There are moments in people’s lives, people who decide to move through the world ever growing and opening their hearts, where a pattern of truth can no longer be unseen.
Here’s the tricky part about compassion and connecting: We can’t just call anyone. It’s not that simple. I have a lot of good friends, but there are only a handful of people whom I can count on to practice compassion when I’m in the dark shame place.
If we share our shame story with the wrong person, they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm. We want solid connection in a situation like this — something akin to a tree firmly planted in the ground. We definitely want to avoid the following:
- The friend who hears the story and actually feels shame for you. She gasps and confirms how horrified you should be. Then there is awkward silence. Then you have to make her feel better.
- The friend who responds with sympathy (I feel sorry for you) rather than empathy (I get it, I feel with you, and I’ve been there). If you want to see a shame cyclone turn deadly, throw one of these at it: “Oh, you poor thing”.
- The friend who needs you to be the pillar of worthiness and authenticity. He can’t help you because he’s too disappointed in your imperfections. You’ve let him down.
- The friend who is so uncomfortable with vulnerability that she scolds you: “How could you let that happen? What were you thinking?” Or she looks for someone to blame “Who was that guy? We’ll kick his ass”
- The friend who is all about making it better and, out of his own discomfort, refuses to acknowledge that you can actually be crazy and make terrible choices. “You’re exaggerating. It wasn’t that bad. You rock. You’re perfect. Everyone loves you.”
- The friend who confuses “connection” with the opportunity to one-up you. “That’s nothing. Listen to what happened to me one time!”
Of course, we’re all capable of being “these friends” — especially if someone tells us a story that gets right up in our shame grill. We’re human, imperfect and vulnerable. It’s hard to practice compassion when we’re struggling with our authenticity or when our own worthiness is off balance.
When we’re looking for compassion, we need someone who is deeply rooted, able to bend, and, most of all, we need someone who embraces us for our strengths and struggles. We need to honor our struggle by only sharing it with someone who has earned the right to hear it. When we’re looking for compassion, its about connecting with the right person, at the right time, about the right issue.
-Brenè Brown “The gifts of imperfection”
And who had I chosen to be the main support and companionship in my life?
One man who had massive boundary issues around my sexuality and consistently expressed how they just couldn’t understand my emotional struggles, my abuse history or my shame (You’re perfect!). And another, who thought compassion meant pity (My poor girl) and forcing me to stand on a pedestal (Your angry response to your rape is unjustified) for him.
Ugh. What a horrendously damaging multi-year mistake that was.
So let’s be real now, then, shall we?
Even as my sense of self worth and compassion (the root of which means “To suffer with”) has developed, I am this friend to others all too often – the scolder, the blamer, the shame confirmer – because I let people who haven’t earned my vulnerability, have it anyway.
I have lived my life assuming the list above is relationship, that this is intimacy, that the scolder, the blamer, the shame confirmer, the pityer, the perfection seer, the worthiness piller needer, was sufficient to support me through the intense excavation, completion and transformation of the grief, the pain, and the horrible things I’ve done to survive in my childhood and continued to do much of the rest of my life.
I have lived my life assuming these things because that is what I learned in my family, and even after recognizing the error in that, I have been unable to confront my own shame around so often being such a bad friend to the people I care about.
I am currently unable to show up for others, embedded in scarcity and a place of emotional guarding and urgency, after all this effort and work to pull myself out of that, because of the frequency with which my need for connection and understanding isn’t being met in the relationships I have chosen to prioritize.
I am not still struggling so much with this because I’m so fucking broken and set in my patterns that I’m incapable of cultivating real connection and trust with people.
Though claiming over and over again that I’ve wanted it, I have literally never chosen to be in a romantic relationship with a person who was capable of empathy regarding my experiences in life, or who has shared in my values in terms of personal growth, openness, and what the journey of existing means to me.
I have let people who don’t empathize, don’t understand, don’t share their own vulnerability, and don’t show up for me when I need their support cause me to question the validity of my painful feelings, and turn my back on my basic human longing for connection and acceptance that has not been met in my relationships with them.
I have let them do this by allowing a small part of me to believe their insistence that my pain from those situations is entirely due to my triggers, my patterns, my personality failures; that I’m just not good enough at controlling my shit and bending myself around their righteous plans for me, yet. That I’m just seeing things.
I have let them do this by allowing a small part of me to believe that the compassion and holding I’ve been asking for was me expecting them to be my ‘therapist’, was asking too much, and that the intimacy I needed to be close with them with the depth and authenticity that I choose to live my life in, was wrong.
I have been afraid of isolating and closing down, of repeating that pattern which leads to suicidal ideology, to the point that I have been damaging myself with the opposite.
And, I have felt emotionally obligated to be open with these people because of the money they have chosen to spend on/with me, and their consistently expressed desire to be validated by my trust in them.
These are not the friends I need for the big shit, the people I should be trusting to hold and protect me when I’m threadbare and broken, no matter how much they think they should be or that I allowed them to be in my heavy hitters club for as long as I did.
These are not the people I need to be spending the majority of my time with, entrusting my body with, having sex with, being vulnerable with, talking about therapy with, or relying on for emotional support in my struggle.
These are my art patrons, colleagues, and my fans. They are my supporters in that they are admirers of the results of my hard work, not people who had earned their privileged place as part of that intense and ongoing personal process.
At a time when I was at my most vulnerable and fragile, my most brave and broken open, tackling the deepest darkest shit of my life, precarious in every aspect of my psychological journey as well as in my situational circumstance which is wrought in uncertainty and transition, I have turned to people in search of consideration and awareness who have proven time and again that they are not really there for me.
Not because I’m stupid, or a masochist, or because they are bad people; but because I honestly, even after all this time, haven’t known or believed that better, for me, was possible. Or that I really, really, need it to continue to practice openness and reaching out for authentic connection.
No wonder I ended up such a mess.
I may fall down, and I may hit hard. I may forget to use the tools I have for a while. I may sometimes be too taxed, beaten, tired and weary to be courageous. I may regress and become triggered and show my mean biting ugly. I may brood and stew and go through vile, aggressive phases of pure unadulterated hate, blame, and verbal violence. And I may not always like what I see of myself. I may be forever resigned to dig down deep and introspect and not like what I find and want to change it.
But the thing that’s different about me, though it doesn’t always look like it, and I’m not always elegant at communicating it; I’m on my side, now.
This intention, my drive to keep practicing what I’m learning, to keep growing and providing myself the environment to do so, to keep trying, keep learning how to put my heart out there, to keep opening back up again and again to love, to keep trying to understand what closeness and and belonging look like for me, to keep practicing courage and empathy whenever I can, is more important than maintaining any imbalanced interpersonal relationship. With anyone. Ever.
I’m on my side, no matter what.