So one way of looking at shame is as the emotional experience of submission. The other way of looking at it is as the fear of a loss of connection to other people: that if I do this or think this or feel this, other people will no longer be able to understand me. And these ways of looking at it are connected: people tend to approach moments of difference and loss of connection as a threat, so that they display positions of dominance and submission in order to navigate the feeling of threat.
A part of this is the feeling of surprise: someone behaves differently or thinks differently than we expect, and we feel surprised. If we like that surprise, then the feeling might evolve into delight. Think about travelling or being exposed to a new culture (for you).
If you don’t like the surprise, then it can lead towards contempt and disgust, ridicule and judgment. Those are behaviours of dominance.
Anyway, today I was thinking about shame in terms of the fear of loss of connection. I’m still reading this book, Daring Greatly, and it has made more sense to me than maybe anything else I have ever read.
One key point of it is that was sometimes approach feelings of vulnerability by trying to never land ourselves in situations where we might have them. We might approach shame by trying never to end up in situations where we might feel shame, and it’s deadening to do that.
I’m going to try to be perfect, so I never need to face judgment. I am going to be completely competent, so that I never need help or have to risk being refused help. I am going to tell myself the universe will care for me so that I don’t have to face my uncertainty about the future.
I was in the kitchen yesterday making dinner. I was making North African food. This is meaningful for me. It’s a connection to the past, however vague, that is powerful for me. My friend came into the kitchen to do some things. I can’t really remember what. She was sweeping up in the livingroom, and walking through the kitchen to throw the dog hair in the rubbish bin.
I felt terrified. It was incredibly difficult to keep track of where I was in making three different dishes while managing my terror. I thought I feel vulnerable. That’s what this is about. That’s why this is so terrifying. I am displaying a part of myself not meant for public consumption that I don’t expect her to understand–if she feels something positive about what I am doing, it will be the delight of something unexpected, and that’s alienating and painful for me.
I thought she’s doing completely legitimate things. I didn’t say anything about my discomfort. She swept and eventually went away. The terror stayed with me a long time and probably because of that, nothing I made turned out right.
The weirder thing is I was writing this, and she came at the precise moment the laundry finished up and asked if it was done–my room is next to the laundry room, and I had finally thrown a load in after a morning of the washer being occupied. I heard the washer stop and I thought, I’ll wrap up this sentence and then take care of it.
The terror was the same as it was in the situation I was writing about. I have some thoughts about this. But for right now I’ll just comment that it’s weird.
Anyway, I have thought the parts have something to do with this avoidance of vulnerability.
Sometime in the night, I suppose it was at bedtime, I thought in response to my nighttime sadness, I feel vulnerable. That’s why I feel this way. As an adult, the moment of sleep is vulnerable. Of course, it is. It’s the moment of completely letting down one’s guard and losing awareness of the world.
Vulnerability is not the exclusive province of children. Adults feel vulnerable about different things, but they still find themselves in situations of uncertainty, when risks are necessary, and when they don’t quite know what might happen next. They still feel worried about losing connection to others. They feel ashamed and guilty and lonely. Adults feel all of those things.
I imagined these as the exclusive province of child parts, because I did not think as an adult it was acceptable for me to feel these things. I don’t think, as a child, I realized the adults in my life did feel these things. Everyone was so busy trying to stay safe and trying to cope with difficult emotions by avoiding moments when they might not feel safe, that they behaved as though they had no idea what feelings of vulnerability might entail. I mean they vacillated between moments of overwhelm and what on earth are you talking about? I can’t even relate to your feelings of vulnerability, because my own are shoved down so far inside me.
I have been realizing with C and in my classroom, I really have to dig into myself in order to imagine their experiences. Even though they may not be the same circumstances, I have to tap into the box of circumstances in which I felt the emotions they are feeling. Sometimes this is really difficult, and it’s probably more difficult for me than for someone with a less painful life, because that box of painful feelings is just so painful.
But if I don’t do that, if I can’t reach inside myself to the moments when I felt like the same emotions they are having, I can’t relate to them or help them. My ability to imagine their experience and provide connection and support to them breaks down, and I lose the ability to empathize with them. To connect to other people, I have to stay connected to myself, and that is sometimes very hard.
I’ll give an example. A kid in my 6th period just asked me when mother’s day was. Now, he’s a happy, stable, cooperative kid. There’s a good chance he’s asking simply because he doesn’t want to forget to do something for his mom.
If I reach into my Mother’s Day box, I have foster mom is gone, my mother is a lost cause, I had a miscarriage and I’m not a mom to my baby because it died, I am mothering a child in another country with a traumatic past I wonder how to mother on a daily basis. It’s a shitty box.
It also has nothing to do with what is most likely in his box. We aren’t bonding over similar traumas. It’s a simple question.
But if I refuse to open up that box for a second and feel whatever is in it however briefly, and I instead resort to numbing, I also lose my connection to this kid. You cannot selectively numb. I can answer him on autopilot, but I lose that faint spark of joy involved in interacting with human beings.
Those sparks of joy are what carries us through the hard times. If I am numbing myself through the good times, there is nothing to get me through the hard times, and life becomes overwhelmingly bleak.
In the last few years, I have really changed my attitude, and now it feels completely the opposite of what my assumptions were about being psychologically healthy ten years ago. I am no longer trying to put the past behind me. I am not trying to avoid the loss of connection that comes with having a past that’s different from others and might be difficult for them to understand. I am reaching into it in order to help myself understand the experiences of others and to forge connections to them.
This doesn’t always mean confiding in anyone or off-loading my intense emotions on others. It means something quieter. It just means I see someone who seems to be feeling hopeless, and I reach into myself to those moments when I have felt hopeless even if those moments of hopelessness involve unimaginably horrifying experiences so that when I interact with that person, I can approach them with the dignity that comes from knowing I have been there too. It sucked. I hated it. I don’t want to ever go to that place again, but I have been there and I know what it’s like.
It doesn’t mean saying, “Hey, I know how you’re feeling. When my sex trafficked girlfriend got murdered I felt the same way.” It just means if that’s what happens to cross my mind in the context of hopelessness, I cope with that. I let the emotion of hopelessness flicker through me even though it’s painful, so that the person I am talking to can see that I get it and they aren’t entirely alone.
I think this is what healing looks like. It’s when you realize actually it’s possible people around me can’t understand my experiences and because of that they respond to my need for connection in the face of my pain by acting like I am defective. Because people do. We see people we don’t understand as being defective, generally. That doesn’t mean I am defective. It doesn’t mean I need to become someone like I might have been had the trauma never occurred. What I need is to be able to stay connected to myself and to others, by understanding my own experiences and using that as a springboard for understanding others’.
I did that this week. On Thursday, we had a meeting–which I think I mentioned–with the kid and her mom who has been failing basically everything. The person who called the meeting–her counselor? I came in late, it was a really hectic day–said if she were going through what the kid were going through, she wouldn’t be able to sit in class and concentrate. She offered the opportunity to take breaks, not really thinking she’s offering avoidance as a solution, and she’s also not really thinking how it feels to be a 14-year-old girl allowed to leave class whenever she wants to when no one else is. This is not a neutral solution.
I am not saying there is a perfect solution, but I did think, the counselor as well-meaning as she is has never thought how it feels to be told in your situation it’s not really possible to cope.
She’s just not been in a situation that allows her to fully empathize with this.
So what I said to the child is that if you feel supported and that your teachers know this is not an easy time for you and want to help you, it might start to be more possible to sit in class and concentrate. Feeling supported and cared about through your hard times can really help a lot.
The other way my new attitude showed up for me was today, while I was chatting with C’s aunt. We talked a little bit more about C’s childhood and the circumstances of her birth. I may not have said this, but C’s aunt is in her early 20s. They grew up together more as siblings, and C lived with her grandparents and this aunt until she was seven. What I hadn’t really known was that her mother and stepfather left C behind when C was about 18 months old.
I was just thinking what this must have been like for C to lose daily contact with her mother at an age when kids typically experience a lot of separation anxiety–it can’t have been smooth sailing even before then, because C has so many symptoms of trauma and disordered attachment.
And I was also thinking what it must have felt like for C’s aunt to lose what was essentially her youngest sibling when she was in about 7th or 8th grade.
I just asked the aunt if she had been really sad when C went to live with her mom and stepdad. I asked her if she cried. And I just said I was not with my parents for a while, and my sister really missed me just like you missed C.
Then I asked what people told her when she cried because she missed C. The usual thing Country Xers say: it’s natural and part of life. I asked her if she felt it wasn’t okay to be sad when people said that to her, because it’s also natural and part of life to be sad. And I told her when we feel alone with our sadness, it feels unbearable. It’s the loneliness coupled with sadness that’s so terrible. Because I was thinking people say that kind of thing as though they don’t feel sad during times of loss also. Of course, they do, but they aren’t reaching into themselves to use that experience of facing loss to connect to you during your time of loss. When they can’t do that, we lose the most sustaining force there is, which is the feeling of being connected and being understood.
I told the aunt you can tell me when you feel sad, just like I tell you when I am sad (because I do tell her how much I miss C.) I said, “You don’t need to feel so alone.”