Divorcees: Feeling Shamed? Perfect. Dare to Be Shameless!

This blog post was featured on the divorce page of the huffington post

It was years after my divorce when I got the message that I was supposed to feel ashamed about it.

Feeling ashamed had never crossed my mind before.  I thought that any self-respecting woman would have done what I did:  Divorce my cheating husband, once I learned he had been lying to me and cheating on me for years.

I was at a black-tie dinner, talking about my divorce recovery coaching practice, and why I was doing this work, when the woman I was conversing with said, "It must be so sad for you to know you failed at something as important as your marriage."

Hearing this, so much began to make sense.  Why my parents had advised me to stay with my husband, no matter that I'd never be able to trust him again.  Why friends thought it was "so brave" of me to want to help other divorcing women.  Why, when on dates, I had learned not to mention the reason for my divorce because I could see it in men's eyes:  "She must have done something to make him cheat."

Who's at fault in divorce?  It always seems to be the woman (no matter what the man did).

Aha!  Late-breaking news.  I was supposed to be feeling ashamed of myself.  No one thought my ex should feel ashamed.  I was the one who was supposed to feel I had failed.

But, I never felt (and still don't feel) that I failed.  I feel I should never have married him.  I feel that I could have seen, years before I married him, that he was an unstable, troubled person.  

I was uninformed in other ways.  I didn't realize, back then, the extent to which lying is a way of life for many men.  It's a tool that's recognized among men as simply practical and smart.  It's the easiest way to get what you want (and are going to do anyway) without encountering friction from women along the way.  It's the path of least resistance for many men (and for some women, too, but the things we hide are typically far less destructive to a marriage).

Boys will be boys.  For as long as boys are raised to act up with no consequences other than a parent's indulgent smile (isn't he cute?), they learn how easy it is to get away with whatever they want to do.  In fact, they learn that there's nothing wrong with it.  

As long as girlfriends and wives of men with problems wail, "But I love him!" the men in our lives will apologize with temporary tears, and then turn away from us with a smirk.  "Whew!  Dodged the bullet!" and keep on lying, cheating, gorging on porn, visiting "gentleman's clubs" . . . whatever.

But, we're the ones who are supposed to be ashamed.

(Footnote:  If you're a happily married woman who's reading this and fuming, "Not my husband!  He's awesome!" remember that this blog is not written for you.  There are many honorable, best-friend, trustworthy husbands out there, and it's wonderful that you're married to one of them.)

Now that I knew I was supposed to be ashamed of myself and take the entire blame for my divorce, it opened up a new sense of freedom.

Since so many people are blaming me (and feeling sorry for me that I didn't have what it took to keep my husband faithful), it really can't get worse, I thought.  And, besides, if this is the opinion of the people whom I thought loved me most, there's no reason ever again to care what they think of me.

I have nothing to prove, and even if I did, it would be impossible to prove my worth to these people.

So, I might as well go ahead and do a whole bunch of other "shameless" things!  No one will think any worse of me than they already do.  What else had I been wanting to do for years, but subsconsciously figured it just wouldn't look right?  Which hurtful personal relationships had I wished I could abandon, but felt I just couldn't dare?

Because this shame issue triggered lots of things in me.  For example, my super-strict Catholic upbringing, in which love was always conditional on performance, in which life was supposed to be about sacrifice (well, female sacrifice, at least), and in which men could get away with whatever they wanted and women always covered it up.

"I respectfully do not care." -- Martha Beck

When I decided I should just go ahead and spend the rest of my life being shameless, there weren't too many things of an unhinged, crazy nature that I wanted to try.  I had already accomplished most of the things I had wanted to do.  

What had always been missing, though, was a cheering section, but [shoulder shrug] most women don't have that.  We have to find our own cheering section, and many times, it doesn't include family or the usual cast of characters that have populated our lives so far.  Sometimes, after an upheaval like divorce, we have to reconsider who we can number among our dearest friends.

That evening at the banquet, when I was informed that I should feel ashamed, it didn't trigger a desire in me to go wild in the streets.  It was more like a change in inner feeling.  It was a shedding of the last vestiges of caring what anyone else thought about me.  It was a reminder of where I had come from.  That there were broad swaths of human kind who would never understand, like, or respect me and my choices.

And, it was this bolt from the blue:  I'd spent my whole life waiting for that cheering section.  Trying hard to get important people in my life to be proud of me and to show it.  So here's the scandal I started:  I have nothing to prove.  I have nothing to earn.  I am excitedly cheering myself on, and hanging out with the people who "get" me, instead of trying to turn around those who have always thought I should be ashamed of myself.

To everyone else, I say (along with author Martha Beck), "I respectfully do not care!"

Ask yourself: Exactly why should I be ashamed?

Are you one of those girls, like me, who was raised with a very strict set of standards and expectations?  Were you raised in a culture of scarcity and fear, where nothing was freely given and women bore most of the burden?  Did you (do you) feel judged?

Here's an experiment:  Take a look at a few of the things you feel ashamed of or guilty about.  Is it really you who feel that way, or did someone else teach you that this is how you should feel?

If you decide that, "Whoa, these feelings are not really mine," maybe it's time to test your boundaries, and see what other things you've been ashamed of wanting or feeling.  Things you haven't even considered acting on. 

What have you always wanted to do that might be considered a little scandalous in the opinion of people you care about?  The fact that it's been in the back of your mind for years, and it's an innocent desire that wouldn't hurt anyone (except that certain people might not approve) is ample reason to consider doing it.

In case you feel you need permission:  I hereby give you a golden ticket to consider it.  Draw up a list.  Have fun looking at the list.  And, maybe . . . do something on the list just to test whether you survive the lightning bolt that you're afraid might strike.

Do this a few times and folks will get used to it.  They might even stop paying attention.  But that's fine because, by then, you'll start recognizing that small, happy cheering section that's starting to form around you.  And you'll feel like you're winning.  Because you've changed the rules of the game.


Making it safe to feel again

Today's post is about the work of Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work -- and the presenter of one of the top 10 most watched Ted talks of all time.

In fact, I'm going to link to all three of her Ted talks (plus a subsequent appearance, post stardom, on Oprah's OWN Network), and hope that you decide to watch them all.

Brown's subject is shame and vulnerability.  Not particularly sexy topics.  Not something you'd think would go viral.  Yet it has.

Shame?  Not my problem.

So, if you're thinking, "Shame?  Not my problem," read on because if feel that your life has recently blown up in your face, chances are that part of the backstory is shame. 

Exactly what is shame, anyway?  According to Brown, it's feelings of "I'm not _____________ enough" (good enough, perfect enough, extraordinary enough), and if these feelings don't change, then your life experiences are likely to prove you right.  (That's my assessment, not Brown's, but stay with me for a moment.)

Brown posits that the one thing that completely unravels connection to others (family, friends, and romantic partners) is shame.  And she draws a distinction between shame and guilt.

Guilt says, "I'm sorry, I made a mistake."

Shame says, "I'm sorry, I am a mistake."

The sense of being inherently flawed in some way "makes it nearly impossible to allow oneself to be vulnerable, and without vulnerability, there is no way to experience deep connection," says Brown.

It's an inside job.

Not only this but, 99% of the time, it's not the outside world that tells us we're inherently flawed.  Insidiously, it's an inside job.  We're the ones who give ourselves shaming internal messages.

But our culture does play a role as well, when it casts vulnerability as weakness.  According to Brown, fear of being out of control of our lives means that:

  • Joy becomes foreboding.  (We want to beat tragedy to the punch.)
  • We don't get excited because we're afraid the thing we're looking forward to won't happen.   It is easier to live a life where the default emotion is disappointment rather than to hope and be disappointed.
  • We use perfection as a shield.  (If I have an absolutely perfect, uncrackable exterior, no one can get me.)
  • We stay so perpetually busy that the sad truth of our lives and its emptiness can't catch up with us. 

Brown found, through 12 years of research on this subject, that there was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging from those who don't.  Those who feel they belong believe they're worthy of love and belonging.  Brown's research also shows that shame is directly correlated with depression, addiction, and anger issues.

Vampire in daylight

Brown offers a bunch of suggestions on how to move from shame to worthiness.  Here are a few that I felt were worth repeating:

  • Have the courage to be imperfect.  Be willing to let go of who you think you should be in order to be who you are.  (My addition to this thought:  It takes so much time and effort to create and maintain the facade of perfection that there's not much time for anything else -- like relaxation, pleasure, or joy.)
  • Be kind to yourself first, and then be kind to others.  (I say:  Convince yourself of your inherent worth by treating yourself as if you're worthy and valuable.  It's a process.  The more you do it, the more you'll believe it.)
  • Embrace vulnerability.  Come to believe that your imperfections and vulnerability are what make you beautiful.  Brown gives a few examples of vulnerability:  the willingness to say I love you first, the willingness to do something that offers no guarantee, the willingness to breathe through uncomfortable situations. 
  • My take:  Especially after divorce, we try to protect ourselves and shield ourselves from further trauma, but part of recovery is accepting that, no matter what we do, we are vulnerable.  So let's unlink vulnerability = tragedy.  You've just survived one of life's worst events.  You survived it!  You're still here!  And, if you've learned and become wiser from the experience, you can protect yourself through wiser choices.  So you don't have to protect yourself by shutting down.
  • Brown says that shame grows through secrecy, silence, and judgment.  The objective is not to be perfect and bullet-proof.  I say:  Practice sharing with a friend the emotions or experiences that you feel are too shameful to express.  Let the shameful feelings see the light of day.  Just like a vampire in daylight, you can see these painful emotions lose their hold on you.

Watch Brown's talks to hear lots more about this -- including the confessions of her own panic attacks and emotional breakdowns.  And how her own from-the-stage confessions didn't destroy her career as she had feared, but blasted her into bestselling-author, Oprah-guesting stardom.

Here's her TedX talk (Kansas City) on "The price of vulnerability":

Here's her subsequent TedX talk (Houston) on "The power of vulnerability":

And, here's her Ted talk (Long Beach) two years later, in which she gets vulnerable herself about how she feared her Houston Ted talk would destroy her academic career:

And, finally, the no-longer-playing-small, newly glamorous Dr. Brown appears on Oprah in 2013: