I recently let down a friend by dipping out of their party early. Another friend by canceling last minute on a prescheduled engagement. I feel a sense of exasperation and energy secretion when I get a text or look from them expressing their disappointment. When I let friends down, I take it really hard on myself.
That Sickening, Sinking Feeling
In that moment, I hated the thought of apologizing. I can’t pinpoint the feeling but I am scared, deep down, that I lost something. Lost my friend’s respect, their evaluation of me, their enjoyment of me as a friend. And it saps me of all energy, acknowledging that. I feel I have lost my validity, or the validity of the image I hold for myself, and must perform some kind of song and dance to regain it.
I fear that because I fucked up, I am not only in danger of being a disappointment; I fear my worth is being threatened.
Why do I take such a punishing approach to fuck-ups with friends? Invariably, it happens in any relationship that you disappoint or discourage someone you love. The aftermath is really what matters; the reconciliation, communication, and onward momentum of the friendship. And yet, I feel this deep regret. To the point of self punishment sometimes.
I talk to my therapist about this. And they bring up a familiar word, one that we have talked about before:
Shame that is rooted in fear: I am afraid of being perceived as worthless or not good enough.
When they say it, it hits home. I care A LOT about self perception. About how others perceive me, especially those I respect and admire. I have probably spent days mulling over any kind of off-encounter, any awkward moment, any misunderstanding; At work currently, I have been tasked with a new type of responsibility and decision making power, but when I experience self doubt, I wonder if other people can read it on my face, smell it on me: a lingering glance, a silent look away. I wonder about these things. Even though my team is as lovely and loving as could be. I still wonder. And that takes up a lot of brain space.
The Shame Equation
So then my therapist talks about how we learn this kind of if:then rule growing up when it comes to relationships. Society tells us, especially women, women of color:
If I do these things; then I will receive love.
If I don’t; then I am not worthy of love.
I hear this and am overwhelmed by a wave of instances in which this rule has guided my life:
If I follow my dad’s career path for me, then he will respect me. If I don’t, then he will invalidate anything else I choose.
If I look beautiful and flirt with guys; then they will desire me. If I don’t, then they will ignore me.
If I text my friend(s) back; then they will appreciate and be acknowledge me. If I don’t, then they will discard me.
If I show up to events; then they will remember me. If I don’t, then they will forget me.
And that’s how shame talks = Let me prove to you that my character is worthy of your friendship.
It’s a fucked up rule that essentially internalizes the message: If I’m perfect, then (and only then) people will love me.
Shame as a Motivator
But oh how strong of a message it is. And, remember, my therapist says, it has gotten you this far. Let’s take a step back and think of how this rule may have even helped you:
Well, I say, it holds me accountable, I guess. Especially with the friend who was offended, I feel a sense of empathy for their position and want to make it up to them. I text them back and carefully craft what I say so that the apology talks from their side, and is not just made up of my own excuses.
That’s right, my therapist says. So in this case, this rule in a way has cultivated certain skills in you:
- Emotional intuition, empathy
- Interpersonal sensitivity
- Practicing flexibility
- Including others
And also instilled some values in you:
- Showing up, being present
- Clear communication
- Honesty and transparency
So clearly, the if/then rule has some value. It’s motivated me to a certain point and drilled in some core competencies. To what end? And so then the question becomes, what needs is this rule really trying to fulfill? I think on this:
- The need to feel loved
- The need to feel admired
- The need to feel respected
- The need to be validated
Hmmm. Some of these needs are big, status-y kind of things, my therapist says. Status implies a more underlying need:
- The need for power and control
I reflect on that statement. Yes. Yes, indeed. I crave that, even when I don’t always want it. Even when it means more responsibility for me, or stress, or time, or OCD-ing. Control feels like a drug I must have access to most times. All times?
Then my therapist ties it back and talks about what’s called impression management, or: trying to mange our impression on others. It’s a concern about our image or reputation more than our character.
Impression management stems from a desire for control. To control other’s perception of you. That it is a thing to correct, to perfect, especially if it goes awry, or not in the way you want. In other words:
Let me do this song and dance for you so that I can ‘pass.’
Do I do that? Holy shit. I realize I do. It’s a mechanism that’s become so automatic I barely notice it.
Noticing Shame is the First Step to Managing It
After we talk through this, I feel like the dots are more connected between the exhaustion I feel when social interactions go awry, the shame that invisibly builds up in the aftermath, and the engrained rules I have been living by for most of my adult life. All that being said, though, I still feel like I don’t know how to REACT TO or even UNDO some of these more draining, harmful mechanisms.
That’s all good, my therapist says. Observing it is the first step to managing it. Managing this tendency to avoid shame through socially-ingrained rules that seemingly give us power and control. You have to look at your behavior through a different lens, like a fortune-teller peering into a crystal orb, in order to objectify it. Distance it from yourself, so that it takes up less space in your actual brain. Which is, ultimately, what I want.
Food for Thought
After the session, I was left with some questions, or food for thought, to reflect on:
- How is fitting in different than belonging?
- How is character is different than reputation?
- Where to human needs intersect people needs?
Some other terms that were brought up during this session that I also thought worth bringing up here:
Vulnerability Factors: Things that are outside of your control (i.e. my cat is dying, the house is in disarray, etc.) weigh you down, and as a result, impact your own sensitivity; your personal sense of attachment, identity, worth, and, yes, shame. Pay credit to how much space and energy takes up in your brain. What vulnerabilities make me feel out of control?
Locus of Control: As soon as we don’t get control, we get angry. Our lack of control means certain needs are not being fulfilled (i.e. need for love, for peace, for companionship). But then, we have our own human needs that intersect with other people’s needs. What happens when they compete?
Writing As Therapy: When writing, you are literally giving a thought or feeling distance. You are allowing that energy to flow from your mind and live elsewhere instead. This is creating a healthy emotional boundary that lets you objectify some of your own pain, let it exist as a piece of who you are, rather than consume who you are.
Thus, this blog post. Which is primarily for my own emotional learning and mindfulness, but hopefully you all find it helpful as well 🙂