My book club, The Key West Girls met today to discuss Brene Brown’s I Thought it Was Just Me (But it Isn’t). Ms. Brown is a writer and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work. Her ground-breaking studies on the subjects of shame and vulnerability have gained her international attention thru several Ted Talks, a PBS Special and a guest appearance on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. If you are not familiar with her work, check out the links below.
Until Ms. Brown came along, the subjects of shame and vulnerability were not likely to be discussed among a mimosa- sipping book club such as The Key West Girls nor in any setting, save a psychologist’s couch. From Adam and Eve’s revelation of sin in the Garden of Eden to my own devouring of an entire Toffee Crunch candy bar yesterday (the extra- large kind that cost several dollars from the discount store Aldi’s… yes, even before I drove out of the parking lot) shame remains the subject that no one wants to talk about. Shame lurks below the surface of our personalities, controlling our actions like the puppeteer controlled Oz. Shame is more than a feeling of embarrassment and more than feeling that we have done something bad. Shame tells us that we are bad. Shame cuts to the very core of our being and has a profound effect on our feelings of self-worth.
Vulnerability is often associated with weakness, when just the opposite is true. Being vulnerable requires a lot of courage and means that we must be willing to show our true self to the world. In doing that, we open ourselves up to the possibility of disappointment, criticism and rejection. Rather than risk being vulnerable, we instinctively try to insulate ourselves against it. We avoid situations and people that would expose our flaws; we guard our hearts against injury. There are many ways we can hide. Some people rage at the wind while others turn inwards. It’s easy to believe that we deserve love when we think we’re perfect, but when we’re a screwed up mess and our lives fall apart, there’s a part of us that believes we deserve it.
I have a friend with whom I share a similar past. We both experienced trauma as children in households with an unstable alcoholic parent. The other parent did not really protect us from the dangerous and abusive situations that resulted from this dysfunctional family dynamic. We developed similar coping mechanisms; we believed we could outsmart the negative effects of our childhoods by making better choices. We swore we would not go down the same roads we experienced as children. Instead, we held ourselves up to impossibly high standards that have repeatedly left us feeling like failures. As adults, we try to practice forgiveness and have not sought to solve the puzzles of our past by casting blame. We are both generally regarded as kind, compassionate individuals however the flip side (our shame) is that we have lousy boundaries with others and often find ourselves being manipulated or taken advantage of.
Although we’ve known each other for nearly thirty years, it wasn’t until we reached our fifties that we even thought to ask “Why did this happen? Why did no one stand up for us?” Over years of sharing numerous Starbuck Mocha Lattes and Panera Bread “You- Pick- Two” combination meals, we have only recently begun to make the correlation between the fact that no one stood up for us as children with our own inability to stand up for ourselves as adults.
In fact, there are so many missing parts of my childhood I simply don’t remember that I often have to ask my best friend what really happened. My husband jokes about my lapses of memory and says it is a blessing. I think he’s right. In my observations of my parents’ battles, the truth always seemed relative. I have come to believe that God is the only universal truth and that as flawed human beings, our view of the truth is always skewed and tainted by our experience. Like our ancestors who took the bite from the apple and made up stories to hide their shame, we make up our own stories to explain our lives. We transpose our real life experience into internal movies where we are the star surrounded by characters, plotlines and actions that we understand. The story I told myself was this…
“I had been spared and emerged from the flames unscathed. I was a living example of how life was better if you channelled a resilient inner strength and blew right thru the hard times. Hard times were there but they made you stronger, better. From an early age I understood, no I KNEW, there was simply so much goodness, so much grace, so much joy in this world that the bad stuff didn’t matter.”
I was wrong.
I went with my husband last week to see the film August: Osage County. Adapted from a play, it tells of a magnificent, dysfunctional Texas family. It is a story in contrasts and comparisons: the characters in the film alternately exemplify brilliance and stupidity, strength and weakness, denial and obsession. Except for the beautiful cinematography which includes breathtaking still shots of the austere Texas landscape, there’s very little beauty in this film. Even Meryl Streep is hideous.
As I sat through the movie with my medium popcorn and a Lipton Green Tea smuggled inside my purse, the details didn’t bother me. Despite having lost my father in a similar manner, I barely cringed at the suicide. I munched popcorn through the fight scenes and slurred insults. I recognized many nuances of the family’s cast of characters: the child who hated; the child who seemed unfettered; the child who felt responsible. Even as the mother Violet mimicked many of my own mother’s worst behaviors, I sat in my seat, unflinching, as if I was watching a movie about anyone but me.
In the final scene, something in me shifted. As the closing credits rolled, I began to sob. I cried as I rarely do in my life, in gulps and spasms, an ugly, ugly cry. I covered my face as hot tears fell and the salt scorched my cheeks. I sat in my seat gasping through the tears until everyone left and someone came in to clean up trash. My husband didn’t know what to do; the wife he knows doesn’t act like that. He sat there, a dutiful husband, clueless as what to do or what to say. I wish he’d taken my hand or put his arm around me; sometimes, I simply don’t know if we work that way anymore. In the end, I don’t suppose it mattered. This was my moment.
As I filtered many of the movie’s scenes through my own similar experiences, I experienced a strange reaction. Instead of being upset by the suicide or the defiant, drunken behavior of the mother or the broken children, I felt a kind of reassurance and validation. It was like I knew these people. Yet as the sheer ugliness of this families’ tragedy blazed across the screen before me, I forgot to perform my usual rewrite and reinterpretation of the events. Their story ended like ash falling from the sky after a bomb. There was so much damage and such a small, insignificant amount of hope, that for a moment I questioned everything I thought was true.
There passed through my mind a brief, devastating thought that shook me to my bones, that maybe, just maybe I had it all wrong. Had the people in this movie been made any better by the tragic events? Had my own life? Where was the redemption? Then, the feeling it passed. I looked like hell, but I was okay. I went to the bathroom, brushed the salt off my shirt and pulled the popcorn kernels out of my bra. I splashed cold water on my face, cursed the facility’s lack of papertowels and debated whether or not I should place my head beneath the electric hand dryer to dry my face. Instead, I blotted my cheeks with toilet paper and peeled the tissue off my skin in sections, because of course, it stuck. I walked quietly to the car with my husband. We decided we were hungry and went to K&W Cafeteria for dinner.
I am an optimist. I believe in goodness, grace and joy. This is what I know; this is who I am.