Friday, May 9, 2014

On Shame and Labeling Self Hatred as Such

Hello all,

Tonight, I want to reflect on a realization I had during a therapy session today.

Had I more time, I would also reflect on the open mic piece on asexuality I did tonight, which was totally cool, but I want to reflect on this more. I did write about it on Facebook a little.

Today was a beautiful, sunny 65 degree today. I was in an agreeable mood for most of my therapy session, until we hit a snag, as we often do. The snag usually has to do with me revealing something difficult for me and then getting angry because I have trouble understanding when other people understand me. And being alone in such painful feelings, which for me usually include a more than healthy dose of shame, is no fun at all, in fact it's pretty intolerable.

Now, I am beginning to realize that everyone has different ways of expressing that they hear someone, and it's pretty individualized. I realize that for most people, it is ingrained in them NOT to be very expressive with their body, tone or words and that I need to somehow find the people that are more expressive. I get all this, but I still get very frustrated. I am not good at picking up on the subtle body language most people use to communicate understanding. I am trying to get better on that.

But in the meantime, a very interesting thing happened today. I am still trying to process it, which is why I am writing here. Something prompted me to talk about the shame I felt... I can't remember what the experience was (there are so many of them). I think we were talking about the play, and I was talking about how painful it felt for me to have such intense emotions about the play and then to look around me and see that no one else seemed to share them. (And then how happy it made me when a certain other person later in the week had the same experience as me!)

He didn't.... seem to get it. I didn't know how else to explain it to him. He said he got it, of course he did, everyone always does. But it did not feel like he got it. And in my stumbling to try to find other ways to explain it, I stumbled upon the word shame. And that seemed to resonate with him. "How many things do you feel shame about?" he asked. "How many?" I thought. HOW MANY? "All of them." Shame, for me, is not an option. It's not an occasional experience. It's not something I can take on or off, or visit occasionally. Shame, for me, is a battle I do and a feeling I am acquainted with every single waking moment of my life. It sits there like a tight overcoat that you can never quite shake off, and I have become so used to fighting it that most of the time I don't even bother to name its existence.

Apparently, I have become so used to its existence that it didn't occur to me, with all the words at my disposal, to name it to my therapist or to others in my life. I thought it was obvious. I thought my shame was obvious. I thought my hurt was obvious. It was obvious to ME, so why wouldn't it be obvious to others? Only, apparently, that's not how people work. Only, apparently, I have a very bad sense of what other people understand about me. (Well, I already knew THAT. Why do you think I keep asking people to describe what they understand? They keep saying they understand. Clearly, they don't. They keep telling me they understand, and yet they act surprised when I tell them about the shame? Mixed messages here.)

What else can I say about my shame? I feel it is important to label it and describe it and bring it out into the open as much as possible if I am to find a way to get rid of it. Shame cannot survive in the light of day. It thrives on secrecy and darkness.

My shame about who I am is evident in my every thought and move, even when I'm not consciously thinking about it. Where did it come from? It came from growing up as a very different person, with very strong emotions that I was never taught how to regulate. It came from receiving messages again and again, from all different parts of family, culture and the world that who I was was undesirable or wrong. No one knew how to handle me. I was too intense for them. My intensity scared them, scared everyone. They never talked openly with me about it, to my knowledge, but instead thought somehow they could suppress it. They thought they could shame it out of me. Maybe there was guilt involved. Guilt is a cousin to shame. Guilt over not being able to figure out how to help me, over not being able to figure out how to solve my problems. But the guilt was transferred into blame foisted upon me, even if it was not a conscious process on their part.

I am sure this is not how they thought about it to themselves, and I know they loved me. I know they only did it "for my own good" and didn't realize how I would perceive it. I am not saying this to blame them, for I love them very much and don't want to hurt them. I am saying it because a) I desperately need to understand how the shame was installed so that I can figure out how to un-install it and b) if I label it, then the shame can't thrive in secrecy.

This is an open blog, and I run a large risk in writing about it here. I realize that. I simply can't put it off any longer, though. I am going to have to trust that if they happen upon it, which through Facebook and so on is pretty likely, that they can take it in the spirit intended. The spirit being that I love them, I appreciate all the sacrifices they made for me (some of which I may do well to hear the full stories behind to better appreciate them), and I know they did their best. But I have got to be allowed to question their best, I have got to be allowed to question their choices for my own sanity. It is not that I have decided "It's all their fault." It's simply that I've decided maybe it's not all MINE.

And in the process of figuring out how to stop blaming myself, it is only natural that I start to consider the culpability of others. While still realizing that they were there for me in all of the really important ways and while acknowledging with all my heart that there was NEVER a moment in my life where I doubted that I was loved. I always knew I was loved. That's more than a lot of people had. But you can be loved and still have questions. I would love to have an open conversation with them about some of these experiences, but I don't know at this time know how to start it. The best I can do is contemplate the experiences here.  

Back to my feelings about shame. This is all just free flowing, stream of consciousness writing, as all my writing is. My differences didn't have a name - until I was 21 and I happened upon the label of Asperger's. My differences instead just had a "Stop doing that!" or the sound of my name being said sharply when the person wanted me to stop engaging in a behavior that was embarassing them. I felt like I was the only teenager in the world who had to worry about embarassing her parents instead of her parents embarassing her. When I would go out with my family to places, I could always count on being rebuked about my behavior. I talked to strangers too much, perhaps, or I had a habit of stretching my legs against the wall in a way that looked odd to others in public. I was probably fidgety, and I know from others' stories that I had a speech impediment for most of my early years. Certain family members were... probably just as puzzled as I was about why I came across so differently, about why my body movements, speech patterns and emotional expression were so different from others. But I was a perceptive kid. I may not have understood the nonverbal messages and social language of my peers, and I may have seemed like I was in my own world most of the time, but I knew when my parents thought something was wrong with me. I understood the language they used to say "You're doing this wrong." I absorbed it all. Thirty years later, I am just trying to figure out how to seperate myself from it. Being ashamed of myself and my differences is so much a part of me it's as if someone had told me to stop drinking water. How do I do it? I don't know, but I hope to find out.

"What do you expect of yourself?" someone asked me tonight. It was a good question. I realized I didn't have an answer. What do I expect of myself? I expect myself to look, act and behave like others or in as good of a copy of them as I can do. And I constantly internally berate myself for not being able to copy or mimic them. That has to stop. I can only be me. I can only be the best version of myself that's possible.

Back to my therapy appt this afternoon. I was flabbergasted when my therapist said that he didn't understand until I told him that I was feeling shame about myself. How could it not be obvious? I thought.

Apparently, I've done SUCH a good job of trying to copy others that I fooled them a little too much.

I'm a resillient person, and I never lost my ability to feel joy even when in the depths of my social and emotional isolation. It's this people would see, somehow, instead of my pain.

When I was in high school and singing along to songs on the radio, lost in my laughter and joy of the songs on the radio? It was that they saw, and they wondered how I could be so happy. Me, who spent my entire freshman year of high school daydreaming of suicide the way others dreamed of attractive guys - happy? What? Me, who spent my sophomore year of high school engaged in the intense anxiety that comes with severe OCD, spending all her time in rituals designed unconsciously to gain a sense of control over the world? Isolated me who spent her entire junior high school career bullied almost to death? All they could see was my *happiness*? It must have been coming out pretty strongly to hide all the other stuff.

I wonder, I venture to wonder if that is what happened with my parents. I wonder if they didn't notice the pain because the joy was so evident. I have always been a joyful, passionate person. I might not have talked to anyone my age or had any friends when I was a kid, but I had deep conversations with adults and joyful conversations with people in my family or other adults. I just couldn't talk to a kid my age to save my life, that's all. With few exceptions, I still can't, except for some Aspies. Not without debilitating anxiety, anyway. My spirit, perhaps, rang out so strongly with everyone else that they thought there was either nothing wrong with me or nothing wrong with me that was that serious. But it was serious to me. I noticed. I NOTICED, and still do, every time that I did something that was different from other people my age, and I wondered why. I wondered why and I wondered why I was so alone. I wondered if I would always be that alone. I needed someone to talk to me about why I was so different. I needed someone to help me understand it, or at least to find a way to be okay with it. Now I'm trying to figure out how to make up for lost time. At my age, when a therapist or friend tells me there is nothing wrong with me, it no longer registers. That's the unfortunate truth. It no longer can compete with thirty years of ingrained messages. I appreciate them telling me, I appreciate their effort, but that's all it is to me... an effort. My brain won't let me believe they could be telling the truth. I have to figure out how to make myself believe. I don't how to do this yet.

Maybe I was too much like them for them to understand how urgent it was. Maybe they figured that they had been quiet and introverted when they were younger too and I'd grow out of it. Yes, I did develop the ability to have deep, profound conversations with people (almost always older than me, though) and there isn't a person in the land who wouldn't label me a good conversationalist. (Although, I didn't even know I was a good conversationalist until a DJ on the Baltimore country station told me my sophomore year of college. I was flabbergasted that he would think so. He was equally surprised that I was surprised.) But what I absorbed in those early years when it was presumably assumed that I would grow out of it was a self hatred I have never been able to shake - only hide. And that self hatred has kept me from feeling a sense of actual true emotional connection to people for all my thirty years. Shame is such a big emotion, there is no room for anything else. And it's such a lonely place to be.

How can I be so open about myself and yet still hate myself so much? Aren't the two kind of contradictory? 

I have developed such a split personality almost about shame and about myself over the years, that I don't even know how to conceive of it. I was so scared of people until about my junior year of college. I couldn't even walk past a group of guys my age on campus without feeling afraid of them, without feeling like I wanted to run away. Without thinking they might hurt me in some way (emotionally, not physically or sexually, but emotionally is bad enough). It was sometime in my junior year where I had the realization that "Gee, no one's made fun of me for the past two years, and I've been pretty out there, so I must be an okay person." To the world, I maintained that there was nothing wrong with being yourself. To the world, I was the perfect picture of someone who was not ashamed to be who she was. Hell, I sung at the top of my lungs, I said what was on my mind, I was passionate and involved. I literally danced as if no one was watching. There couldn't be someone more proud to be who they were, right? Only, not. I was just trying to cover my own emotions up.

I dove into my music as a way to escape from my emotions. The emotions of living on a college campus with so many people my age to compare myself to were intense, and I would go from euphoria to despair and back again several times each day. The euphoria came from the songs on the radio. The despair came from the self-comparisons I was forced into each and every day. It was a regular occurrence for me to end up sobbing on the couch on the common area of the academic buildings every day after class. I would be able to keep it together during class but would start sobbing before I could get out the door of the building. I would sit on the couch and sob, and people would ignore me or not notice me. I embodied the Hunter Hayes song "Invisible." I was not doing this to get attention. I have never once in my life cried to get attention. I cry because my emotions simply become unmanageable and sweep me away with me them. I cry because the pain becomes too great. I cry because I notice the differences between me and others, and I am overcome by shame. I would cry for hours until the secretary, closing the building for the evening, would notice me and ask if I was okay. All I needed was to feel that feeling of someone caring... and it was enough. But oh so hard to get. My crying overwhelmed people in my life. They could not handle it, and they could not handle me. Enough said about that for now.

The emotions in depressing country songs were the only thing I could relate to. No one could understand how Blaine Larsen's song "How Do You Get That Lonely, " a song about teen suicide, would cause in me a sense of euphoria. I'll never forget playing that song for my psychology professor and having him ask me "Kate, is there something you want to tell me?" No, there wasn't. I wasn't playing the song for him because I was thinking about suicide (by that point in my life, I had gotten over those thoughts). I was playing it because I couldn't believe someone else could relate to the intensity of emotion that I experienced. I had such euphoria over being understood. It made me feel so calm to listen to these words, because I felt understood. It was right there in the song. And all the other songs that the seven country stations I could get in Baltimore played, when they weren't playing songs about drinking and pick-up trucks. Country music is just as split in its expression of emotions and themes as I am. The despair in Rachel Proctor's "Me and Emily," the sense of pain and isolation in Martina McBride's "Concrete Angel" ... these were the only tools I had to figure out how to navigate my intense and overwhelming emotions. I never thought, as a liberal, atheist Democrat, that I'd be so thankful for country music!

I say the above not to make anyone feel bad for me (although I imagine it might be an unintended side effect, and I am just going to have to hope my readers can deal with their own possible feelings of guilt on their own without reflecting them back to me). I say it to illustrate one thing. My emotions were intense, and they needed an outlet. Music was that outlet. When I looked like I was happy because of the songs on the radio, well, okay, I was. But it was only because I was successfully shutting out the world around me. As soon as I took the headphones off, I was plunged back into the world and I couldn't deal. I was able to play-act as someone who was confident in herself because I badly wanted to  be. I even fooled myself for a while. But I wasn't, nor have I ever been, comfortable with or okay with myself. I don't have weight or body image issues like a lot of people my age. Instead, I have global "how I express myself" issues and I can't stop comparing myself to others.

A world that is enjoyed because you can successfully cover up the nasty feelings with something better is not a world truly enjoyed. Not when the energy you use to cover up the nasty feelings keeps you from being able to receive the love and positive energy of the world around you, and only allows you to keep up a good act of having it together and being connected to others.

My therapist told me today that because I am so passionate and emphatic, that I come across as very confident. Aggressive, sometimes, even, which I had not realized. How ironic. I am coming to realize that part of the reason I am probably so emphatic is that I need to be that emphatic to drown out my own messages of wrong-ness and shame every time I open my mouth. Most people with social anxiety or the level of anxiety that I have probably would not talk at all. But I had HAD it with social isolation. I made the choice to talk anyway. When I was in college... I would literally pace back and forth outside my professor's door for 20 minutes each time I went to see them, trying to get the courage up to knock or go in. That's how hard it was for me. Many would have given up, but I made myself do it. It just took a little longer.

So my social anxiety is expressed in the fact that I can't shut up. I need to be talking or filling the space with words. Theirs or mine, it doesn't matter, but since most people don't talk much, or are intimidated by me or whatever, it's usually mine. I can't let there be silence, I am realizing, because that's when my thoughts come through. My thoughts of shame, my thoughts of anxiety and judgement, my realizations of sensory overwhelm. I am always trying to block my thoughts every waking moment, or just to process my thoughts.... Whether it be with music, conversation or writing, I don't really have the ability to be still. When thoughts are blasting you every single waking moment, you don't have the luxury of being still. You need to find a way to express, create, process somehow.
Anti-anxiety meds, for the most part just made me acutely aware that something was wrong while being too sedated to figure out what it was - not exactly the recipe for success.

I would love the chance to rest. But I don't have it. If I put down my burden, it will come crashing down on me. It is a boulder rolling down the hill again and again and like Siphyus (spelling?) I must keep rolling it up the hill again and again until I learn another way to be.

A song has been coming on the radio lately that I love... It has a line that really speaks to me.

The song that keeps coming on that I had never heard before is Already Gone by the Eagles. The lyric that kept getting my attention was 
"So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains 
And we never even know we have the key"

I hope with enough writing, analysis, discussion and just feeling my way through it, and with enough exposing myself to new experiences and trying to be open minded about what happens, that I can eventually find the key.

My therapist ended the session (of which the relevant part was probably only about 5 minutes, but isn't that how it always goes) by saying to me that "Unless you have the intention of hurting someone else, you have no reason to feel shame. Everything you are doing is okay if it works for you."
Simply telling me that I had no reason to feel shame didn't do anything for me, but that line appealed to my need for logic by giving me a litmus test of sorts I could use. And I did... even tonight. Upon noticing that I got along better with guys than girls and starting to feel ashamed of it? Apply the litmus test. Was that hurting anyone else? No. Then should I waste energy feeling ashamed of it? NO. Upon noticing that the #1 bus was one of the new (read, smelly) buses, commenting on it and then feeling ashamed because who else would even notice that (at this point I doubt even the bus driver himself knew) - apply the litmus test. Was my noticing that the bus was a new smelly bus and politely commenting on it going to hurt anyone else? No, of course not. Then did I have a reason to feel ashamed of it? No. Those were just two examples from 5pm to 10pm, but I am hopeful that I can expand them. To have a sense of logic to apply to all the times I catch myself starting to hate myself... would be more helpful than I could even imagine. Let's just hope it keeps actually working.

Tonight, to cap off a day or evening anyway given to trying to throw off the effects of shame, I wrote and performed a piece about asexuality at the open mic night. I have never discussed asexuality in public outside of queer/gay rights activism related spaces. But a month ago, someone there who I admired accused me of calling him an anti-gay slur (after watching a video of a previous performance I did). I was aghast as I certainly had not and would not do that. I ended up leaving the building sobbing. I finally felt able to discuss the incident, in generalities, and without names, and relate it to why I had been so affected by it. I had over-empathized with him and I had taken on what I imagined must have been his emotions when he thought someone was saying an anti-gay slur to him. It threw me back to the days where I felt lost, alone and afraid because I was so unsure about my own sexuality or lack thereof. So I wrote about it, and about the experience of growing up knowing that you didn't fit in anywhere, of knowing that everyone else seemed obsessed with talking about their experience of sexual attraction and not knowing why you didn't share it - how insanely isolating and depressing that was and how finding AVEN ( probably saved my life.

It was very well received and I got a lot of wonderful comments about how much courage it must have taken. One girl I admire wants me to add her on Facebook. Two people actually said they could relate and felt asexual at times as well. Very good result.

So... I am doing whatever I can, everything I can , to throw off this sense of shame so that I can feel others' emotions inside of me and not just a sense of isolation. Wish me luck. I think I may need it. I would love to hear of others' experiences as well. Thank you for listening.

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