Thursday, March 27, 2014

In which I attempt to get real

   We're all familiar with the injunction to treat others the way we'd like to be treated. But what about the opposite situation? What about when we treat ourselves in ways we'd never dream of treating another person? Does our own self-criticism bleed over into our relationships and make it impossible for us to be 'harder on ourselves than on others'? I'm afraid so. 

   Researcher of vulnerability and shame Brené Brown says, "Normally during a shame attack we talk to ourselves in ways we would NEVER talk to people we love and respect." This is heartbreakingly true--I see it in myself all the time. 
"You're never good enough." 
"Why do you always screw things up so badly?"
"You'll never be able to change."
"You are a horrible person."
   I would never dream of saying those things to another person. Logically, I am a person, and I'm just as worthy of respect and care as any other human. Then why do those phrases slip so easily, indeed so inescapably, into my own self-criticism? Unfortunately I think this isn't just me: I think anybody who struggles with self-worth is familiar with those cruel messages. For some of us this manifests in physical self-injury, or in eating disorders. But it's probably just as hard to restrain ourselves from harsh thoughts: a thought darts into the brain even faster than we can take physical action. 

   I have previously tried to console myself by believing that I am just harder on myself than I am on other people--that I can simultaneously be merciful to other people, and violently cruel to myself. I don't think it works that way. As Brown says, if we judge ourselves for needing help or screwing up, we will eventually judge others for the same things. 
Will the only thing that can scare us people-pleasing perfectionists into self-care be the fear that our self-criticism will eventually hurt others? Ironic, if we can only be bothered to show forgiveness and love to ourselves so that we won't be too harsh on other people. 

   Compassionate Mind Training is a technique that has had success in helping people with high levels of shame and self-criticism. The idea is to recognize the violence we level at ourselves and acknowledge it (without condemnation) as something that we learned as a coping technique. It's sometimes helpful to envision our childhood self, in order to treat ourselves with the same compassion we're used to extending to others. Hillary McFarland writes in "Quivering Daughters" of a moment when she looked at a photo of herself as a girl, and was overwhelmed with all the negative messages she had assimilated about herself at that time in her life. The shock of realizing the self-hatred she directed at an innocent child helped her gain empathy for her adult self. 

   Brown writes of shame's power to prevent us from having deep relationships in which we can be vulnerable with another person. She defines vulnerability as the willingness to risk, love, be fully invested in what we care about, be uncertain, be open. Everybody experiences shame, which is rooted in the fear of being found unlovable: we hide our true selves because we are afraid that we will be found not good enough. Paradoxically, we also value and look for vulnerability in other people, even though we fear it in our own lives. 
   Here's another thing about shame. It loses a lot of its power in a particular situation when we tell another (trusted) person about it. 
   Shame is a big and pretty nasty part of my life. (Brown and most authorities on the subject define shame as 'I am bad' while guilt is 'I did something bad.') Strangely, it doesn't usually attend things that I did that I know were wrong. Instead, shame pops up when I feel I've let someone down, or been weak (read: showed emotion), or left the nice/quiet/modest feminine mold. And anything related to dating/sexuality/guys/modesty is automatically in the running for bringing on a full-blown shame attack. Just going to throw this out there, but I'm guessing I'm not alone in that. Particularly among those of us who grew up thinking that dating was wrong, and the only people who had boyfriends were rebellious, shallow, worldly, selfish teenagers.  (I may have just outed my biggest source of shame right there. Hi guys.) 

   So how can we deal with shame, and embrace vulnerability? I'm not sure yet, but I'm sure as heck going to keep working on it. I used to think that all these issues stemmed from religious patriarchy, but it clearly is a bigger issue than that. Obviously I still think that Biblical Patriarchy, and systemic patriarchy in the broader culture, is inexcusable and responsible for a lot of abuse. But the issues of shame, and fear of openness, and the pressure on both men and women to fit a cultural norm, seems to be a problem with humanity in general. I sincerely welcome comments on this, and would love to talk with anyone who's interested in dialoging about all this stuff. 

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