I cut off someone in traffic recently. It was completely my fault. I wasn’t paying enough attention and drifted into the other lane when mine was suddenly blocked off for construction. The moment I realized what I’d done, though, shame-brain quickly tried to find someone else to blame. “Maybe the other driver was going too fast. Maybe it was the way the construction pylons were placed on the road that made it difficult to know where the lanes were.”
Shame-brain isn’t very good at holding space for mistakes. In fact, shame-brain turns all of those mistakes – even the ones that are very human, relatively harmless, and completely accidental – into monsters that have to be banished from the kingdom. Because those monsters are threats that might topple the foundation that the kingdom was built on.
From shame-brain’s perspective, mistakes are dangerous.
A mistake makes me question my own value, safety, and belonging. If I MAKE a mistake, perhaps it means that I AM a mistake. And if I’m a mistake, people will stop loving me. I will be abandoned. I’ll be lonely and unprotected. I’ll be a failure. I’l lose my place in society and I won’t be able to get a job or find love. Yes, shame-brain can take even the simplest mistakes to extreme consequences in an instant.
Mistakes are human. In fact, they’re important pieces of information that help us learn and grow. Consider a child who’s learning to ride a bike – when she falls a couple of times, she’ll realize that the action that resulted in the fall shouldn’t be replicated and she’ll adjust accordingly and probably do better the next time. The same is true in school. When a student makes a mistake on a spelling quiz, he will (hopefully) spell that word correctly the next time.
I think, though, that it’s actually in the school system that we begin to be taught that mistakes aren’t just valuable pieces of information that help us learn, they are punishable offences that brand us. When we make a mistake on a test, we rarely get a chance to try again. Instead, that test mark goes into our final grade and we live with the mark of those mistakes forever. Tests don’t teach us how to learn and grow – they teach us that the person who makes the least mistakes wins. (It was a great source of frustration for me, when I taught in a university setting, that so much emphasis was placed on how to get good grades rather than how to learn.)
This is accentuated by our legal system. Mistakes are rarely treated as opportunities for growth – they are offences punishable by law that often go onto your permanent record. Instead of offering opportunities for repair, restitution, and restoration, we pass out judgements and lock people behind bars. Three of my friends have recently navigated (or are currently navigating) the legal system with their sons whose offences occurred in their formative teen years. These young men (some of whose actions did, admittedly, harm other people) are not being taught repair and restitution. They are learning shame. They’re learning just how much they can be “banished from the kingdom” for making mistakes. The same is true for one my friends who has been living under the shadow of an unfair legal conviction that makes it difficult for her to sign a lease or get a job. She has told few people of this part of her story because of what she risks losing as a result. Some mistakes (or appearances of mistakes) are costly.
Shame, the way we in western, colonized cultures, experience and express it, is deeply rooted in a culture of dominance (ie. patriarchy, white supremacy, colonization, etc.). In a culture of dominance, the person who’s seen to be the least flawed (NOT the person who IS the least flawed, but who can rig the system to ensure that they are SEEN TO BE the least flawed), dominates. The person with the greatest amount of shame is oppressed. Shame is heaped on the people on the lower levels of the system – BIPOC, women, LGBTQ+, etc., so that they can be dominated. They’re locked up for minor offences, they’re shamed for wearing the wrong clothes or having sex with the wrong person, they’re blamed for their own poverty, they’re ostracized for contracting AIDS, etc.
“Perhaps the act of ‘psychological colonisation’ is simply the process of shaming another culture.” from this article
In a culture of shame, mistake monsters are easily created. In fact, nobody needs to create them for us. After a lifetime of social conditioning, we can be counted on to create those monsters all by ourselves. Nobody was in the car with me when I cut off the other driver – and yet, the mistake monster showed up quickly to haunt me.
In the Maori culture (according to this article by Anahera Gildea), shame is treated differently. “The root word for shame in English means ‘to cover oneself’. Like with blankets, maybe. Or mud. Or hatred. To be camouflaged in a thicket, on a bank, or in the darkness of the night. Māori do not hide their shame. Nor their grief. It is visible to themselves and others because it means they have become dislodged, disconnected, from their ‘whakapapa’ (loosely translated as ‘lineage’).”
Shame, then, in the Maori understanding, is not associated with punishable offences you can’t recover from, but a reminder of how your actions have disconnected you and how you now have an opportunity to be restored.
I am left wondering, when I consider the damage shame-brain and mistake monsters are doing to all of us in non-Indigenous, colonized cultures… how do we create a mistake culture – where mistakes aren’t monsters but friends? How do we shift attitudes away from “mistake as punishable offence” to “mistake as valuable information for growth”? How do we focus not on the danger of the mistake, but on the possibility for reconnecting ourselves?
What if we treated mistakes as “miss-takes”, the way we do when we’re taking photos?
Over the weekend, I went with my sister to visit the town where we grew up. Because they are such fleeting flowers and are so connected to our youth, we took dozens of photos of crocuses. Some of those photos were miss-takes – they came out blurry, the angle was wrong, or they were over-exposed. Those photos could later be deleted from our cameras. But they weren’t just miss-takes – they provided us with valuable information about how to change the angle, the light, or the focus. Those miss-takes helped us eventually take a few photos we were proud of. They helped us find greater connection with the crocuses and with the land on which we’ve wandered since we first learned to walk
In the Stó:lō Nation (Indigenous to Canada), their restorative justice practices are built on an understanding of mistakes as “miss-takes”. As in the Maori culture, they see the mistakes as signposts that indicate disconnection, and that point toward an opportunity for restoration and reconnection. They don’t, in fact, have a word for justice. Instead, Stó:lō Elders created the word Qwi:qwelstóm kwelam t’ ey (qwi:qwelstóm) – roughly translated as, “they are teaching you, moving you toward the good”. “It is a concept of ‘justice’ centered upon the family and reflects a way of life that focuses on relationships and the interconnectedness of all life. It has four key elements: ‘the role of Elders; the role of family, family ties, and community connections; teachings; and spirituality.’” Justice, in a culture like this, is not a system of punishment, it is a way of re-connecting those in conflict with their higher selves and their spiritual guides. (Source: Indigenous Centered Conflict Resolution Processes in Canada, by Nisha Sikka, George Wong, and Catherine Bell)
What if we decolonized our culture and we let the Stó:lō Nation and the Maori Nation teach us about justice systems that restore right relationships and bring people back to themselves? What if we recognized the flaws in the colonial system of “justice”, humbled ourselves, and became learners instead of colonizers? And what if we extended that learning beyond justice to our education systems? How would it change the learning environment if we changed our testing practices and treated mistakes as valuable pieces of information that helped a student come into the fullness of who they are and what they are capable of? What if we removed the sting of shame and accepted, instead, a collective responsibility for restoring the community?
Recently, I have witnessed some mistakes made by white spiritual/self-help teachers who lack an awareness of their social conditioning and unconscious bias. They are causing harm to people of colour (by images and words that they use and actions that they take), and when they do so, their first instinct is often to defend themselves and/or to hide their shame. They don’t yet understand that the impact of their mis-steps is more important than the intent, so they try to convince their followers that they are good people, worthy of continued admiration. They are afraid the mistakes will destroy them – banish them from the kingdom and leave them penniless.
I get it, I’ve been there too. I made a mistake once, while doing race relations work, and my shame reared up (just as it did when I cut off that person in traffic) and made me want to use every means possible to protect myself from the mistake monster. Luckily, I was working with people who were less interested in my mistake than in my continued efforts to seek reconciliation and restitution. The mistake did not kill me or banish me from the kingdom – it taught me and further shaped my work. Now, three years later, I am grateful for that mistake and the opportunities for growth it presented.
One of the most important things I learned (or re-learned) from that experience, is that mistakes are most valuable when they are brought into the light, discussed, apologized for, and learned from. A mistake that’s hidden turns into shame. A mistake that’s owned and repaired and/or apologized for turns into learning.
We are going to make mistakes. Accept that as a given. Especially if you’re doing work that challenges you, holding space for people in places where there may be power imbalances, deep wounds, trauma, racial injustice, grief, fear, etc., occasionally you’ll offend people, you’ll let your own triggered wounds take over your rational mind, and you’ll be blind to your social conditioning. Even when your best intentions are to be kind, your impact may be very different.
Go into this work expecting mistakes to happen. And sometimes those mistakes will mean that you have to bear someone’s anger or face rejection. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news – that’s simply part of this work. That’s why we all need lots of self-care and community-care – so that we won’t be destroyed when the winds threaten to blow us over.
Those mistakes don’t need to destroy us. They can become our teachable moments.
Instead of battling the mistake monster, we need to befriend him – take him under our wing and hold space for him until he’s brave enough to take off his monster mask and reveal that, underneath, he is “miss-take”, not monster. Once we do that, we can learn from the mistake, make reparations where we need to, and keep trying until we get it right. Eventually, the picture will emerge in focus and with the right amount of light.
The next time a mistake monster shows up, take a lesson from art therapy and draw a picture of him. Make him as ugly as you need him to be, but then give him soft eyes. Talk to that monster and let him know you’re willing to learn the lessons he has brought you. You will likely find that he will soften in the space that you hold for him.
* * * * *
If you want to learn more about how to hold space for your own mistakes and for others, consider signing up for Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, or join me in B.C. or the Netherlands.
I am fat. Let’s get that out of the way first. At least 60-70 pounds over what would be considered my “ideal weight”. Probably more, but I don’t own a scale.
I don’t love this about myself, but it’s part of my story. It has been, to varying degrees, all of my adult life.
Yes, there are reasons why I am fat. Maybe it’s thyroid related. Maybe it’s trauma related. Maybe it’s far too much self-soothing with food. Maybe it’s the way I always found it easier to value my brain over my body. Maybe it’s the religious shame that told me my body is a sin. Maybe it’s about me trying to protect myself from being raped again. Maybe it’s the pussy grabbing. Maybe it’s a lifelong battle against a patriarchal world that wants to label me, shame me, and force my body to conform. Maybe it’s all of those things.
Whatever it is, it’s my story. It’s the most visible story because I carry it with me every single day, but it’s also the hardest to talk about. It carries the most shame and fear of judgement, not because I think I’m bad or ugly or don’t love myself (I do), but because fat is one of the most unacceptable things to be in this image-obsessed world. It’s one of the hardest to live with, because there is always the assumption that it is “your fault”.
I’ve done enough public story-sharing to know that there will inevitably be those people who will read my story and judge me and/or want to fix me and send me the right diet, the right thyroid cure, the right books, the right self-love teachings, the right exercise plan, etc. They’ll tell themselves they’re doing it with my best interests at heart (don’t I want to live a long life? don’t I want to be a good influence for my children?), but they’re really not. They’re doing it because of their own discomfort with fatness.
And so I keep my fat stories close to my chest.
But this week, thanks to Roxane Gay, I feel differently. I feel like I want to add my voice to hers and say “We’re fat. Get over it.”
“Fat is not an insult. It is a descriptor. And when you interpret it as an insult, you reveal yourself and what you fear most.” – RG
Roxane Gay wrote a book called Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s high on my list of “must read soon”. In it she shares what it’s like to walk around in the world as a fat person.
Coming out with her story should be liberating and empowering for Roxane (and I hope it is, for the most part) but this week, she was fat-shamed by one of the interviewers who talked to her about the book. Mia Freedman introduced the podcast by talking about the detailed preparations that had to be made for Roxanne Gay to visit her recording studio. “Will she fit into the office lift? How many steps will she have to take to get to the interview? Is there a comfortable chair that will accommodate her six-foot-three, ‘super-morbidly obese’ frame?”
The article made my blood boil. An interviewer should be honoured and humbled that someone of Roxane Gay’s stature (and by that I don’t mean size) and wisdom would visit the program. She’s one of the finest writers I know of and the fact that she is willing to share her vulnerable stories with people should be seen as a gift beyond measure. To shame someone who has done that kind of emotional labour on other people’s behalf is unconscionable and downright disgusting.
I was angry, but I was also triggered. I haven’t been the target of such overt and public fat-shaming, but I know what it’s like to have people look at you funny if you dare to eat french fries in public. And I know how it feels to have people on planes glance at you with a look that says they’re hoping they’re not seated next to you. And I know what it’s like to be hesitant to ride your bicycle around the neighbourhood because you’re pretty sure people are judging you.
Here’s a newsflash in case this comes as a surprise… Fat people know they’re fat. And we don’t need pity or advice or judgement. And there is absolutely nothing a stranger could say to us that would suddenly make us able to change the size of our bodies. Every piece of advice on getting thinner is already available to us. Every bit of shame anyone’s tempted to heap on us, we’ve probably already heaped on ourselves.
We’re not fat because we’re not smart enough, don’t try hard enough, or haven’t been shamed enough for it. We’re fat because… well, because we’re fat. That’s about all anyone other then us and perhaps our most intimate circle of friends, family, or medical professionals (if we so choose) needs to know about us.
We might choose, like Roxane Gay, to offer up a story to help people understand why we’re fat, but we do not owe that story to anyone. When we choose to be vulnerable about it, that is our gift, not our obligation.
After reading the story about Mia Freedman, I watched an interview Roxane Gay did with Trevor Noah. In it she talked about how her weight started accumulating after she was gang-raped as a young teenager. And then she said something profound that goes beyond just a story about weight.
“People want a triumphant narrative. They want to know that you have solved the problem of your body. But my body is not a problem and it’s certainly not something I have solved yet.”
Indeed. We want the triumphant narrative. We want to hear stories of success – of how a simple diet or lifestyle change transformed someone’s life – so that we can believe that success is possible and there are neat bows that can be tied around a story to clean up the messy bits in the middle.
But we don’t always get the triumphant narrative. Sometimes we get continued struggle. And sometimes we get to a place of acceptance of what is rather than a triumph over it.
I have been struggling with that triumphant narrative this past year. Though I didn’t know it consciously, I had subconsciously bought into the typical health and wellness coaching narrative that leads us to believe that when we find contentment and healing in our lives and once we get rid of the external baggage that was weighing us down, we’ll start to lose pounds off our bodies as well. “Clear out the bad energy and your body will respond accordingly.”
I’m the happiest and healthiest I’ve been in a long time. A LOT has shifted for me emotionally in the two years since my marriage ended. I got rid of a lot of clutter (both physical and emotional) when I cleaned out and renovated my home. My business has grown and I’m doing work that I love and that I’m fulfilled by. I’ve been for therapy and I’ve done lots of energy and body healing work. I’m learning to pay attention to my body in new ways. I’m in such a good place, I almost feel guilty sometimes about how good my life is.
But… I am also the heaviest I’ve ever been. Heavier than I was when I was pregnant with my daughters. And that doesn’t make sense in a world that wants a triumphant narrative.
There’s a part of me that doesn’t know how to square that away in my mind. Shouldn’t all of that effort to heal my emotional wounds result in a slimmer body? If I gained the weight because of the trauma and wounds, shouldn’t it come off now?
But there’s another part of me – the part that has sat at the bedside and watched my mother die, the part that held my dead son’s body in my arms, and the part that knows that rapists climb through windows – that knows that the triumphant narrative is, more often than not, bull shit.
Sure we get triumph sometimes, but we also get pain and failure.
Perhaps the direct correlation between the healing and the weight loss is just another one of those marketing stories the health coaches want to sell us. Maybe it’s a lot more complicated than that. Otherwise… wouldn’t Oprah, with all of her experts and money, have figured out how to keep it all off permanently by now?
What I keep coming back to is this… Acceptance and resilience are worth a lot more than triumph.
Sure, triumph is flashy and alluring, but acceptance and resilience are a lot more valuable in the long run. Acceptance and resilience bring contentment and teach us how to get through the fire the next time it comes.
That’s the part I’m working on. I am accepting this fat body that still loves to ride a bicycle through the neighbourhood. I am accepting the amazing way this body knows how to birth babies even when they’re dead. I am accepting the pain this body is capable of holding. I am accepting the fact that this body loves pleasure and comfort and good food and good wine. I am accepting the way it feels when my beloveds wrap their arms around this body. And I am accepting the fact that there are still emotional wounds that this body is holding that may take all of my life to heal.
Because this body may be fat, but this body is also powerful and fierce and has climbed mountains, wielded hammers, birthed babies, carried canoes, held crying children, hiked through forests, slept on the bare ground, skinny-dipped in wild lakes, made love, survived rape, and rode horses.
And this body will continue to do all those things for as long as she can no matter how much judgement comes her way.
“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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Last week, after facilitating a retreat for a client in Sedona, I talked about how the shadow shows up in a group, and I promised that I’d also talk about how the shadow shows up in me. Now is that time.
This is going to be personal. It’s also going to be a little hard, because the shadow is all of that stuff that I don’t want you to see in me. That’s why it’s called the shadow – because I’d rather keep all of that uncomfortable stuff tucked away out of the light.
The more I address the shadow, however, and the more I bring my own weaknesses and shame into the light, the less power it has over me and the more I am able to transform it into growth and gift.
Some surprising things came up in the group in Sedona and the experience brought up some old stories about my own ability to hold space well. As is often the case when we introduce circle work to a group of people who are unaccustomed to facing each other and unaccustomed to the deeper conversations circle invites (and perhaps don’t have enough time to do the circle justice), resistance shows up. Sometimes people leave the group, sometimes they sabotage what’s going on, and sometimes they simply don’t engage and cause the space to feel less safe for the other people there.
When this resistance shows up, it can trigger me and bring up old stories of unworthiness. The shadow singers in my head begins to repeat some old choruses of “You’re an imposter and everyone in the room sees through you.” or “You’re not very good at handling conflict.” or “This stuff is silly and not important enough for people to care.”
Early in this work, when these triggers showed up, I would do one of three things: consider walking away and leaving this work to the “real professionals”, get defensive and push back on those who’d resist (and sometimes – I hate to say it – become downright unkind to the resisters), or become overly accommodating to make sure everyone was happy.
It has taken a lot of personal work to address this shadow in me. That work is not finished and it may never be. (Check back with me when I’m 90.)
Even when I’d come home discouraged from a workshop or retreat, though, I knew that I was committed to this work and that there were things I needed to learn from the rough spots. Every one of those resisters served as a teacher for me. Every one of them helped me see something I needed to address in order to rise stronger than I was before. As I reflect back, I try to extend gratitude for each of those people who have helped me learn.
As I’ve written about before, it is essential for anyone holding space for other people – whether it’s our employees, children, friends, clients, parents, or partners – to practice holding space for ourselves first. When we do this, the shadow has less power over us and we are less triggered when the resistance or the old stories show up.
Contemplative practices and rituals help us release anger, frustration, self-doubt, etc., and stay present in the now. Gentle self-care helps us revive our energy and strength and reminds us that we are worthy. Self-inquiry (through journaling, art practice, etc.) helps us detach from what others think of us and learn to tell new stories that re-shape the experience.
Most importantly, we must practice seeing both ourselves and the people who trigger us through the eyes of compassion.
When we see through the eyes of compassion, the resister in the circle or the person who triggers us is no longer “the idiot who’s trying to sabotage our work” but “the person who is dealing with something in his life that is making this hard right now” or “the person whose background/culture/education/trauma has taught her that this is not a place of safety”.
When we see through the eyes of compassion, our own response to the trigger is not “a sign of weakness”, it is “an opportunity to learn something about ourselves”.
While I was in Sedona, I tried to practice what I preach. I did a lot of journaling, I sat by the creek and went for walks as the sun came up over the red rocks, and I was as gentle as I could be with myself and those I was with. When I came home, I continued to hold space for myself by taking naps, going to a movie, and having lots of intentional conversations that helped me unpack the week before.
Unfortunately, though, (or perhaps fortunately, depending on perspective) my learning wasn’t over. When I landed back home, I had to deal with several challenges that continued to trigger me. A conflict arose with a family member, a critique from a friend made me wonder if I was more arrogant than I cared to admit, and some of my parenting methods were called into question. It felt like all of my flaws were being spread out on the kitchen table and I was being forced to look at them one by one. And there came that old voice again “what do you REALLY know about holding space? You’re failing on all counts. You’re a fraud.”
It wasn’t a fun place to be, but I continued to do my best to dive into the learning that was being offered. What I realized was this…
It takes both humility and confidence to do the work of holding space. Humility and confidence may seem like opposites, but, like the yin-yang symbol, they work together to keep us grounded and balanced.
The challenging thing about humility and confidence, though, is that they both have a shadow side that gets in the way when we don’t pay attention. On the shadow side of humility is shame and on the shadow side of confidence is arrogance. Shadow sometimes tries to masquerade as light, and so we can become arrogant or ashamed when we’re trying to be confident or humble. Both arrogance and shame hide our true light and cause us to sabotage relationships rather than grow them.
My work, in the last two weeks, has been to practice being humble enough to admit my failings, apologize where necessary, and accept responsibility for the consequences of my actions. It has also been to practice being confident enough to know that some of what I’m tempted to call failures were actually successes and that the work I do continues to have an impact when I get my own ego out of the way.
It’s been an intense couple of weeks, and now (as is so often the case) I’m getting a chance to teach exactly what I’m learning. This weekend, I’ll be teaching a workshop for a client on the theme of holding space. The participants of the workshop are all people who hold space for family members with operational stress injuries (specifically those who’ve served in military combat). I am humbled that I get the chance to work with these people, because I am sure that many of them have learned much more than I have about what it takes to hold space in difficult circumstances. I hope that I can bring them some encouragement and inspiration.
And I hope that you too will be gentle with yourself as you peer into your own shadow and dare to step forward with confidence and humility.
Note: I hope to offer more workshops like this, so if you know of clients who could use support in this area, please pass my name on to them or send me your suggestions. I will also be creating some offerings (both online and off) that will be available to anyone who’s interested. Stay tuned.
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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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