I thought a lot about what she said. Shame? Sure. What person who has struggled with obesity doesn't feel shame at times? And openly gaining weight while working in the fitness profession? You guessed it - shame. I thought about the other times in my life that I felt shame. I know that struggling with shame during horrible post-partum depression was debilitating - very close to life-ending if you want to know the real truth of it all. (Fortunately I was so busy with a 17 month old and a newborn that I never had a real moment to myself to do any real physical damage.) Religious shame? Been there, done that, wish I had the t-shirt.
But does it go farther back than that? You want to place some bets?
I was scheduled to do an ultra-boring Zone 2 workout on a Spin bike that would most likely involve me sitting in the saddle the whole time and I thought I'd skip the tunes and finally watch that video I was avoiding. The video is a talk by Brené Brown, Ph.D. given at the TED conference in Houston, a non-profit devoted to "Ideas Worth Spreading". This particular talk was on "The Power of Vulnerability". I strapped on my heart rate monitor, gave my ass a quick pep talk so it wouldn't be angry with me later, and popped my headphones in.
I expected to cry. To get all serious and introspective and all that other bullshit that I seem to be wallowing in lately. (I blame Oscar season and the Academy for the fact that no decent comedies have been out in awhile. Who doesn't need one around the holidays?) What I didn't expect from Ms. Brown was to laugh. A lot. Finding humor and making jokes in the middle of all that emotional work - you had me at hello, Brené.
So in between laughing, blowing my nose, wiping my sweat and repeatedly telling a guy named Bill that, no, I was indeed not talking to him and he could put his headphones back in I managed to watch the 20 minute video. I was hooked. I immediately started googling for more videos (while maintaining a steady Zone 2 heart rate between 150 and 155, thank you very much) and found "Listening to Shame". Perfection. I spent the remaining portion of my workout trying to fully understand the connection between vulnerability and shame in my head. Later that night I watched the videos again and took notes. Yes, I am that girl. I also downloaded her latest book to my Kindle. And maybe found her on Facebook. And perhaps subscribed to her blog. One person's "stalker" is the next person's "biggest fan". It's all about perspective.
According to Dr. Brown what we all fundamentally crave is connection. She goes so far as to say that "the ability to feel connected is why we're here - what gives us purpose and meaning to our lives." Given all the avenues of social media that we have at our fingers at any given moment of the day, I would have to agree. I miss that connection that I had with people at the gym. I used to always think I was better at working alone, which suited my self-employment just fine. Turns out I'm a fucking people person. Who knew? "Connection" is one of the reasons I started this blog, in addition to working on my own crap, I mean, issues. I still feel like I have something to say about these topics even though I don't have that fitness center venue anymore.
She says that "shame is the fear of disconnection". If everyone knew about all our junk would they somehow deem us no longer worthy of connection? There's that word again that keeps coming up for me. Worthy. Worthiness. Self-worth. It's like I'm in a real life "Where's Waldo" book and I can't find the sonofabitch anywhere. (No, I won't start a "30 Days of Worthiness" project on Facebook. You're welcome in advance.) And the real emotion that underpinned shame was "excruciating vulnerability". In her words, vulnerability is the "core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness" but it is also the "birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love."
In her six year of studying shame, Brené Brown found that people who were sure of their worthiness, those that she called "Wholehearted", the ones that truly believed they were worthy of love and belonging where those that also believed that "what made them vulnerable made them beautiful". They fully embraced vulnerability instead of trying to numb it. They took chances.
I thought I was being vulnerable. I really did. I'm sharing a lot and I have a mini-panic attack each time right before I hit "Publish" on a new blog post. What if no one reads it? What if no one comments? What if, God help me, no one "likes" it on Facebook? But being scared that people won't like it is not the only litmus test of vulnerability. It's risk and exposure and honesty and authenticity and uncertainty. And I haven't done that as much as I could. I haven't "kept it real" like I should.
Case in point: The post about my first contact with my half-sister. Let me preface this by saying that I am so thankful that she contacted me and I hope that someday we may have some semblance of a relationship, albeit international. People who read that blog post thought it was uber-cool that I had a sister and how exciting, yada-yada. What I didn't share that day was how torn apart I was, how fundamentally raw and unworthy I felt. I wanted to spare her feelings, spare her father's feelings and my mother's feelings. I didn't want to expose too much. I couldn't possibly tell everyone that I spent the entire day crying and feeling destroyed and broken and then decided that I couldn't possibly be expected to fix a normal dinner for my family after that so I had to order take-out from a local Italian joint and eat penne instead of vegetables, now could I? (This is how the fat brain works, people.) A few people knew. My husband knew. My mother sent me a message after reading it and asked if I was ok. She knew I wouldn't be ok. But I didn't tell the truth that day.
Here's the truth: I was worried, being the grown-up in the relationship, about it being ok for my under-age sister to contact me. I wanted to make sure her parents were ok with it. That led to a discussion about when she first learned about me. She said her mother had mentioned a half-sister a couple of years ago but it wasn't until that past week that her father (yes, I know her father and my father are the same person - you can analyze me another day) sat her down, now that she was a teenager, to tell her about all the "stupid mistakes" he made when he was 15. The conversation went on for awhile after that but I couldn't focus on anything but "stupid mistake". It's all I heard. She didn't know that she should edit that part for me - she's 13. She has lived her entire life with two loving parents and the knowledge that she was intentional and worthy of being here. She also has no clue, until now, what a basket case of a sister she has. Hearing the words "stupid mistake" takes me right back to being a kid who never really belonged in the family. I wasn't supposed to even BE.
My mother had me when she was 16 1/2. She got pregnant at 15. She hid her pregnancy until the day she went into labor and had to tell her mother, also 9 months pregnant, that she was about to have a baby. I can't imagine how hard it was for her to be pregnant and not tell anyone but I get why she did it. There had already been a baby born to another sister and he had a tremendous amount of medical issues to be dealt with. My grandmother was pregnant with her NINTH child. And I'm pretty sure my grandparent's marriage was already falling apart. How could she tell anyone? I'm sure she was scared shitless. I would have been. (These are just my thoughts and conclusions - it's not something we really ever talk about).
After I was born my grandfather told the other kids they were absolutely NOT to go to school and tell anyone and they would be punished if they did. This was supposed to be a secret. What in the hell would people think if they knew?
That's how I entered the world. I wasn't planned. I wasn't intentional. I wasn't welcomed or celebrated. I was hidden. I was a "stupid mistake". That's what my sister's comment brought me right back to. And the logical part of my brain says, "Yes, it's terribly stupid to get pregnant at 15". And I know my mother would agree. But my mother would also have said, "But I don't regret it." And I can't get that from my father and wouldn't believe it if he said it because he doesn't know me nor has he been a part of my life.
Brené Brown says that if you were to put shame in a petri dish it would require three things to grow: 1) Secrecy 2) Silence 3) Judgment. Sound familiar? That was the holy trinity of what I was born under and apparently my cross to bear. I know shame deep into my core and I truly believe that conquering it is the key to finally believing my worthiness.
Are there worse things to happen to people? Of course. I had a good life. I grew up to be a pretty good person. I was loved and I still am. And my heart goes out to the people that I love that have been hurt by far worse things in their lives - rape, abuse, poverty, illness. My shame is not the worst out there but it's also why I don't have a drug addiction or an alcohol addition or some other vice. I just eat a little too much and say bad things to myself from time to time. So how come, until now, I have only talked about the shame of being overweight? Silly rabbit, it's the only shame I can't hide. I wear it, literally, on my sleeve. And my ass. And my thighs. And my stomach. The rest I have neatly tucked away.
So now what? How do you fix shame? Ms. Brown says that there is one sure way to douse shame because with it shame can't exist and that is empathy. "The two most powerful words when we are in struggle: 'Me, too." How do we get it? By being vulnerable. Shame + Vulnerability = Empathy. Welcome to the new math.
I promise to be open and truthful and authentic from now on. I haven't got a shot in hell in beating this if I'm not. I have to be "excruciatingly vulnerable" in order to get empathy from you. And I hope that when you read my struggles you will also hear what I am trying to say about your own journeys, which is the number one thing I wanted to share with you when I first started this blog.