Have you ever been in a situation where you shared something that was important or meaningful to you with another person or group of people, only to have it ignored? Or to not illicit the reaction you were hoping for? Or maybe even you’ve set some kind of expectation for yourself and let your own self down by not following through. If you have — like I have regularly — that sinking feeling you feel is most likely shame, according to bestselling author Brene Brown in this INC.com article I came across yesterday. And there’s only one question you need to ask yourself to combat that emotion of shame you’re feeling in that moment: “What story am I telling myself right now?”
UGH. That’s so me. The spinner of stories. You could be thinking/feeling something completely different than what I perceive, and one wrong gesture or voice inflection and I’ve made up an entire scenario in my head about why you don’t like me/don’t agree with me/are mad at me/think I’m stupid. Ridiculous, I know — but as a highly sensitive person, I’m hyper aware of verbal and non-verbal cues and the general energy of other people, and can pick up quite easily on when things aren’t all rainbows and puppies. The problem is, I always assume it’s because of something I said or did, not because the person might be feeling upset/low/irritated/stressed due to something else going on in their life.
In the INC.com article, Brown shares a story about how she went swimming with her husband in a lake they used to visit years ago; fond memories came rushing back to her and she felt emotionally overwhelmed, grateful and connected to her husband in that moment. When she shared how she was feeling with him — a bid for connection — he barely acknowledged her response and kept swimming. Of course, her immediate thoughts went to something she felt insecure about: oh, he doesn’t think I look as good as I did back then in a bathing suit and thinks I look old. His non-responses “had launched Brown’s shame triggers — appearance and body image — and thus her made-up explanation for Steve’s seemingly indifferent answers was filled with her own shame, rather than the real reason.” The real reason for her husband’s indifference was that he was trying to ward off a mild panic attack, brought on by a dream he had about losing their five child in a drowning accident.
I know I have shame triggers around body image (mainly about my skin) and having my intelligence questioned (but you’re the smart one in the special class — why don’t you get it? Why are you almost failing math? What happened?), so anytime one of those are triggered I immediately make up a story about why this person or group of people I’m sending out a bid for connection with doesn’t like my appearance/thinks my ideas are ridiculous. So what can I do to stop these silly stories before they get out of hand?
According to Brown, ask yourself “what story am I making up right now?” And once you have an answer, be vulnerable and tell the other person, group or yourself what that is and ask for an explanation — vocalizing the story in your head will not only help stop the cycle of shame, but will also demand respect for being open and speaking up. I’m not sure if I could complete step two of this process every time my made-up stories get out of control — “you texted back the letter ‘K’ even though we were just typing in full, grammatically corrected sentences a few minutes ago because suddenly you’re mad at me for something I said wrong!” — but I can definitely work on identifying the story as something I just made up and not a true reflection of reality.
This process can be applicable for the stories we tell ourselves, too, especially around body image and self worth. Just because you’re not as strong, flexible or comfortable in your own skin as you want to be right now, doesn’t mean that’s your story and doesn’t mean you can’t decide to change that. Although what has happened in the past shapes who you are today, it does not define you and does not need to be carried around with you like baggage. You are not your thoughts nor stories. You are not your past nor future. Every moment is another opportunity to change how we think about ourselves — and I don’t know about you, but I’d rather focus on the positive in the present moment than have some negative made-up story take up space in my head.
What are your shame triggers? Do you find you make up stories because you perceive things in a different way? If you have an example, please share!
Thanks Amanda for the link-up!