Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Self-Acceptance: The North Star of Personal Work

You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere.You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.                      ~Buddha

I love this quote. "You... as much as anybody...deserve your love and affection." 

Self-acceptance is the ability to, on one hand, hold our struggle, our imperfect messy human-ness AND on the other hand, hold the recognition that this is where we are right now.  It is a recognition of our efforts and a loving compassion for our human self who is struggling. 

As soon as we struggle without self-acceptance, we are likely to judge ourselves and fall into the shame pit. Judging, as in assessing and checking ourselves, is not without it's merits of course. As grown adults we should be able to take a moment and take stock of our behavior in any given situation, own up to our mistakes, take responsibility and move on. That's not what I mean when I talk about judging ourselves. This is the process I mean: 

Struggle (no self-acceptance) -->  judge like the harshest critic--> feel like shit --->  act like an ass/ be mean.

When we judge our self through the struggle, we are in the shame pit. We will most likely do one of two things: treat our self like shit or treat someone close by like shit. That's what I mean when I say, "act like an ass/be mean". (Yeah, some topics require swearing.)

Taking a moment to take stock of our behavior can still occur WITH self-acceptance. It actually won't be very productive if we are taking stock of our behavior and judging it like the harshest critic. This is how it works when we are a struggling as a messy imperfect human AND hold some self-acceptance. 

First, I struggle. I snap at my partner, I cut someone off in traffic, I harshly dismiss a child. (These are all immediate behavior examples, but you can use larger and harder struggles and it still works.) 

Second, I see I'm struggling and I say something like: "Ahh, look at me acting like a messy imperfect human." Maybe I can see myself with a little compassion and a little critical awareness. For example, "I'm feeling so frustrated or left out or unheard by that interaction earlier. I don't feel able to continue with my responsibilities (deal with said partner/ traffic/ child etc) and I want to just rest and reflect a little. This is hard. I'm struggling."

This is the MAGIC STEP and it actually has three sub-steps. 

1. AWARENESS: an active decision is made beforehand to be aware of my feelings/ behaviors with an open curiosity. 

2. PAUSE: I catch my self in the struggle and take a moment. 

3. RECOGNITION: I see what the struggle is (as in, the feelings and behaviors) and I name it.  

Third, I touch the place that's just below the struggle. I feel the tears well up or the long exhale. I find what is below the struggle and I hold my Self with a little reverence and compassion. "I'm trying. I am doing the best that I can. What can I let go of for right now so I can meet my needs for few moments?" 

Fourth, I can take care of my Self. I can see the unmet needs of the child or adolescent within. Maybe I need a tender touch from someone who loves me or maybe I need some solitude or a sense of freedom or fun. Can I meet this need in a small way right now? Can I look at how to get some long-forgotten needs met on a regular basis? 

THEN, fifth. I can take stock of my behavior and take responsibility. I can return to my partner or child and apologize. I can remember to let someone in next time there is heavy traffic. This is where the 'judging as-in assessing' comes in-- after self-acceptance. It's the only way to avoid the shame-pit.

But before you begin to tell yourself how unworthy you are because you just can't find your way to hold self-acceptance through struggle, let me say: This is a North star philosophy. Self-acceptance
through struggle, sits like the North Star in the sky. We will know if we are facing towards it or if we are facing away from it, but its not about reaching it. We don't reach an enlightened place of self-acceptance that feels like rainbows and sunshine and then call it a day. [Dusts hands] "Good, I can cross self-acceptance off my list!"

Self-acceptance is a cultivation and a practice. We move in the direction of self-acceptance. We face that way. We look for and find the North star even on the darkest nights and that is what self-acceptance does for us. It provides a direction within the dark times of struggle, self-loathing and despair. To be human is to struggle. There are always problems of some kind to move through. Finding the North star of self-acceptance in the struggle, that is the key to avoiding a fall into the shame pit.

Self-acceptance is something that we all long for. Our desire for it is so deep that we often look for it from outside our self. However, acceptance from others can never exceed the extent that we can accept our Self and so we must start there. 

Warmly yours,

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Adaption to pain & the integration of Self

Humans are adaptive animals. For 200,000 years we have evolved to maximize our chance of survival. So much of our brain is devoted to surviving. We have had a very short history of doing more than surviving. It's only been recently that people question their happiness. As creatures who have survived this long, we have become very good at adapting to changing circumstances and very Hard Times. When each of us go through Hard Times, we find ways to cope. Initially a very good survival mechanism is to take what has happened and put it behind us. We move on to the next thing or taking care of any of the fallout of the Hard Times. This ability to take what happened and put it behind us is a kind of compartmentalization. It's adaptive. For example, if you are a small child watching your parents shout at each other or seeing physical violence between your care giving adults, you wait for the storm to calm and then you move on. Is your mom happy now? No. Okay, what can you do to fix it? Happy now? Ok, good. Move on. Put that scary event behind you. This compartmentalization is adaptive-- necessary for the child to survive in the family.

If a Hard Time happens and a Trusted Adult comes in to help you sort out your feelings and validates your perception, you may have a different way of understanding and processing the experience. It might not be a Hard Time because there were Trusted Adults to help. In my experience, this rarely occurs. The norm is that the child is meant to follow the family cycle and pretend everything is normal even when nothing feels normal. "We're good now, right? Ok, move on."

And so the child moves on. The brain allows that Hard Time event to be put in a box and put behind us and we move forward... until one day there is so much behind us, it may be hard to move forward. 

How do you possibly unpack that closet of hazardous material created through the unprocessed Hard Times?

What most "adaptive" adults will do is try to numb it out. 

Numbing looks like: keeping busy; never slowing down; drinking too much; spending too much; trying to control all the little things in life; being critical; watching a lot of TV; hiding in a room away from the people you live with; having a small life, but wanting more....and a multitude of other behaviors done to excess and with little pleasure. Numbing is about managing the pain of emotions that would otherwise arise. 

Numbing is an "adaptive" way to survive. It prevents the emotional pain from coming up. We worry that if we didn't numb, the naturally arising feelings would overwhelm us or others. We worry that the feelings could have violent consequences and we could hurt ourselves or others. Numbing is a natural response to having experienced Hard Times without the guidance and care of Trusted Adults. 

The thing is, numbing is survival. It's not living. It's not creating. It's not fully loving! 

This is where intervention starts. 

Same story of Hard Times: the small child who watched their parents shouting at each other or witnessed physical violence only needs to be collected. She only needs a little recognition of her needs. He only needs some validation of his feelings. The child inside is the resilient and soft part of the person who learned to adapt. What an amazing gift! That child kept herself safe through Hard Times. That child found ways to please the adults and try to smooth over tension to find peace. That child was strong, but now it's time for that child inside to be cared for.

Spirit is found in the care. Spirit is found in the resilience. Spirit is found in the bigger, stronger, wiser part of yourself who can show up in a kind manner for that child. 

Adaptation is about survival. Spirit is about integration of the parts of Self and coming into a place of wholeness. This is the path of healing: Moving from pain (which requires numbing) and suffering (the internal struggle to get through until numbing can occur) to integrated wholeness.

Counseling is the facilitated process of healing where the counselor is the Trusted Adult there to help the child process the feelings. The healing process allows for the collection of the child left behind and the reclamation of the whole Self. In my way of thinking, the Whole Self is the place of spirit. It is the re-claiming of our selves as spiritual-humans as we transcend and integrate all the parts of self. To me, this is the journey and the purpose of life! Perhaps the greatest adventure you'll ever have will be completely inside your Self. 

You can search...

You can search throughout the entire universe for someone
who is more deserving of your love and affection
than you are yourself,
and that person is not to be found anywhere.
You yourself, as much as anybody
in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The messy spiral of Self-growth

The spiral is a scared nature-based image. I'm using it here as a framework for understanding how we move through higher states of consciousness by revisiting core issues.

I drew a picture (below)-- my first time trying this so it's a bit rough! This is the teaching of the spiral. We start at the bottom. The first X represents that point of feeling alone or in pain related to some core issue of the Self. In previous blogs, I've described the shape and shameThis starting point is the place of this core shape/ shame issue.

We find some way of significantly moving away from this pain. We seek out some counseling or use body-based treatments; learn meditation; work on our pain through art or writing.  There is some intervention that moves us far enough away from this pain that we feel like we left it behind in some way. We may even have the relaxed experience of "ahhhh...." in the exhale of relief of our understanding. At this point in managing a core issue, we will feel like we're done. [dusts palms together] "Glad I figured that out!" (We can be a bit arrogant at this stage.)

What happens though, as you will see by reading the points on the spiral from the bottom to the top, is that we circle back into a core issue. We will feel like we're exactly where we were before-- in the pain that is represented by all the points on the left hand side of the spiral. There will be some event or interaction or relationship that will push at our core issue or move us into that shape we worked to release and we will be shocked: "How can I be here again? I solved this issue."

In fact though, we can never really return to the same point. We are always at a new place of increased consciousness and understanding Self. It will feel like a familiar misery, but it is different. The spiral shows us that we are not in a circle or a repetitive pattern if we are moving toward an increased understanding. Sure, it may feel like a continuous loop, but it likely isn't as much of one as it feels (1). Every time we circle back to the left side, we gain new understandings and insights and so move upwards toward the right. Each level of the spiral is a new level of consciousness and understanding of the Self.

Recently someone I love very much had a significant event occur. I thought I had done so much work on my own core issue: 'filling needs for others when I have my own unmet needs', but in one rug-pulled-out-from-under-me event, I felt like I was back in a place from many years ago. I couldn't see my own needs. I didn't have my own boundaries. I was a mushy mess without clarity working overtime to care for others beyond what was expected or needed.The overtime work extended beyond the person I loved and went out everywhere. I was back in my shape and reacting to the world the way I did a long time ago.

I found some trusted helpers (our own stuff is at the end of our nose; we all need trusted people to help sort it out) and I began to pull my Self back together. In the process, I was able to find my self-compassion again and s l o w down and meet my own need: to admit my struggle, show my vulnerability and express my emotions. I understood (again!) that I am the one who makes space for me. The people who love me want me to make space for my Self. It's me who, in the most pain-filled moments, will default to staying small and working on behalf of others to my detriment. I know that staying small and denying my own  needs is a form of self-harm. As much as anyone, I deserve my love, care and compassion.

This latest turn around the spiral has led me to greater understandings and allowed me to take even bigger risks in being real. This is the path. We are messy imperfect humans and it's our human experience that gives us the best material for cultivating spiritual growth. It's not about avoiding pain; it's about the transformation of that pain into greater understandings and higher levels of consciousness.


(1) If your experience truly feels like a circle, then you are idling at the point of the first X- doing loops in one spot-and you haven't yet begun on the spiral. Your work is to find the first step to change-- come in for counseling and we'll get you on your way. You can also dig deep on your own and seek out others if things become too clouded-- but get off the circle and into greater understanding.

Monday, May 4, 2015

How to Manifest

There are many words that become misconstrued over time due to misuse.  Manifest definitely falls into that category. The way I understand the term manifest directly relates to how to create one's reality. From my own experience, I know that what is happening externally to me (my experience of reality) is based on what is happening internally (my emotional reality).

I caution that in my way of thinking, I don't buy into victim blaming. Shit happens. Bad shit happens to good people. Nothing of value comes from saying to a person that they caused their cancer or their car accident. Or that there must be a reason they called the cancer or the car accident into their lives. No.

It's about understanding the blocks that created a dam and skewed the path. What are the blocks that prevent your life from flowing easily? Let’s look at those.

When a little baby is born, it is born without shame or apology. A baby is a little drop of spirit-life who spits-up and poops and without knowing they should apologize for having such human needs. As the little drop of spirit-life grows, the world (via parents) soon teaches them that they do in fact need to mold their self around expectations. This is an experience that their value of belonging is contingent on their rearranging their Self to meet the needs of others. This harsh reality is the beginning of internalizing: "something is wrong with me!" The implicit messages become internalized: I need to be a certain way to have value.  Don't cry too much. Don't have big feelings. Don’t be __[fill in the blank]___ or I won’t be accepted. Don’t have needs that are inconvenient for others. And so we grow from the unashamed little drop of spirit into a shame-based human.

Some of the messages that lead to this idea of needing to mold around people, to the point of denying our own Self, include:

-Productivity leads to personal value (you are of no value on your own sitting around, you have to do something)

-There is a lack in the world: don't take up to much space; don't take too much food; don't be too loud. Stay small. (Brene Brown refers to this idea as the culture of scarcity.)

-There is suffering… and an obligation to keep going anyway. Life sucks. Suck it up. Keep going.

-Meet the needs of others even it means your needs aren't met.

You can argue about whether you got these messages growing up or not. You can probably relate to a couple of them. There are unique messages you got in your family, too. These messages are both explicit and implicit through an adult’s responses to events in life or from your observation of family relationships.

How do any of us know who we are without the mirror of relationships to show us? Our first mirror is our family of origin. The way we are looked at from the beginning, is how we grow to see ourselves. Our self-talk grows out of the way we were talked to early in life.

Let's use a more extreme situation for the purpose of example. A child raised by a depressed mother or a violent father is going to carry messages of: "I'm not good enough"; “The world is unsafe"; "I can't trust that I'll be okay." As this child grows, the messages might become less apparent and more buried within a way of being. Perhaps the child continues to engage in difficult relationships as an adult or perhaps the child becomes highly successful and achieves great things. It's not about success or failure and what that means. It's about how the self- talk continues.

If there is no room in my own Self for acknowledging my feelings or meeting my needs, then I am not likely to bring good things into my life. When I set out to create a fortune or to find love, I will be doing so from a place of low worth. How can I manifest wealth or acceptance, if I carry in my own self-talk: "I don't deserve good things."; "I am not worthy of being loved."

These messages are not on the surface most of the time. There can be an internal emotional experience that isn't filled with negative self-talk, but there will be emotions. The underlying emotions are often fear, shame, sadness and grief.

So, how to manifest?

1. Get an alignment between: 1) how you think about your Self; 2) what you want; 3) how you live.

2. Cast out your intention of what you want through writing it out. Be specific in the description of the future picture that you want. (Do not write out the steps to get there. Manifesting is not goal -setting.) In this picture, how will you feel? What will it look like?

3. Let go of attachment. Manifesting requires we practically forget about it. We don't work actively to think it through or to worry about how to get what we want. We just let it go. Like a stone into the water and we stand back and notice the ripples, but the stone is gone.

4. Live in the alignment.

Here’s an example. If I want to lose weight, I must first think of myself as "a healthy person" despite my current state of health. Then I cast out the intention of being a healthy person. Then I live like I am a healthy person. The alignment is between perception of Self, a clear desire (want) and the actions or behaviors based on that.

That might seem oversimplified or ridiculous, but once the blocks are cleared out, manifesting an outer world is this easy. First, you need to understand the blocks. Why can't you get what you want? What are the specific hooks in beliefs that are holding you back? They are the messages that you were given. They are the legacy that you are carrying around from your family and early experiences. Unpack these untrue messages and the emotional logic that weighs you down and you will create a life of wonder! You will feel like a hungry human who has found a free buffet! Your life will be yours to live freely.

                                    The world is but a canvas to our imagination

                                                                              ~ H. D. Thoreau

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Birth-Shame and Empathy

This post (slightly different version) was originally published as an article in Birthing (Calgary) in October 2013.

Birth-Shame and Empathy
Birth and shame aren’t ideas that usually go together. When we think of shame, we may wince or feel repulsed. We have all experienced shame at some time and thinking of it may cause an uncomfortable visceral reaction. Birth, on the other hand, although often misrepresented and oversimplified as a miracle, a battle survived or both, can immediately bring up a varied and emotional reaction in us. Our culture’s simplistic view of birth does not represent the multi-dimensional experience of most women. Birth fundamentally changes our sense of self. Many women would identify the first birth experience as the marker of changing from maiden to mother. And this transformative process can be as glorious as it is shame-triggering.

Dr. Brene Brown is a shame and vulnerability researcher and author from the University of Houston. She has written three books: I thought it was just me, but it isn’t (2007); The Gifts of Imperfection (2010) and Daring Greatly (2012). Brown has also recorded two TED talks: The Power of Vulnerability (2010) and Listening to Shame (2010). Her work provides a lens through which to understand birth-shame in our culture. Relying on my first birth experience and using the shame-resilience work of Dr. Brene Brown, I am going to offer a view of a different facet of birth, including strategies for how to help a woman through birth-shame.

(I could start a birth-shame meeting.) Hello. My name is Heather and I have shame about my birth. (Cough, sputter, choke!) I have had three children in two births. My first birth started as the ever important: “Midwife-Assisted Home Birth with Birthing Pool” (I’m awesome!) and more than 40 hours later was renamed: “Hospital Transfer with Epidural” (Epic failure?) The result of that process was my beautiful daughter, Isabelle, and the most extreme mixed emotions I have ever experienced:

I felt like I was in-love for the first time!
I was angry and upset about why the birth didn’t go ‘right’.
I felt broken as a woman that I couldn’t have the birth I wanted.
I felt alone and frustrated when people said: “But look what you have- a healthy beautiful baby!”

In the midst of this post-partum emotional storm and an inhumane lack of sleep, I struggled through the early days of breastfeeding. The emotional roller coaster rivaled nothing I had ever experienced and the underlying message of all my thoughts in those early weeks were: “I love this baby more than anything in the world” and “What the #*%@ is wrong with me?”

Understanding Shame
Brown describes shame as “the full-contact emotion” that may include physical symptoms such as knots in the stomach, nausea, shaking, flushing and wincing (Brown, 2007) Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging” (Brown, 2007, 30). Shame says: I am not ____________enough. Fill-in the blank: good, worthy, deserving, healthy, informed, rich, skinny and so on (Brown, 2012).

Shame and guilt are very different although both are very uncomfortable feelings. Whereas guilt says: I did something bad, shame says: I am bad.  Guilt can be productive and keep our relationships in check. In guilt, we hold up our behavior against our values and self-evaluate. Guilt is adaptive and helps us to change our behaviour (Brown, 2007). We can grow and change for the better from a place of feeling we have done something that isn’t in line with our beliefs and values.

Shame, on the other hand, is the intensely painful belief that we are flawed- I am bad- and therefore unworthy of love and acceptance (Brown, 2007). It’s a feeling of being broken in a way that can’t be fixed. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence and eating disorders. Brown says the three things to know about shame are: 1) it’s universal, we all experience it (except for sociopaths); 2) no one likes to talk about it; and 3) the less we talk about it, the more we experience it (Brown, 2012). Shame is felt the same for both men and women, but it is organized and understood differently by gender. According to Brown’s research, men’s experience of shame is about being perceived as weak or a failure. Men can feel forced to stay in a narrow box of what is considered masculine in our culture. Vulnerability and authentic emotional expression is misunderstood as weakness (Brown, 2012).

For women, shame is understood as a web of competing and conflicting expectations. Shame comes from being perceived as anything less than perfect in multiple and often conflicting areas of our life. For example, a woman can’t be the perfect employee and the perfect mother in the same moment and shame is the feeling she is left with: I’m not good enough. I can’t do it all (Brown, 2012).

The symptoms of shame sound like post-partum sleep deprivation and hormone overload: nausea, stomach ache, shakiness. How can I separate out all the emotional and physical feelings? But, “I’m not good enough as a mom”—that was the feeling I had after Isabelle was born! I didn’t recognize it then, but if I couldn’t even birth her like I intended, how could I be good enough as her mother?

Birth Preparation in a Culture of Scarcity
Brown describes the culture of scarcity as fuelling our ‘never_____ enough’ thinking. The components of a culture of scarcity include fear, comparison, shame and subsequent disengagement to protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable (Brown, 2012). We compare ourselves to others and are compared by others. When we feel we ‘aren’t _____ enough’, we are fearful of rejection and so disengage to protect our self from feeling vulnerable. When we are afraid to be vulnerable because the culture is one of harsh comparison and shame, we don’t take risks. We don’t act real and we don’t offer all we may have to offer. Brown asserts that this struggle with shame and avoiding vulnerability is shaping the culture we live in (Brown, 2012). There is less creativity and innovation and instead people keep up the status quo and try not to be noticed. This is true for our larger society as well as our smaller institutions of work, school, community and family (Brown, 2012).

Consider a girl who is raised in a culture of scarcity. She will develop vulnerability shields to protect herself from feeling fear, shame and disconnection. Perfectionism is one such vulnerability shield (Brown, 2012). Appearing perfect, or close to it, is an adaptive response and for a young woman to demonstrate her worthiness of belonging. Brown also refers to this as the “hustle for worthiness”. Racheal Simons, in her book, The Curse of the Good Girl  states, "Many of the most accomplished girls are disconnecting from the truest parts of themselves, sacrificing essential self-knowledge to the pressure of who they think they ought to be" (p. 28). The culture of scarcity feeds the good-girl/ gold-star thinking. For example, a young girl in school may not feel good enough or worthy of belonging (shame) and so she performs at an extraordinary level (appears perfect) in order to get the accolades (gold stars, approval and acceptance) which allow her to feel worthy. This is the good-girl’s modus operandi for the demonstration of her value and assured acceptance.

Now consider this girl-as-a-woman 6 months pregnant and preparing to give birth.

In this culture of scarcity, when a woman is pregnant and considering birth options, the message of ‘never_______ enough’ will inform her: “You will not be safe enough. You will not know enough. You/ your body are not trustworthy enough.” From this place, a woman may be fearful and disengaged and allow decisions to be made solely by health care providers. A woman may forfeit her right to autonomy over her body and be disconnected from her own self-knowledge. The culture of scarcity questions a woman’s capacity to have her own wisdom or any input. This is illustrated in the Monty Python movie, The Meaning of Life: The woman is on a table about to give birth and asks the doctor, “What do I do?” The response is, “Nothing, dear. You’re not qualified.” The message: you don’t know enough.

What about a woman who is able to move past this never enough thinking? Brown states that when we are able to get out of scarcity thinking and choose to push into new areas, shame runs another tape: Who do you think you are?  This is shame saying: stay small; don’t get too big for your britches. When a woman chooses non-normative circumstances for her birth, her decision may be viewed as subversive and upsetting to those around her. This may be reflected by messages from family and friends. Although their love and concern is genuine, their message is often well-steeped in the scarcity culture of never enough thinking.

When good-girl/ gold-star thinking is applied to an upcoming birth, the self-talk goes something like this: “I am going to research birth and choose the best way to birth. I am going to make sure that this birth is safest or most natural or most medically attended there has ever been. I will be great at this. I’ve read the most highly recommended books. I’ve got the best doctor/ midwife/ doula and I’ve done all the best birthing classes.”

Hmmmm…the culture of scarcity fits. I know these messages. I had been a pretty classic ‘good-girl’ through my younger years. I hate admitting it, but I probably took all that passion to achieve and do it ‘perfectly’ into my pregnancy. When I wasn’t feeling fearful, making comparisons and worried about being good enough, I might have been looking for the way to make my birth the most natural, relaxed, fear-less A+ gold-star birth that I could.

A midwife once told me that a woman in labor is a woman in labor. It doesn’t matter what she does in her daily life- artist, accountant or nurse- it’s all the same in labor. This is very bad news for the woman with good girl/ gold star thinking. The labyrinth path of labor is about letting go and trusting. It’s impossible to be perfect and vulnerable at the same time; to hear the whispers of ‘never enough’ and let go.

In the early post-partum days, I thought: I should have stayed home longer. I should have spoken up more. My body betrayed me. I wasn’t mentally strong enough or physically fit enough. I didn’t let go enough. I didn’t go inside enough. I wasn’t fearless enough.

Elements of Shame Resilience
Dr. Brown’s shame resilience model has four elements: 1) Recognizing shame and understanding triggers; 2) practicing critical awareness; 3) reaching out; and 4) speaking shame (Brown, 2007). It is not a linear process and we move back and forth between elements when sorting out shame (Brown, 2012).

The first element is to recognize shame. That is, to know when we are in it and what it feels like in our bodies (Brown, 2007). When we feel shame, can we recognize it and see what messages triggered it? Brown identifies twelve categories of shame triggers: appearance and body image, motherhood/ fatherhood, family, parenting, money and work, mental and physical health, sex, aging, religion, being stereotyped, speaking out and surviving trauma (Brown, 2007). Pregnancy and birth is a minefield of shame triggers. Body image, sex, mothering are all potential areas of shame triggers. Indeed, any of these categories of shame triggers could come up for a woman during pregnancy and birth.

The second element, practicing critical awareness, refers to stepping back and seeing from a bigger perspective (Brown, 2007. It’s a process of reality-checking. Are the messages that are driving our shame realistic? Did the messages originate in the culture of scarcity and come to us via our family of origin or the media? Related to birthing, especially changing birth plans or increased birth interventions, it’s important to understand the bigger picture of the culture in which we birth. It’s also important to know the facts of each of our specific situations and the multitude of factors that contribute to the birth process.

The third element of shame resilience, reaching out, refers to seeking out someone who has earned the right to hear our story and who will be able to respond with empathy (Brown, 2007). Briefly, empathy is a skill set that involves taking another person’s perspective, staying out of judgement and communicating an understanding of the underlying emotion (Brown, 2007 citing Wiseman 1162). Empathy is the antidote to shame and reaching out means reaching out to someone who can do that for us.

This fourth element, speaking shame, means that we call shame by its name when we recognize it. Shame is not guilt, embarrassment or humiliation. It is not depression, anger or anxiety. Shame relies on being kept secret and it grows in silence (Brown, 2007). However, when we can call shame by its name, it withers (Brown, 2012). The tricky part is you can’t meet another person’s shame head on. It can cause more shame. Instead you can help a person sort out their feelings and when you hear ‘not____ enough’ thoughts and feelings, you can help to name it. Empathy is the key to this process (Brown, 2007).

I had lots of feelings after the birth, but the feeling that I hadn’t birthed well enough and therefore wasn’t good enough as a mom was shame. It would have been helpful for me to be able to name it then. I wouldn’t have wanted someone else to point it out explicitly, but that was the core of my struggle. Critical awareness came after the fact, when I confirmed that Isabelle’s fetal position was associated with long hard labors. It wasn’t just me! I wasn’t the only factor in the messy process of labor and birth. Having a bigger perspective of understanding the culture of scarcity or even reflecting on the birth films I watched during pregnancy, helped me see that there were messages about labor and birth expectations that fueled my post-partum shame.

Shame withers when it is named and shrinks to nothing when it is met with empathy (Brown, 2007). The elements, reaching out and speaking shame require another person who is able to provide an empathetic response. Empathy is a skill set and it is often not our first response (Brown, 2007). To understand empathy, consider the following responses[1]:

Mother/ MIL/ Aunt/Grandma: You shouldn’t have tried to labor at home. It certainly was better that you ended up at the hospital and you were safe. I would hate to think what could have happened.

Friend who just had home water birth with triplets while riding a unicycle: I’m so sorry that you had to have those interventions; you poor thing.

Sister/Cousin/Helpful friend: It was hard, but at least you have a beautiful baby now and that’s the main thing.

The first response is judgement. The second response is sympathy where the person is feeling bad for you, but not with you (Brown, 2007). The third response, Brown refers to as, “at least”  and it discounts and jumps over the feeling of shame. All of these responses are about the other person’s own discomfort with shame. Judgement is super-powered by the culture of scarcity. We make comparisons so that we may feel better about our self. We judge in areas where we feel inadequate. The discomfort of not feeling good enough can be partially discharged through judging another. The thinking is: “I may not feel good enough, but compared to her (right now), I’m great!” The difficulty is that this only further feeds into the culture of scarcity.

Sympathy is different from empathy. Sympathy can actually feed feelings of shame. Sympathy is about standing far away from the pain of the other person and saying: I feel bad that you are way over there. (And I am definitely not over there with you.) Sympathy then leaves the person in shame feeling even more alone and unworthy of love and acceptance (Brown, 2007).

The third response, ‘at least’, is a form of flood lighting where the person shines a bright light on all that is good and pretends there is no shame. This is a very popular post-partum response to mothers. It can also fuel shame because the new mother now has the shame of not being grateful enough and a further feeling of: “What’s wrong with me? I’m supposed to be happy.” None of the above responses are helpful because they don’t acknowledge the underlying emotion.

Here is an empathic response:
I know you really wanted to birth at home and things didn’t go as you expected. That’s hard. It sounds like you are feeling disappointed and defeated.

A conversation can go on from there as a listener asks questions about what the woman feels or what she thinks could have been different. Empathy doesn’t require that you have had the exact same experience (Brown, 2007). The key is to look under the incident that triggered shame and to identify the emotions. As an empathetic listener, you may not have even given birth, but you know what it’s like to feel disappointed or defeated because those are universal feelings. You can convey your understanding of those feelings. You can be very helpful by facilitating the woman’s exploration of her emotions. Emotional logic, especially as it relates to shame, has its own rules. Emotional logic is not logical. Although a woman may need help with critical awareness and gaining perspective, she first needs to feel understood.

Empathy also doesn’t have to be a rehearsed set of words. Empathy might be conveyed in a knowing glance or with a hug (Brown, 2007). Perhaps the only thing a friend can say is: “I know you’re having a hard time. I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know that I’m here for you. We’ll get through this.” Brown says that if you have one or two friends to whom you can reach out, share a shame story and receive a genuine emphatic response you’re fortunate (Brown, 2007). This is the inner sanctum of your emotional world and it isn’t likely that there are many who have earned the right to hear your most vulnerable feelings and who can meet them with empathy.

After Isabelle’s birth I felt terrible, but I was also confused about what I was feeling.  I had two close friends who could listen and help. One male friend offered that in transferring before I was ready, I missed out on the female equivalent of ‘slaying the lion to prove I’m a man’. I totally felt like that! I felt like I dropped out of the marathon before I was ready and I was profoundly disappointed. It was a relief to have that reflected back to me.

My closest female friend understood my convoluted feelings well and easily conveyed that. She agreed that I probably could have stayed home longer, but it was a hard call for all of us. She reminded me of the facts: dehydrated with no more IV bags at home, ROP fetal position, 30 hours of labor before we transferred, political push and pulls of the day. I knew she understood my feelings and further she gave me perspective in reflecting back the ambiguity of the situation. It was a relief to have facts in the middle of my birth-shame storm.

Wrapping up
Feeling unworthy is the crux of shame. It is relayed to us through messages from the culture of scarcity and internalized as self-deprecating thoughts (Brown, 2012). When we become a mother for the first time and stare into those beautiful eyes, every imperfect part of our self is reflected back. In that reflection, it is easy to think we aren’t worthy enough of the great love we feel. However, we need to find a way[2] to feel worthy of this love because this is the way we show our child the same:  I love you, not in spite of your imperfection, but because of it. Your imperfection is what makes you who you are. You are always worthy of my love. You are always worthy of belonging to me.

If we teach our children to believe they are worthy of love and belonging we might change the world. But we can only do this by letting them see that we too, believe that we are worthy of great love and belonging[3].

[1] Fortunately I didn’t hear most of these after Isabelle’s birth. These are illustrative.
[2] For more information, see Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection.
[3] See Neff (2003) for more about self-compassion.

Heather Mackay is a provisional clinical social worker in private practice in Edmonton, Alberta. You can read more about her at: www.pointonthepath.com or reach her at Heather.pointonthepath.com
This article originally appeared in Birthing Magazine. 

Works Cited
Brown, Brene. Daring Greatly. New York: Gotham Books, 2012. Print.
---. I thought it was just me, but it isn’t. New York: Gotham Books, 2007. Print.
---. Listening to shame. TED2012. Long Beach, CA. Filmed March 2012.
---. The Gifts of Imperfection. Centre City, MN:  Hazelden,  2010. Print.
---. “The power of vulnerability.” TEDxHuston. Huston, TX. Filmed June 2010.
Neff, Kirstin. “Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of healthy attitude
toward oneself.” Self and Identity, 2003: 85-101.
Simmons, Rachel. The Curse of the Good Girl. London: The Penguin Press, 2009. Print.
The Meaning of Life. Dir. Terry Gilliam. Terry Jones. Perf. John Cleese. The Monty Python
Partnership, 1983. Film.
Wiseman, Teresa. “A concept analysis of empathy.” Journal of Advanced Nursing, June 1996:1162-1167. Print.

Monday, March 24, 2014

A new labyrinth

A new year and new labyrinth! This year it's faced the other direction with the entrance toward the house and not the side of the patio. It's made with stakes, twine and twinkle lights. The paths are staked out regardless of the snow or melting.

The winter has been different this year as well. During my last walk I experienced the ground from all seasons: dry grass, deep puddles, soggy ground, thin icy parts and deep snow. (The yard melts in varying degrees because of the shadows of the buildings.)

Metaphor? Of course! Life may feel easy to navigate in the dry patches, but suddenly your inadequate-for-water-boots are damp because you stepped in a puddle. Then, after moving through that, you get to do a 180 (on the path of the labyrinth there are many of those) and head back into the the same thing you just walked through. Have you learned anything yet? Repeat as necessary.

Through the ice you move slowly- it's easy to watch your step now after the ker-splash of the puddle- but you didn't realize ice could move to the treacherous and uneven mounds of snow. This is hard work. It's hard to remember why this path was even desirable. Every step requires concentration so surely there isn't time for reflection and great ideas. Isn't this so like life? Every day requires so much time in the physical duties and in the basic maintenance of self, home, work and family, where is the time and space for the much need quiet reflection.

And so on I go. Up and down the labyrinth path...when I get there. It's not often. It's less often than last year even (when I so beat myself up for not 'following my spiritual path'), but I'm okay with that. Sometimes I am up for the intense metaphors offered by the labyrinth and other times I'm just busy watching my literal steps in life! :-)