These Are The Days

Smart ~ Writer ~ Mom

The Antidote to Shame

I remember the elbow squeeze very well. When I was a young girl, it was always delivered during a time that was considered particularly important: at a wedding or some other kind of grown-up thing, at a rich family member’s house, an important social event. It was as harmless as a sideways glance or a raised finger telling a child not to touch a hot stove, but still, it was a tacit reminder to be on my best behavior.

The desire to please was instilled early. I’m still shaking off its effects. Can you believe it? I’m nearly 45 years old (holy crap I’m almost 45) and I still struggle every single day with this desire to make sure everybody is happy. And when I miss the mark, the people that are most often left out of that equation are always my husband, my kids and myself.

There’s nothing implicitly wrong with wanting to please people. Right? I mean there’s such satisfaction that comes from giving someone a meaningful gift or cooking a satisfying meal or planning the most exquisite event. But problems arise when we try to please everybody and we do it at our own expense. Why do we do this? Why do I do this? Fear of disappointing? Fear of repercussions? Fear of embarrassment? To avoid shame?

* Ding, ding. We have a winner *

Oh, shame. It’s a wretched word, isn’t it?

I think shame is an unintended consequence of good behavior. We try to be good kids – and then as parents, we try to raise good kids. We instill these unrealistically high expectations on ourselves (or others do) and if we falter WHICH WE WILL – even a little – this dark cloud of shame is cast upon us. It’s inescapable, isn’t it? Shame is powerful. It’s crippling. Shame is narrow in scope, but oh so grand in depth. It cuts deep.

Most of my issues surrounding shame stem from disappointment and embarrassment I believe I had caused in my history as a birthmother. I’d been sent 3,000 miles away to have the baby, and after I’d placed my son with his family, I returned home. It wasn’t discussed again. It was as if my favorite television show had been interrupted, but was now back. We now return to your regularly scheduled program.

While my relationship with my son and his family was fully open, that same openness didn’t transfer into the relationship with my extended family and friends. Few people knew of this deep, dark secret. No one told me not to say anything. It was just implied. Like a phantom elbow squeeze.

Note: this is also why the movie “Frozen” rocked my world. Great story, fabulous animation, superb songs – but goodness. The lyrics in “Let It Go”? Broke. Me. Open.

“Don’t let them in, don’t let them see….be the good girl you always have to be.
Conceal, don’t feel. Don’t let them know…”

Yup. This was the story of my life for about 20 years. And so the façade was in place and emotions were ignored, denied and surpressed. YesEverythingsFineThanksForAsking.

My good friend Lori is an adoptive mom and a huge advocate for open adoption. In her book “the Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption”, she says of the benefits of open adoption, “Openness is the antidote to shame.” I couldn’t agree more. And while much of my shame stems from my history as a birthmother, I think Lori’s definition goes beyond the realm of adoption. Openness in adoption is healing, but I also believe openness in the larger picture of life can also have a healing effect; it’s literally and figuratively good for the heart.

I’ve talked in this space about how I typically keep my emotions bottled up. Despite talking with two therapists (one fantastic and one sort of meh), it was actually a blogger I admire who reminded me of a simple truth about why we shouldn’t ignore our emotions and just put on a happy face. She said, “If you’re cold, you shiver, right?” Emotions are natural reactions to what’s going on around us – just like shivering is to the cold – so why do we spend so much time trying to pretend everything is OK? Why are we resisting shivering?

If you feel sad, cry. If you feel anger, frustration, anxiety, elation or whatever, let it move through you. Feel it. Own it. I’ve learned that when you do, it loses its power of you.

Wow, that was a whole lot of “back story” to get to the original intent of this post which is – this past weekend, we brought our girls to see the new Disney Pixar movie “Inside Out.” I know there’s already so much buzz about this film, but I purposely avoided reading other people’s blog posts until I could sort out how I felt and why I liked it. As you can see, I’ve been doing a lot of sorting.

If you haven’t seen it yet, or don’t know the storyline, it’s about an 11-year old girl who moves across the country with her parents. She’s having a hard time adjusting. New home, new friends, new school, new everything. She’s trying to fit in and make everything work, but she’s also doing what many of us do: she’s trying to please everyone around her. Note: there are a few similarities between the movie and my older daughter. Both are eleven. Both just made a recent move (second one for my girl in three years) and both had to make new friends in a new neighborhood and at a new school. If nothing else, the movie gave me a bit more perspective into what my daughter may be going through.

The movie takes place primarily inside this little girl’s head. Some key emotions are in charge: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear. The latter three are sort of sub-characters; the ones really at play here are Joy and Sadness.

Of course, all of these emotions are needed for human beings to process all that happens in our lives. But too often, we stuff one or more of these emotions deep down and put them in a little chalk circle (as the character “Joy” does to “Sadness”). She wants the little girl to have only joyful, joy-filled, happy memories. Of course there’s nothing wrong with choosing to be happy and choosing to make lemonade out of lemons, but we all know unresolved sadness can have clinical outcomes including anxiety, depression, rage, and everyone’s favorite emotion: shame.

Avoiding shame and thus trying to please everyone has (unfortunately) been a big part of my life. But to me, the bigger point from the movie is why are we all so afraid to face our emotions? I was told what most kids are probably told: behave, smile, be polite, be a good girl, don’t act up, don’t cause trouble, speak when spoken to, etc. But there was none of this in the movie. Her parents didn’t tell her to ignore her feelings or to be happy for them; but she did it anyway. Why? Fear of not fitting in, of being different, of ruining things, of disappointing others, of all of these things?

The movie really was superbly done. Core memories, long-term memories, etc. were all discussed as only Pixar can. Throughout the movie, the ebullient and always happy “Joy” tries her hardest to keep “Sadness” from touching any of the girl’s memories. But in the end, the little girl reached her breaking point. She stood in the doorway having just changed her mind about running away and quite literally her emotions took over. And this is when the movie got me. “Joy” steps aside and realizes she can’t do it alone. She encourages “Sadness” to approach the control station in the little girl’s mind. “Joy” nods her approval with the realization that the only way to deal with “Sadness” was to deal with the sadness.

Just like you, I’ve had many moments of joy in my life. So much so that I often feel like Sandra Bullock’s character in Hope Floats when she says “My cup runneth over.”

(How many movies can I possibly reference in this one super-long post that no one is probably reading anway?)

It’s only recently – in the last few years or so – that I’ve allowed them to intermingle with sadness. But you know? It’s a hard habit to break. It’s hard to be vulnerable and trusting. It’s hard to put your faith in other people, even those closest to you, when you think your feelings might disrupt the balance of the universe.

I’m glad that it was sadness that saved the day. It was her power that allowed the girl to release the pain and hurt. Her emotions were no longer in a chalk circle. She was free.

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2 Comments

  1. Oh, how I adore this post. So many quotables you’ve got here, and I like the way you’ve pulled together many threads on the same theme of shame. The lengths we’ll go to avoid sadness (I was born with a “good girl” template, like you), which ironically moves us so far away from happiness.

    This! “unresolved sadness can have clinical outcomes including anxiety, depression, rage, and everyone’s favorite emotion: shame.”

    And this! “the only way to deal with “Sadness” was to deal with the sadness.”

    Well done.

    • Kim

      June 26, 2015 at 1:10 pm

      Thanks Lori ~ I struggled with this one a bit. Not sure how to weave it all together. Glad it didn’t come across as too scattered!

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