Episode 21: On shame and belonging

In which our protagonist relapses into seeking external validation from the crowd, and comes up wanting

Dear reader, brave soul, I’ve been having a bit of a rubbish time since we last spoke. Last week was really bad for me, mental health-wise. I crashed hard. Worse, I lashed out. Little of my frustration and upset was over tangible things, so anything that could have a finger pointed at it, got the finger pointed at it. That little voice in my head was in overdrive, and it definitely had things to say. Lots Of Things. 

Truth is, I have many little voices; each of my issues gets its own critic, its own personality. Lately, it’s been the critic of fitting in that’s taken over. It tells me that it’s really happy I’m doing so much work on myself and being more self(ish), but I need to make sure I don’t piss people off. More than that, I need to make sure people still like me. That I still fit in. That I make people want me around otherwise I’ll end up isolated and alone. No one likes an arrogant so-and-so.

You know what that leads to? People-pleasing. Saying yes when I mean no. Not standing up for my own needs.

It is a slippery slope of humongous proportions. 

Searching for that one thing

Part of my self-reflection this year has centred around trying to work out where that came from, this intense need to be liked, this craving for external validation. It’s not like I was starved for attention at home growing up; it was a loving and lovely home and I’m very lucky and grateful for that. (Hi, mum!) What I did have to deal with, though, was the world out there, outside the front door. And the world out there was full of bullying and ridicule, of fingers pointing at me, of sniggers behind my back. I learned at a young age that the world out there didn’t think much of me. Is that why I started feeling this need to over-achieve? 

Because I did overachieve. I was quick to volunteer, quick to put my hand up to answer questions. I told myself that if I did well at this or at that, then people would like me. That if I was a good girl, then people would like me. That if I just did this one thing, it would all turn around and be ok. I would be accepted. I would belong.

...belong. That’s quite a loaded word for me still. I feel like I’ve spent my entire life searching for belonging, for a place I can be totally myself, no questions asked, accepted as I am. Sometimes I find an almost-place, somewhere that lets me hang out - but I’m always on the periphery. I’m always not-quite. I can tag along, but I’ll never be one of them. 

In this search for me, this journey to self(ish), I’m working on being ok with that. It’s not just the people-pleasing that needs to stop; it’s this search for that one thing that will make it all ok. Because that one thing does not exist. I’m learning that I don’t have to be accepted heart and soul by others - and, indeed, that I won’t be until I accept myself, completely, heart and soul. 

That, though, dear reader, is a tough ask. I’ve had decades of the world out there telling me I’m not quite right, I’m not quite enough, and it’s going to take time and care and patience for me to know that I am actually enough, just as I am. That I am a magnificent being, just as I am, and if people don’t like that then it’s their problem, not mine. I’m trying. I’m learning. I’m growing into that person. That magnificent human. But it will take time.

Should Have Already Mastered Everything

Yet, maybe it won’t take as much time as I think it will. I was lunching with a friend recently - how good is it to be able to say that again?! - and we were having some deepish conversation. She stopped and looked at me, and said simply: “You do hold yourself to some very high standards, don’t you?” And I guess I do. It’s that schoolyard overachiever again, still here, still trying to prove her worth by showing up and showing off. By being eager. By saying yes. Surely they’ll accept me if I excel? Right?

This need to excel to prove my worth is bullshit, pure and simple. It’s my inner critic yelling at me from a place of fear and shame. It’s trying to protect me in its own stupid way, and right now I’m having a fight with it. A big, stomping, stand-up argument. Sometimes that spills over, like it did a few days ago, with me bawling my eyes out for no reason. And then sometimes I get to spend time with awesome people and gather evidence for the critic next time it rears its ugly head. 

I was lucky last week to see Anne Lamott interviewed by the wonderful podcaster and writer Sarah Werner. She turned my, ahem, favourite word into an acronym: Shame, she told us, means Should Have Already Mastered Everything. And surely, yes, this is what my critic tells me. This is what that voice says is wrong with me: that people don’t like me because I don’t have all the answers. But do you know what? None of us have all the answers. We’re all just muddling along in our unique ways, trying our best and learning our way. Feeling it out. 

And do you know what else? That’s more than OK. That’s life. Me, I’m working on celebrating the imperfections and embracing change. How about you?

Until next time, dear reader, brave creator: keep being the awesome only you can be.

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The week ahead 🗓

The universe is telling me I have to schedule my days, to treat my writing and working on my health like it’s a job rather than a nice-to-have hobby. Let’s see how I get on with that. 

  • Writing: I got sidetracked on the weekend by writing and submitting a short story to an anthology (my first submission to a publisher I don’t already know!). Back on the novel now. (And maybe another last-minute anthology sub. We’ll see how brave/energetic I feel.)

  • Work: While I might not be taking on client work right now (and not for a while yet), I do need to prep myself for whatever the next phase of my career holds. Right now, that means some skills training and some deep thinking.

  • Health: In that “scheduling my life”, there shall be a daily slot for exercise. That’s my achilles heel. 

  • Routine: The routine is moving to a (flexible) schedule! Plus, join me and hundreds of others at the LWS Writers’ Hour every weekday: 8am London, New York, California and NZ. I go to at least one of those a day. Side note: I’m now hosting Kiwi hour several times a week! (That’s 9pm UK/4pm EST/1pm PST/6am AEST for those playing at home.)


On the stereo 🎧

Dark Wave Spotify playlist

I’ve been writing a lot, and thinking about writing a lot, and trying to get my head back in the horror game. Seems natural to be listening to a playlist subtitled “witchhouse”, yes?

Off the shelf 📚

Make Peace with Your Mind, by Mark Coleman

As I said earlier, I needed space and calm - my inner critic was raging - so I took much of the long weekend off to read, and this is what I read. 

I first discovered Mark Coleman when he was interviewed for the very great Mindful in May programme, and he always seems to speak the sense I need to hear. There isn’t much that’s new in here, but it was still the not-new I needed: The inner critic is trying to protect us by shaming us and filling us with fear. It’s not really a very fun nor useful system, is it?

Coleman seeks to guide our shift from “living with attachment to the judgmental mind to living with kindness”. He wants us to embrace all of who we are, no matter how bad or ugly, believing that only by treating the judgment with compassion in our hearts will we overcome the inner critic. He wants us to welcome into our hearts the parts of ourselves we have denied, repressed, or rejected as a way to deal with and calm the inner critic.

“The critic, for all its trying, does not know how to relate to those raw, wounded places inside except through fear and judgment. Generally, those painful inner parts of us were not so welcomed by our family, friends, or society. We were often told we were weak for having such feelings. We were led to believe we were self-indulgent or self-pitying if we talked about them or gave them attention. We learned how to hide those emotions and put on a brave face, and we compensated in ways that others wouldn’t detect. 

“When we do this, the critic tries to ensure we don’t reveal any vulnerability that could open us to being hurt or exploited, so it shuts down the feelings with harsh, shaming words. This habit becomes second nature, and as we grow up, we get further and further away from the tender, raw places inside. And though they remain hidden, they continue to exert a powerful influence over our behaviour.”

Visual confirmation 📷

I went out again, into the world, closer to central London than I’ve been in a year and a half. I had a lovely day with a good friend. But it wouldn’t be me without shots fired at those who get too close 😂 

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P.S. Shakespeare gets it. Why can’t I?

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