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shame

I bought these shoes because they were cute, even if they didn't quite fit.
I finally admitted it was a bad idea and sold them.
Let's talk about shame.  You know those places in our lives where we feel ugly, stupid, useless, imperfect, slow, and lazy?  Those things we don't like to talk about?  Those are the places where shame can live.  In general, I am not a person who carries a lot of shame.  For the most part, I love the gift that is my life and bounce joyously into each new day (well, in the mornings I usually drag myself around sluggishly for a few hours, but by mid-afternoon I am close to bouncing).  However, the past few months I have felt a growing dread and dis-ease; it was shame and I didn't even know I was carrying it.  I finally realised it about 2 weeks ago when I saw it in another human being and identified with it.  Now, we all know that shame is counterproductive which is why none of us consciously goes the store, picks up a giant box of shame, pays for it with a flourish, and then displays it proudly in our lives.  No, shame likes to hide and it convinces us that we should hide ourselves as well.  It can seep into those cracks where we are not whole, where we feel insecure, where we are hurt, where we doubt, where we compare ourselves to others, and where we have lost hope.  And by covering it up, we give it space to grow.  

I could talk about a number of things of which I am mildly ashamed:  my changing body, my aging skin, my not-so-perfect teeth, my inability to look and act professional, my lack of knowledge in my field of study, my recent rejection from a publisher, not acquiring funding for three consecutive years, my forgetfulness, my meandering lack of career path over my life, my poor French-speaking ability despite years of lessons, my lack of discipline in eating and exercise, my tendency to sleep late...  you get the point. Some of these things are out of my control, so I just need to learn to embrace them instead of measuring myself against unrealistic expectations of perfection.  Other things on the list I can definitely do something about, but for whatever reason, I don't.  Most days these small things don't get me down because I realise that they are just part of life and in the grand scheme of things, nothing to complain about.  But one thing has been increasingly weighing me down: my inability to make any significant progress on a current reading list.  In preparation for my comprehensive exams in fall, I have to read over 60 titles.  After compiling the list (in consultation with my supervisors) in January, I figured I could get through about one-sixth of the list (10 titles) by the end of April.  Well, to date, I have read 2 titles.  There it is.  My shame.  I have several good excuses, but it doesn't matter.  What matters is that I feel like an incompetent loser.

The thing about shame is that it is relatively easy to displace through openness, forgiveness, implementing specific, realistic expectations, and engaging in positive action.  Last Friday night, I was talking to some fellow scholars/students at a Religion conference and one of the doctoral students mentioned that she was starting to tackle the reading for her comprehensive exams.  I spoke up and said that I was doing the same and finding it hard to get traction (that's as close as I ever got to admitting my shame).  A professor who was in on the conversation said that what she had done was chart out the entire reading list on a large calendar, writing in what she needed to read each day.  I nodded at the idea, calm and thoughtful on the outside, while inside I was screaming "I have to do this!  This will get me out of the hole!"  On Monday, I printed out calendars of the next few months and began to break down my reading list.  It took a fair amount of work because I had to confirm the length of books, the contents of chapters, and make sure I had access to all of the titles.  And yes, the guilt of not doing any reading that day because I found another "important" task to do was biting at my ankles, but I kept at it until I had a plan for the next month.  On Tuesday, I read the pages I had assigned for that day and after I finished, I completed the rest of the monthly charts, working late into the evening to complete them.  Today, I once again read all the pages assigned and was delighted to have a bit of time for some writing and editing tasks that I have been meaning to get to.  I am starting to think that I can actually do this!  And I no longer have to talk vaguely about my reading list; I know exactly when I will be done and how I will accomplish it, a bit later than I had hoped, but probably more realistic and productive.

A few thoughts regarding my experience.  
1. The first step in getting rid of shame is to get it out in the open.  Shame keeps you beating up on yourself with no end in sight, and the only way to get a more truthful perspective (and get free) is to let trustworthy people into that place. Then repent and accept forgiveness for getting stuck there.
2. The second step is to get help (again, from those you trust).  Shame focuses on the problem and never offers any viable way forward.  Find others who have dealt with similar problems and ask them how they got through it.  It is possible, it is always possible to find a way out.  
3. The third step is to act:  get a plan, be specific, be realistic, and then follow it, one day at a time.  Shame keeps us hiding, paralyzed, stuck.  Sometimes (this is what I tend to do) putting unrealistic expectations on ourselves without a specific and realistic plan sets us up to fail.  And when we fall short of this "perfect" plan, we feel like a failure and - bam - there's shame banging on our door.  

In case some of you think this sounds a bit like the 12-step program, you are not far wrong.  Here is a story I read last week recounted by Brennan Manning (in his book Ragamuffin Gospel) about a man named Phil who spoke up at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.  It grabbed my attention.
"As you all know, last week I went up to Pennsylvania to visit family and missed the meeting.  You also know I have been sober for seven years.  Last Monday I got drunk and stayed drunk for five days."  The only sound in the room was the drip of Mr. Coffee in the corner.  "You all know the buzz word, H.A.L.T., in this program," he continued.  "Don't let yourself get hungry, angry, lonely, or tired or you will be very vulnerable for the first drink.  The last three got to me.  I unplugged the jug and..."  Phil's voice choked and he lowered his head.  I glanced around the table - moist eyes, tears of compassion, soft sobbing the only sound in the room. 
[ Others responded:]
"The same thing happened to me, Phil, but I stayed drunk for a year."
"Thank God you're back."
"Boy, that took a lot of guts."
"Relapse spells relief, Phil," said a substance abuse counselor.  "Let's get together tomorrow and figure out what you needed relief from and why."
"I'm so proud of you."
"Hell, I never made even close to seven years."
As the meeting ended, Phil stood up. He felt a hand on his shoulder, another on his face.  Then kisses on his eyes, forehead, neck and cheek. 
"You old ragamuffin," said Denise.  "Let's go. I'm treating you to a banana split at Tastee Freeze."

That's what happens when we stop hiding and reveal our shame to loving, trustworthy people.  We find a supportive community that wants to help us move forward.  

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