“How would you introduce yourself if you alone got to choose how you are defined?” That’s the question I asked a circle of women who’d gathered for an all-day storytelling workshop yesterday at a downtown women’s resource centre. “There are ways in which we’re expected to introduce ourselves – what we do for a living, where we live, what our marital status is, etc. – but today we’re going to choose an introductory question that let’s us choose our own definitions.”
The first question offered was the one we used as our check-in question. “How are you a survivor?”
It was a beautiful question and it opened the door for honest and vulnerable sharing. These women are fierce survivors. Some are refugees, some are Indigenous, some are single moms, and most are living in poverty. They have survived domestic abuse, mental illness, conflict in war torn countries, the birth and death of children, racism, hunger, and a multitude of other challenges. They are resilient and courageous and it was an honour to be in circle with them.
“We have a choice,” I said. “We could have told those same stories from the perspective of victims, and they would still be true, but we chose to tell them as survivors. That doesn’t mean we haven’t been victimized – we have – but we found ways to survive and now that’s the story we’re choosing to tell.”
“It matters that we claim our own stories,” I said. “Because our stories give us power. Our stories define us and help us to tell the world who we are.”
Later that morning, I showed the women a magazine spread from the in-flight magazine I’d picked up the day before. It was a three-page spread promoting New York magazine’s Best Doctor issue. Not surprisingly, the only images were of white, male doctors.
“When we see things like this again and again in the media,” I said, “we make the assumption that the best doctors are white males. Then, when we find ourselves hospitalized, and we end up with someone who’s not a white male doctor, subconsciously we come to the conclusion that our doctor is not one of the best.”
Whoever gets to tell the stories holds the power. And vice versa. When it’s largely white males who own the media, run the big companies, have access to political machines, and have the most influence in the world, they get to tell the stories their way. Their stories reflect people in the way that is most beneficial to them, and so they tell us stories of people who look like them.
When we hear almost exclusively the stories of people who look and live differently from us – whether it’s because of their gender, race, sexual orientation, class, physical appearance, etc. – we absorb the message that we have less value. And that’s when we become shameful of who we are and we stop telling our own stories. We stop believing that our stories matter.
“I used to be ashamed of who I was,” one of the Indigenous women in the circle shared with us. “When I was growing up, there weren’t many Indigenous kids in our neighbourhood and the only thing we ever heard about Indigenous people was that they were drunks or homeless or gang members. I was ashamed to say who I was, so I tried to pass myself off as Italian. It took me a long time to reclaim my own identity.”
Another woman, a recent immigrant from the Philippines, shared about the shame she’d felt when she’d left an abusive husband and had become a single mom. “I was blaming myself for getting myself into that situation. I shouldn’t have married him in the first place. I felt like everyone was judging me.”
“Our shame keeps us silent,” I said. “But when we start to share our stories, we release ourselves of that shame and then people can’t hurt us with those stories anymore. Those stories become part of our beauty instead of part of our shame.”
“Would it have made a difference if you’d heard more stories of people like you?” I asked both women. “Would it have helped you believe in your own value as Indigenous women or single moms?”
“Yes, when we see people like us doing good things, it makes us feel better about who we are. And when we see their courage, we believe that we can be courageous too.”
“That’s why our stories matter,” I said. “And that’s why we have to find creative ways to tell them. The people who own the media and the publishing companies aren’t going to give us much space to tell those stories, so we have to find alternative ways of getting them out to people who need them. We have to find ways of reaching the kids who were growing up just like you did, and the women leaving abusive husbands just like you did, so that they can see their own worth.”
I pulled out the in-flight magazine again, and this time I shared a story of a photo exhibit opening in Washington, D.C., called “She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World” which brings together 80 stereotype-challenging, genre-defying works. “What’s striking about the works,” the article says, “is how they dispel the idea, put forth by the international media, that these women are homogenous and invisible. The photos are feisty, provocative, and, above all, thought-provoking.”
“These women chose to tell their own stories their own way,” I said. “Instead of waiting for someone to give them permission to tell their stories, they chose to own them and tell them the way they wanted to.”
We ended yesterday’s workshop by brainstorming creative ways in which these women could tell the stories of their people in their own neighbourhoods without waiting for the mainstream media to call.
Our stories matter. Our stories have power. When we tell them, we let go of shame and we give other people hope and courage.
Learn to tell your own stories in the next online Openhearted Writing Circle on April 23, 2016.
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“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” – Brené Brown
I like fruity tea. Passionate peach, blueberry bliss, raspberry riot – you name it, I probably like it. But at some point in my life, I picked up the idea that fruit teas aren’t for REAL tea drinkers. In the hierarchy of teas, I imagined them stuck at the bottom, the uncoolest of the hot beverages.
I have no idea where I picked up on that tea story. Perhaps someone made fun of me for my tea choice. Perhaps it was just a vibe I picked up. Perhaps I made it up myself. However I picked it up, I let it affect my tea choices. For years, I was afraid to drink fruity tea in public, afraid that the real tea drinkers might notice and judge me for it.
Silly, isn’t it? But isn’t that how most of our shame stories are – rather foolish, once brought into the light of day?
To be honest, some of my shame stories around food choices are rooted in being raised poor, on a farm, and as part of a small Mennonite subculture that kept itself somewhat apart by not engaging in all of the activities (ie. Fall suppers where I might have been exposed to other kinds of tea) in our community. We didn’t have access to “fancy” foods, and so, when I became an adult and was faced with choices that I wasn’t used to, I was afraid I would choose the wrong thing and people would discover how uncultured I was. I was ashamed of being uncultured – ashamed of being a Mennonite farm kid who wasn’t as sophisticated as I assumed the city kids of more worldly-wise cultures were.
We pick up shame stories for a lot of different reasons. Some of them have clear origins (like parents who made us believe we were shameful) and others can only be understood after years of excavation and personal work. Some are relatively easy to release (I now drink fruity tea in public when I want to) and others have become so imbedded into our identity, they become part of our DNA (like the shame around cultural/racial identity).
We inherit many of our shame stories from the generations that came before us in our lineage. Those are the ones that become particularly imbedded into our identity.
After spending several years working in international development, and then a few years on the board of a feminist organization, and now as part of a team doing race relations conversations, I’ve noticed a pattern about cultural shame. Though shame is common to all cultures, it has a particularly strong hold among oppressed cultures.
One of the greatest weapons of oppression is shame. When oppressors manage to inflict shame on people, they increase their own power and diminish the ability of those they oppress to rise up out of their oppression. Shame diminishes courage and strength.
Ironically, though, many of the shame stories related to oppression are passed down not directly from the oppressors themselves but from those above us in our lineage who have been oppressed before us – not because they want to oppress us, but because they want to protect us.
We pass the stories of oppression down to those we most want to protect. When we inherit them as young children, though, those oppression stories become shame stories.
In the book “The Shadow King: The invisible force that holds women back“, Sidra Stone teaches that we adopt the inner patriarchy (the voice that tells women that they are not worth as much as men) from our mothers. It is primarily our mothers who teach us how to stay small, how to please the men, how to avoid getting hurt, and how to give up our own desires in deference to others in our lives (especially men). They do it to protect us, because that’s the only way they’ve learned to protect themselves. And so it goes, from generation to generation, each mother passing down to her daughters the stories of how they can stay safe.
Last week, many of us watched the video of a Baltimore mother who beat her son in public when she found him among the protestors. Desperate to protect him, she pulled him away from enemy lines and taught him, by her own raised hand, that he must learn to submit or risk being killed.
The problem is that those of us growing up in environments where we’re learning these stories from our parents do not yet have a reference point to understand generations of oppression. The only way we know how to interpret our parents’ attempts to keep us small and silent is to believe that they will stop loving us if we become too large and vocal. We become convinced that we are worthy of shame and not love. Though that mother in Baltimore may tell her son a thousand times that she did it out of love and a desperate need to protect him, I suspect there will always be a small child inside him who will believe “my mother shamed me in public, therefore I am worthy of shame.”
Remember the experiment with the monkeys, where a beautiful bunch of bananas hung above a ladder, but every time a monkey would climb to get the bananas, all of the monkeys in the cage would be sprayed with water? Not wanting to be sprayed, the monkeys kept pulling down any monkey who attempted to climb the ladder. Even after all of the monkeys were replaced (one by one) and nobody had experienced the spraying, they still kept any new monkey from climbing the ladder, because they themselves had been stopped. Those new monkeys (if they think like humans), not knowing the history, probably believed “I have done something wrong and my tribe is ashamed of me. I must not be worthy of happiness.” And then they passed the story down to the next generation, pulling down anyone who dared to climb the ladder.
Growing up with the shame inflicted by generations and generations of shamed people, we forget that it is not the lack of love they had that caused them to pass this down to us, it is their wounded love that meant they didn’t know how else to protect themselves and us from further wounding.
And, remarkably, it’s not only psychological – it becomes planted in our very DNA. Studies have shown that trauma has changed people’s DNA and that that DNA has been passed down to subsequent generations, showing up as irrational fear and the tendency to be triggered even if they didn’t directly experience that trauma. If trauma can be passed down through DNA, I’m fairly certain that shame can too, since trauma and shame are often closely linked.
How do we heal these generations of wounds? That is something that I’m just beginning to explore and read about (as are many others) and I welcome anyone’s thoughts, ideas, or experience.
I know that it must be a holistic response, involving body, mind, and spirit. In The MindBody Code, Mario Martinez talks about how we have to heal the shame in our bodies as well as our minds. He teaches contemplative embodiment practices that help replace the shame stories with honour stories.
I also believe that healing shame involves dancing, singing, art-making, spiritual practices, and lots of touch. We can’t heal shame with simply left-brain, logical thinking – we have to engage in creative, right-brain spiritual meaning-making. It helps to create rituals (ie. painting the shame monsters and then painting safe places for them to be exposed), embody our healing (ie. dancing our way into courage), and find spiritual practices that teach us to let go and trust (ie. mindfulness meditation).
And, more than anything, I believe that healing happens in community. Ironically, we pick up our shame through our relationships and we heal it through healthier relationships. That’s the nature of community – it comes with both the good and the bad, the wounding and the healing. In order to heal, we have to find safe community in which we can be vulnerable without fear. When we expose our shame stories among those who hold space for us, the shame loosens its power over us. Intentional circle practices are the best practices I know of for this kind of work.
Happily, there have also been studies that demonstrate that those changes to the DNA can be reversed, so there is hope for the generations that come after us if we do our work to heal. Shame is not the end of the story. We can heal it for ourselves and future generations.
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