Has perfectionism ever kept you from doing something you really want to do? Let's give it another name: SHAME. What is it and how do we keep it from sabotaging us? (SPOILER: Shame almost kept me from making this video!!) If you like this video, please subscribe to my YouTube Channel for more videos like this one :)
"You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf." I love this quote by Jon Kabat-Zinn!
It reminds me that all of the tumult and pain that can result from personal growth, loss, and therapy has a greater purpose. Feeling through our pain gives us great strength, perspective, and the ability to manage life's ups and downs with greater ease. We always face change, which can be scary and unwanted, but learning how to "surf the waves" is one of the greatest rewards of maintaining awareness through our experiences. The more you practice, the easier it becomes to manage painful emotions and allows us to open ourselves to the deep intimacy and connection that comes with allowing others to be a part of our healing processes.
If you have never read Brain Pickings, I highly recommend this thoughtful, well-done, search for "interestingness" spear-headed by Maria Popova (@brainpicker) and the occasional guest writer. The writing at first glance often appears outside my comfort zone, but I'm usually drawn in to subjects that I might naturally toss aside as too lofty or inapplicable to my daily life (i.e. too daunting/time-consuming/intellectual for moi). I love Popova's style; she can take a subject that is over my head and make it tangible and fascinating. Many times I find that these subjects intertwine with my own life, as a therapist and a person, more than I would have imagined upon reading the title. Cue my interest in F. Scott Fitzgerald on the Secret of Great Writing, a.k.a. 'how to be a great writer by one of the most famous writers of all time,' as my self-valuation interprets.I love to write, I aspire to reach other and connect through writing, so naturally this title both titillates and terrifies me. It triggers the immediate, vulnerable, knee-jerk, "am I good enough?" reaction that is the inevitable cost of putting ourselves "out there" for the world to see. Popova references a letter written by Fitzgerald to a young woman, a college sophomore, and family friend who sent her writing to him, presumably for critique and guidance. I don't know if this young person, Frances, was expecting honesty or fluff... but she got honesty. In Fitzgerald's response he references the "price of admission," or the cost of great writing quite harshly to an aspiring young writer. An excerpt:
"November 9, 1938
I've read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You've got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.
This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile...
That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is ‘nice’ is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the ‘works.’ You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.
In the light of this, it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than,
Your old friend,
F. Scott Fitzgerald
P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent — which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point."
Ouch, Frances. Ouch.
You may be wondering, as was I, why I felt as we may say in the therapy world over-identified with the recipient of this letter. Why would I focus on the potential hurt feelings of a stranger who aspired to write over seventy years ago and was given such a harsh critique? The obvious answer is that I'm focused on emotions in general. I did not accidentally arrive in the field of social work and therapy. A natural draw toward and affinity for emotional care and compassion led me here. The not-so-obvious answer is that I too fear judgment, harsh criticism, and critique as a writer, as a therapist, and as a person.
The vulnerability of writing, especially about matters of the heart weighs on me as much as it enriches my life. I write because it allows me to make sense of the pain, elation, and all feelings in between in the human experience. Rarely do I write of my own feelings because it is challenging, less comfortable, and scary. I could blame some lofty principles of maintaining my role as a therapist (which is a very important and entirely different discussion), but it is the feelings of vulnerability that usually hold me back. When I do share parts of myself and write about things that are subversive, I feel exposed, anxious, and at times, irrelevant. I worry that I've said 'too much,' gone 'too far,' or have been 'self-indulgent,' all judgments that I have made up in my head based on my own anxiety, experiences, and elaborations...
Writing can be a gut-wrenching process of displaying your inner-world, word by word, and opening oneself to strangers much like the courageous work of therapy participants. In many ways, I write to experience this vulnerability, risk, and potential benefit of exposure as a constant reminder of the risks that clients take. It is a reminder of the emotional cost paid by the brave people who sit in the chair and share their inner-selves and the respect, kindness, and admiration that is deserved for such an endeavor. There is a monetary investment for therapy as well which is a valuable topic of exploration, but they also pay with their honesty, their fear, their vulnerability, and the spoken or unspoken hopes and disappointments. At times, this is a high cost, more so than money.
Without hiding behind principles of "being a therapist," I'll share a specific fear that edits my writing, words, and thoughts. It is the fear of not being liked. There are variations of this fear, such as not being nice, agreeable, palatable, competent, or pleasant. Talking about things that are hard to talk about, uncomfortable, opinionated, or divisive also scare me. These fears are all bi-products of my upbringing and training as a woman, a social worker, and a therapist but to what end? These are questions that my clients ask of themselves and usually end up with a resounding sense of entitlement to feel, express, and be who they are. Undoubtedly being yourself is hard, and I'm not immune.
Lately, my reflections on this topic have turned toward a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunity to share myself with others and receive the kindness, accolades, and positive feedback that I've received as a result of writing, speaking, and being myself. In hindsight, when I am met with "negative" emotions from someone - disagreement, anger, and even contempt at times - the hurt feelings and vulnerabilities that I'm forced to acknowledge are far outweighed by the learning, the growth, the opportunity to practice compassion toward myself and others, and the disarming of my own defenses. These are valuable and sometimes priceless experiences.
As always, take care of yourself (while also stretching and growing when the time is right.)
I want to thank Leslie Morgan Steiner for courageously sharing her personal experience from an abusive marriage and for dispelling myths about domestic violence in her TED Talk entitled, "Why Domestic Violence Victims Don't Leave." Her public recognition of the hardship and judgment that she and others face when attempting to leave an abusive relationship is an incredibly brave and vulnerable act. Leaving her relationship and living to tell her story was unfortunately so unlikely that while I applaud her for her courage, I can't help but think of those who are not able to leave a situation of violence and regain autonomy after facing the physical and emotional pain, fear, and psychological control of abuse.
Steiner articulates the question she faces as a survivor to those who don't understand the nature of abuse, "why don't women leave?" I can imagine that some say (or think), "she should have known better." In my clinical experience, those who are abused and exhausted victims of violence unfortunately find an abundance of quizzical looks, denial of their pain, and insensitivity during the healing process rather than empathy and compassion. But why?
There are a few psycho-social-emotional perspectives that can explain the reactions of those who aren't clear about the power dynamics that contribute to abuse and subjugation. First, I think it's important to acknowledge that I don't see the problem of domestic violence as unrelated to other acts of oppression and violence. Each situation is unique and tragic, but oppression, violence, and subjugation are all bi-products of the irresponsible use of power, dominance, and privilege. When a child (the powerless) is abused by a parent (the powerful), that's oppression. When a young women is assaulted and then blamed for wearing a short skirt, that's oppression from the perpetrator and oppression from society. When a black man walks down the street and looks at the white people passing him with looks of fear or startle, that's societal, personal, historical, and systemic oppression. Acts of racism, bigotry, homophobia, and hatred while not always perceived as equally harmful, are acts of violence, dominance, and oppression that encourage the cycle to continue.
Let's simplify and return to the question above: why don't people get it?
For people who are not the victim in any given circumstance (a.k.a. the ones in a position of power), disavowing the problem and putting it in the category of "happens to other people (but not me)" can diffuse the stress of wondering if you or your loved ones qualify for this label. Creating distance between the self and a horrifying, violent cultural epidemic makes it less scary, more palatable. For most, the thought of our own loved ones being victims of violence is far too difficult to imagine. So we ignore, we do our best to prevent, and we hope that violence is not occurring in our families and communities. But this psychological strategy of otherizing (believing something only applies to other people and denying that it could be yours to experience/solve/know) the problem of violence does not help stop violence. In fact, it often contributes to or encourages violence in subtle and overt ways.
Otherizing sounds something like this behind closed doors:
We judge and rationalize... 'She was with him for ten years. It's her fault for staying.' Or perhaps, 'she was conscious enough to consent. It's not like she was a virgin.'
We attribute the acts of horror to real or imagined personal traits... 'He's weak/gay/trans/different and that's why it happened.' Or, 'that stuff only happens in (insert perceived high crime area).'
We shame the victims... 'They shouldn't have been dressed that way/walking down that street/out at that time of night/in that part of town/at a gay bar/drinking/breaking a rule.'
We assure ourselves that this couldn't happen to our own body, our family, or our loved ones... 'This could have been avoided if she had been more aware of her surroundings. What a shame that she wasn't more careful.'
This is blaming the victim. These rationalizations and assumptions are defense mechanisms used to combat fear - the fear that this could affect our own lives or happen to our own children/sister/brother/parent, etc. - but these psychological defenses come with a huge price. When we put any blame on a victim of violence, we fail to fully hold the perpetrator of violence accountable. If acts of violence are always (in some way) the fault of the victim, then the perpetrator is never fully given the responsibility from committing such acts. In order to fully react to acts of violence we must be unequivocal and united: The person who hurt someone is wrong and must know that society does not approve of hurting people. That has to be enough, the end of the story, and the stance taken by everyone (men, women, people of color, all religions, ages, races, creeds, and nationalities) in order to make a difference.
Violence against women and other oppressed groups is a deeply rooted, complex, and pervasive problem. While watching Steiner's TED Talk I began to think about the implications of her message. No one is immune from this epidemic of abuse and violence, though we may deny and attempt to use every defense mechanism in our arsenal to make it so. Violence isn't a gender problem or a problem only affecting specific races, skin colors, religions, or groups. This is a power, control, dominance, and cultural violence problem. This silent acquiescence and turning away from this topic is a symptom of our cultural belief that being the strongest, the best, the fastest, the richest, and most powerful (whether that is referring to our military defense, our sports teams, our wealth/acquisitions/ownership, or the caliber of our children's preschool.) These are the standards by which we are judged.
So, why don’t women leave? Why don't the oppressed members of society rise up together to reject this ideology once and for all? In addition to the psychological reasons articulated by Leslie Morgan Steiner, because we live in it every day. We live in a culture where it is acceptable to be criticized and demeaned for the way that we look, dress, or act based on the standards and preferences of other people, usually the people in charge.
Why don’t we leave? We can’t afford it. People of color and women are paid less, oftentimes expected to commit our bodies and most of our time to children or minimum wage jobs and we don’t have the resources to leave. We are not in power and therefore do not have the privilege of independence. We are not represented in positions of power in our government, in our schools, in our communities, or in our workplaces. We are the exception when we are in power. We are told that it isn't because of our race, our gender, or our difference that we are treated unequally and it is psychologically maddening every day.
We are taught, covertly and overtly, that violence is power. We are told that loving our country means committing to war, which inevitably hurts and kills poor people, people of color, women, and children much more than it changes policies or defends justice. We are given messages about femininity, masculinity, sexuality, and assimilation. We are told that we are the problem if we don't get on board and fall in line. Men are taught that to be peaceful or emotional is to be weak and that violence represents strength and power. Women are told to, 'act like a lady and avoid topics that upset people' or we will be perceived as less valuable. We are also taught that poor people are poor because they are "lazy," not because of centuries of oppression and institutionalized, discriminatory policies. We are told that racism, sexism, homophobia, and other powerless groups are no longer experiencing the consequences of these discriminatory and prejudicial attitudes and institutions. The institutional entrenchment of oppression is rarely discussed by the powerful, so we are not encouraged by our media, our institutions, or our communities to talk about these problems.
Also, "we" are not aligned with one another. As I write the word "we," I write as a Hispanic woman with some areas of privilege and some experience of disempowerment/disadvantage, but I refer to everyone who has experienced oppression. If the oppressed divide, who will effectively fight the real perpetrators of violence? My use of the word "we" is intended to do the opposite of otherizing, not to exclude, and to see this problem as systemic, complex, and to be addressed from a united front of oppressed, albeit diverse, group of people.
Take care of yourself and others.
"Modern aesthetics is crippled by its dependence upon the concept of ‘beauty.’ As if art were ‘about’ beauty—as science is ‘about’ truth!" September 10, 1964
As always, much love to Brain Pickings & Maria Popova for producing conversation and inspiration.
This work is for sale on Etsy.com by wendy macnaughton - a portion of the proceeds go to A Room of Her Own, A Foundation for Women Writers & Artists.
[embed]https://www.flickr.com/photos/johnlyttle/3593027048/in/set-72157594310096928/[/embed] Illustration by John Lyttle
This interesting (therapy-related) portrayal of one of Frida Kahlo's famous quotes about living with and processing her pain caught my attention today.
The original quote reads: "I drank to drown my pain, but the damned pain learned how to swim, and now I am overwhelmed by this decent and good behavior." - Frida Kahlo.
It's a reminder that we can avoid, cover up, act out, numb, disavow, deny, and go to great lengths to annihilate our feelings, both physical and emotional, but they will find a way to float to the surface.