A few weeks ago, I sat in the pews while the preacher addressed the issue of shame. During the sermon, he made a confession. While he believes in principle that all people – good, bad, or ugly — possess inherent worth and dignity, for most of his adult life, he has not believed in his own worth. As a young, closeted man, he struggled mightily to simply utter the words that he was gay out loud, even in front of his best friend. So great was his shame at being different. And to this day despite his many successes, despite being happily married and a loving parent, as a gay man in modern America, his struggle continues. He sometimes feels that he is not enough, not worthy to be loved.
During the sermon, he mentioned the work of Brené Brown on this subject, which triggered me to think hard about the shame I experienced in my life.
I don’t mean that time when I was 10 years old and I unintentionally crapped in a hotel pool while on vacation with my parents. No one saw me do it, but I knew. I was embarrassed by my mistake, but that feeling was not shame. It was guilt.
A self-described Researcher/Storyteller, Brown describes guilt as “I did something bad.” Crapping in the pool was bad. Rather, she describes shame as “I am bad.” No one I know would describe a 10-year old who crapped in the pool once as a bad person.
Furthermore, Brown defines shame as a “fear of disconnection” from other people. Like the preacher, you feel that you are not good enough or worthy enough for people to see you, really see you for your authentic self.
For the next three decades, my parents, teachers, society, and our patriarchal culture pushed me toward the standard expected of men: perfection, in control, master of my universe. Success followed and I was given little reason to experience that fear of being unworthy.
I earned top grades in school and degrees from fancy universities thousands of miles from my hometown. While in graduate school in a strange, large city, I had the luxury of figuring out what I wanted to do for a living. I moved to another strange, large city to pursue this career, and achieved a measure of success and recognition. I met, courted, and married the woman of my dreams and started a family. I possessed the confidence that I could rise to meet any challenge. Imagine that kind of confidence.
As I entered my forties, I was still living a privileged life, now in my wife’s hometown, and working in another field that also challenged my skills and curiosity. I still felt like I had things under control. For example, when I decided to run a marathon, I read a book on how to do it and, a few months later, completed my first marathon. When my wife left the country for five weeks on a work assignment, just to surprise her, I went on a diet and lost 17 pounds. I was elected president of the board of trustees of my children’s school, which meant that people paid attention to what I had to say. People in our city regularly asked me where they knew me from, which felt like semi-celebrity. I felt wanted and deserving.
And then I catapulted myself into the “swampland of the soul”: shame.
What had happened was…in pretty quick succession, I hit the trifecta of men’s worst fears. I was fired from my job. I suffered a heart attack. My marriage failed.
The first two challenges were things that happened to me. They were not existential blows to my self-esteem. Though my career path was altered, I found another job and continued to be in demand for work that was satisfying and, at times, exciting. Though my health was attacked, I worked hard to regain physical fitness.
However, it was the failure of my marriage that led me to question whether I was worthy of being connected to others, whether I was good enough.
I felt that I had disappointed my wife, failing to be the husband and partner she wanted.
I felt embarrassed in front of my own children as I moved out of our home.
I could barely stand to be in the presence of anyone who had known us as a married couple.
I felt as though I had not only let my wife down, but all her friends and family as well. I felt as though I had let my wife’s hometown down.
I felt as though I was damaged person, not worthy of anyone’s attention or affection. I felt as though I was not enough.
It should be noted that no one – not my ex-wife, our children, my parents, or our friends — acted or said a single word to cause my shame. It was entirely self-generated. This shame was my own crushing invention.
In her work, Brown discusses how men experience shame. The root of men’s (my) shame is the fear of being seen as weak. She tells the story of a man who explained to her that his wife and children would rather see him die on his white horse than fall off it. That is the standard to which men are held, often by themselves: perfect, controlled, masters.
I had hoisted myself on my own petard.
In spite of my shame, I did not despair. I woke up every morning and went to work, even though at times it lacked a sense of purpose. I ate nutritious food, even when I was not hungry. I went to the gym, even though my body was weighed down by sadness. I kept putting one foot in front of the other, bound by a faith that things were going to get better, even if I did not have a plan to make them better. I gave myself over to a universe not of my own making in which I recognized myself as a fallible person just trying to do his best.
I was also lonely.
When I eventually went online to find another partner, I looked for someone who had also known the pain of divorce. Someone who had known failure and was yet willing to make herself vulnerable again. Someone who had fallen off her own white horse and possessed the vulnerability to get back on.
Brown describes vulnerability as “our most accurate measure of courage.” And by courage, she means the courage to be imperfect.
Today I do not seek to be imperfect, but I accept it in myself. I believe that God laughs at our plans.
And so — without wishing a cruel fate to anyone — I also believe that everyone should be fired from a job at least once in life. Everyone should be willing to confront the issues that tear marriages apart and be willing to accept the outcome. Everyone should have a health scare. Doing so forces the kind of introspection, self-examination, review of strengths and weaknesses, and honest dialogue with one’s self needed to grow as a person and retain the kind of connections to others we want and need.
Today, I don’t worry about the failure of my first marriage or the success of my second. By all appearances, my children and I have mutually supportive relationships. Old friends and I share laughter, and I am making new friends in yet another large city thousands of miles from my hometown.
I guess that means that I am enough, and that my shame is now but a memory.
Brené Brown: The Power of Vulnerability https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o
Brené Brown: Listening to Shame https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psN1DORYYV0