Category Archives: What Shame Looks Like

adventures in potty training

Having never had a child, I have never potty-trained another human being.  And having never had a puppy… until now, I have never potty-trained another LIVING being.  To quote Coldplay, “nobody said it was easy; no one ever said it would be this hard.”  Wowzers, I am being challenged in ways I never expected.  And my shame is being triggered in ways I never thought to anticipate.

Oscar is partially potty-trained – he can sleep all night with no problems, which is wonderful, and sometimes he goes to the door to let me know he has to go out, also wonderful.  But when it comes to consistently communicating his needs to relieve himself, well, let’s just say we’re working on it.  I have been on near-constant “potty watch” since we brought him home 4+ weeks ago. I am continuously observing his behavior, looking and listening for signs that he has to go so I can usher him outside and avoid accidents in the house.  And for the most part, I have been successful.  But anyone who truly knows me knows I do not focus on “for the most part.”  I focus on the other parts – the parts that have NOT been successful.  It’s just what I do.  And unfortunately, but as is the case with a puppy (so I have been told many many times), there have been mishaps.  Just when I think we are making lots of progress and Oscar is really getting this potty training thing, we take a step back, and even if several days have gone by without any accidents, I find myself becoming really discouraged when the mishaps occur and I let those bring me down.  I start to feel like a failure, and those ugly words creep into my mind… you’re never going to succeed at this.  You don’t know what you’re doing.  You’re doing it all wrong.  Who do you think you are? 

I google how to potty train your puppy, how long should it take to potty train your puppy, am I the only one failing at potty training my puppy (just kidding on the last one… for now…) in an attempt to figure out the exact magic formula for getting Oscar 100% potty trained FOREVER, just to feel like a colossal failure when ooops, he did it again.  There I am, on my knees over the puddle on the rug or hardwood floor, spraying the enzyme cleaner and scrubbing like crazy in desperate hope of ridding the area of any scent that could attract him in the future, and feeling like a colossal failure.  And then the shame gremlins attack.  You’re never going to get this.  Just give up and let him pee in the house.  You’re doing it all wrong.

Why do I fall into this shame trap?  WHY, when we have had WAY more successes than failures, do I let those failures affect me so much?  Well, I think it’s because I have come to expect the failures.  Ouch.  That hurt to write.  But gosh, it’s true.  It’s true!  Whether it’s potty training my puppy, building a successful business, making macarons like the perfect specimens I ate in Paris, writing a book, re-learning how to play the piano, mending a broken relationship, being the person I want to be… I am far less successful than I let myself hope… or maybe the truth is that I am far less successful than I think I should be… so when I stumble, it hurts.  It hurts so much that I want to quit.  I want to forget I ever had that idea to do that thing or act that way in the first place.  Just give up, I tell myself.  Of course, I can’t really do this with a new puppy in my care – nor do I truly want to – but I can and have done it with other things throughout my life.  I have let the discouragement keep me from pressing on.  I have let the self-doubt convince me that there is no point in continuing.  I’ll never succeed anyway.  

But then this morning, as I found myself kneeling on the floor scrubbing the rug and feeling completely dejected (after several days of successes, I might add!), I was reminded of some encouragement that God knew I needed in times of discouragement and self-doubt.  A couple of weeks ago I read a blog post written by Andrea Lucado.  Andrea is the daughter of Max Lucado, a noted Christian author and brilliant (in my opinion), insightful man.  Max’s works have helped me through some incredibly difficult days, and I am finding that his daughter’s words are having the same effect.  When I read her honest and vulnerable words recounting the self-doubt and fear she has surrounding the book she is writing, I felt a deep connection.  Me too, I thought.  I struggle with thisI am not alone.  And in that moment, I found the encouragement I needed to keep going.  Keep working with Oscar.  Keep writing.  Keep practicing.  Keep baking.  Keep trying to build a bridge and not a wall.  Keep. Going.

There’s no good reason for me to feel ashamed of my failures with potty training Oscar.  I know he is not pottying on the floor to prove that I am a terrible puppy mommy –  this innocent and adorable creature is just doing what he knows to do, and even though he is learning what he is supposed to do, he will make mistakes, just like I will.  Despite knowing that, though, I have felt ashamed of myself every time he has pottied in the house.  I should have been watching more closely.  I should have interpreted his whimpering as “I need to go potty, mommy” even when the same whimpering frequently means “I want to play, mommy” or “I’m hungry, mommy” or “I want to sit on the couch with you, mommy.”  Seriously, how could I NOT know that THIS time the whimpering meant potty, is what I think.  But instead of feeling shame that I failed again, maybe I should recognize this as what it is:  my own ridiculous perfectionist expectations.  And perhaps I should just kick those out the door and out of my mind.  After all, I’ve never had a puppy before!  I’m just trying to do my best every day and hope for a little bit of forward progress.  Just like in all of those other areas of my life.  Forward progress is better than no progress is better than backward progress.  And as long as I keep going, I’m making forward progress.

This puppy and a gifted writer are teaching me some valuable lessons.  I’m blessed to have both, and more determined than ever to keep going.

how He sees me

I have to confess…  I spend a lot of time thinking about what others think of me – comparing myself against them and feeling inadequate.  I am insecure.  I don’t often think too highly of myself, and many times I am downright mean to me – I berate myself for not eating enough vegetables, for eating too much chocolate, for having two cocktails instead of stopping after one, and for aging (like THAT is something I can control).

A couple of weeks ago, I spent some time with a dear friend.  Our conversation turned to the topic of shame, and when I mentioned to her that I have really struggled with shame throughout my life, she said she didn’t want to think about me feeling that way about myself.  I told her about the work I have been doing to fight my shame battle, but that it is a daily practice to stay out of the shame pit, and I don’t always succeed.

She asked me how shame affects how I feel about God.   We talk a lot about God and our faith.  We met more than ten years ago when she led a bible study I participated in and I was drawn to her sweet spirit and warmth that exuded from her.  So I wasn’t really surprised when she asked me this question, and it was definitely not the first time I have thought about it.  My answer:  I don’t doubt God’s love for me.  I have no problem showing my flawed self to God – after all, He sees everything I do, anyway.  Letting myself be known by God is not my problem… my problem is believing what He says about me.  My problem is that I see myself as a deeply flawed screw-up who just cannot seem to overcome my junk.   And that’s on a good day.  My friend had a pained expression on her face when I told her this, and she encouraged me to believe what He says about who I am.  After I left her company, I couldn’t stop thinking about our conversation, and I knew I needed to figure out how to get to the point of being able to consistently view myself the way God does.

So I have been facing this head-on for the past couple of weeks…thinking about it, processing why I feel the way I do about myself, getting really real with myself.  Then this past Sunday I was watching our church service from my laptop and wouldn’t you know it, the message seemed like it was written just for me.  As I listened to our minister teach about how God sees us, His children, it hit me:  this was exactly what I needed to hear.  Tears started streaming down my cheeks and I was overwhelmed with emotion.  You see, I had been praying about this, asking God to help me see myself the way He sees me.  Asking Him to help me stop being so hard on myself.  And there it was:  His answer to my prayers – reassurance through the words of my pastor:

You are His child (John 1:12)

You are not condemned (Romans 8:1)

You are an heir with Christ (Romans 8:17)

You have wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:30)

You can be confident (Ephesians 3:12)

You are forgiven (Isaiah 43:25)

You are loved (Romans 8:35-39)

Wow.  To say I was overwhelmed with gratitude and awe would be an understatement.  As I continued to listen to my pastor, I thanked God for His message to me and something inside of me started to shift.  I started to accept these truths and hold onto them.

Shame may not prevent me from baring my soul to my Creator.  Shame may not cause me to try hide who I am and what I have done. But shame does its best to keep me from believing I am who He says I am.  Is my perspective going to change overnight?  No.  Of course not.  But what I received Sunday was a direct answer to a direct prayer, and that is something I neither take lightly, nor choose to ignore.  I could fill a book with the direct answers I have received to direct prayer since I started to truly trust that God is listening to me – that He wants to hear what I have to say – and every single time it happens, I am blown away.  Who am I that He would not only hear me, but respond.  And that right there should be all I really need to know.  The fact that He hears me and answers me tells me exactly how He sees me.  And if my Creator sees me that way, why shouldn’t I?

just a season

I recently embarked on a new career journey – an addition to my day-to-day work.  Actually taking the step to do this took a tremendous amount of courage, and I had to fight off the familiar voices that told me I shouldn’t bother – I probably wouldn’t get what I wanted.  So I felt proud of myself and super happy when I took the chance and was granted the awesome opportunity to do something I have been wanting to do for several years now.

The problem is that this new venture takes time to develop and grow, and I am having a difficult time being patient.

So I have found myself really struggling.  Despite the fact that I know I need to be patient, I am having a hard time not feeling like I am failing already.  It’s silly.  I know this.  But it’s how I feel, and instead of trying to stuff or ignore what is going on inside of me, I have been letting myself feel it – even though it doesn’t feel great.

It isn’t lost on me how easily I went from “I’m proud of myself” to “I am failing at this and I have barely even started.”  I’m not exactly kind to myself, as evidenced by a self-compassion assessment I took a few weeks ago.  I am currently enrolled in a class taught by my favorite shame researcher, Brené Brown, and as part of one of our lessons, we were instructed to visit Kristen Neff’s website and take her Self-Compassion test.  I knew I would not do well (translation: I am not compassionate with myself, at all), and the test confirmed the same.

A few weeks ago a dear friend came over to my home for an after-work glass of wine, snacks, and catch-up time.  During our chat, I shared with her a bit of what I have been feeling.  While we were talking, she said something that truly stuck with me.  She said that this is just a season of my life.  It will not last forever.

Summer is my least favorite season.  I know, I know – that probably puts me squarely in the minority, but it’s true!  I don’t like hot weather (unless I am vacationing somewhere tropical), and I love nearly everything about spring, fall, and winter (yes, even snow and bitter cold!).  So just like I do in the summer when I tell myself that summer is just a season and the extreme heat and humidity will not last forever, I am remembering my friend’s words and choosing to tell myself – and believe – that what I am going through right now is just a season.  It will not last forever.

And while I remind myself that this season is just that, I am also working on improving my score on that Self-Compassion test, starting with reminding myself that I was courageous and got the dang job and all of those negative voices can take a hike!!!

Have you found yourself in a difficult season that you have had to learn to embrace or even just tolerate?  How have you helped yourself or been helped through the season?  I would love to know about your difficult seasons and how you have worked through and/or embraced them.

vulnerability is hard

What is it about being real that scares us so much?  Why is it so difficult to be vulnerable with others (and sometimes even with ourselves)?

A few days ago I had coffee with a friend who is incredibly near and dear to my heart.  From the very beginning of our friendship, many many years ago, we connected on a deeper level.  The ensuing years brought life changes, life upheavals, challenges, and triumphs, and through the majority of it all, we have remained as close as sisters.  This friend is one to whom I can tell ANYTHING.  She has never judged me (at least if she has, she has remained silent!), she has never shamed me, and she has never questioned my value or character.  This, dear readers, is a true gift.

Our coffee date was typical for us:  spend some time catching up on life since the last date, then delve into what is new, exciting, troublesome, annoying, bothersome, etc.  During this particular conversation, my friend was incredibly vulnerable with me about some things going on in her life, and despite our years of being vulnerable with each other and always being accepted by the other, I could tell it was difficult for her to tell me what was on her mind.  But tell me she did, and listen I did, and I know we both left that conversation feeling heard, valued, accepted, and full.  You know, the kind of full you feel when you have been cared for emotionally.  I don’t know if it is possible to feel that kind of fullness absent vulnerability, because if you think about it, it takes being vulnerable to allow others to see what we need emotionally.  If we hide that, we will never experience the fullness that comes from being absolutely heard.

Yet despite knowing this, I find myself facing a very real vulnerability struggle of which I have only very recently become aware, and that is only because I dug deep into the issue with my therapist.  I have to admit that my shame almost kept me from opening up about this in our most recent appointment, but thankfully by now I know enough to realize NOT raising this issue and working through it would only keep me stuck.  Stuck and in denial.  I felt shame about this because I am struggling to be vulnerable with an individual in my life who I believe I “should” be vulnerable with.  But it’s hard.  And I am not entirely sure why.  But I do know that there is a degree of fear lurking around that is keeping me from being vulnerable with this person, and I think it boils down to one simple thing that is not so simple after all:  I care what this person thinks about me and I am afraid of being judged and ultimately not liked.

We all care, to some degree, what others think of us.  This is a life-long issue.  When we are young, it is typically our peers.  But that does not always change as we grow older.  I think what does change as we grow older is that we may be surprised by who it is and why.

When I was in elementary school I was diagnosed with scoliosis.  My spine curvature was severe enough to require medical treatment, and the immediate recommendation was a brace.  Think Joan Cusack in Sixteen Candles.  Admit it, you laughed at her.  So did I.  And that is precisely why I decided that my parents could go ahead and get that back brace for me, but there was no way in heck I was going to wear it to school.  My plan was to ditch it in the bushes lining the front of our home when I left to walk to the bus stop each morning (thinking, as 10-year olds do, that I would never be caught).  I was most certainly not going to be seen by my friends – or anyone else – wearing such a contraption. I was NOT going to be that vulnerable.  I would have been mortified.  Even now, so many years later, when I tell that story, I can feel what I felt back then.  Shame.  If I wear that brace, what will people think of me?  They won’t like me anymore.  They will make fun of me.  I will hate my life.  Powerful stuff.

Thankfully, I never had to wear a brace.  The day of the appointment to be fitted, my parents received excellent advice to seek the second opinion of a physician using a new non-brace treatment for scoliosis.  The advice was taken, I began seeing the doctor, and the ensuing treatment which took place only at night, worked to stop the progression of my curve.

The point of my story is that vulnerability shows itself in so many different ways throughout our lives, but it comes down to the same thing:  the desire to be accepted and the fear that opening up and showing our true selves will crush that desire.

Knowing this, it is not a big surprise to me that so many people choose to live their lives hiding from vulnerability.  It is so scary to open up and show ourselves, even to those who love us dearly, that at times it feels so much safer to keep our thoughts and feelings, fears and struggles, to ourselves.  But we are missing out on connection when we keep these things to ourselves.  As I said before, when I left my coffee date with my dear friend, I felt so full.  I immediately prayed and thanked God for the wonderful friendship He has allowed me to participate in for so many years.   I also felt normal – no small feat for me sometimes! – because my friend and I share so many of the same struggles.  During our chat, we empathized with one another and as we so often do, laughed about the craziness taking place in each of our lives.  Yes, the struggles are real, but we found a way to lighten one another’s loads, if only for a short, but beautiful, time.

I know this message of mine is not new.  I have written about vulnerability before, and I will again.  You see, it is so important to me.  I used to be someone who kept everything inside, so I know firsthand how difficult and scary it is to open up.  It’s a huge risk, and I have been burned.  But as a result of being burned, I have learned who I can trust with my true self, and who I cannot.  And even though I am struggling with a specific vulnerability issue right now, I have also learned that I don’t care as much about what others think of me as I used to.  Progress.

The fear of being rejected will probably never entirely go away, but courage builds with every true connection.  Take a chance and truly connect with someone today.  Experience how full you can feel.

shame and my past

My husband and I recently celebrated our 3rd wedding anniversary.  Not a milestone year, for sure, but I believe every year of (reasonably) happy marriage that passes deserves to be celebrated.  As we talked that day about the fact that we had already been married three years, my husband brought up my past marriages, and through the ensuing conversation, realized that despite my previous (and to date, longest) marriage lasting four years, I had never celebrated a 4th anniversary.  The reason for this was that my divorce was in progress when my 4th wedding anniversary rolled around and, well, it just would have been weird to “celebrate” at that point.  So next year, when my 4th anniversary with Nich rolls around, I think we will celebrate as if it is a milestone – because to me, it will be.

Our conversation that day was lighthearted and positive.  I felt neutral about my past and the fact that I have had two failed marriages.  But this has not always been the case.  Too many times before, my past failings have caused me to feel intense shame.  Too many times before, I have sunk into that dark place of “not enough” and “you’re such a failure” when thinking or talking about my past and the mistakes I have made.  It’s not just the “big” failures of two divorces – it’s the “little” failures, too.  I even replay these events like they’re a broken record in my mind.  Boy, is that fun.  And when I replay those events, decisions, actions, etc., I often feel that horrible sinking sensation that screams “shame” in my life.  That sensation that feels like fear, extreme nervousness, even nausea.  I know when I feel those things, I am probably sinking into shame, and I will probably spend anywhere from a few seconds to days thinking about what I did wrong and how I screwed up.

I know I am not alone.  I have had conversations with friends and family members about this very thing.  It seems these past mistakes – even if we have dealt with them – have a way of hanging on.  They creep up and remind us that we screwed up, failed to live up to our expectations, let someone down, let ourselves down… they tell us we’re just not good enough.  I can discuss my past with my therapist and work through who I was and where I was at that particular time in my life.  I can acknowledge that either I didn’t know better or I was not emotionally where I am now.  I can confess to God that I wasn’t acting like the person He wants me to be, ask for forgiveness, and know with all of my heart that His grace has covered me.  But still.  Still I fight the shame that tries to trap me with the lies that I have not changed, I have not grown, I am not forgiven.

This, I believe, will be an ongoing struggle for me.  It is getting easier to tell myself that my mistake happened to me, it doesn’t define me, but that does not completely erase the feelings of shame I experience when I examine my mistakes and the ways I have failed myself or others.  And that’s probably OK because every time I start to feel those sensations that I have come to recognize as shame, I have an opportunity to practice positive self-talk.  I have an opportunity to ask God to help me move past my past.  I have an opportunity to embrace the grace and mercies that are new every morning, and I have an opportunity to give grace and mercy to myself, which in turn, helps me to give grace and mercy to others.  And the truth is I have changed.  I have grown.  I am forgiven.  I have received grace and mercy.  I don’t have to let my past mistakes and failures define me, and I can recognize and believe that just because I failed to live up to my own expectations does not mean that I am not worthy of love and belonging.

We are all fighting the past.  No one has a perfect track record.  Everyone makes mistakes.  I wish we would talk about our mistakes more freely and openly instead of what seems to be the norm in today’s society of trying to fabricate lives that appear to be without blemish, but that takes time, practice, vulnerability, and a lot of courage.  Acknowledging it within ourselves is a great first step towards talking about it with others.  It’s not easy to deal with ourselves and our mistakes, but I promise it gets easier with time and practice, and the best part is that with that same time and practice, it gets easier to love the one who messed up and embrace the messed-upness that constitutes our imperfect lives.  Shame won’t let us embrace the messed up beings that we are, but as I have written before, shame dies when you talk about it, so today and every day, I encourage you to speak your truth.  Even if it hurts, speak your truth.  Even if it’s embarrassing, speak your truth.  Even if you feel ashamed – especially if you feel ashamed – speak your truth.  Little by little, the hurt goes away, the embarrassment fades, and the shame retreats.

And one day, you find yourself, just like I did, talking about something that once caused a tremendous amount of shame, and feeling absolutely nothing.