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An Unexpected Pause

I’m pausing. It wasn’t, I hasten to say, my idea! However, after an interesting and stressful concatenation of events I’ve decided to embrace the opportunity to pause.

It all started with a wonderful post from one of my favorite Substackers, Lani Diane Rich. It’s titled “Emotional Ex-Lax.” Honestly, how could anyone not go look at that post?

Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash

The post suggests an exercise in blind journaling. I journal daily, first thing in the morning, with my first cup of tea. I don’t go on line first. I don’t work in the house, or start breakfast, or make my bed, or clean the cat boxes. I feed the cats (because if I don’t I won’t be allowed to sit peacefully and journal). I pee. I turn on one low light. I heat water and make tea. Sometimes I put on very low music. Sometimes I light a candle or two. At 5:00 in the morning there’s nothing going on. Darkness presses against the windows. Nobody needs anything from me. I’m free, and something of the twilight of sleep lingers. I sit with my laptop, open a new document, and start typing. Every month I delete the last month’s journal entries. I never look back at them. They’re for no one else’s eyes. It’s an entirely private space.

If, for some reason, I miss this time with myself, I notice it immediately. I’m not as centered. I feel more anxious. I feel more stressed. If I can’t get to a word processor, I journal with pen and paper, and then destroy it.

I never thought of blind journaling, though.

I recognized resistance. As I peeled the resistance away, I discovered the roots of it: perfectionism. That made me mad. I’ve worked so hard to uproot that toxic growth, but I never seem to get it all eradicated. It’s like bindweed, that bane of gardeners. Out in Colorado, where I used to live and garden, bindweed choked the dry landscape. Its roots can grow 6 feet deep. Any attempt to dig it up or kill it above ground merely encourages it. It grows fast. Herbicides don’t work. Its folk name is ‘Devil’s guts.’ A perfect description.

I think about perfectionism as bindweed.

Even as I journal, I edit. I correct spelling. I make sentences and paragraphs. Sometimes I even cut and paste. For a journal no one else will ever see and I won’t read again. For a journal document I’m going to delete in four weeks.  If I blind journal I can’t edit as I write.

It won’t, God help me, be perfect. It won’t even kind of be perfect. I’m a good typist, but I make mistakes. Sometimes the cursor jumps around. Sometimes my sentence structure is poor.

Unacceptable.

So, naturally I made up my mind to try blind journaling, to challenge my perfectionism if for no other reason.

I chose a day off and journaled the usual way for a bit, then set a timer for 20 minutes, shut my eyes and blind journaled. I thought I was already emptied out, but wow. I was in full flood when the timer went off, and it felt like I’d only been doing it for five minutes. I loved it. I knew I was making mistakes (which I refused, by the way, to go back and fix!), but they didn’t interrupt my process. I just kept going, never looking back, never losing the thread of what I was saying. No visual distraction whatsoever.

I didn’t want to stop.

Well!, I thought. This will be a fun thing to blog about.

Izzy & Ozzy; Fall, 2020

I picked up my 16-ounce cup of tea, pomegranate green this season. Our little calico cat, Izzy, who had been snuggled in her favorite position in my armpit, woke up and decided she wanted to be in my lap where the laptop was. I pushed her away. She came back. I pushed her away. She started chewing on the upper corner of the screen, an obnoxious habit she has. I pushed her away with more irritation this time. The tea I was holding slopped onto the keyboard. I cursed, wiped it away, tipped the computer and let it drip out. I got a couple of Q-tips and dried around the three or four keys that got splashed. I sat down again to go back to my peaceful morning journaling.

The computer died.

Shit!

I plugged it in in case the battery was run down, but I knew it wasn’t. I let it be for an hour, then tried to turn it on.

Nothing.

When the computer store opened, I got in the car and took it over. Mark, my computer guy, shook his head. I left it in his capable hands.

Now my quiet day off, in which I didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything but noodle around at home, had turned upside down. My serenity fled. My excitement about starting a rough draft of a post on blind journaling withered. I couldn’t pay bills and deal with money, always a major stressor. Speaking of money, replacing my laptop would cost over $1,000. And what would repairs cost? And how much money do I have in savings? In checking? I couldn’t check! Panic until I remembered my cell phone is connected to the Internet. I couldn’t write, at least not with a word processor.

But none of that was the worst thing. The worst thing, and I’m completely mortified by this fact and would prefer to hide it from both myself and the world, was I couldn’t play solitaire!

Photo by Jack Hamilton on Unsplash

This realization was so unwelcome I longed, craved, itched to play a few games of solitaire and “think about it.” Except that’s a lie. I wanted to play solitaire so I could numb out.

I roamed around the house, restless, wanting to crawl out of my own skin. The day I had looked forward to suddenly seemed dull and endless. I didn’t want to read. I didn’t know what to do with my anxiety. I started waiting for the phone to ring with news of my machine.

I did eventually get a grip but I recognized the symptoms of withdrawal from an addiction, and I didn’t like it. I kept myself busy with several tasks I’d been putting off. I cut greens I’d gathered with a friend a few days before and decorated for Yule. I pulled out a notebook and continued journaling, off and on, long hand. It gave me a sore hand, but it helped. I told myself I could rough out a blog post long hand, too. But it was probably not worth it. I’d have my laptop back by the end of the day. Probably. Maybe. Wouldn’t I?

I set aside the budget and a couple of bills I’d just received and weren’t due for a week or more. I tried not to think about money, or scarcity, or money.

Not thinking about money – la, la, la-la – fingers in my ears and eyes squinched shut.

I tried not to think about my email piling up. I read some of it on my phone, but the screen was so small it wasn’t much fun.

I thought and journaled about how busy I always feel, how often I hear myself say I’m tired, how overwhelmed I feel. I’ve been telling myself feeling overwhelmed is natural. I work; I run a blog and a Substack page, publishing on both every weekend; I’m writing another book; and now I’m co-manager of a long-distance situation in which a loved one is recovering from a broken hip and sinking into dementia. I anticipate making the long trip from Maine to Colorado and back again at some point during the holiday season, running the gauntlet of weather, travel complications, crowds, and various respiratory viruses. Oh, and spending money I don’t have. Especially if I have to replace my laptop.

Of course I’m overwhelmed.

Yes, said a snarky little voice in my head, “and how much time and energy does it cost you to play solitaire in all the pauses, cracks, and crevices of your life? What about visual stimulation? What about your problem with speeding? What about your anxiety? You’re not helping your anxiety, you’re feeding it!

The day passed and the computer guy didn’t call. The next day was a work day. Normally I would have been working on posts for the weekend ahead. I was beginning to feel behind. If I didn’t get the laptop back I wasn’t going to be able to post. Less than perfect. Inconsistent. Letting my readers down. Everyone would probably unsubscribe. Even if I got the laptop back, the weekend was going to be tight. Starting from scratch on Saturday morning for Harvesting Stones and on Sunday morning for Substack takes a lot of hours out of my weekend, when I also run errands, clean, do laundry, cook for the week ahead, and take care of business I haven’t had a chance to do during the week.

And I was already tired. Already wanting those two days off, not to fill up, but to relax in. Could the solitaire really be feeding my anxiety rather than calming it, I wondered?

Yes.

But –

Yes, your solitaire habit is feeding your anxiety. You know it.

Shit!

At the end of the day, I called my computer guy. He informed me my machine was disassembled and he’d been running a fan on it night and day. He didn’t know if it was a goner or not; he wasn’t going to put it back together and plug it in until he was sure every molecule of water was gone. He told me, rather pointedly, he’d call me.

OK, I thought. I won’t post this weekend. Nobody will care but me. I’m allowed to take a weekend off. I read all kinds of people who take frequent breaks and pauses. I don’t think any the less of them for it; in fact, I admire their self-care and confidence.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

Friday happens to be my nine-hour day at work, so I wouldn’t have used the laptop much that day in any case. I gritted my teeth, used a computer at work to catch up a little, and tried not to worry too much. I never play solitaire at work, so it was my third day without it.

Meanwhile, I made and received long distance calls from the facility where my loved one is recovering physically and wandering mentally. I finished the book I was reading and started another. I journaled a lot in my notebook. I played with the cats, giving them my full attention, which felt nice. I noticed what I was eating and enjoyed the taste of my meals, unusual for me. I savored my tea more. I wrapped a few Yule gifts and got them in the mail. I did some cleaning. I exercised. I put on an old movie and did upper and lower body resistance training in front of it rather than playing solitaire.

I slept well. I felt less exhausted. The inside of my head was quieter. I even took a nap, a thing I don’t normally do, as playing solitaire is “resting.” (Uh-huh. Whatever you say.) My anxiety ratcheted way down. I had a couple of crying jags, but they passed and I felt relieved rather than more upset when they were over.

I had more time.

I have more time because I’m not writing without my laptop, I thought.

“No. You have more time because you’re not playing solitaire in all the cracks and crevices,” said the snarky voice.

On Friday, while I was at work, my laptop was resurrected and my partner brought it home. What saved its life, I am told, was there was no sugar in the tea. Who knew?

By Friday evening, when I returned home from work, I’d made some decisions:

  • No more solitaire.
  • No more liquid in close proximity to the laptop.
  • Take the weekend off. Really take it off. No pressure to post and publish. No solitaire. Embrace the pause. Make it last. Feel about things. Think about things. Be present.

All weekend I had the half delighted, half guilty feeling I was playing hooky. I ran several errands. I journaled on the word processor. I dealt with receipts, bills, accounts, the budget. I did some cleaning and laundry. I read. I listened to music. I watched a couple of movies and exercised. I played with the cats. I texted with a friend. I talked to my loved one and their nurse in Colorado. I made a new recipe for a pork shoulder in the crock pot which made the house smell like citrus, garlic, and herbs. I read several inspiring pieces from the Substackers and minimalists I follow. I started making notes for this post, which flowed into writing a rough draft.

It was a good weekend. It didn’t feel too short or too rushed. I didn’t feel pressure or anxiety. I slept well.

I’ve realized it’s time to make some changes. It’s a good time of year to reevaluate and do that, right? I didn’t set out to do it, but once it was forced upon me I realized I’ve been running a little faster every day for a long time, feeling a little more tense and anxious, and needing a little more numbing to manage it all. I’m grateful I was forced to stop. I’m going to start moving again, but in a different way, with slightly new priorities and without the damn solitaire!

(“You’ve finished the post!” says the snarky voice. “You’re way ahead this week. Wouldn’t you like to relax, play a game of solitaire, and celebrate?”

Oh, shut up!)

Questions:

What’s your favorite numbing activity?
On a scale of 1 (hardly any) to 10 (all), how much of your power does it have? Are you uncomfortable about the level of power your habit has over you?
Does your habit increase your anxiety?
Does your habit decrease your focus?
Have you ever formally kept track of the time you spend doing your favorite numbing activity?

Leave a comment below!

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.

 

 

 

Guilt

Courtney Carver from Be More With Less suggests the feeling we call guilt may in fact be discomfort.

What an interesting distinction. I was immediately intrigued.

Guilt is defined as feeling responsible or regretful for a real or perceived offense.

A real or perceived offense.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

If you’re someone like me, you feel almost everything you do and say is some kind of a breach of conduct, especially things like saying no, meeting your own needs, and setting boundaries. This feeling is based on past unhappy/critical/invalidating reactions of others to my actions. If I’ve Failed To Please, I feel guilty. I feel guilty even when I know I’ve done the right thing for myself.

So what if that feeling isn’t guilt at all? What if it’s discomfort?

Changing habits is uncomfortable, no doubt about that. Habits are effortless, especially mental and emotional habits. They feel like our friends. They’ve been with us a long time. We’re attached to them because they’re easy and familiar. Whether or not they’re effective or useful is not the point. How they affect others is of no interest.

They’re easy, and they’re ours.

The thing is, our habits don’t belong to us so much as we belong to them. We can stop them any time, we tell ourselves and everyone else. If we wanted to. But we don’t want to.

So there.

Breaking habits takes intention, focus, and determination. Support helps, but sometimes it’s unavailable.

So, do we feel guilty because we’re making different choices than our habits dictate, or do we feel uncomfortable because we’re making different choices? Making different choices affects those around us, and when things start changing, people get uncomfortable, especially if the change wasn’t their idea. Most people are sure to tell us when we “make” them uncomfortable.

Then the guilt starts.

Maybe discomfort, theirs and/or ours, is a good sign, a sign we’re truly doing the work of change. Maybe the guiltier/more uncomfortable we feel, the more successful we are.

Maybe we shelve the guilt and welcome the discomfort.

Sometimes we all do something we know is wrong and guilt helps us learn and make amends for our choices. Sometimes. Not every day, all day.

Being alive, taking up space, growing, learning, and reclaiming our power and health are not worthy of guilt. Uncomfortable work, yes. An offense, a breach of conduct, a crime, no.

When I feel that old familiar guilt come knocking, I’m going to look at it more closely. Maybe it’s not guilt at all. Maybe it’s just discomfort.

Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash

 

 

Uncovering Peace

This quote by Joshua Fields Millburn landed in my Inbox last week:

“Peace cannot be created – it is already there beneath the chaos.”

The truth of this struck me at once. We don’t construct peace. We uncover it.

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

The practice of minimalism, for me, is the practice of letting go, of letting things fall away. I don’t do that to make my life empty. I do it to uncover the life I want.

If I want peace in my environment, I need to remove everything obscuring it.

If I want peace in my relationships, I need to clear away whatever obstructs it.

If I want internal peace, I need to peel away whatever destroys it.

It’s such a simple idea, and so monumentally difficult to put into action.

How do we figure out what’s strangling our peace?

Likely, at least some of what’s killing our peace are habits of action and thought we’re deeply invested in or frankly addicted to. Things we don’t want to give up or feel unable to give up. Sometimes we’re so attached to certain habits or possessions we feel life is not possible if we can’t have them or engage with them. Our survival depends on them, and peace takes a back seat to survival.

Except maybe it doesn’t. Maybe, in the long run, we can’t survive without a certain amount of peace.

This goes back to subtractive problem-solving. We don’t need more to solve our problems. We need less.

Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash

If we undertake the work of identifying what’s between us and peace, we’re going to find feelings. Lots of feelings. Feelings we don’t want to feel. Feelings we don’t know what to do with. Feelings we’re afraid to express. Feelings we’re ashamed of. Feelings that are tearing us apart.

Until and unless we find appropriate, effective ways of managing and processing our feelings, we’ll never uncover the peace buried beneath them.

That’s why emotional intelligence matters.

What might lie beneath the chaos along with our peace? What are we most desperately in search of or trying hardest to create?

Love?

Health?

Time?

Our true selves?

An authentic life?

What if there’s nothing to make and nothing to buy? What if there’s no app to use or post to make?

What if what we have to do is discard everything concealing the peace, love, health, time, self, or authentic life we want?

We can’t discard our feelings, but we can learn how to manage and integrate them. We can discard toxic pieces of identity. We can discard thoughts, beliefs, patterns of behavior, and addictions. We can discard digital and real-life clutter. We can discard time-wasting and destructive habits. We can discard toxic relationships and toxic relationship dynamics.

It’s easier to buy something. It’s easier to get on Facebook or a dating app. It’s easier to have a drink, or turn on Netflix, or get high, or get numb. It’s easier to eat a box of donuts.

Easier, but all those choices layer a further crust of chaos over the magnificent life we long for.

Uncovering peace. And other things. My daily crime.

Photo by fancycrave on Unsplash

Mindful Acquisition

Photo by juan pablo rodriguez on Unsplash

I recently read an article from The Minimalists titled “Prepared to Walk Away.” The Minimalists is a blog about simplifying all aspects of our lives by reducing our physical, mental and technological clutter. For most who embrace this way of living, the first challenge is to declutter. The flip side of decluttering is mindful acquisition, and that’s the part of the essay that really caught my attention.

Some people think of minimalism as something practiced by wealthy elites who live in large, white, coldly antiseptic, ultra-modern spaces. It’s trendy right now to declutter and organize, an interesting push back against the relentless consumerism of the twentieth century. I hate clutter and love to be organized, but that isn’t what most attracts me to the practice of minimalism.

What I have my eye on are the intangibles in life, the stories, beliefs and habits accompanying us through our days. How and why do we acquire such things? How much of the acquisition is conscious rather than unconscious, and how heavily are we influenced by the people around us and their stories, beliefs and habits?

Minimalism, when I discovered the movement in the last months, seems to synthesize many of the ideas and thoughts I’ve discussed on this blog, including letting go, quitting, boundaries, the failure of money, being right, outcomes and rewriting our stories.

Photo by Frank Okay on Unsplash

It seems to me the vast majority of our mental clutter is carelessly acquired or thrust upon us as an obligation. We humans are powerful in our ability to absorb influence, and we’re fatally prone to addiction. Our consumer culture has exploited these weaknesses mercilessly, from alcohol, sugar and cigarettes to video games, social media and the Internet. The media grooms us from childhood to be mindless recipients of stimulation to buy, to believe and to comply.

Critical thinking is unfashionable, to say the least. I look around me and see shriveled attention spans. Fewer and fewer people seem to respect or even recognize peer-reviewed, verifiable, fact-based science from the idiotic and ignorant ravings of malcontents, manipulators and madmen who peddle hatred, bigotry and misinformation to the masses from television, radio, the internet and social media.

Thus, we’re positioned, mouths agape, eyes reflecting the sparkle and shine of baubles and distractions, minds numb, stumbling through life with one eye on some kind of a screen at all times, while words and assertions assault us from every direction from thousands of gaping mouths and talking heads and millions of busy fingers.

Mindfulness? You’re kidding. Who has the time, quiet and space to even think about what mindfulness means, let alone practice it? How many people feel that the only way they can face their life is to avoid mindfulness at all costs?

Decluttering a closet is one thing. Can we sort through our ideas and habits and discard what’s unattractive, outgrown, outdated or worn out? It’s agonizing to consider a piece of clothing, especially a costly one that seemed like such an exciting deal when we got it, and realize we don’t wear it, don’t like it or it doesn’t go with anything else we wear. We’ve invested money in that item. It’s in good shape and of good quality. We can’t just discard it. What a waste! We’ll never get our investment back out of it.

Photo by Patrick Brinksma on Unsplash

Ideas, habits and beliefs are even harder to walk away from. We might not have spent money in acquiring them, but they tie us to our tribe, our workplace, our church, our family and our community. They influence our favorite social media platforms, our news and radio purveyors and our identities. Our addictions cement us into communities of other addicts, or at least into communities which enable our addictions.

We know everything about holding on: holding on to power; holding on to identity; holding on to our beliefs; holding on to stuff, either because we want to or someone else expects us to; holding on to grievance, outrage and fear. What we don’t seem to understand is how holding on locks us into place. We can’t grow. We refuse to learn. Fear has killed our natural curiosity and drive to explore.

On the other hand, a willingness to discard any object or intangible in our lives, if necessary, means we consent to grow, change, learn and be flexible and resilient.

Mindful acquisition is a conscious activity, an agreement we make with ourselves to buy that new item or explore a new idea or relationship, fully prepared to walk away if the item, idea or relationship become, at any time, a detriment rather than an asset.

It’s easy to think about objects in terms of money. Beliefs and habits are less concrete, yet our habits cost us far, far more than what we lose when we discard an expensive coat we just don’t wear. Talk to anyone who has tried to be in relationship with a workaholic or a substance, screen or gamer addict about the cost of our behavior. Money is, after all, only a symbol of value we agree to use. Our intangible clutter costs us relationships, connection, our health and sometimes our lives.

At first look, it seems being willing to walk away from relationships weakens our ability to connect. In fact, I think in the long run it strengthens healthy bonds. If I know both I and the other party are prepared to walk away, I’m responsible for making a choice, over and over again, to stay, nurture and invest in a healthy connection — for both of us.

Photo by Cameron Kirby on Unsplash

Practicing mindful acquisition requires me to pay close attention to the thoughts, beliefs, ideas and habits I give time and energy to or consider adopting. Do they increase my power and joy or diminish it? How does my mental and emotional clutter interact with my relationships and ability to communicate and contribute? How do these intangibles affect my heath and energy?

The irritating thing about personal power management is that it takes work and mindfulness. We can’t stay asleep at the wheel. Sure, reclaiming our stolen, lost or dormant power is a rush, but then we have to be responsible for our needs, priorities and choices, choices about what enters our lives and choices about what we discard or walk away from.

Our lives are limited. At 55, I’m beginning to feel the edges. I want to minimize my clutter, from items to intangibles. I want to let light and space into my home and serenity and clarity into my head and heart. I want to feel the flow of energy in the form of money, love and creativity without distraction.

I want to know I can walk away.

Shame on You!

I’ve been thinking about shame. It lurks in many of my relationships. I observe it in people around me. I cannot remember a time when I was not deeply ashamed of myself. I’ve written about tribal shaming before, but I’ve never excavated the subject further until now.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Wikipedia has a lengthy page on shame that summarizes different ways in which it has been studied. Assessment tools exist to measure shame and its effects in our lives. Shame has been divided into categories, and distinctions between shame, guilt and embarrassment teased out.

All this information provided me with a lot of interesting context and background, but the subject is not academic for me. I have a problem with shame I want to solve. How do I go about identifying and dealing effectively with the painful feeling of humiliation or distress we call shame?

I learned in emotional intelligence training our feelings are value neutral. Some feelings are painful and others pleasurable, but that doesn’t make them “good” or “bad.” Feelings just are. We all have them, whether or not we allow ourselves to consciously feel them or admit them to others. If we allow ourselves to feel our feelings, they give us information about how we are. Feelings by themselves can empower and enlighten us, guide our choice-making and help us make strong, healthy connections with others.

Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash

Feelings come and go, like the weather, if we allow them to. Refusing to feel a feeling, however, locks it in place, and then we have forged handcuffs and chains for ourselves. The other tricky aspect of feelings is what our thoughts are about them. Thoughts are what lead us into inappropriate action and expression of our feelings.

An emotionally intelligent person recognizes a feeling like rage and takes responsibility for it. In other words, they don’t blame someone or something externally for their rage. That’s a thought. They don’t seek revenge, payback or to re-establish their power over someone they blame as the cause of their rage. They take responsibility for their feeling of rage and discharging it appropriately, knowing none of us think well or make effective choices when we’re in the grip of strong feelings. They also don’t turn the perfectly normal feeling of rage inward against themselves.

Photo by Bewakoof.com Official on Unsplash

After safely discharging rage (hard physical labor, tears, journaling, talking things over, screaming, passionate creative expression, beating up phone books or pillows), the next step is to sit down and have a talk with it. Years ago, when I lived alone, I literally began to sit down and talk with some of my feelings. I’ve written about this previously. I sit in a chair across from an empty chair and imagine myself talking things out with the feeling occupying the other chair. I say something like, “You have my attention. What’s the deal? Why are you so angry?” and then I shut up and listen to my feeling. Feelings have presence. I’ve learned to notice where I experience them in my body, what color they are, their size and shape, their density and texture, their scent and sound. Our feelings are trying to tell us things we need to know, and the more painful, difficult and overwhelming they are the more important their message is.

This is what I have been doing lately with shame. I wait and watch for it, and when it comes I notice and pause. In the middle of a conversation with my partner, I’ll feel shame rise up like a foul smell and I’ll pause and look for what is happening that triggers shame. Something I said? Something I didn’t say? Something he said to me? Something else I’d rather be doing? A subject I don’t want to talk about or don’t care about? What else am I feeling?

After doing this for a couple of weeks, I discover any honest conversation that makes visible my needs and feelings triggers shame. No wonder I feel so burdened if shame is attached to every need and feeling!

Interestingly, during the in-the-moment pauses while I explore all this, more often than not I realize I don’t in fact feel shame at all. It’s become a kind of chronic hitchhiker attached to other feelings.

Photo by Nabeel Syed on Unsplash

A good example is driving. I typically go the speed limit or 5 miles over it, and in bad weather much slower than that. I rarely run late. I hate to rush. I enjoy music and audiobooks in the car and am quite happy driving. I love my commute. The world is full of people, however, who are in a hurry, reckless, and, to my way of thinking, rude. Of course, they think I’m rude for not getting out of their way!

I rarely drive without feeling shame, but I realize now I’m not really ashamed at all of my driving. On the contrary, I think I’m a competent, courteous driver. I’ve also been a lucky driver, because accidents happen to the best drivers out there and I’ve never been involved in more than a fender bender. When someone is crawling up my backside in a snowstorm in the dark on an icy road and I’m blinded by their headlights in my rearview mirrors and have no way to move over and let them by, what I do feel is mad and scared. The shame is about feeling mad and scared, not about my driving choices in that moment. I don’t want some idiot in a big truck to have the power to intimidate me on the road. I resent living in a world where I have to worry about sudden violence and road rage, or being a woman alone at night. I’m furious with people who follow too close, even in good conditions. I hate to be pushed and pressured, and I hate even more to feel I’m in someone else’s way or making someone wait on me. That’s an old trigger for PTSD.

It turns out much of my daily shame is nothing more than a habitual default. A rueful realization, but also good news. Habits can be broken, I’ve had a lot of practice with that.

I’ve never yet successfully broken a habit without replacing a not-so-useful thought or frame with a better one. So, what’s the opposite of shame? If I want to replace shame with something more effective, what would that be?

Shame is akin to contempt. Contempt is the atomic bomb in relationships between two or more people as well as in our relationships with ourselves. Contempt withers love and destroys trust. It’s never constructive. Those who employ it seek power and control over others. Shame and contempt are merciless. Guilt, the recognition of having transgressed against another, can be addressed. We can atone for our actions and words, apologize, take steps to repair the damage we caused. Shame and contempt are without mercy or the possibility of reparation. Guilt says we’ve behaved badly. Shame and contempt say we are bad, we are unworthy, and nothing can ever make us different.

I consulted a thesaurus to look at antonyms for shame and came up with respect. Respect!

Shame: Why are you so stupid and difficult? You’re always in everyone’s way! You don’t belong on the road. Why are you such a goody-two-shoes? No wonder nobody likes you, crawling along like an old lady! Nobody else drives this way. Joe Blow (partner, brother, colleagues, the guy at work who said the roads were fine and scoffed at slow drivers) wouldn’t be driving like this. You do everything wrong. People like you cause accidents because you go too slow.

Respect: Don’t let this idiot drive your car! Go as slowly as you need to. You’ve got good judgement and a lot of experience. These are dangerous conditions and feeling fearful is an appropriate response. I trust you. Don’t let this driver intimidate you. His need to go fast is not more important than your need to stay safe. People driving the way he is cause accidents.

Quite a difference, right?

I suppose there are more elegant ways to grapple with feelings like shame and a trained psychologist or psychiatrist would laugh at me, but I’ve found helping myself is incredibly empowering. My experience of therapy is that having a good guide is invaluable, but even the best guide can’t crawl inside our heads and do the work of staying present and making different choices. That’s all on us. Ditching an ineffective habit is difficult and so is encouraging a new one, but it’s perfectly doable. If I lost my right hand, I would eventually learn to use my left. It would feel clumsy, and no doubt be frustrating, and it would take time, but I would learn to do it. Our brains are surprisingly plastic, and we’re learning more all the time about healing and adapting neurologically and emotionally.

We aren’t born with a feeling of shame. We learn to feel it. Anything we learn can be unlearned. Shame stunts our growth and our joy. Respect is like the wind beneath our wings. I’ve made my choice.

Photo by Yuan Yue on Unsplash

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Jennifer Rose
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