left me with my own worth.  Facing what my worth is.  When all the Ns were gone in my life I had to and maybe I was even forced to look at my own worth.  And I stopped looking at it and honestly, stopped searching for it – consciously.

I am enough.  Right here, right now.  I am worthy.

It’s a struggle to tell myself that everyday.  I will continue to have that struggle but everyone else does too.  Because doubting ourselves, our worth, is a part of being human.  Finding a way to work through the self-doubt takes practice.  And let me tell you, I am a beginner.

And in my ‘worthy’ struggles this week, I re-found narcissism.  Not a new definition or symptom or coping mechanism, a way of recovering from the trauma.

When I think about all the time, my childhood, my friendships with Ns, it bothered me that they are selfish, they take, they have no empathy, they are mean, etc.  I could go on.  I tried so hard to understand it and the truth is, I won’t understand each N that I have known.  And now, I have to recover from their lack of love and my own hate for them.

But it didn’t work that way for me.  I had to grieve because of their lack of love.  I had to admit I hated them and then deal with that emotion.  Not label it as a bad emotion or a blocker towards recovery but deal with that hatred inside of me.

But what I found this week is that I am not recovering from their lack of love or my hatred, I am recovering from something entirely different.

I am recovering from their definitions.  There are a lot, too many to count.  Each N came up with their own and applied it to me – while changing it mid-sentence.

They were defining my worth.  They were defining MY worth for me.

When someone else defines our self-worth for us, they steal it.   When someone feels no need to define it and helps us find it when we think we lost it, that’s love.  I’ve heard and used the terms – Ns rob you of respect, rob you of yourself, your soul, etc.  I understand those messages even better.  They rob our self-worth.

Self-worth is I am enough (which implies, there is no actual definition).  And you guessed it, the N definition is that we are not enough and even worse, they attach a definition for you to follow, be held accountable for and then change it.  And that is translated in so many subtle ways that you can’t see it, it isn’t tangible and when you try to get validation for a comment they made, you are told you are crazy.  The reason that many people (including me) can’t see the subtle worth-stealing behaviours the Ns do is because most likely, the person we seek validation from are defining their own self-worth as ‘I am not enough’.  We all struggle with this message of saying ‘we are enough’.  And that struggle leaves us blind to see someone stealing our self-worth from us AND from another.

When I started to enter into the uncomfortable openness of ‘I am enough’, I started seeing a lot of messages in the back of my head that I had been blind to.  I started to see what I was trying to gain back – my self-worth.  Recovery, by its definition, is to gain back.  Because to recover from the lack of love is impossible.  We will never get back the love that wasn’t there.  BUT we can recover our own self-worth.

What I learned when I started reading about self-worth was so incredibly eye-opening.  I have Brené Brown to thank for that.  She says, in summary, that self-worth is not attached to a product or to things.  The trouble begins when we or someone else does that.  Which to me means you cannot define self-worth and put a measuring stick to it.  Because to measure it, you must define it.

And if everyone began to define self-worth there would be an infinite number of definitions and no one would be able to obtain it because the target is always changing and that is no way to live.  Here are a few examples I have come across in her books and in my life when we look at self-worth in terms of products or things:

You are worthy if:

      • you have a job
      • you are a mother
      • you hold your emotions in
      • you are thin
      • you are healthy
      • you have a nice house
      • you play sports
      • you speak a foreign language
      • you have lots of friends
      • you help others
      • you donate to charity
      • you let go, move on

To list it out like this makes it seem so easy.  But if it were that easy, then the Ns or ourselves wouldn’t be so good at disguising the messages of ‘we are not enough’.

For me, part of the trauma of being an ACoN is that the definitions appeared in our lives since the day we were born.  From day one, we got a definition, tried to achieve it and then our parents changed it day two.  The other part is the utter pain of knowing that someone we trust and love are reaffirming the messages of ‘we are not good enough’ that we received in school, at camp, at work, etc.

When I stepped into the openness of ‘I am enough’, some repressed memories came back and at the same time some of my feelings I struggled with.  In sixth grade (I was 10 years old) I failed (grade of D) my first social studies exam of the school year.  The teacher spoke with my mother and she was furious at me.  She forced me to study every waking minute I was at home for the next exam.  On the next exam, I received a 98% out of 100.  I was so excited I went home and told my mother.  Her response, ‘You should have gotten a 100.’  I’ll never forget that moment.  The pain in my stomach was unbearable and still is today.

Just recently, in an earlier post, I shared with you that I told my aunt about my mother having narcissism and I told her a few stories to help her understand the concept of maternal narcissism.  She did sympathise with me but she ended with this cautionary note: Remember that your mom was born and raised in India and it is cultural to pretend like everything is okay even when it isn’t – saving face.  This last part bothered me because I really wanted to be open to the fact that there are cultural differences and I wanted to have empathy for something that is difficult for me to understand.  I was lying to myself.  I was very upset about what she said.  And this week I realized why.

My last semester/term at university I had gotten a job just before graduation.  I was very happy and thought the job was good because it would allow me to live (rent, food) and make payments for my school loans at the same time.  My mother wanted to know how much I would earn with this job.  When I was in the process of moving from my apartment on campus she told me: the next time you talk to your aunt and she happens to ask you how much you earn, remember to tell her $XXXX instead of $YYYY.  Her amount was $6000 more than what I was actually earning per year.

The pain of that moment was so physical.  I fell into a depression the weeks leading up to starting the new job – I didn’t celebrate graduating or interact with anyone.  She had assessed my worth not only by how much I earned but also by adding $6000 to it.  She gave my worth a monetary value and still told me that that was NOT enough.  What I realised this week is that even with the cultural differences my aunt pointed to, my mother wasn’t acting like things were okay even when they weren’t.  The thing is things were okay, she didn’t have to pretend and telling my aunt that I had gotten a job would have been sufficient to fulfil the cultural norm.

And as I relive and rethink my stories from past and present I realize just how much my own recovery is tied to getting back my own self-worth and looking at what gets in the way – shame.  It has been a long week.

Thank you for reading.