I’ve always been a hard worker. Whether that came from a place of love and service or a place of shame and unworthiness, I’m not exactly sure. But I put in work like a country mule as far back as I can remember.
At eight years old I was diagnosed with diabetes and self-care literally became a life and death matter. I had to test my blood, inject insulin, keep an accurate logbook and eat metered quantities of food at very specific intervals all throughout the day. Like it or not, treating a chronic illness became the continual background hum of my waking life and even my sleeping moments. Now I’m not saying this is true, healthy or even helpful, but the lesson I learned was that in order to keep my life from going down the drain I would have to work at it constantly.
I got my first job at a home-furnishing store when I was ten years old. By ninth grade I was working the front desk at the Hampton Inn, and I was an assistant manager at a floral shop – both several miles by bicycle from my house. It’s not that we were poor. I just didn’t wanna need anything from anyone. Ever. This counter-dependence was one of many coping strategies that I would develop in order to protect, provide and self-medicate (see Vulnerability Is The Price Of Admission).
I’ll Be Happy When…
This whole life thing was turning out to be a lot of work. I hit depression, anxiety and therapy before I hit puberty. I struggled with incessant motor tics and compulsive fidgeting, along with the shame and secrecy that accompanied trying to climb out of my own skin. Doctors had no idea what was wrong with me. Neither did I. But I somehow found solace in the belief that one day, when I did enough stuff and acquired enough things, then I would be happy.
As time passed, I checked more and more items off my “I’ll be happy when…” list. Apparently, I was also adding things to a “I”m still not happy, so I’ll drown the pain with…” list. In 2007 I had the profound realization that my strategy for success was actually killing me. I had to get sober in order to stop the bleeding, so to speak, but I soon discovered that drugs and alcohol weren’t my problem. They were crude solutions to a problem I couldn’t even identify – an unspeakable sense of brokenness in my soul.
I don’t remember not being ashamed. I remember transitioning from diapers to plastic underwear because I was a chronic bedwetter. Keeping a change of clothes at the nurse’s office at school because I would pee myself there too. I remember catching a ride to my dad’s house from a family friend, dozing off in her Mercedes and spraying the seats down. I had sleepovers as a kid and literally pissed on my friends. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I had a thousand other things to be ashamed of too, let me tell you.
Have you ever reached a seemingly indisputable conclusion that you’re just a badly broken human being, you can’t do shit right and your whole life is gonna be more of an exercise in damage control than anything else?
Yeah, that’s called shame – we don’t talk about that. Take it on the chin. Suffer in silence. Hide it deep down inside where no one will ever find it. Let it fester and metastasize into a vast network of codependent coping mechanisms that will fuel an infinite array of compulsive addictions and self-destructive behaviors. Just put on a happy face, motherfucker, people are watching.
The Healing Journey
Healing isn’t easy. In fact, I’d say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done and continue to do. It takes a tremendous amount of courage, humility, time, energy, strength, dedication and resilience. Honestly, I would’ve avoided this whole healing thing forever if I could have, but I ran out of other options (see Healthy Starts With “Heal”).
It’s hard for me to even fathom the amount of recovery work I’ve done over the years. Therapy, mentoring, various support groups, conferences, workshops, book studies, twelve-step work, biography work, family of origin work, trauma work, inner-child work, hypnosis, shame reduction, journaling, prayer, meditation, reiki, craniosacral therapy, yoga, breathwork, firewalking, sound healing, positive affirmations, gratitude lists, etc. I’ve read approximately one million books on this stuff. I’ve worked one-on-one and in groups with folks in juvenile detention facilities, rehabs, prisons and mental wards 1) to be of service and 2) as part of my own continued growth, recovery and learning. In addition to coaching clients, I now spend much of my time writing about the healing process.
What I’m starting to realize is that shame can tail us well into our healing journey and bellow from the shadows, “You should be better than this by now!” The message simultaneously shames us for even needing to work on ourselves this way and tells us that we need to do more work on ourselves. It’s absolutely remarkable. Well played, shame. Well played indeed.
When Not Healing Becomes Part Of The Healing Process
The beating heart of shame is “I’m not good enough, and I have to do something about it.” Therefore, at some point along our healing journey, in order to truly leave shame behind we have to stop compulsively trying to improve. We can just tell ourselves that we are ok. We’re good enough, lovable, valuable, worthy, whole and perfectly imperfect. When we goof, we can say “I made a mistake” instead of “I am a mistake.” We can stop badgering ourselves with negative self-talk, self-pity, regret, remorse and feeling shitty all the time.
Don’t get me wrong, I know I had to do a ton of work to get to a place where this was even possible. But eventually, recovering from shame stops looking like “recovery work.” It starts to look like just loving yourself. Doing things you enjoy. Taking naps. Singing in the car. Dancing in the kitchen. Laughing at your mistakes. Treating yourself to something wonderful from time to time. Surrounding yourself with positivity, love and good influences. Removing toxic people from your life. Being honest with yourself about what you want, need, think and feel. Being honest with others about such matters. Saying yes to your goals, dreams, happiness and growth. Saying no to supporting other people’s bullshit.
Healing from shame is a transition that feels like you’re not trying to catch up anymore. Not gasping for air or keeping secrets. Not trying to people please, prove your worth or get some kind of external validation. It feels like being whole. Like absolute freedom. Being in control of your own life. It feels like actually living – finally.