This is my homework from my last self-help blog post and it’s getting its own post because it ended up being something I thought a lot about and then wrote a lot about. Plus, I think it’s quite important.
I decided that I wanted to think about a recent success I’d had in integrating a shameful action of mine so that I no longer felt ashamed of it. Here, I’m going to write about how I did it and how my process maps on to the Rising Strong process outlined by Brené Brown in her book of the same name.
A brief introduction: Some years ago, I did a thing. It was not a good thing and it hurt someone. I knew immediately, really, that I’d done a bad thing, but for years I tried to force myself into believing that my motives had been good, that I had been trying to help, and sometimes even that it couldn’t have been that bad, despite the fact that I (deservedly) lost a friend. And although at times I almost believed myself, I could never forget, and never think about what happened without… well, unidentified feelings of badness.
First in the process comes The Reckoning. During the Reckoning, we begin to investigate our feelings and how they connect to our thoughts and behaviours. Doing this helps us to discover what stories we’re telling about ourselves and the world. We may not know what the feelings are, but we recognise their existence and the effect that they’re having on us.
I decided in the early months of this year that I didn’t want to feel this way about the incident any more. It had been looming large for so many years, and I wanted to put it to rest. I’d read in many places that in order to get over something, you’re supposed to face it, so I tried to. I tried so hard, but it turned out to be incredibly difficult. There were various reasons for this. One was simply that over the years I’d forgotten many of the specifics or they’d been blurred by the way I told the story to myself. Another was that although I’d decided to try to look it in the face, I still didn’t want to.
But the biggest reason was shame, and it took me until I watched Brené Brown’s TED talk some five or six months later to realise it. I’d always thought of shame as being similar to embarrassment, but the way that Dr. Brown talks about it is so much more intense. She speaks of it as the thing that we think is so bad that we’re afraid people will find out about it: “Is there something about me that if other people know it or see it, I won’t be worthy of connection?”
Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was the biggest thing stopping me from facing what I’d done. Every time I tried to look directly at my actions, I seemed to jerk away reflexively. When I looked towards this thing, it was as though it was backlit so brightly and harshly that I couldn’t see what was there. I could pick out little bits and pieces, enough that I had a decent idea of what had happened from the hundreds of glimpses I’d got, but I was never able to just sit there and look at it and see the whole picture.
The feelings of shame (which I still didn’t have a name for) just kept getting worse. It became a physical feeling, a jolt in my chest, a heat in my ears, and I swear there were times when I could see that backlight. Yet soon after I’d started trying, I knew that I couldn’t stop until I’d succeeded. It was as though I’d had a scar but it was only thinly healed, so that when I picked at it, it immediately started bleeding even worse than before.
This, for me, was what Brené Brown calls ‘day two’. The really hard bit in the middle of almost any process where things are terrible but there’s no sight of the other side yet. You’re in the dark and just keeping on because you can’t go back and you’re just hoping desperately that there really is an other side. I would think about this incident multiple times a day – every time with that horrible physical and mental reaction of just badness. Sometimes jerking away, sometimes catching a glimpse, sometimes even spotting something new which helped me to build up a picture in my mind.
And so, after months of Reckoning, I knew more or less what had happened, even though I couldn’t face it as a complete story. And I knew that I felt something bad about it.
And so we move on to The Rumble. The Rumble picks up where the Reckoning leaves off. We look at the stories we’ve been telling ourselves about our struggles, and we revisit and challenge them, working out what’s true and what’s not, and why. Doing this, we gain a deeper understanding of the thoughts, feelings and behaviours we first noticed when we Reckoned.
Then I watched Brené Brown’s talk and understood that the feeling I hadn’t been able to name was in fact shame. I was ashamed of what I had done. I was afraid that it made me unworthy of having any friends, not just the one I’d hurt. I was afraid that it was unforgiveable and made me a bad person.
Being able to name my shame was a big breakthrough and made a huge difference in how I thought about this incident. To realise just what it was I was afraid of helped me to put those feelings in proportion. Knowing this, I was able to think about and look at the whole incident as though it was an ordinary thing rather than some unspeakable nightmare. I knew, eventually, that what I’d done didn’t make me bad. It wasn’t good, and it was something I’d always regret, but it didn’t mean I was a monster.
And yet I still felt the shame. Although in my rational mind I now understood what had happened, could look at it with clear eyes and know what had happened and why, and that I was still an ordinary human being, I didn’t feel it. I still felt unforgiveable.
You may or may not have noticed that as I talk about how I processed what had happened, it’s all been in my mind. I’ve thought about things. I’ve watched videos. I’ve told and retold the story in my mind. What I haven’t done is anything physical. I’ve never written anything down, drawn a picture, spoken it aloud. I’ve never taken it out of my mind.
An integral part of the Rising Strong process, as Brené Brown emphasises, is creativity and storytelling. She says, “For our purposes, we need to do just a little writing – nothing formal, just jotting down some notes on our experience.” But pfff, I’d got this far without writing anything down, hadn’t I? Surely I could get the whole way! Why, even though I’d read Rising Strong up to this point, would I listen to a woman who’s devoted years of her life to researching this very thing?!
Eventually, though, I did write it down. Just a few sentences, but the difference that simple act made was astonishing! I won’t give you the whole thing, but here are some extracts: “But also I wanted to be a part of their story and that wasn’t my place… Perhaps I could apologise but that’d be weird and wouldn’t help them. I feel a lot of shame about it but that’s my problem now, not theirs. I acted foolishly and selfishly, and I regret what I did. And… that’s ok? It’s ok to regret things. I wouldn’t do that now and that’s good.”
This was the moment when it all fell into place for me. I had written down true things, and when I read them on my screen I knew that they were true. I had acted foolishly, without thinking through the consequences of my actions (or perhaps ignoring them; this is one of the things that I can’t remember). I had acted selfishly, thinking about what I wanted and not what would help the person. I wish someone hadn’t ended up hurt because of what I did and that’s a consequence of being thoughtless and selfish. I wouldn’t do it now and in some ways that’s the most important thing. Despite all my bad feelings about the incident, I learned from it.
Writing my story down in 137 words was the thing that removed my feelings of shame. I was able, quite suddenly, to look at the whole incident and not feel as though I was burning up. It’s not that I think that what I did was fine, it’s that I know that I’m still worthy of love and connection.
Finally, I had reached the point of Revolution. This is where we take everything we’ve learned in the previous two stages and write a new story, one which changes how we engage with the world and ourselves. In short, it’s the transformation that results from all the work we’ve been doing.
For me, the Revolution was almost a natural consequence of my successful Rumble. To write a new story felt like simplicity itself after the previous eight or nine months. I often find this when I process things. I have all the pieces and just need one spark or key or realisation to make them all slot into place.
I have written a new story. A story where I hurt someone with my bad behaviour; a story where I will always regret that; a story where I’ve learned and understood some things and now have a new confidence in my ability not to hurt someone in the same way again. A story that is part of me now, one of the parts I’m not proud of, but still me, nevertheless.
In conclusion, I’ve written all of this in the hope that I’ll be able to look back at it and know that I can Rise Strong. It’s also been a way of looking at what I did in detail and starting to understand just how complex the process can be. And finally, having thought about it so intensively, I now have some experience of how Rising Strong actually feels. I’m sure it’s different every time, but experience is really the key with a process like this. You can’t just read the book and know how it goes, you have to live it.