6. Write a note of gratitude about something dark in your life.
Isn't that a cheery pick? Eilidh pulled it out the jar, and said to me, well, you could take it literally. You could write about something actually dark, like an ode to black wool...
I'm not going to.
I thought we might chat about shame.
I've always thought of shame as attached to something bad I have done, even though I am more inclined to agree with the premise that guilt is the feeling we have when we have done something wrong, shame is the feeling we have when we think there is something wrong with us. The connection I had not yet made, not fully, not consciously, is that where there is shame, even the good things we do are stained by it.
It's been an interesting couple of weeks. I've made progress on my thesis. It's not your common or garden variety thesis, but a mix of art, academics, and creative non-fiction. Negotiating the tensions between these styles and ways of thinking has been challenging, and sometimes I fall flat, and sometimes I do okay, and sometimes, very occasionally, I'm bloody impressive. The longer and harder I work on it, the better I am able to stitch all the disparate elements together without the seams showing too badly.
The longer and harder I work on it, the better the artwork I am creating outside of the thesis has become too. At some point last week, I felt connected to all the disparate elements of my life, and strong within them. I bought a domain name so I had a place to develop a website of my own, centered around encouraging creativity and selling art. I had a thousand million compliments on my current work (okay, a dozen or so, which felt as fabulous as a thousand million), a commissioned drawing for a birthday picture. People I love and trust told me that what I had done, not just then but over the many years they've known me, was beautiful, was exquisite.
For the first time I let myself believe it. Not just a little, but the whole of it. That they all meant everything they said, and that I actually did have something to offer that I enjoyed doing and was appreciated by others.
Then it all fell apart. Poof! and gone. At some point during my relaxed, happy, Sunday, any burgeoning self-belief or confidence drained rapidly and completely out the big fat hole that remains situated at the very centre of my psyche.
(Enter, dramatic music of impending doom).
Imposter syndrome, someone will tell me. Someone invariably tells me. But no. Not that. Not quite that. And as part of my research, as part of my nascent scholarly expertise, I would like to suggest that we need to be very careful when we listen to someone's story that we don't slot it immediately into the other stories we know and believe. That we listen to what they are saying, not listening to how the things they are saying fits into the things we know. That we ask questions, rather than deliver judgements. Otherwise we are not listening, but waiting for an echo.
It's not imposter syndrome, though yes, that can happen too, and is manageable with one large pair of big girls undies and a very small dosage of sportswear logo psychology. Just do it! Impossible is nothing! But deeper, wider, stronger than feeling you are not who people think you are, is thinking you are not anything at all. Is shame. A deep, dark, rotten, sludgy, mess of shame.
I'm 43 years old, mostly happy, love and am loved, work hard to improve my education and my understanding of the world so that I might be able to contribute something back to that world. Know that my existence is proof enough of my worth. And however much I love, however hard I work, however worthy I believe myself to be, I also stay, at my core, ashamed. The damage was done too young, too completely, for that to greatly change (though who knows? I'm open to being horribly awfully mistaken), but I've learned not to self-blame (too much), learned compassion, learned we all are a mess, a beautiful mess. I appreciate that about others, well not the slow drivers, bugger those guys, but most others. I even, generally, appreciate that about myself. I manage the parts of me I don't like, could improve on, am lacking in. I manage that core of shame in the areas of my weaknesses.
But I never noticed how the shame had also leached its way into the things I am proud of, the bits of myself I enjoy and appreciate; my strengths. Never taught myself how to manage that. My academic work, my artwork, my photography, my writing. Okay, I'm lying, I secretly think all my artwork is total crap. But I can see some skill and ability in the other things, and I'm not ashamed of those things. I'm ashamed of me, and so there is a consequent embarrassment about putting the things that I create out into the world that remains unaffected by how well I think I've done, how well they are received. They are all fruits of a poisoned tree, if you like.
I'm not going to write a note of gratitude about that. But I am grateful for the self-awareness that feeling inherently contemptible every day of my life has offered me, in the sense that I have learned to hold the anger, prejudices, judgments, mistakes, missteps, ignorance of others more lightly than I might have otherwise. Who the hell am I to insist on holding them to a higher standard than I hold myself? If I'm forgiveable, so are they. If I am not the sum of the worst thing I have ever done, then neither are they. If I say dumb ass things that don't always reflect what I truly feel and believe, then likely they do too. Etc. And so forth. My kindness is born from my shame, and I'm grateful to it for that.
Though? There also remain people in this world of whom it is my fervently stated preference that they keep themselves the hell away from me and mine, please, and thank you. Forgiveness and compassion are not the same thing as a lack of boundaries.
So here we are, at the end of our story, and no closer to an answer than when we begun. How do you have compassion on your strengths, learn to show kindness to your abilities? What an absurd thing. What an absurd situation I find myself in.
I'll get back to you.