Shame and Grace

One of the big themes in my personal growth the last year or so has been the interplay between shame, vulnerability, connection and intimacy. This probably isn’t surprising to those paying attention to self help. Especially since Brene Brown has become popular it’s been everywhere.

The idea that keeps coming up is the fact that so many of our personal and social problems arise from shame.  There’s externalized shame and stigma that cripples people mental health and cuts them off from connection and support. Body shaming, hiv stigma, addiction shaming, mental health stigma, so many sources. And more damaging is the internalized shame that results from this externalized shame. Once we start to internalize shame we begin to hide ourselves, and cut ourselves off from others.  We begin to project our fears about ourselves on others and punish them for them.  We acquire narcissistic or codependent tendencies and harm our relationships and those we relate to.

Even in mild cases this shame, and this hiding of parts of ourselves stop us from being fully intimate. We don’t feel like we can be seen, and we become emotionally isolated, even when we’re around others. This lack of human connection leaves us broken. More likely to become addicted to drugs, more likely to shut ourselves off and lose ourselves in distractions, more likely to become violent and angry.  The relationships we’re trying so hard to protect by only showing our good side die from the lack of intimacy. Our creativity dies and our health declines. We live in a hell inside our mind, convinced that we’re unloveable and nasty, and never giving anyone a chance to show us otherwise.

The solution to all of this? Is to stop trying to control our relationships, to stop trying to predict how people react and just open ourselves up.  To become vulnerable, to keep those who will stay when they see us, and let those who won’t go away. And once we feel seen, once we have intimacy and connection, we can improve. We can get help for things we need to change knowing that we won’t be shamed for needing that help. We can see those things that don’t need to change, and the shame was entirely misplaced. Most importantly we begin to be able to do that for ourselves. To give ourselves room to be who we are, even when we’re not perfect. To give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and forgiveness. To have positive self talk, and know we are worthy of love even when those around us aren’t giving it.

But usually we need someone outside of ourselves to lean on to begin this journey. Someone to turn to when we’re struggling. Often this can’t be family or the friend group we built while we were caught in this cycle of shame. They’re frequently the people who helped us internalize the shame in the first place. These people are not safe or healthy to be vulnerable to. So we need someone else to ground us while we find new, safe people.  A therapist can be a good first step. Client centered therapy even gives us a name for what we need: unconditional positive regard. And with it therapists help people make better choices for themselves, improve relationships, and get healthy.

This whole dynamic played a major role in both my leaving and my coming back to religion. The tradition I grew up in definitely used shame as a method of control and especially as a queer kid it sunk deep into me. And just like human relationships, there is no way to have a real relationship with Divinity if you’re hiding yourself out of fear of rejection, or pretending to be someone you’re not in order to impress. And while there were other reasons to leave that church, there certainly wasn’t a way to find God with that concept of them.

But years after I left and thought I was done with everything I felt something stirring. I experienced the unity of all things in love and the acceptance of the world as it is. So I started exploring various faith traditions, and in most faiths I studied I found many things I like and that have influenced my understanding of spirituality. But it wasn’t until I found one where divinity modeled that unconditional positive regard of a therapist that something lit up my soul. Although many or perhaps even most branches of the religion that claim to follow Jesus are shaming, and controlling, the message he taught, and the life he lived showed the opposite.

Jesus showed a God who just wants us to come to Him. To be seen deep down to our core. And to still be loved, not in spite of our vulnerability and our weakness. But in and through it. A God who fearfully and wonderfully made us in Her image. A God that wanted to so fully know us, that the Wisdom of God, left the loving community of God and became human. Born to a poor refugee family in a barn in the backwater colony of a mighty empire. A God who while embodied spent far more time with those viewed as disgusting and unclean than with those viewed as righteous and holy. A God who directly promises us that anyone who comes to Them will never be turned away. A God who after suffering the most shameful death, turned it into the most glorious victory. This God I’ve found to be such a strength. For whenever I’m willing to open myself fully to Her I know that they still find me worthy of love, and who am I to shame what God loves.

Jesus taught there are two great commandments. ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’   Love God even with those thoughts you want to be rid of, even that part of you that you hate, even the doubt or anger you have towards God. Bring all of yourself to the loving presence of God. Now secure in the knowledge that you are loved you can love yourself as God loves you. Only then are you fully ready for the second commandment which is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

Help! I was raised to be “smart” by engineers… but I want to be an artist.

TL;DR What kind of art stuff should I try and who wants to hear about how it goes?

Like all of you I’ve grown up in a world infused by the over valuation of rational thought. A world grounded in enlightenment era values, watered by industrial needs, and breathing the cult of technological progress. And in some ways at least this has suited me. As early as the first grade I knew I was smart. The standardized testing told me so. And I’ve done very well in a STEM career.  But while I’ve been good at math and sciences, it’s not what makes me excited.  Programming has at times, when I’ve been making things, but I don’t know if programming for it’s own sake is what I want to do for the rest of my life. Or if I do, I at least need some other outlets to keep my creative juices flowing, to keep life in my life. The problem is… I don’t know anything else, and my brain is scared its too late to learn new things.

My whole conception of self is bound up in others viewing me as smart. I’d been praised for it from an early age, and that’s how I learned to receive affection and respect. If you’re reading this, especially if we’re close, we probably bonded initially over discussing things intellectually, or knowing random things. And that’s great, I love that, and I don’t want to change that. But I want more, and deep down I’m scared of doing something and not being good at it, because it challenges my ego of being naturally good at things. But that’s not how skills work. Even the skills I do have developed over time, I just started them early enough that I was always seen as ahead of the curve. But, now as I want to learn new things, my ego knows I’m way behind my peers, and rejects trying.

I don’t know how early it came on, but as long as I can remember I’ve known there’s three classes of people. Nerds, athletes, and artists. And I was firmly in the nerd camp. Like any good minmaxer I only put points in the things I was already good at. In fourth grade, I put next to no effort in the sculpting unit at the ‘gifted and talented’ program. There were other people there who were good at it, and I couldn’t try hard and not be the best, that would be humiliating. I have no memory of ever painting, but my gut reaction is that I know I’m bad at a painting. In high school I hung out with the theater kids, and participated in productions. But only as a tech, because that’s the kind of person I was. I’d never try out, acting is for those guys, I’d be terrible at it. How stupid is that? I wasn’t actually very good at sound tech; ADHD and doing things on cues in a story you can’t even see, did not make a good combination. Maybe I would have been better at acting; if I even gave that to myself as an option. Even with nerd things, the desire for being respected for what I knew came to bite me.I used to love playing chess, until in middle school I realized I wasn’t as good at it as my friends and I gave it up.

I don’t know all of where this came from, but I know some. Much has been written about the tragedy “gifted and talented” programs has wrought on kids, probably even more has been written about standardized testing being dominant from a young age. But I also don’t think it helped that both of my parents were also smart, software engineers.  Even the few bits of exposure they gave me to the arts were framed in terms of utility and knowledge. I had to take piano lessons so that I would know how to play in church on an LDS mission.  I have no memory of being exposed to the idea that playing music could be done for fun, for self expression. And so somewhere between when I started and when I stopped taking piano lessons I stopped having fun. And I didn’t practice because I was smart, I had the knowledge from the last lesson, and didn’t understand that I needed to develop a skill. And so I was bad at it, and being bad at it threatened my ego. So I resisted even more until I got out of it with barely any practical ability.  When I was introduced to classical music, it was with the purpose being described as knowing pieces and composers, not just enjoying the music. When I took an interest in Poetry, the value of it became associated with my ability to memorize, not the feelings or stories in the poem.

But the few times arts gotten past my defenses I’ve loved it. My favorite class in the time I was in college was a class about theatre, and certainly not any of my math classes. The times I feel most alive are when I’m exploring art. The times at work I’ve been able to engage best is when making things. My whole reason for getting into programming was to make games, and I’ve never given it much of a real try because it needs art.  So I want to explore more, I want to consider doing things I’ve never done. And I want to learn to value myself without needing to be seen as smart and good at things. So I’m just going to do it. And I’m going to share what I create, and not worry about whether it’s the ideal version of what I want to make. I don’t know what all to try, or how to get started, but I’m just going to do it. Give me ideas of things to try!  Send me encouraging words! Tips, tricks, or whatever you want to share. And I hope to share my progress with any of you who are interested.

On fear’s role

Through out my life, I’ve seen people blaming the Other’s lack of fear for their bad choices.  A lack of fear of the afterlife can be blamed for anything for partying to harming others. A lack of fear of suffering is blamed for risky sex or drug abuse. A lack of fear of the apocalypse is blamed for militarism or climate change denial. A lack of fear of death is blamed for not improving healthcare or addressing gun violence.

I’ve come to think this sentiment is not just wrong about the cause, but also wrong about the benefits of fear. Fear doesn’t lead to good decision making in humans. Fear activates our fight or flight responses and we make short term decisions. Fear creates reactivity, not proactivity. Fear is not a good teacher, of children, of pets, of adults. It breaks people instead. Fear is the mindkiller.

I think more often than not it is the supposedly missing fear that motivates maladaptive behavior. A fear of death drives people to feel alive and deny their mortality, a fear of being forgotten leads to Machiavellian means to rise to the top. A fear of war motivates armament build up or preemptive strikes. A fear of the world changing drastically leads one to deny things which says we must change or it will change for us. Fear is behind the hate of white supremacists, homophobic churches, and anti-islamic groups.

While many religions have strains that have adopted fear to motivate behavior, the most inspiring and uplifiting messages at the base of religion is a message of hope and peace, not fear. The bible repeatedly tells people to not fear. Buddhism places fear as one of the ways the ego protects itself. The message comes through in both that fear is behind much of the worlds pain.

If we look at the problems above, we can see why fear is a bad way to approach them. Fear of eternal death drives one to grab all the pleasure you can with no regards to the consequences. Fear of the afterlife can cause one to ignore or even cause suffering in this life in order to live by their perception of the rules they’ll be judged by. Fear of climate change may cause us to take drastic action that we can’t control. Fear of korea’s nuclear capabilities may cause us to start a war where millions will die.

We instead must listen to the fear, understand what it’s warning us of and take reasoned controlled action. We should be aware that this life has an end and make sure to not live for ‘someday’, to tell those who matter to us that we love them, and to be present. We should be aware of moral imperatives and work to leave the world better than we found it. We should be aware of the way we’re changing the planet, and try and find better ways to meet our needs and to undo the damage we’ve done for future generations. We should be aware of the dangers of war and try to avoid it.

Don’t let the external forces that you fear control your life, be proactive and thoughtful in how you respond.

People pleasing, perfectionism, irony and ironing

While ironing this morning I caught myself thinking “I’m not very good at this, but a poor ironing job is still better than wrinkles on clothes stuffed in a day bag”. I was pleased I wasn’t caught up in perfectionism and letting that get in the way, but I felt like there was more to it.

So I reflected on why I wasn’t good at it, it wasn’t a flaw in me, but a skill I haven’t practiced. Why didn’t I practice it? Because for years I pretended to not care. I didn’t iron out of people pleasing. I didn’t care because I felt more in control if I ‘chose’ to look sloppy. I worried more about doing a bad job and appearing authentically flawed than about being inaccurately cast as slovenly I was scared of vulnerability because I’d been taught I was valuable for what I can do. Not valuable for who I am.

My rebellion against people’s wishes was it’s own form of people pleasing. I was just like those who reject relationships before they can be rejected because they fear it will devalue them. I rejected ironing so that no one could reject my skill at ironing and thus devalue me.