Flashlights and Shame
A few nights ago I was going through an old box of photographs. As I travelled down memory lane, I enjoyed all the sweet memories of my grandparents, my stepdad, my high school trip to Australia, the visit from my Belgian friends, my life in Fresno, California and so many other significant memories that all contribute to who I am today.
I really love who I am today.
Then I came across this photograph...
My trip down memory lane came to an abrupt halt. Yup, that's me. I don't know the exact date this was taken, but I believe it was taken somewhere around 1998 or 1999 - right before I underwent gastric bypass surgery for weight loss. Suddenly, all those feelings of pride of my personal history, contributing to everything I love about me today, momentairly vanished. I also had a deep desire to just make this part of my history vanish as well.
Granted, I do not consider that time period of my life to be a highlight of the best of times for me, however, what I am curious about is my strong desire to just erase this part of my life. Why would this time in my life be any different or have any less significance or contribution to who I am today than any other event or period?
There are obvious answers to this question: it is embarrassing, society tells us that controlling our weight is always under our control and if you are overweight then you obviously lack self-control, and that girl in the photo is someone I barely know now.
Because I am who I am today and love myself more than I ever have in my whole life, I called bullshit on myself and decided to challenge this shame I was feeling. One by one, I sent this photo to my friends. I started with my closest and most trusted friends (some who knew me way back when and some I have only known less than a year). I received a variety of responses from: "I had no idea" to "You were still really pretty but HUGE" to "You've always had great boobs." All are valid and authentic responses but all very different. There was something liberating about this process. I didn't understand what it was at the time, but I wanted to keep the momentum going, so I took a deep breath and posted this photo and another current photo on Facebook side by side...
And I waited for the responses. As I waited, I noticed a funny thing happening... my shame completely disappeared and what took its place was a sense of ownership and pride. I don't mean a pride of accomplishment from losing so much weight, but a new felt sense of humble pride and gratitude for all of the experiences I have been afforded in my life and the strength to effectively navigate anything thrown my way. Pretty soon, I was giving that fat girl a big ol' hug and thanking her for teaching me about things such as compassion, endurance, discrimination, judgment and love - particularly self love on such deep deep levels.
As for the Facebook responses... mostly, people just "liked" the photos. Interestingly, the more current photo received about twice as many "likes" as the fat photo. What I found fascinating was that nobody publically came right out and made any reference to how fat I used to be. What a polite group of friends I have!! My two older kids (ages 9 and 12) responded the same way. My son just said something about the color of my hair and my 9-year-old got angry with my 6-year-old who flat out said "You are FAT mom!"
Now here is something I never anticipated, my 6-year-old's response and my friend's "You were HUGE" response were the two responses that contributed the most to eliminating the shame I was feeling.
Shame, by its very nature, wants to hide and by shining even the smallest of lights on it will make it melt away like the Wicked Witch of the West.
I'm not suggesting that if you feel shame around something posting about it on Facebook is the way to go. In fact, I would probably recommend against this tactic for most cases of shameful feelings. The reason why this worked so well for me is because that shame I was experiencing was old old stuff - so old that I couldn't really identify with it any longer, but yet that habit of feeling shame still existed. It just no longer had a basis to exist other than an old neural pattern that needed updating. However, the same principle can apply to more prominent and limiting feelings of shame.
First, identify what you feel shameful about. What in your life do you actively hide? What would make you shrink inside if someone discovered it to be true about you?
Second, spend a little time with this shame. Explore where it came from, how it has accompanied you in your life, how it limits you, how much effort it takes you to continue hiding it, etc. Make friends with it. That doesn't mean you have to actually like it, but get to know this part of you and just let it be a part of you - because it IS.
Third, seek out a safe place where you can shine a flashlight on it. A therapist you trust, a best friend, a clergy person, a close sibling, even a journal are all options.
Fourth, when, and only when, you feel ready, share it. If you are sharing with another person. please do so in a mindful and self-compassionate way. Sometimes it is helpful to preface your sharing with something like "I want to tell you about something that is quite difficult for me to talk about, but you are someone I really trust and I need someone to hear what I have to say. I don't need it to be fixed, I just need it to be heard." And you may ask that person if they can and are willing do that for you before you begin. That way, it is clear upfront that this is difficult for you and what your expectations are in sharing with them.
Last, mindfully observe yourself as you share your story with your trusted confidante. Anxiety is expected, so just observe how you are feeling anxious. Track your physical responses to this process. Also track your shame level. Mine dissipated quite quickly and drastically, but I was ready and, frankly, it was overdue. Yours may take a little more time and move much slower. That's okay. Just notice what happens. The object of this is for you to feel more freedom and movement in this area of your life - not more restriction. If you begin to feel more restricted at any point, then it is okay to pause or back up a bit and take some more time.
Sometimes shame is more complicated than as described above. Please consult with a mental health professional if you find that shame is severely limiting your day-to-day functioning or keeping you from doing the things in life that you need and want to do.