Wednesday, May 30, 2012

the shame shift

Sometimes I wonder how much of my internal conflict is the result of my constant struggle with attempting to attain perfection, or fulfilling some sort of social expectation to be better, to be growing, becoming, evolving, or stepping fully into my power and embracing my full potential as a human being.  To live at the highest performance level with no regrets or fears.

It sounds absurd to even say it, but I have to wonder if it's true.  We are so aware of ourselves in comparison to others in our social groups, professional competitors and coworkers, local communities, spiritual families, and our closest friends and family.  Always comparing, contrasting, evaluating, judging and extrapolating information about ourselves and our identities based on these analyses.   Honestly I don't know how else we would survive in our society and cultures.  It's just how we as humans operate.  We're meant to live in communities with other people.  We're meant to be part of a social structure, to belong and have a place within that structure. 

In that structure though, I feel (and I think this is a normal feeling) like there is an unwritten expectation that as individuals within that structure, we need to be striving towards constant excellence, to be evolving towards the best possible versions of ourselves.  The pressure of perfection.  And in doing so, we create The Best Society/Nation/Culture. 

Well, we can't.  We're all human and helplessly full of flaws.

It's interesting that when we talk about cellulite, wrinkles, fat rolls, scars, emotional insecurities, fears, (basically all the imperfections that make us human), we call those "flaws".  As if we started out perfect, and slowly over time, our mistakes eroded our power, worthiness and attractiveness to the point where we now spend our entire lives attempting to make up for it.  We cover ourselves in creams and spend thousands of dollars on therapy and surgery, we pour ourselves into Self Help Books, trying to understand why we're so fucked up.  We join support groups and create secret forums to connect to other imperfect beings, ousted from perfect society.

We have phrases like "Keeping up with The Joneses", fashion magazines that tell us we must have a specific type of body to meet the social expectation, we have picture perfect ideals about how to raise children, how to keep a home, what makes a house a home, how to be successful, how to have the perfect career, how to find a mate (how to keep a mate), how to make everything from scratch, how to eat, and how to live.  It's all manufactured in the imagination, and everybody buys into it.  Pinterest says we can and should have it all.  Facebook makes us think others do have it all.  But, nobody does.  Nobody has ever nor will ever meet the social expectation of perfection.  And because of that, we all carry with us a certain amount of shame.

We have shame that we don't fit in because we have flaws (or wildly enough, because we don't think we have flaws).  We have shame that we aren't "doing it right".  Shame that we're crippled financially, shame of our strained relationships, shame of our emotions and depression, shame that we somehow caused our misfortunes, shame that we aren't more outgoing or friendly, shame that we are too loud and boisterous, shame that we aren't good enough for someone else, shame that we have fears and doubts, shame shame shame. 

The flip side to this is to assume that by feeling this shame, we somehow had the power to control all these outcomes.  If we would have done ____, then ___ wouldn't have happened.  Our husbands wouldn't cheat, our wives would be happy, our children wouldn't kill themselves, our fathers wouldn't abandon us,  our mothers would accept us.  Or the step beyond that:  our children wouldn't have been born with a disability, our sisters wouldn't have cancer, we could have stopped that fate, we could have saved them. 

How does this fit in with society expectations of perfection?  It doesn't.  We don't talk about it.  We don't talk about the fact that we are a culture that sweeps things that make us feel uncomfortable, sad, scared, ashamed, grief and anger under the giant perfect rug of our society so nobody ever feels discomfort and sorrow.  We are a culture that doesn't know how to relate to each others on a deeply honest, forthright, intimate level.  We plow ourselves with food and alcohol and drugs and sex and anything that makes us feel good and alive.  We become pleasure focused.  We spend hours looking at the perfect pictures of perfect things on Pinterest in order to be "inspired" to get out of our miserably flawed lives and finally evolve.  It's so hard for us to admit we need support and help.  That would seem weak and needy.  It's so hard for us to be seen as vulnerable and fragile and needing help...especially if we're talking about depression or mental health.  There are not many things worse in our Perfect Society than to be crazy.

I have lost two close friends in the past four years because of shame.  It's a debilitating disease that tells us we don't deserve happiness, we aren't worthy of love, and when someone sees our deepest darkest secrets, we need to run, duck, cover and escape in order to preserve the idea of our own perfection.  We need to be seen as blissed out, perfectly happy and immeasurably strong.

As I think about my own journey, I am painfully aware of the struggle of perfection and how much I hide away from relationships, from being vulnerable, from even being really truly "seen" because I carry with me so much shame.  It's one thing to be aware of it, it's another thing for it to be visible for others to observe and even reflected for me to see.  The exception being that in a two dimensional world of blogging and photography where it's just me and the computer/camera, I'm very open and vulnerable.  When I'm out in the 3-D world of real time face to face communication where there's the physical nuances of body language and real time communication, I feel a fair amount of anxiety and emotional and mental clutter as I process the experience.

I don't think that shame in and of itself is absolutely wrong. I feel like any emotion has a valid purpose that teaches us about ourselves and our value system.  I think it's natural and normal to feel shame when you're aware that you've caused pain, injustice, or wronged someone.  When you've inflicted injury.

But that isn't where it ends.  Shame extends to places where our dark secrets exist - that place where we feel that we aren't perfect and somehow deserve unhappiness because we have the gall to be flawed.

I think we as a culture need to shift our focus from a perfection focus to an acceptance focus.  Really, a focus on humanity (treating ourselves and others humanely with respect and dignity).  Maybe it's the hippie in me talking, but I think the "perfect" society is one where we all have a value, a clear place, where our individuality and uniqueness is cherished as a beautiful complexity, where we're culturally supported through our grief and sadness, where we ask for help without hesitation, talk about our real struggles and vulnerabilities, work together as a society so that everyone can enjoy a healthy life (healthcare isn't a commodity), where the media celebrates courage and security, where we can open magazines and see all body types, where we actually feel pride in our physical flaws and honor the spirit of being imperfectly human and the only pressure we feel is to be our authentic and amazing selves.

I know I speak a lot in extremes here, and that my views are pretty polarized.  Take it for what it's worth.  If this message speaks to you even on a small scale, I hope what you glean from it makes you think about your own pursuits of perfection and how you can live a more authentic life.  I hope you can trust more in that little voice inside of you that says you are worthy, loveable, unique and enough. 

If the point of life is to love, and love is messy, then life is messy.  <3  Let people into your mess.

1 comment:

  1. I'm reading a book called "Taking the Leap, Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears" by Pema Chodron and your last few posts have reminded me of it, this one especially. One of the themes in the book is that Western societies refuse to acknowledge hard/sad/difficult/scary things as part of life. We are encouraged, as you said, to look perfect and talk about how we're evolving through light and laughter. But what about evolving and surviving through fear and uncertainty and sadness? Life ebbs and flows. This book suggests we appreciate and embrace the hard; it reminds us of the normalcy of it. Thank you for this post. Your last few have me saying "thank goodness, I'm not the only one that feels this"