As I reflect on a day well spent, facilitating connections between people, trying to disseminate information that will be helpful in the human struggle towards mental wellness, I am struck by the gnawing feeling of shame, hovering right at the front of my diaphragm.  This hot feeling of shame is as visceral and ancient as my first memories, and is equally as powerful.

I know well enough that analyzing my feelings about how I said the wrong thing at the wrong moment to the wrong person will not help me to do anything except justify the nattering storyline that is simply a reflex – the story that says that I am not worthy, that I am a fraud.  Maybe even evil.  And I don’t even believe in evil!  But somehow I worry so much about hurting others – and about leading them to think I’m an asshole and to subsequently reject me – that my defensive response to this possibility reaches cataclysmic proportions.  Shame is by definition, a fear of disconnection, and the associated belief that we must be unworthy of connection, and must cover up our unworthiness with layers of pungent defenses.  This raw and prehistoric gut feeling is sometimes so centrally located within my identity that I think that shame might as well be my middle name.

Shame, for me, leads me straight to the dress up closet.  I will put on any number of different masks to try to cope with this raw feeling in my chest, but none of them have breathing holes, and like clockwork, by the time I’ve finished even one interaction while wearing one, the feeling of nausea and suffocation is palpable.

I’ve come to try to have compassion for my mask-wearing compulsion, but I think that a natural revulsion toward inauthenticity is as natural as bringing up breakfast after not realizing how hung over you still were from last night’s drunken debauchery.  I think it’s similar, because like breakfast, there is nothing inherently wrong with the masks.  It’s just the attempt to act like eating breakfast is a sane response to a bad hangover that resembles the use of the mask to cope with the after effects of shame.  It’s the shame that makes us sick.  Self-deception is dangerous.  Because it impedes authentic connection, it creates widespread isolation.  It erodes our basic sanity; we do it because we are too afraid to face ourselves.

Today, because I felt the momentary panic of not feeling helpful in my helping role, and I was too tired to question this simple busybodying sort of unconscious reflex, I let the feelings of worry about being not enough drop today’s particular mask like a lead curtain.  I felt instantly that something had shifted.  I was irritable.  I lost empathy.  I felt worry and shame about being irritable and about disconnecting from empathy.  But, as I have learned, empathy and shame are not common bedfellows.  Even if, on the surface, I was managing the outer workings of the group with a certain perfunctory, mechanical ease, the most important elements were missing.  Shame had seeped into the transparent, fluffy clouds around the sun in my heart, and before I knew it, not only was a storm brewing, but my heart was no where to be seen.

I KNOW this is how the human heart works.  I know it.  But goddamn, is it hard to stop getting all meta about this, and to stop feeling shame ABOUT shame and it’s results, to stop feeling such annoyance at what is, only essentially, weather.  Maybe the clouds in my heart are storm clouds, maybe my thunder and lightning have freaked a few people out.  Probably, people sometimes feel not quite right around me because I show up in a sun hat and a bathing suit in the middle of the hurricane, trying to act as if it’s a goddamned heat wave.  Sigh. But I try.

I wish I had the shame-resilience tactics to work with this annoying old voice that keeps telling me that I can’t possibly meet the day without hiding behind so many layers that I’m no longer visible.

I am habitually accustomed to these accoutrements.  I once had a friend tell me that my theatre performances were flawless on one level, but that I was somehow inaccessible, unreachable, that my experience was somehow executed from under a glass case.  I knew instantly what she had meant.  To be fair to myself, I have had moments on occasional nights on stage where I would slip out from beneath it.  I was desperate for real contact, but too afraid that I would muck it up.  So I usually kept my heart under glass.  You could see it.  But just try to touch it, and you would be sadly disappointed.  Those shame storm clouds were forecast to start closing in as soon as the cover was lifted.  Yes, my weather is predictable.  But it is overall, becoming less so in time.

The seasons change, and for a while, my heart may peak through the clouds.  I just happen to be in the middle of one snowy, freezing rainy, shit storm of a mess this week.  But like weather in Nova Scotia, I forget that instead of complaining or reacting, I’d better wait five minutes. Freezing rain might turn into a rainbow for all I know.

Knowing all this is helpful, even the revulsion toward inauthenticity is helpful.  As long as I can let it go.  Like a blog written from exhaustion in a hotel bed when I know it’s time to turn off the lights.

Speaking of shame-resilience, I think I’ve just been practicing it just now.  I’m reaching out, I’m narrating my own experience of the shame.  All I need is a little self-compassion.  There’s self-compassion in humor right?  For tonight, I think I’ll cut myself some slack.  Sending my thoughts, imperfectly out into the world and allowing myself some sleep, are both kind acts.  Sleep well, friends and strangers.  I hope it’s sun shines brightly tomorrow, but if not, try surrendering to the rain.  You never know what might happen.

Advertisements