Thursday, May 5, 2011

Confession: the anatomy of shame

If you’ve known me for any number of years, you know that I overreact, and that this is the number one thing that leads me to shame and self-hatred. I don’t overreact so much to big, huge life events, but to the everyday little annoyances. When my mom got breast cancer? When my husband had a tumor in his arm? Sure I shed a few tears, but then my reaction was over. I moved from fear straight towards duty. Let’s get these tumors out, get through treatment, and move on with our lives, no harm done. I tend not to overreact to big things.

It’s the little things that get me. Luckily, as I’ve gotten older, my overreacting has calmed down. I’ve noticed that it’s one of my biggest personal flaws and I’ve taught myself to take a few breaths and chill out before drawing conclusions. I’ve extended mercy more freely. I’ve matured, I’ve taken things less personally, I’ve waited a few days to react. (usually, my overreacting comes after being challenged on a thought/idea or someone being rude to my kid, etc, etc…). As I’ve gotten older, things roll off my back more easily, and I’ve finally learned that it’s usually not about me.

Every so often, though, the perfect storm happens. One bit of bad news is accompanied by a badly timed message about something and BAM, I’m steaming. I overreact, and then I realize I’ve overreacted and I’ve made a fool of myself. I apologize and try to move on, but that doesn’t happen. My mind moves from “you made a mistake” to “you’re the worst, most hated idiot on the planet. Oh, and by the way, you’re ugly, your parents are probably ashamed of you, your brothers and their wives can’t stand you, you have friends only because they feel sorry for you, and your husband hates you slightly less than everyone else.”

I often wonder where this deep shame comes from, and why I believe the voice in my head that preaches it. I truly believe that other people don’t make the kinds of overreacting mistakes that I do. Maybe they don’t. It’s a lonely place to be. I look around and see people who have it all together. They are calm and don’t freak out like I do from time to time. My mind wanders to how much better everyone else is than me, and then (of course) immediately wanders to how everyone I’ve ever met must think I’m a nut job. This (for some reason) includes cousins, aunts, uncles, and in-laws. “Yes” the voice says, “they think you’re just awful to be around. Too opinionated, too talkative, and a terrible mother. Oh and don’t forget, they think you look like a horse.”

Really, I can’t make this stuff up. This is where my mind goes after I’ve made a mistake. I have no ability to see that people might actually forgive me for my (at times) wild humanity, my temper, my reactions.

I have spent my life psychoanalyzing myself, and not extending one ounce of mercy or forgiveness to my own soul. It is work for me, to feel worthy of such grace. But it’s work I must do, because I cannot exist in this self-hatred for long. It is so damaging! It affects everything. So, can I let light in? Can I see my own worth even though I’ve failed every day of my life? I want to be seen as loving, forgiving, full of mercy and grace. But I fear I’m only seen as mean, calloused, and cold. This is my worst nightmare, that I’m not spreading peace and joy but that I’m spreading more filth and hatred.

I believe my self-worth would be even further in the toilet if not for the writer Anne Lamott (full of messy, broken, real life, {including cuss words} and loves God). Her words have literally lifted me from the darkness on some days, washing away my loneliness and showing me that there are others, too, who fail, who feel like morons, who feel that they don’t deserve respect because they’ve done nothing but wallow in misery.

She writes: The gist of the story is that faith and grace will not look as they do in the Bible stories, will not involve angels, flames, or harps. Disaster usually happens for me when everything I have counted on has stopped working, including all of my best skills, intentions, and good ideas. I overreact or shut down, then torture myself about what a fraud I am, like Kookaburra’s bitter Aunt Esther, in the branches of the old gum tree, pretending to sing the laughing song of the others but privately stewing. Usually there is something I can’t climb over, all the tools and stepladders have broken, and no one is around to give me a leg up. No one comes along to say, “I’ll haul you up, little lady.” Some pitiful thing appears or occurs, entirely inadequate to help shift this grim situation, and it can’t possibly be enough, but then it is.

--Grace (Eventually) p. 246-247

And it’s true. There always is something that shows up, even if it seems stupid, and pulls me out. This is where Faith comes in for me… it’s nothing short of miraculous, because I really am so wretched. Is it true that I can be cleansed and made new? Is it true that I can check my shame at the door? And is it true that I can have this and freely love, not judge, all people? Anne Lamott and I think so. (oh how I wish I could meet her in person).

I’m still a work in progress. I’m going to be a horrible person for much of the day, every day, but I’m hoping that I can continue to be refined and polished. I’m hoping that I’m not alone, and I’m hoping that my family and friends don’t see who I see in me. I’m hoping that at least I’m doing a little better, that I’m not as wretched to them as I am to myself, and I’m spreading some kind of beauty, even the generic kind, to the places and people I encounter. That’s all I really want, in the end. To get ahold of my wicked overreactions, to be a better person, to help someone feel loved, and to better receive love.

Anne also writes: It’s incredibly touching when someone who seems so hopeless finds a few inches of light to stand in and makes everything work as well as possible. All of us lurch and fall, sit in the dirt, are helped to our feet, keep moving, feel like idiots, lose our balance, gain it, help others get back on their feet, and keep going.

--Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith p.41

I’m going to find my few inches of light, and stand there for awhile, and hopefully let the light into my heart a bit. I hope you can find some light, too, if you feel you need it.


  1. Great post Becca! I beat myself up all the time too. You are generous! Beautiful! Funny! And oh so smart! Never tell yourself otherwise.

  2. Delurking here since I don't think I've ever posted a comment before on your blog. I go through all the same emotions and self-doubt and blame, and really appreciate you writing about it. I especially love that you love Anne Lamott. I love her writing because it's so real and exactly what I struggle with particularly regarding faith and grace.

    Thanks for sharing. It meant a lot to a complete stranger so thank you for standing in the light and passing a little of it on.

  3. Becca, Remember a couple of years ago when I contacted you about how to go forward with an adoption considering our "special circumstances"? You were so kind and thoughtful with your words, I so appreciated that. I contacted you that day because I somehow innately knew that I could trust you with a very private, difficult thing and you know what, I was right! I think it's so easy for women to be so, so hard on ourselves, I do it too but most things I think about myself are probably true! :) kinda kidding there!! Grace and peace to you and your family! Jennifer Karlen

  4. Ummm...I'm just going to sit still on this one. Wow. So true, and you are NOT alone in this.

  5. You are the coolest, and in no way a nut job. And I overreact all the motherloving time. I regular just lose my sh*t and feel like the worst parent in the world, then end up apologizing for freaking out on J-Dubs.

  6. Wow. Excellent post. I tried to find your email to write you but couldn't so a public comment will have to do :) you are certainly not alone. Going through a seperation and trying to be a good mom, daughter, friend, etc and feeling like a failure so much of the time. and yes, overreacting like a crazy person and working on that.