Me time in the morning. I love it. I sit with a good cup of coffee and follow my mind wherever it wants to go. This morning I’m thinking about shame and its effects on my life when muffled from the backyard, I hear the Professor yelling loudly at our Border Collie, Tex.
“Bad dog! What’s wrong with you? Bad dog!! I can’t leave you alone without you digging! Bad dog! Get in your kennel!”
I don’t have to see her to know that she’s folded her ears flat against her head and slunk into the kennel, seemingly crushed. Shame and upper level decibels (for punctuation) have done the job: stopped her dead in her tracks and caused her to submit (for awhile). I react like that to shame too. More than I’d like to admit. But while Tex will bounce back out of her kennel in minutes, sparkling like she’s some flashy celebrity, I barely struggle out from under the weight of shame. It can take me days to recover. Lately I’ve been working to be irrepressible like Tex.
First, Tex is utterly convinced about certain basic truths: that she is not what she’s accused of being – a bad dog. She knows she is wonderful. Vivacious. Charming. Smarter than all get out. Irresistible. She knows she will make you a believer. You see, Tex is utterly convinced of those things no matter what we say or do. She’s resilient. I’m working on it.
It’s been a year, 2020, and I’m a stress eater. Instead of focusing on what I do that determines the fit of my clothes, I focus on who I am. I am disgusting. I have no self-control. I have no future. I deserve to be fat. With these labels, I see no way of escape which increase my stress which causes me to overeat which causes me to gain more weight which deepens my self-loathing. This morning I awoke, likely heavier than yesterday, voices of fat-shaming twerking around in my head. They aren’t there uninvited. They are familiar. I am used to them so I think it’s my real self talking.
Shame is pervasive. We give and receive it all the time, even to our dogs. I want to be shameless – toward myself and others.
I am the little girl who wasn’t enough for my parents. My feet are too big to wear white gogo boots in second grade, my legs are compared to fence posts, the mean girls say, “I would like you, Teri, but…” I am selfish, I am loud. I don’t meet my parents’ feminine ideals – I want a car and boys like girls who don’t have cars. I am a lazy student, an under-performer at work. A disloyal daughter and friend. A selfish person.
My whole adult life I have struggled with these faux truths without speaking of them or even realizing they were framing my life for me (meet our expectations, hide your physical shortcomings, be demure and kind, get a man – any man, apparently). And darned if I didn’t try. Still, I came up short in my estimation. I am what I do (or don’t).
Yesterday I went to lunch with my friend Andrea and we were talking about vulnerability. Andrea teaches law enforcement personnel to be vulnerable, something I think must be a very hard sell. I tell her that I think it must be an equally tough sell to politicians (I guess I still fancy myself that). Leaders of all stripes have to be brave, courageous, in control and in charge. A friend, a senator in California, calls this “the splendid loneliness of leadership”. I thought it was noble, but I’ve come to see it as partially responsible for all the basket cases in public life. When was the last time you met a vulnerable politician?
How, I ask Andrea, do you build trust and still be vulnerable? I can’t imagine how sharing these things make me more marketable as a public servant. I admire vulnerability in others, hate it in myself. Her answer is surprising.
Vulnerability isn’t always external. Sometimes, it’s demonstrating it within ourselves, to ourselves, especially when we’re ruthless in our judgmemt. Admitting we are fallible though well-intentioned. Admitting we don’t always have the answers. That we sometimes behave in ways we shouldn’t, but that’s what we do, not who we are. I think until we do this work within us, we have no business trying to fix the world outside us.
So this morning I tried something different. I let myself be vulnerable to me. Yes, I have gained weight between COVID-19, an unsuccessful campaign, stress at work, you name it. I am responsible for the consequences, but they are not who I am, not who I was made to be, and not who I am becoming.
And then I take a page from Tex’s book.
I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I am caring and committed to public service. I have character and integrity. I have habits that have kept me down, but I am rising. Beyond these, I am enough. Of course I love me!
Tex is not a bad dog, she’s a good dog who from time to time does bad things. I am not a bad person, I’m a good person who also from time to time needs correction. The Professor and I set Tex up for failure (leaving her for long periods in the backyard unsupervised) or for success by leaving her something with which she can occupy her extremely intelligent mind. I set myself up for failure by listening to my own twerking accusations or subdue them. I can nip the cycle in the bud, if I will.
Now to practice. That, as I sit with my coffee and think, is my challenge. I will make mistakes and I will have successes, but I practice it I will. Until I’m perfectly in command of my self-esteem.
I. Will. Be. Shameless.