Shame __ you.

a.  “On”
B. “Off”

From almost the beginning I’ve experienced multiple scenarios, interactions, relationships, events that, in my inability to understand what was really happening, left me with an urgent sense of “there must be something wrong with me.”

It was really bad in junior high.  There were several bullies who made it their job to harass, threaten, and most of the time embarrass me in front of everyone.  I didn’t know how to deal with it.  I usually acted like it was funny, then spent my time outside of school with an aching fear – worrying about who would pick on me the next day. But I always found a way to blow it off, to distract myself, to act like it wasn’t a big deal.

I remember having a crush on Rhonda C. in the 7th grade.  She was really popular and always nice to me, so I asked her to go steady.  She said she would consider it so I thought there was a chance.  Her best friend Margie came up to me a day later, grabbed my shoulders and pronounced, “Rhonda says yes!  She wants to go steady with you!”  Wow!  I had no idea what to do.  My plan was to avoid her until I could figure out what to say to my very first girlfriend ever (not counting Kelly M. in the 1st grade, but she didn’t know she was my girlfriend).

The next day Rhonda approached me just outside the lunchroom and very compassionately revealed the truth –  “Margie thought it would be funny, but it was really mean and I’m sorry she did that.  So, as far as I’m concerned we’re going steady.”  I finally mustered the words I had been looking for.  I gently punched her on the arm and said “Awww-right!”  She broke up with me a few days later, and I “moved on” like I did with everything else.

When a 7th grader asks the question “why would people treat me this way?” the only thing he can come up with is “it must be me.”  I felt it at school, around my family, and with some of my friends.  While I had no idea this was all taking place inside, my soul did.  Without knowing it I began to label people – those who where above me – the cool, pretty, smart folk, and those below – the lower class, the truly rejectable – the higher you were on the ladder the more value you had as a person.  I spent so much of my time in social situations trying to figure out where I stood on the cool continuum and what I needed to do to make people like me.  It was horribly lonely.

Shortly after high school I decided I had had enough.  I set out to change everything and nevermore be that kid that everyone picked on.  I started working out, changed my style, changed my “crowd” and began to attempt to climb the ladder of coolness.  It was tough going.  I’ve never taken social cues well and have always struggled with being awkward.  But I did manage to at least emerge from the ooze of total dorkness, at least as outward appearances go.

So my odyssey began, and I’m just now realizing the toll it’s taken.  Instead of allowing people to heap shame on me, I would heap it on them, especially on people who reminded me of me, which ironically made my shame worse.  To this day if anyone says or does anything that makes me feel bad about myself I get really angry – most of the time I’ll retaliate, usually in ways that won’t bring more shame upon me.

Next year I’ll be fifty.

I’m finally coming to grips with the fact that those hurts from the past are alive and well.  I may have found some creative ways to bury it all, but I still live day-to-day with that ache in my gut – that fear that forces me to hide, worrying what will happen if people see the real me.  But I’ve also come to realize that there are so. many. other. people. who live this way.   As children it’s difficult to know how to navigate the painful moments so it makes sense to do nothing, and feel nothing, as these events solidify themselves within, and permanently become part of our “now.”

I know married folk who fight like cats and dogs, never realizing that what they’re really fighting about happened so long ago, before they met each other.  I know successful business people who work their fingers to the bone – living from accomplishment to accomplishment – anything to avoid the shame that’s eating them inside.  So many people are angry, not because something made them mad, but because they’ve been hurt (anger is always a symptom of hurt).  It’s truly an epidemic.

I’m not sure how to get rid of it and I know it’s not a simple deal.  But here’s a short list of the things that, when I’m able to talk myself into doing them, have had a nasty affect on my shame:

  1. Don’t put shame on anyone else.  Don’t judge people, talk about them behind their back, publicly highlight their stupidity, laugh at them, etc.  Putting shame on other people only makes mine stronger.
  2. When I hear that voice “there’s something wrong with you,” I try to speak truth as a response.  “We all deal with shame.” “We all have things about us that are broken.”  “There are plenty of things that aren’t wrong with me.”
  3. When I worry about what others are thinking/saying: “Other people’s opinions really don’t matter – my life has never been threatened or significantly impacted by the way someone else thinks about me.” “People don’t gossip because of what’s true, but because they’re hurting inside and it’s a wonderful way to feel better.”
  4. Spend as much time as I can with healthy people who are either dealing actively with their shame, or have been freed from it.
  5. Discuss my most painful moments with people who care about me.  Talking about this stuff is the beginning of freedom.
  6. Drink wine

Sorry for the forthcoming juvenile observation, but it’s one of the most powerful things I can say about shame.  It’s like dog poop.  Don’t pick it up, don’t play with it, certainly don’t throw it at anyone.  If you get any on you – wash, rinse, repeat, till it’s gone – if you don’t know how to do that, get some help.  The farther you can get away from it the better you (and the people around you) will be.

Finding Life-Change in a Men’s Restroom

I’m embarrassed to say that I’m just now learning this.  I wish I would’ve learned it in my 30’s, when most people do, but when it comes to being un-miserable, I’m a slow study.

I’ve spent most of my life believing that my situation(s) determine(s) my ability to be happy – the right job, a great marriage, money, etc, and I’ve had several careers as a result.  I’ve had some fun moments and learned a ton of things that haven’t really helped in my latest career – stay at home dad.  But there’s always been this nagging compulsion to change everything as soon as I start feeling bad about my life.  Feeling like I can’t be happy until things change has always made me unhappy, especially when I can’t change things.

My thinking about all of this took a hit in my late 40’s when I was assaulted in a men’s airport restroom.

I left my wife at the gate with 3 crazy kids and hurried off to the bathroom hoping to be back in time to board.  This particular facility was attended by an older (soon-to-be elderly) man of Middle Eastern descent.

I’ve got some pictures in my head of what retirement will look like.  At worst I’ll be handing out carts at WalMart by day, living in a retirement community that surrounds a golf course in Florida, sipping Grand Marnier and smoking house-rolled cigars in the evening while watching Lost re-runs.  Bathroom attendant?  Not on the table.

This guy said nothing and everything to me.  He had an air of respect and dignity about him as he looked me in the eye and said “have a nice day” as I was leaving.  I turned around and put some money in his tip jar.  His counter was perfectly arranged – combs, towels, cologne, some other things.

He seemed happy – working in an airport restroom – all. day. long.  Funny how we can sense when someone’s happy.  Like dogs smell fear, people smell peace.  This guy had it in spades – you couldn’t get past him without getting it all over you.

I’ve been a pastor, pilot, restaurant manager, banker, and now I have 5 hours five days a week to kick back while my kids are at school and my wife goes off to support us all financially.  He’s happy and I’m not?  Something’s missing – he’s got something I don’t have.  If it’s within his grasp it must be within mine.

In that moment I decided to start looking around at the things that are going well, the things I should be thankful for.  As I did I began to realize that expecting-things-to-change-before-I-can-be-happy is a truly miserable way to live.  The more I flex this muscle the more I’m able to be happy even when things aren’t going well.  When the kids are crazy, when my wife and I are fighting, when I screw up and everyone’s talking about it, when I walk out of the doctor’s office with a diagnosis for arthritis – when my life seems like an endless day in a restroom, I can still be thankful, and at peace.

I’m new to this and sometimes not very good at it.  But I’m slowly learning that, somehow every day,  I have everything I need to be at peace.  The only thing that needs to change is my attitude.

So, thank you nameless guy who’s face I’ll never forget.  Our 20 second encounter, and the way you’re living your life has incited me to change mine – to get rid of some caustic attitudes, to open my eyes about what’s truly good and beautiful.  You slapped me in the face with your peace, your self-dignity, and your respect, and got some on me.  Didn’t see that one coming.

 

Tip #3 Marginalize, Marginalize, Marginalize

 

peace_people

You don’t just wake up one morning feeling shame, someone has to give it to you

This is one of my favorites.  You can do it in the privacy of your own mind and it will very quickly destroy your ability to be happy.  Marginalizing happens when we consider someone, or a group of someones, to be lower than us – ie, we diminish their value as people, and it feels wonderful.

How to Marginalize People

To do this, you’ll need three things in your toolbox that most people have readily available.  First, you’ll need to question your own value.  this is the hallmark of depression – feeling like you never measure up, like you have to always be doing more – one tiny slip and the world will know how crappy you are.  Most people deal with this by finding some arena where they might perform – work, physical appearance, money, things, influential friends – as long as these things are in play, self-value is seldom questioned.  Take these away and a very shaky self-image emerges.  I have a friend who always tells me about how much he appreciates himself, but spends a ton of time ripping a certain group of people.  What he loves is that he’s a very responsible person – what he hates is people who are irresponsible.  He’s a young guy and will live like this for awhile, but it will require a ton of emotional energy.  Most guys wear out around mid-life, try like hell to find the self that was lost (usually with a Harley and a grip – ton of alcohol), then give up and get depressed.

Second, you’ll need to hold something close to your heart that you consider to be disgusting, deplorable, unjust, gross, unsightly, etc – a behavior, a “look,” a philosophy, a cause, an orientation – something that, when you see someone else doing it, makes you cringe, and something you don’t do, at least not in public.  What I’ve found is that this thing that we hate usually reminds us of ourselves.  My friend with the responsibility issues was raised with a lot of shame surrounding responsibility – there’s a mountain of unresolved hurt in that guy’s heart and it’s led him to believe that the only people with true value are the ones who are truly responsible – and that he’s a piece of junk every time he drops a ball.

Third, you’ll need to have been marginalized at some point in your past.  Most of us have been there – this is a popular thing to do to people, especially to kids.  We want our kids to a) not be completely insane and b) have great lives – so we push them, frequently using shame which a) is one of the best motivators ever and b) sends the very clear message “you’re only valuable if  you ______.”

  • do your homework
  • get good grades
  • stay in shape
  • make lots of money
  • lead something
  • behave
  • look good
  • make me look good

Most of us are raised believing that we’re only valuable under certain conditions.  If those conditions are broken, we’ll feel shame which, regardless of what you believe about human origin, is something humanity was never designed to deal with.  Shame drives all sorts of miserable behavior – addiction, destruction, bad grades, bad relationships, bad attitudes – but you don’t just wake up one morning feeling shame, someone has to give it to you.

How you look at people can make you miserable

I’m going to throw out something that you may have never heard before.  It will sound strange at first, it did to me, but I want to invite you to let this sink in for a bit before you do anything with it.

How you view people determines your ability to be happy

If you look at humanity in general and see something amazing, you have a better chance at happiness than you do if you ascribe value to people under more conditional terms.  If the only people who are valuable to you are the people who add value to your life, or the people you look up to, or the people who perform well, your happiness will be just as conditional.  If you’re reading this and (understandably) thinking to yourself “baloney,” I’ll bet you’re struggling, unless you’re really young and still have the energy to live under so many conditions.

When we were kids, most of us thought this way – that all people are essentially good, and we were happy. As we grew up we were taught to place conditions on the value of others – to find joy in looking down on people – which somehow resulted in our placing conditions on our own value.  It seems that the older we get, the harder it is to be at peace.

Give it a shot – spend a day or two looking past the blemishes to see the real beauty of people (and leave some comments – I’d love to hear your stories).  When the impulse comes upon you to judge someone, strip someone of their value, marginalize someone, resist – understand that the impulse comes from something inside you that has nothing to do with the other person.  Go have a drink or two, watch a movie, meet with a friend.  I promise it won’t kill you, but it will make it harder for you to live a miserable life.

 

Happiness, Retail Therapy, Credit Cards, and Oh My God where’s my Money

creditcard

Retail therapy (“I’m feeling empty inside, I deserve to go out and spend some money”) feels great, one of the most immediate ways to shake whatever unsavory thing you’re dealing with in the moment.  It’s a popular method, requiring no skill or experience, and in most cases no money.  If you have a credit card, even better.  You get to spend money you can’t really pay back, but you don’t have to think about all of that – just make your minimum payment each month and you’re good to go.

Most purchases I’ve made really did change my life, especially the big ones.  A few years ago my wife and I made the decision to buy a house.  Our third adoption had just gone through and we were feeling the need to expand our territory a bit.  There was a new house being built a block away from Elaine’s work that she had frequently passed while walking on her breaks.  We looked into it, got really excited, and made our first spontaneous purchase together.  It would be the biggest and nicest house I’ve ever lived in.

Moving is hell for me – the details, the physical labor, everything’s a mess and unsettled, the kids don’t know what’s going on – I couldn’t wait to get the old house sold and everything in place in the new.  Once we settled in, I felt like I was living in paradise.  I remember thinking on multiple occasions that it felt like staying in a luxury hotel – like we were on some kind of vacation.  My life had truly been changed – for about six months.

Sadly, that feeling ended and life returned to normal, except for the fact that our house was a bit larger and we had geographically shifted.  The life we had before our life changing purchase had returned, like an old tired dog that you just can’t get rid of.  It’s been like that for all my purchases, although I still struggle to believe it.  These things do change our lives, for a very short period, then life returns, unaffected.  Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with buying things, but plenty wrong with the belief that they’ll significantly alter our lives.

But that’s what we believe.  We’re up to our ears in debt due in large part to our faith in things and experiences – and we owe it all to our little plastic collaborators, waiting anxiously in our wallets.  Credit cards, when they first came out, were popular because of their convenience, and the tech was cool.  But back then everyone approached debt with some caution, even with open lines of credit.

Things have changed.

Now, our credit cards allow us to secretly borrow at point of purchase, without anyone truly knowing how bad our situation is – with the exception of our credit card company – they’re cheering us on – that’s how they make big $$$.

For most of us, Retail Therapy is really Debt Therapy.  We feel empty, or useless, shamed, angry, lonely – or some combination of sadness – and we salve it all by spending money we don’t have, adding to the mountain of $$ we’ll be hard-pressed to pay back.  We add a stressor to our lives that will be with us for a very long time, and we forfeit a significant chunk of our freedom.

Ultimately, Retail therapy will bring change to your life.  Most would agree however that it’s not the kind of change you’re looking for.  Like most things that make us miserable, it’s a quick fix for a bigger problem, one that requires some deeper thinking.  But when we’re worried about our revolving-debt-related-money stress, we usually don’t have head space for much else.

Digging out of stupid debt is really hard.  I had to marry someone who would have none of it – Elaine sees most debt as completely inexcusable.  I quickly said goodbye to my “whip-out-the-credit-card-at-every-turn” addiction, and changed my beliefs about the power of things and experiences.  I’m not sure I could’ve done it without someone close, someone who really cared, helping me to understand how bad things had gotten.

But to be honest, in the back of my mind, I still struggle to understand what truly matters in this life.  I’m surrounded by things I don’t have, and constantly fighting the urge to better my life with them.