Unthreading Shame

This retreat was an opportunity to have a break from 2020 and revisit the last 32 — going on an intensive journey with a therapist.

We started with this years chaos and worked backwards through about two hands worth of key moments. This took us over to a small South Pacific island then back home and across states lines. I’ve lived a colourful life — that’s always been clear. But what we discovered hasn’t been… That these events and experiences are threaded together by a sense of shame.

Shame has its place — it’s how one knows they’ve done something wrong. But it’s a problem when one mistakes themselves for being fundamentally wrong. The term that makes this distinction is toxic shame.

Logically, I know the GFC of 2008 made finding work nearly impossible for everyone. I know that break ups happen as people naturally grow apart and their needs change. That people have different learning styles. That people loose jobs unfairly. I know all this… But I still viewed these experiences as a reflection of myself that I struggled to face. Shame in all of its insidiousness slithered through my being. It set on slowly strangling my self-esteem, causing my shoulders to hunch and my head to hang heavier and heavier as I went from disappointment to disappointment.

This type of response is particularly common to those with ADHD.  As we experience rejection sensitive dismorophia. Dr Gabor Mate, author of Scattered Minds, writes: “In the ADD adult, as in the child, this hypersensitivity magnifies the impact of every emotional stimulus. The fear of rejection is never far below the surface.”

I understand my perspective is distorted. That I don’t see what others see. I see myself as scuffed up and scratched with little regard for how far I’ve come. Life is an obstacle course — very few run it cleanly. And sure, risks haven’t paid of the way I expected. But they have been taken. There’s still value in that in the wisdom gained, skills developed. And fcuk — the resilience to try again.

Trying — there’s been a lot of that. The last decade, figuratively speaking, has seen me slicing through the shrubs. There’s been back and forth periods of ploughing ahead, second guessing my direction, and contemplating going back — giving up all together.

I’m now however almost out on a clearing where the life I’ve been looking for awaits. I’ve got great friends, a supportive partner and have started placement for my counselling studies. You’d think I’d be skipping on ahead. I’m not. Something in me wants to stay in shame and self-loathing. I’m finding the last pages the heaviest to turn. There’s a new story starting, there’s no doubt there. I just need to see myself as worthy of staring in the lead role.

In a favourite podcast segments that’s got plenty of plays over years, Adam Corolla likens someone who has experienced depression as a car that’s been rolled. Even after a new paint job, they’re always going to have a dent. “That door’s always going to be a bit sticky.” I’ve always resonated with this. I guess in that I’m always going to feel a bit off. But rather than being from one major crash (trauma), its been a build up of bumps and wear and tear. Ongoing stress and a lack of stability has taken a toll on me.

It took a while for me to recognise this. We tend to overlook what we’ve been through and shrink our struggles. Understandably so — as not only is it our ‘normal’, but we don’t have to look far to find someone who has it worse. However, compassion isn’t something we have to compete for. We can all share this space.

Adam continues — explaining that having negative feelings about the world or oneself “is not a death sentence.” It’s a case of accepting them and “acting as if.” He recommends exercise as a great way to create positive momentum in our lives and I can’t agree more. It’s always been a big part of my life. I even dedicated a chapter to exercise in my book.

Although, my relationship with exercise has changed drastically over the years. Reflecting on this, my therapist invited me to examine the role my extroverted characteristics —  such as my physique and comical nature — have played in life. Particularly in regards to what they have been protecting inwardly. And again we returned to shame.

Since isolation and loosing exercise and other ‘keep-me-wells’, a lot of my ‘shit’ has risen to the surface. I’m sure that says it. COVID isolation has been a collective dark night of the soul. We’ve all been faced with the challenge of truly facing ourselves. Having recently learned about IFS – Internal Family Systems, I decided to work this approach into my therapy, viewing myself as comprised of different selves — of different parts.

This process took me back past 2008. To my first few years of life, wetting the bed. To my first week of primary school, sitting alone at lunch. To being scolded for getting my homework wrong. To getting sent out of the classroom. I met my child self as a part. I discovered it’s not that he needs protecting; he is convinced that he absolutely must prove himself. He takes to being seen in order to challenge how he sees himself.

It’s around the age of 7 that a child starts to become aware of how they are perceived by others. This concern grows with age with the potential to become more problematic. Things are made worse by a growing digitalised world where likes, comments, public profiles and infinity scroll feeds make comparisons easier. If it doesn’t happen in our immediate environment as a children, the wider world will continue to ingrain the idea into us that worth and love are conditional.

The remedy, Toko-Pa Turner writes, is to see worthiness as “not some state of attainment, but the ongoing willingness to meet life squarely. Worthiness is the ability to say I am up for this. I am equal to life.” Worth is something inherently in us —  like an organ. Or as my favourite poem, Desiderata puts more eloquently: “You are a child of the universe. No less than the trees and the stars. You have a right to be here.”

As I move forward I want to keep exercising and acting like a clown. But I’ll be making sure I’m coming from a place of enjoyment over need. A place of well intention and curiosity. I want to challenge and stretch myself, while having a healthy relationship with my goals.

It’s rarely discussed, but goals can be problematic. My therapist was quite open about his life which I appreciated. Sharing with me, that despite  all his accomplishments, including a successful private practice, he still experienced feeling stuck in the shrubs — of not getting anywhere. Then he started doing the inner-work of addressing his shame and lack of percevied inherit worth. And he felt much better.

He explained that “there’s always another Everest to climb.” So attaching your core value — ones right to be here —  to being at the top is the wrong move. This made me reflect on my own journey to Everest base camp 3 years ago. I never made it, but learned there’s more value in the journey than the destination. It’s not that we shouldn’t have destinations — that’s how we orient ourselves. My point is that I’m done feeling small, sitting shamefully in the shadows of the mountains I’m yet to scale.

I know I’m not alone in all of this. We measure our progress or lack of it in different ways. We all have our own ideas about where we are and where ‘should’ be. So I’m going to share this reminder I keep for myself.  It’s that progress isn’t always outwardly evident. We shouldn’t dismiss what we feel because others can’t see it. I’ve made leaps and bounds in how I relate to myself — even if I have days where I’m heading downhill fast.

Those days will happen. As will events I can’t control —  be it another GFC, an unstable boss who is going to fire me for being sarcastic, or a change in government funding resulting in being made redundant (which just happened). And when they do, I’ll remember the reminder that Aron, a friend on a similar journey in South Africa, shared in this video: “As long as I’m doing my best, I’m holding in a good place.”

Wherever you are  —  stuck in the shrubs or almost out.  Regardless of whatever holds you back  —  be it shame or something else, I hope you’re able to unthread it and start a new story. A new narrative that forgives you for your fcukups and sees you worthy of a better future.



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