Saturday, June 25, 2011

Shame on You!
How We Use Shame to Control Others

I just started reading  Brene Brown's book I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power. Brene is a "shame researcher", and the book is about how people - particularly women - experience shame. Within two pages I started to remember shaming incidents that happened when I was a child. This post isn't mean to be about blaming daddy and mommy, but to point out how most of us use shame to some extent or other as an attempt to control other people.

One incident that is very mild but for some reason has always stuck with me was this one: I was about 12 or 13, and I was sitting at our kitchen table with my dad, eating a slice of apple pie that my mom had made. She makes really good apple pie, and before I knew it, I had inhaled it, wolfed it down, snarfed it. It was like there had never been any pie there. My dad, still eating his piece, said something shaming about how quickly I had eaten the pie. I can't remember what he said, exactly, but I remember feeling a hot wave of shame course through me, which I can still feel when I think back on it. Even now, when I'm eating with others, I time my consumption to the people around me, so as not to finish faster than they do. When I do clean my plate faster, I feel slightly ashamed again.  And when I see other people eat quickly, or take the last piece of a shared plate of food, I sometimes feel arrogant towards them, like they should be ashamed of themselves. I don't usually say anything, but I still feel it. That incident with my dad taught me that people who eat too quickly are pigs and are shameful.

I only recount this scene to show how effective shame can be in teaching others the lessons we think they should learn. Shaming works.  Unless the person we're trying to shame really could care less what we think of her, almost everyone will respond to shaming in some way, although it will almost never be in  way that nourishes the relationship between the shamer and the shamee.  Shame makes us feel terrible, like we're horrible people, broken, worthless, and disgusting. And when someone shames us, we lose respect for that person. Shaming, like sarcasm, is easy but damaging.

Brene defines shame as "the intense painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging."We are probably wired to feel shame because it keeps us in line with the rules of our society. When we break or flaunt the rules, we may be ostracized, which could mean death or at the very least, disconnection, which can feel worse than death. So the reason that shame works so well is because we're wired to connect to and to seek acceptance from others, and shame effectively withdraws that acceptance and connection. But, as the apple pie incident shows us, shame can embed itself in us deeply. Shaming words may never be forgotten, and shaming others, though it may be effective for behavior change, damages them and lowers us in their esteem. Who wants to be around someone who tries to make them feel ashamed?

I started to think about how shame has worked in my life, incidents where I felt shamed and where I attempted to shame. I can still remember trying to shame an old boyfriend into wearing slacks instead of jeans to a friend's wedding. I remember how another old boyfriend, during an e-mail exchange in which he was angry with me, ended one e-mail with an out-of-context PS that read "Oh, by the way, you should consider brushing your teeth more often. Your breath stinks."   Though I knew he had meant it to shame me, and I checked with friends who said they hadn't noticed that I consistently had bad breath, I'm still hyper-conscious of my breath to this day and notice that I sometimes cover my mouth or turn my head away when speaking to others. The shaming worked.

There are many different ways we shame others: Sarcasm, name-calling, expressing disgust, and eye-rolling are all ways we communicate that someone else is not worthy of our respect. Shaming behaviors make us feel superior to that other person, as well as communicate to them that we wish they'd be or act differently, without us having to actually talk to them in an adult way and taking responsibility for our own feelings. The same way teasing is so often rooted in hostility, shame takes its energy from judgment and self-righteousness.  Shame, in whatever form it takes, is a way to control the other person by using their deeply ingrained need for connection to threaten them with disconnection. It's genius. And nefarious.

The best weapon against shame is empathy. If we tune in to our empathy, our ability to understand how it might feel to be in someone else's shoes, we can understand how painful it is to hear shaming words. If we've resolved not to cause harm to others, we can use this empathy as a way to turn off the instinct to shame others, and as a reminder to choose kinder words when we need to communicate. We can practice the art of checking our words before speaking them, especially when we feel disgust, anger, or hurt. Are the words we are about to say necessary, helpful, and true? If not, then we can choose not to say them.

I'm sure all of us can remember at least one incident where we felt shamed, and where we've shamed others. As part of building a kinder, gentler world, can we all resolve to refrain from shaming others and to discuss their shaming behaviors with those who are important to us who use shame as an attempt to control us? Sure, we probably can't eliminate shaming behaviors, but we can become aware of them and of how damaging they can be.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Coming Unstuck
Painting by Mark Zillman (see below)
We hear a lot about the pain of samsara, and we also hear about liberation. But we don't hear much about how painful it is to go from being completely stuck to becoming unstuck. The process of becoming unstuck requires tremendous bravery, because basically we are completely changing our way of perceiving reality, like changing our DNA.
--Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

 Sometimes I really envy people who don't seem to think too much about their experience, who they are, what they've done, where they're going, and why they're here. Even though I know an unexamined life means that people tend to make the same mistakes over and over, and that true growth means paying attention and thinking about these things, sometimes it just gets tiring. When I get tired of all the turmoil and change (one and the same thing?), I envy the people who don't seem to care too much, who slough off the past pains and disappointments and move on, seemingly without a backwards glance. 

I know that in the above quote, Pema is talking about stuckness and unstuckness in relation to enlightenment, but for me, the quote really rings true when applied to 'normal' stuckness, too.

Right now, I'm in the midst of great change. After 3 years of struggling to make a situation work, I've finally realized (much later than many people in my life) that it will never work, and that I have to move on. I feel like I shouldn't be writing about this anymore, which probably means I should be. I started this blog to record my actual experiences, not the experiences that I'm 'supposed' to have, and self-censorship doesn't serve that purpose. The truth is that I still struggle everyday with a combination of relief that I'm not longer in the situation and intense longing to be back there. Anger and sadness dance in my head. Self-righteousness and self-doubt. Acceptance and a childlike refusal to accept the inevitable. This morning at 5:30, I woke up and missed my old life - my old lover - immensely. The strange thing is that I hadn't wanted to go to sleep the night before, because I think I knew this was going to come up. Things have been going fairly well for me, I haven't been missing things so much, and then it hit me hard again, at 5:30, the way the cravings for something we're addicted to will hit without warning and all we can do is cling on to something and take deep breaths until the craving leaves us.

The pain of coming unstuck from this situation is what I think of when I opened When Things Fall Apart the other day and read Pema's quote. Becoming unstuck, for me, means feeling the pain, the discomfort, the longing, the confusion, and the regret, and not doing anything about it. Not trying to solve the problem, not trying to fix anything. This is in stark contrast to what I've done up to this point, always trying to rationalize, discuss, fix everything. Hoping that something would finally work, would somehow make the situation something it could never be. Becoming unstuck means facing mistakes I've made, means wondering if it's all my fault, means gently reminding myself to come back to the moment when my mind wanders off, telling stories about who did what and whose fault it was.

Coming unstuck means finally, fully realizing my own patterns and reactions and how they contributed to things, means finally, fully committing to changing those patterns in the future, and it also means grieving those patterns, those old ways of being.  

Coming unstuck means sitting in a sort of limbo-land, means not knowing anymore what I used to think I knew: exactly what I wanted out of a relationship, exactly what I wanted my life to be. It means being uncertain, not knowing if I'm doing the right thing, but trusting what my gut tells me. I means knowing that the mornings will be hard for me, and going to sleep anyway. It means waking up every day and accepting what arises, then doing the things I need to do despite the discomfort. It means appreciating the small joys and triumphs, knowing that they don't give the same pleasure as the addictive thing, but that their pleasure is healthier, for being more subtle. It means training myself to enjoy these subtle wonders in the same way I enjoyed the intense and dramatic joys of my old life, the way we train ourselves to eat carrot sticks instead of potato chips.  

But it's true what Pema says: we don't often hear about this aspect of things. Grief is supposed to last for a certain amount of time. Then we're supposed to adjust, recover, buck up, move on, and don't look back. This limbo place of putting one foot in front of the other and of letting our emotions come up and out of us, all of them, no matter what, day after day, hour after hour, not knowing when things will shift or if they ever will, this is what it takes to become unstuck. This feeling the painful ambivalence and looking forward, doing things that will take us into our future, even when so much of us cries out for things to be the way they were. This hearing people tell us we should be over things by now, and knowing that it's not so simple, and, most importantly, being okay with where we are in the process. That's what it takes to get there.

I'm impatient, I want to get on with things. But things will not be gotten on with on anyone else's time but their own. In fact, the impatience probably makes the process take longer. Coming unstuck means being patient, even when every fiber in our being screams to be away from all this muddy smelly confusion, angst, and doubt, when our internal critic echoes what all the self-help books (and the ex-) say: it's taking too long! Get over it already!

Have you ever dropped jam on yourself and discovered it hours later, but by then it's gotten all over the place? That's how it is to come unstuck. The stuckness shows up in places I would never have guessed. How on earth did it get there? I wonder. But I patiently (well, sometimes patiently) clean that spot as best I can, remove the stickiness, and hope that each time I find a stuck place, it's one of the last.


The painting above is my Mark Zillman (

Friday, June 17, 2011

Why I Can't Help But Feel Compassion

This morning, for some reason, I was thinking about a community of people with whom I never seemed to fit in, and with whom I'm no longer involved. There were several people in this community who had taken a disliking to me for various reasons, and it was extraordinarily difficult for me to accept that. I can't stand it when people don't like me, especially when they don't bother to try and mend the wounds, or even communicate about why they have a problem with me. I hate not knowing why. Even now, and maybe especially now, that I'm no longer involved with them, I still find myself thinking back and wondering: what did I do wrong? I think about whether they're glad I'm gone, and about whether they still gossip about me in the kitchen the way they used to do when I was around, whether they roll their eyes when my name comes up.  Thinking about this curdles my blood, makes me tense, makes me angry and sad.

At the same time, I'm conscious of my own judgments about certain people in this community. The lady who thinks I jammed a screw into her tire is obviously a total nutjob. The ones who gossiped about me and were talking about me in other groups are clearly disturbed. It was so obvious that she was jealous of my relationship with X.

This line of thought always brings me, eventually, to thinking about all the mistakes I made in that time of my life, all the stumbles. As I usually do when I find myself erupting in judgment of others, I came back to: Well, I've done that, too. I've made accusations, gossiped, been jealous. 

So after awhile of this merry-go-round of dysfunction, I came back to one thought: Ugh. We're all messed up. 

I wonder sometimes if people who aren't intimately familiar with their own difficult natures can actually feel true compassion for others. Compassion is the act of forgiving someone for not being perfect, but we can only feel compassion from a place of knowing that we, ourselves, are not perfect. We understand our own struggles with mood, with anger, with inattention, with procrastination, with jealousy, and we look at others who display their struggles, and we say "Oh, I know how that feels." That's compassion.  If we believed that we had never made a mistake or acted in a less-than-perfect way, would we still be able to feel compassion?

I can't help but feel compassion because I'm so familiar with my own struggles that judging someone else for theirs,  just seems unjust. Oh, I'll be judgmental just as much as the next person, but usually, eventually, I catch myself with the thought: "Oh, I've done that." When I can drop my own story about it, I can feel the heat of anger, jealousy, unkindness, hatred, loneliness, pain, despair, and my soul says "Yes. I've been there."

The challenge for me is to be compassionate towards myself. I can be compassionate towards the gossipers, the jealous ones, and the delusional ones, even if their treatment of me still hurts. It's forgiving myself for being the target of their gossip or misguided accusations that's hard. And the funny thing is that I get judgmental about others who don't exhibit compassion and forgiveness towards me ("Right, like you've never had a bad day or acted in a way you regret!" I'd like to say to them), but when I don't exhibit compassion towards myself, that's perfectly fine. It's that same old cliche: we're our own worst critics. Although I've never accused myself of jamming a screw through my tire.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Hearts Made to Repair Themselves

When I saw the recent headline on BBC's website "Hearts made to repair themselves", I misunderstood the topic of the article and immediately clicked on it. It turned out to be an article about how a new drug can prompt the heart to repair itself after a heart attack. Even though it didn't say what I was hoping it would say, which is that hearts were already naturally designed to heal themselves, I still found myself thinking "Wow, if they could make a drug that did that for heartbreak, they'd make millions."

On thinking about it, though, I realized: hearts are designed to naturally, albeit perhaps slowly, heal themselves. Think about a heartbreak - whether romantic or otherwise - that happened to you in the past. Think about how painful it was in the beginning, and how it feels now, years later. Even if it's still somewhat tender, chances are that it's not nearly as painful as it once was, and that you've managed to move on in most ways in your life. You've found other partners or lovers, you've gotten a new job, you've developed a life in spite of a bad childhood, abusive parents, or other major traumas, you've been able to laugh again, enjoy yourself, and even to forget about the pain much of the time.

One thing we do know about heartbreak is that we can't feel it if we don't have a heart. And if we have a heart, it will be broken, often stunned, sometimes for years, with the pain of something that went wrong. But for most of us, slowly, determinedly, incrementally, the heart grows strong again, sometimes even against our will. There have been times after breakups when I started to feel a bit better, and actually didn't want to, because it meant that I was truly letting go of that old relationship. It almost seemed to indicate that that old relationship hadn't been important, if it could be gotten over. But the heart wants to feel whole again, and if we let it be, it will. We can inhibit this healing process by letting ourselves stew in grief, anger, self-pity, or stories about how wonderful things were back then, the way a wound will fester if we don't clean it out, remove the foreign bodies, and change the bandages regularly.

I just came back from New Orleans, where people are still traumatized from Katrina, still lose sleep, still experience panic and anxiety, incredible grief, anger, stress and heartbreak, are still facing the devastating effects of this national tragedy, such as the loss of loved ones, jobs, money, career, and family heirlooms,  not to mention a trust in the systems they thought would never fail them. But even with this incredible amount of loss, there is still music to be played and enjoyed, wonderful food to be cooked and eaten, weddings to be celebrated, art to create, and futures to mold. The people have survived an ordeal, but they still laugh, even if the laughter is slower to come now.

As with any physical wound, if we care for our hearts - both physically and emotionally - they will heal and become strong again, ready to take risks again, ready to see the beauty and the joy around us again.  I still think if drug manufacturers could make a drug that would do this for us, they'd make millions, but maybe something would be lost if we could immediately forget our pain, the way the characters in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind realized that they didn't want to give up their memories of their love even though things didn't work out. In order to feel the joy, we must open ourselves to the pain. But, luckily, hearts are meant to heal themselves, and they will, if we let them.

Friday, June 10, 2011
True Romance

My ex- and I used to butt heads over the fact that I need a partner to be honest and open and to tell me what he wants from me, while he feels it should be implied and not explicit, because that’s more romantic. I have never been good at playing the mating game, which is probably why I’m still single, and why I gravitate towards online dating. I hate trying to guess what someone’s motives are and then having to decide how to send the message I want to send without actually just saying it. This is doubly true because I’m really not good at reading or sending these subtle cues.

Recently, this came up with a new male friend, who I believe is interested in me. He put his arm around me as we sat by the river, touched my back, and wanted me to take his hand as we walked. And all of this made me uncomfortable. Not only because I’m not romantically interested in this man, but because I knew he knew I knew what he was doing, but I didn’t know how to respond. I moved away slightly, but this felt rude to me. Yet I didn’t feel like I could just say “Hey, I notice you’re touching me affectionately, but I don’t feel like that about you.” This seemed like it would just cut him down unnecessarily, and in the past when I've been that honest, the other people have expressed hurt. At the same time, I didn't just want to hold his hand and to respond to his caresses to be nice because I've also done that, and had people think I was interested when I wasn't. So I was stuck: there didn't seem to be any proper response. In the end, I just did nothing, and he seemed to get the hint. But the whole exchange seemed strange to me. Why can't two adults be honest with one another?

I was thinking about my male friends in considering what to write about this issue, and realize that the men I feel the safest with are men to whom I feel I can speak my truth. When we can speak honestly and truthfully (which also means respectfully: one can speak difficult truths gently and with compassion), then there’s no guesswork, no anxiety about what’s really going on, no discomfort or tension about what might be unspoken. To me, the idea of being able to be totally honest with a lover is supremely romantic: that myself and a lover or potential lover can feel free to express our love, emotions, and sensuality with openness, and not be worried about saying the wrong thing: how can that be anything but romantic?

I can see where the game-playing – the subtle cues and the dance of touch and glance – can be supremely exciting, and I’ve enjoyed those moments, too. But I don’t feel that they have to be mutually exclusive with honesty and openness, we just have to choose our times. Recently, I experience an intense evening of flirting and sexual energy with a man I had just met. I've never felt anything like it. It was magical, yet there were ethical issues that I felt we had to deal with before we could consummate our feelings for one another. Unfortunately it seems like that cooled the flames, and now I doubt we will see one another again. But if I had ignored those issues, I would have felt awful after the sex, and this would have poisoned anything that might have blossomed between us, not to mention my self-respect and my relationship with another friend. To me, the perfect dance is one of passion and honesty, subtle cues and openness, a dark, hot glance and the respect of full disclosure. As in everything in life, the balance is hard to strike, but I know it can happen. I regain hope when I think about the men in my life who are willing to go there. They are few, but they’re the brave ones.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Coming Home

Traveling is a study in movement. When we arrive at a place, we immediately get to work inhabiting it. We expand into it: we unpack, we take up residence. Whether it's a house, an apartment, a hotel room, or a campsite, we move out into it, we expand to the size of our space; with our things, with our presence. When we leave, we contract. Slowly, our things disappear from the space, and we're like a turtle going back into our shell. And when we look around and notice that it's as if we were never there, it's strangely comforting and disturbing all at the same time. We sit in that quiet empty space and wait until it's time to go. Our things are all packed and orderly. We may never come there again, may never look at those floors, those windows, those ugly prints on the wall, ever again. Others will come after us, will expand into the space and then contract, and then leave, and others after them. But we'll have no knowledge of that. We'll be somewhere else, in some other space, expanding to fit it.

I come home, and it's like I never left. The cats, who have had other company for a month, recognize me immediately and come to be stroked, as they didn't with their other caretakers. They demand that we return to our old routines. 

The place I left was 95 degrees every day, and here it's 60 and cloudy. In New Orleans, I kept having to explain to people that California wasn't all sun and beaches, that northern California was actually cool and foggy in the summer, and that it had been raining here for weeks. "Oh," they would inevitably say. It's so much quieter here: no garbage and delivery trucks going by at all hours, no partiers and workers walking through the narrow streets, their voices echoing off the buildings. No sounds of ship horns, no calliope (thank god!) I wonder if I'll remember how to drive my car, or how to get to work, but of course these things are all so ingrained in me that they can never be forgotten. Body memory will take over. I missed driving, and I look forward to once again getting behind the wheel. 

The one thing I don't look forward to is explaining my trip to people. "How was your trip?" They'll say. And I won't know how to answer. "It was great!" is what I'll probably say. And it was, of course. It was wondrous, fun, exciting, interesting. I got reenergized to write my novel at the same time that the book I went there to write has seemingly died on the vine. On the other hand, I didn't write as much as I wanted to and never really got into a writing groove. I ate wonderful food, (and got food poisoning on my last day), listened to fabulous music (and got sidetracked more than once and didn't make it to music I was intending to see), explored a town that I love (and realized how the people there are struggling emotionally), met interesting people (and remembered that people can sometimes be total shits), and, as always, rode the waves of emotion the way I always will (both the difficult and the wonderful).  But how do you explain that?

I think I expect that people will want to see that I've changed in some obvious way, even a temporary way like being suntanned. I am, a bit, but when you're in 95-degree weather, you don't hang out in the sun. Will I seem more relaxed? Or more stressed after traveling home while suffering from food poisoning?  

There is no succinct explanation available for a monthlong trip away from most things familiar, and I dread getting stuck in that cliche of saying "Oh, it was a wonderful trip!" when things are so much more complex than that. 

Friends and family who visited me have written e-mails to me despairing of the culture shock they experienced when they returned here, sad to be gone from New Orleans, worrying about how I will adjust. But I don't feel sad to be back. Leaving our world is exciting and interesting, but hopefully, it makes us appreciate our world a little. Now, my stuff sits in piles, waiting to be unpacked. The suitcase is on the floor, spilling over, clothes waiting to be sorted into clean, dirty, gifts. Friends need to be called, work needs to be done. Was I ever even gone? But the question: "How was your trip?" proves that I was gone, reminds me to keep my head out of the routine for just a little bit longer. And for that I'm grateful.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

2 am Thunderstorm Thoughts

Thunder woke me at 2 am. I had seen the sheet lightning in the distance earlier as I sat in a balcony bar overlooking St. Ann and Dauphine Streets, occasional bright blue flashes to the east that could have been from someone’s flash camera but were not. When the storm came, I had been sleeping lightly, anyway, tossing and turning amid twisted sheets. The thunder had overcome the noise of the air conditioner by my bed, rolling over the city like a tidal wave of sound. I clambered out of bed and padded out into the living room to shut the windows against any possible deluge. Returning to the bedroom, I opened the curtains to the window by the bed. In California, we don’t have thunder and lighting, and they’re fascinating to me. Back in bed, I heard people in the streets, walking and biking by, trying to get home before the rain.

I’m used to being alone, and had been alone in this apartment for several days, but for some reason, 2 am aloneness is different. Suddenly, the loneliness felt palpable, and along with it came a sort of unrelenting, generalized fear. The sky flashed, but no rain came. It was like the tension between two lovers when you know there’s going to be a fight, but it hasn’t happened yet. To calm myself, I counted the number of people in town that I knew and could call on if I needed help, and came up with the impressive number of six, four whose numbers I had in my phone and two where I knew where they hung out. That made me feel better. Counting your blessings is always a helpful exercise. The normal panic thoughts tried to come: “why am I alone here?” for one, but I ignored them. I knew them for 2 am thunderstorm thoughts, and not for the truth they tried to convince me they were.  

The next day, I had plans: to do yoga, to meet a friend for beignets, to visit the Katrina memorial, to write, and to go see some last music before I leave on Monday.  Not the life of a lonely woman. I rolled over, away from the window, closed my eyes as purple flashes played across the ceiling, and fell asleep.

And the rain never came.