My shame is a shapeshifter. Its ever changing presence lurks nearby at all times. Like my shadow it feels almost a part of me, never missing a step as it creeps along by my side. My shame has evil desires masked by a comforting and soothing facade. It knows me by name. It can sense what I need, and its conniving ways enable it to convince me that it holds the answers I require. Its constant presence is worn like a blanket, draping me in the kind of familiarity that I no longer question while it continues its work to change and steal more and more of me.
My shame understands that patience is a necessary component for its success. It knows when its strength is greatest and waits for those prime moments to slither out of the darkness to strike. When it senses an environment of joy, connection, or engagement it carefully retreats to the background, not in defeat but instead with a sense of knowing that it must patiently wait to resurface later in order to be most effective. While in waiting, my shame compiles all that it needs in the darkness of its lair, gathering each soul piercing ingredient required to overwhelm me when it chooses. I can feel the undercurrents of these preparations. I know it is there and feel powerless to stop it. I know that no matter how much I try to resist and counter it my shame is too clever to reveal its full plan.
My shame watches you. It is learning how to exist around you. It may reveal little morsels of its intentions to you – just enough to make you think it is possible to subvert it. But my shame smiles at these attempts as it hovers behind me with its dagger pressed firmly up against me. It dares you to step closer. It welcomes your attempts to pull me away from it. My shame will simply absorb and catalog your efforts to later assist with its mission when it is required. It knows that your help has limits. Your presence won’t always be there. Yet shame has unrestricted access to me. Your limits will become more fuel doused onto its fiery wrath when it finds me in solitude.
I have learned that naming shame can help to ease its strength. Calling it out by name shines a light on shame and makes it retreat back into its darkness. Its power wilts when this light can reach it. I feel the truth in this, and I try to offer myself this gift of relief by using my voice to dampen it. But my shame is learning too. Like a virus, it keeps shifting and adapting to grow in strength. It is finding new ways to maneuver in plain sight in the midst of a glaring light in its direction.
I need a new strategy. I need a new angle. I feel myself stumbling and submitting. I understand that there is no future beyond surrender, and this is not an option I wish to consider. But my shame has infiltrated my eyes, and I can’t seem to see a path forward from here. My shame is winning, and it knows this. I need to find a new way out.
I know it feels messy, scary, and loud. I know it feels as though you are tainted – that you will stain everything within your reach. But no amount of running, hiding, or hand scrubbing will take this feeling away. What if you could reach out and intentionally glide those saturated hands across a canvas. What would we see? What could we learn? Maybe freedom comes from releasing the story that exists within. What might our world look like if we let our colors be seen?
I crossed the finish line, sweat pouring from me, exhausted and depleted. I didn’t have to look at the clock to know how to feel. I knew it in the midst of the race. I knew it deep inside when I was unable or unwilling to tap into the part of me that would allow an effort to dig deeper and go faster in the midst of hurt. I felt defeated. This was not my best race – not by a long shot. Disappointment poured over me, and this moment immediately attached itself to failure. I failed myself with a poor championship race performance. I failed my team and our chances of a top finish. I failed my coach – the one who I thought believed in me – the one whose approval I worked so hard for – the one who used his position of authority to manipulate and abuse me. I crossed the finish line that day and lowered my head in shame. I knew I let everyone down. I failed.
My mom was a spectator at this race. She approached me afterwards, proud of my effort, proud to be my mom. She didn’t know I fell short of my goal. She had no idea what my goals even were. But she was there cheering for me – no matter what. I hardly even acknowledged her in that moment. His lessons over the years ingrained a message deep within that no one else cared – no one else saw me – no one else paid attention – no one would support me like he could. To keep me close and obedient he taught me that everyone else in my life was failing me. So in that moment I followed his lessons and deliberately brushed past my own mom. I ignored her out of anger – anger towards myself and my own failure that day and anger towards her for failing to see me – failing to really know me – failing to care enough to know what I was aiming for that day. Whatever she wished to say, I didn’t want to hear. So I walked away from her.
When I reflect upon this moment today, in the midst of a cyclone of feelings around facing a very recent grim prognosis for my mom, I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. My reaction right now is that I failed as a daughter that day – along with so many other days.
I don’t know what to do with all that I am facing. Memories of our relationship from throughout my life are replaying in my mind. Each moment leaves me feeling this sense of failure as a daughter. All of the anger I’ve carried about not being seen by her feels trivial. Instead I want to push all of that aside and focus on caring for, supporting, and loving my mom. But my brain can’t seem to do just that. Instead I pull apart each of these memories and find fault and self blame within all of them. Why am I doing this to myself? Why is my default response self judgement, self blame, and self hate? Maybe hating myself somehow feels like an alternative to facing the pain of losing her. Why can’t I just be sad? I’m losing my mom, and while our relationship has been complicated, I love her and don’t want her to die. I feel the helplessness of this situation driving me towards self blame, maybe because it’s something I can control and it’s something I know. I can hate myself for all of my shortcomings. I can be angry with myself because I’ve been doing that my whole life. That comes easy. But it is also hurting all of the parts of me that I am learning to tend to. Directing my anger inward is reminding all of these young parts what they have always believed. It is their fault. They are worthless. They failed again.
Recently we celebrated my daughter’s birthday. She is a teenager now. On the day of this celebration she encountered an issue with one of her gifts and became quickly and increasingly preoccupied with correcting the problem and making it just right. Tears began flowing from her out of frustration. All of this build up and excitement for this special gift that suddenly in the moment was not measuring up to her expectations. Then mixed with her own tears came self judgment. “I don’t want to cry. I don’t even know why I am crying,” she screamed. Of course she didn’t know. She’s 13 years old and her body is coursing with hormones and changes that make it hard to understand any overwhelming feeling. As a mom I know this. But in that moment my own ingrained messages got in the way of meeting my daughter the way she needed me. In that moment her tears felt ungrateful and spoiled to me. All of the energy, thought, and care I put into making her birthday special, and here she is crying that this one thing isn’t absolutely perfect. I could feel my anger rising inside. I just wanted to lash out and tell her to shut up – that she was being ridiculous, spoiled, and incredibly ungrateful. While I could feel myself boiling on the inside, I didn’t lash out at her. I didn’t say a word. I know my silence sent its own message to my daughter, but in that moment silence was the best I could offer. I found some space to quietly remove myself from the situation, and I allowed her dad to proceed with helping to solve the issue with the gift. As I gave myself this space I started to feel a shift. I began to experience anger towards my own anger. How can I not make room for what is very clearly a response in my daughter caused by an overwhelm of emotions and hormones? She was even telling me that in her frustration with her own tears. My anger and the way I wanted to respond to her in that moment felt so strong, so automatic, and so familiar. And the more I sat with it the more I realized that my knee jerk reaction was exactly the opposite reaction I wish to have for my child in this moment. My knee jerk reaction is what I experienced throughout my own childhood.
Don’t cry. Don’t be dramatic. Don’t be so self involved. Get over yourself. Your tears are weak. Your tears are pathetic. Pull yourself together, and get back in your place.
My reaction in that moment was nothing more than wanting to stuff my daughter’s feelings down and teach her that the tears she didn’t understand were ridiculous and should not be there. My reaction in that moment wanted to make me feel more comfortable by shaming my daughter out of her own expression of feelings. This anger I felt quickly turned to shame. By wishing to stuff her feelings, I am failing to meet her – failing to guide her – failing to see her – failing to show her a healthier way than what I learned. What if I am not equipped to model a better way for her? What if she will struggle in the ways I have struggled and experience the same level of lasting hurt? What if I am hurting my kids? This spiral of thoughts continued and attached to other pieces of evidence in my brain to convince me that I am failing the most important people in my life. And if that’s what I’m doing then what good am I to anyone?
After a little time, tears, and along with a heavy dose of caring support these strong feelings have subsided just enough to make it possible to look at these situations with a bit more clarity. I understand how quickly present feelings can get tangled up with old ones and make it nearly impossible for me to see clearly. I know that my daughter entering her teenaged years attaches to fears in my mind about what happened to me in my past. It makes me constantly overwhelmed and fearful that I am falling short of protecting her from the pain I experienced. It blinds me of all of my strengths and magnifies my shortcomings, convincing me that I am failing her. I know that my own mom is facing this prognosis that is ripping her away from life, away from me. I am scared, and I don’t know how to do this. I know that recent shifts and ruptures in the relationships within my own family of origin is making me feel more alone at a time when I need support more than ever. I know it all just feels like too much and makes it hard to say no to the temptations of numbing relief that simply result in an added layer of failure and shame. And I know I want to do better and be better for my kids as well as for the trembling hurting young one that resides inside of me. Sometimes I just don’t know how.
The messages she carries try to convince her that her home is in the darkness that surrounds her and seems to know how to steadily lurk just one step ahead of her. It makes it hard for her to maintain traction on where or even who she is. Yet something inside urges her to focus beyond the darkness – beyond the pain and strain of what pulls at her – and fight like hell to somehow reach the light.
Imagine yourself purchasing a plant and bringing it home to be added to your garden. You find the perfect spot. You dig an appropriate sized hole. You even purchase nutrient rich soil to assist in the healthy transfer of your plant to your garden. Then you remove the plant from its container, its tangled roots all tightly wound together. You loosen them slightly and then just as you are ready to place your plant into its new freshly prepared home you instead set it down right beside the hole. How long would your plant survive there, uprooted from its container, lacking nutrients and support, and lying with its healthy moisture rich roots exposed to the sunlight?
I moved to a new state last year, and then I moved to a new community within that state just months before this pandemic tore through our world. The amount of time that lapsed between my family’s move and the upheaval of this pandemic was not nearly enough to feel settled and connected here. Yet the growing disconnection from my previous home was set in motion. I have found myself stuck in limbo – removed from the comfort, connection, and stability of my previous home and simultaneously unable to connect in my new environment.
I am an introvert. My introverted response to the initial guidelines of social distancing almost felt like a gift. Stay away from other humans – check. Stay home if possible – check. I felt I was made for quarantine. Yet even at the beginning of this life altering pandemic I still recognized that while I welcomed the ease of retreating inward this was going to be very harmful for me over time.
It takes me quite a while to open up and connect with others. A history of childhood trauma, combined with a family upbringing of emotional unavailability, as well as my shy introverted personality creates a recipe for my tendency to distrust and keep people at a safe distance. I didn’t allow for deep personal connection in my life. It wasn’t until I began addressing my childhood trauma several years ago that I realized how important close honest relationships are and how critical they are in healing. I began to pay close attention to that and focused on cultivating more meaningful connections in my life. I started showing up in relationship like I never had before. I started connecting on a deeper level that I had never experienced before. It was life changing and soul fulfilling.
Then I moved – away from all of those deep interpersonal connections that I had learned to trust and depend on. I was painfully aware that this move felt different from all of the previous moves I have ventured into in my adult life. I knew that the long length of time that I had spent in my previous community, along with the fact that it was the only home my two children had ever known, layered with the knowledge that I built connections there like I had never done before placed a particularly heavy burden on this move. I knew it was really going to hurt. And it did.
For the first several weeks I focused intently on helping my children settle into new schools and new activities. After the initial stress and excitement of assisting my family in the adjustment of a new community began to wear off, I noticed that a space was created for my own grief. My husband was off adjusting to a new job. My kids were off adapting to new schools. And I was alone with my thoughts each day. I tried to busy myself with projects, volunteering, house hunting, and searching for part time work options. Yet nothing could stop the flood that was coming. Depression. I felt myself withdrawing from everything I cared about. I felt myself putting on this strong capable mask for others and then crumbling to pieces each time I was alone. In an attempt to care for myself I started individual therapy, which both created a life line for myself and also highlighted the sadness I felt from missing the incredibly impactful therapist I had moved away from.
One foot in front of the other. One day at a time. I slowly started to experience brief moments of improvement. My kids were beginning to feel settled. I was starting to get involved in my new community and meeting new people. We found a home to purchase after a lengthy stay in our temporary apartment situation. We finally got to fully unpack our lives and begin to settle into our new home.
And then a pandemic changed everything. Suddenly the very slow progress of meeting new people and beginning to build connections was shut down. I hadn’t yet built the kind of friendships that were equipped to handle this forced disconnection. My new surface friendships felt severed.
Now, as the world begins to slowly reopen and navigate what is to become our new normal, I feel vacant. What am I supposed to return to? I don’t have anyone to rush towards. Instead I am reminded of just how alone I feel and just how far away the ones closest to me feel right now. I feel as though I’ve been uprooted from healing connection and placed into an indefinite holding pattern. How long can one tolerate such a disconnect? How long can one sustain without a viable path towards rebuilding relationship? I ask myself these questions while I continue to sit in limbo, experiencing profound disconnection from others both near and far, all while struggling to resist the urge to retreat further and further within myself.
Sometimes feelings come to me in images – images that I can draw or paint to express emotions that I cannot yet find words for. Through art I can bring emotions out from the depths inside of me and shine a light on them in whatever I have created. It is often in the midst of the process of drawing that the words slowly reveal themselves to me. It feels like my pencil becomes this tiny release valve that slowly lets my feelings escape with each stroke across the page.
I sketched this piece a few years ago while intensively engaged in therapeutic healing work. I remember what I was expressing. I remember feeling incredibly overwhelmed with all of the ways that my past abuse was impacting my current life. I remember feeling how painful that part of my healing process was – like trying to rip out the damaged parts of myself in a frantic fury. I remember pushing myself so hard towards healing that the healing process itself felt as though it was hurting me. It felt like the harder I fought to release myself from the tangled web of confusion, pain, and shame of my past, the tighter its growing grip entrapped me.
During this week I have felt a deep struggle rising up inside of me, stirring and awakening the hurt. This struggle has not yet inspired me to draw or to write. Instead it has urged me to dig up this drawing and just sit and look into it. Each day this week I find myself looking at this drawing, connecting more and more to it. It’s a different connection than how it felt several years ago, and yet it feels just as heavy. I feel myself looking into this drawing for direction. Maybe if I stare at it long enough I will find the answers I need to free myself. Maybe looking deeply into this piece will help me to shine a light on the parts of me that still beg for healing.