I spend a lot of my spare time reading. Not that I have a lot of spare time, but what I have is largely divided between my family and reading. Other than when I’m on vacation, most of my reading these days is non-fiction and would be considered either self- help books or text books. I read a variety of topics that are extremely interesting to me, which is why my husband calls me a nerd, something that not only doesn’t offend me, but gives me a certain satisfaction.
The topics I read about are diverse but recently I have been reading about vitamins, happiness, addiction, sleep, psychology, shame, human nature, depression and so on. These topics are of interest to me as I try to learn more about what makes people happy, why some people are more prone to things like depression or addiction, how we can live more fulfilling and healthy lives and why people behave the way they do and how we can change our behaviours.
As I read these books, I realize that others struggle with the same things I have struggled with and things I see people close to me struggle with. I also realized that I figured out a lot of the answers on how to overcome my challenges on my own, without the books, blogs and You Tubes. But not everyone learns this way, nor does everyone want to spend decades figuring things out on their own, so now I want to help others find answers for their struggles, hopefully a bit quicker and easier than the trial and error methods I used. We are all individual and unique, but at the same time, we are vastly similar with similar thoughts, feelings and experiences.
Some of the reading I’ve done in the last couple of weeks relates to vulnerability, shame and ultimately joy and happiness. I’ve been reading books from an author that was brought to my attention a few years ago from her work on shame. Brené Brown believes that most, if not all of us, are held back from true joy and happiness in our lives because of our experiences with shame and our fear of vulnerability. Her work suggests that people who life whole heartedly, have found ways to overcome their fear and allow themselves to be vulnerable.
Let me give an example that resonated with me and is apparently ubiquitous in our society. When things in my life are going really well, and especially when I’m thinking about my children my mind will start to conjure up all kinds of terrible and tragic scenarios. I picture the phone call in the middle of the night telling me of a terrible accident or some other horrible event happening to a loved one. These thoughts are terrible enough to have me ready to completely break down in sobs as I imagine the horror and heartbreak. These thoughts really took hold when I started having children as I don’t recall doing this before that time. It was as if now that I had something so precious in my life, I was constantly afraid of losing it. My husband tells me he has similar thoughts when I am even just twenty minutes later coming home than expected. He immediately starts to worry that I’ve been in an accident.
The reasoning behind thinking these worst case scenarios is that we are “prepared” if something bad really does happen. We believe that when things are too good in our lives, something bad happening is just inevitable. Now, I believe that life is supposed to be challenging because growth generally is a result of overcoming something difficult. Without challenges, we wouldn’t become better, stronger and more resilient. But living in constant fear of the next “challenge” doesn’t allow us to live “whole heartedly”. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable opens us to the possibility of more hurt and more happiness (and its cousin joy).
When we are constantly striving to be more… (or less) of what we think society expects of us we never feel like we are enough. How many of us have been caught up in the cycle that no matter how hard we try we are never good enough? Not pretty enough, young enough, thin enough, strong enough, smart enough, making enough money, a good enough parent, a good enough home maker, handy enough, volunteer enough……..just not enough. So when we feel shame for not being enough of something either society imposes or we impose on ourselves, we put on masks to hide behind so people don’t see the real “us”.
I admit I used to do the “not enough” circuit, which would lead to a review of every last sad and unhappy situation I have ever been in, which would then lead me to spiral downward even further. One day some time ago, I just decided I wouldn’t do this to myself anymore. I wouldn’t go down the “not enough” path ever again. I’m happy to say that after 40 years of the “I’m not enough mantra,” I haven’t gone back down that path again. When something happens that used to spark the “not enough” spiral, I face it head on. I acknowledge my feelings, whether they are anger, disappointment, frustration, sadness etc. and I also acknowledge that I am in control of those feelings. I recognize that I’m not perfect or others are not perfect or that bad stuff happens to good people. Whatever it is, I acknowledge that I am in complete control as to how I handle my behaviour in this moment. I’ve learned to remember that the situation, whatever it is, is not a reflection of who I am, and I choose to look at it from the perspective of, “what can I learn from this”? Changing my perspective has made a huge difference as to how I handle life’s bad moments.
It is hard to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. It is even harder not to allow ourselves to be “shamed” as we fail to meet our own unrealistic expectations, and especially the world’s unrealistic expectations. For example, I used to feel like I was the worst parent in the world. I was a single mother for many years. Not long after my marriage ended I decided I needed to go back to school for some post-secondary education. So I moved myself and my four young children half way across the country and went back to school. This was a difficult time, to say the least. We were so poor, we could never had made it without help from family, friends, church and the community. We had no car and no way I could have even afforded public transit, so we would leave the house before 7am to walk to day care where I would leave the kids, and then walk the remaining 30 minutes to the college I attended. I did my homework during lunches, breaks and after the kids went to bed, or before they got up. It wasn’t unusual to find me studying until midnight and then getting up at three a.m. to go at it again until 5am when I had to get myself and the kids ready for our next early departure.
During this time, there was never enough time for me to do all that needed to be done. Make dinner, clean up, help kids with their homework, bath time, story time, bed time. I was stressed and exhausted and spent way too much of my time yelling at my children and exhibiting behaviour I regret to this day.
Was I the worst parent ever? Not by a long shot. Could I have done better? Yes, definitely. Do I regret some of my behaviour? Yes, absolutely. It is easy to look back on a situation, or to look at somebody else’s situation and judge from the comfortable perspective of distance. If you find yourself judging someone else’s behaviour, stop it. If you are looking back at your own behaviour, recent or from long ago, do so with self-compassion. We need to allow ourselves to be imperfect without shame. If our behaviour warrants change, then we should work at changing it, but we need to show ourselves some genuine compassion.
This does not give anyone permission to be abusive. Let me be clear, it is not ok to be abusive to a spouse, child, employee, co-worker or anyone else. But for most of us, this isn’t about abuse. It is about being so hard on ourselves (and others) that we create completely unrealistic expectations and then make ourselves crazy trying to meet them or judge others as unworthy for failing to meet them. So let me repeat, stop judging. Practice acceptance. Practice self-compassion. Practice understanding. Dare to be who you really are, knowing every one of us is worthy of love and acceptance just the way we are. Join the journey to being the best you, but love who you are today. The one and only, wholly, unique, YOU!
If you want to find our more about Brené Brown and her work, here is her link.