The Stories We Tell Ourselves

“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
– Patrick Rothfuss –

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Stories: they shape our world, they change our world, they are our world. We all live our lives to the rhythm of a story we have been told and we have believed. The stories we have been told about how our world works and who is in charge has created our worldview. The stories we have been told about our country, its history and context, has shaped how we view and live in the nation we exist in. The stories we have been told about the tribe we call ‘home’ or ‘family’ or ‘extended community’, reflects on how we behave and interact in that space. The stories we have been told about the ‘other’ who does not fit our worldview, imagined national ideas, or notions about tribe or culture, is reflected in our opinions and paradigms of them.

If we really want to understand someone we have to listen to their story. Really listen. This year I completed the first level of a Narrative Therapy course. It was a fascinating exercise on so many levels. I always thought I was a fairly good listener, this course was challenging as I realised how quickly I tended to analyse someone’s story in my own head. The course required us not to do that. Rather, we were asked to listen, to ask questions, to walk alongside the other and allow them to tell THEIR story. Assumptions,  while listening, is one of the great enemies of relationship and intimacy.

I was confronted how a few decades of clutching to certain fundamentalist ideals that shaped my first half of life had affected my ability to listen and hear. Fundamentalism believes its own story as the ultimate truth, therefore anyone else’s story is seen as inferior … in need of ‘salvation’. Fundamentalism is the perfect coloniser. By the very nature of the story it tells, it cannot really listen or validate the story of another who does not hold to the same ideals. That is why fundamentalism is also so good at creating exiles.

Over the last several years I have begun to examine some of the stories I have told myself in those early years. This is no easy exercise. I discovered that some of my self-perceptions are simply other people’s stories of my life and I have believed them. There is a need in all of us to tell ourselves a story about the other – when that ‘other’ wanders off the path of that story it leads to confusion and disappointment. I have done the same to people around me. I have assumed a certain story and was offended when that person did not stick to my grand epic.

We also notice the power of story in our culture. Whoever has the dominant voice defines its terms and agendas. The sad result is that we honour those loud voices, while the stories of others are forgotten. Our fragmented overview, for example, of the Aboriginal culture is a result of listening to the dominant voice of media and questionable history books, whilst neglecting the Dreamtime stories that are the oral textbooks of Australia’s First Peoples.

Truth be told, if we really faced our own shadows we would discover the horrible truth: that in many ways we are all colonisers of other people’s stories. We all want to overlay and control the narrative of the other person’s life according to our own ideas. If you don’t believe me, you should have sat in my office many years ago as I listened to the countless, tearful accounts of young people whose parents refused to listen or acknowledge their dreams for their future, rather forcing them into their own (parent’s) chosen career path. Or just observe the current rush of religious leaders ‘making a stand’ against Marriage Equality and telling their congregation how to vote, whilst failing to listen to the hopes and dreams and stories of so many LGBTIQ people who sit right under their noses. We all like to tell others how to play a certain character in the grand narrative that runs around our heads.

Listening is difficult. To truly listen we need to, first of all, acknowledge our shortcoming as a listener: our inattentiveness, our need for control, our easily offended minds when someone strays from our ideals, etc. Listening says to the other person that you honour them enough to hold their story without interjecting or changing it. To truly listen is to realise that for that moment of time this vulnerable human being, who is confiding in you, pleads with you to be a safe space. Listening without judgement, without the need for dumb cliches, resisting all temptations to change the person who is telling the story, takes time and discipline. If we all learned to listen we would live in a different world.

So, friend, perhaps it’s time to learn to listen – to those around you, to the ‘other’, and perhaps the most ignored voice of all: your own heart.

“Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.”
– Ben Okri –

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Let’s Talk about Shame

 

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It’s only taken me several decades to work out what a powerful motivator shame has been in my life. As an idealist and dreamer, the need to make things right has so often been driven by an exhausting sense of shame.

Psychologist Michael Lewis calls shame the ‘quintessential human emotion’. In many ways, shame is somewhat of a normal feeling about ourselves and our behaviour. The problems occur when shame or humiliation become an integral part of our self-image and worth. Marilyn J. Sorensen, Ph.D., differentiates guilt and shame as guilt being the feeling of ‘doing’ something wrong, whilst shame is the feeling of ‘being’ something wrong. Gershin puts it this way: “Shame is an inner sense of being completely diminished or insufficient as a person. It is the self-judging the self. A moment of shame may be humiliation so painful or an indignity so profound that one feels one has been robbed of her or his dignity or exposed as basically inadequate, bad, or worthy of rejection. A pervasive sense of shame is the ongoing premise that one is fundamentally bad, inadequate, defective, unworthy, or not valid as a human being.

Brene Brown would say shame is the unspoken epidemic, the secret behind broken behaviour because shame shuts down vulnerability: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” That’s why the fastest way to stifle creativity and pioneering adventures in your organisation is to foster a culture of shame. Shame is a most powerful form of control. When we take a moment to consider our place of belonging, or our social ‘tribes’, that provide not just protection, belonging and nourishment, but also meaning, we realise these tribes tell us not just who we are, but what to believe and how to behave. Shame can become a tribe’s most powerful and degrading tool. Tribal shaming is a dark magic and a form of social control that ensures people do not dare question the status quo because questioning presents a threat to the tribe. If you are anything like me you have been both victim of tribal shaming and perpetrator. Change starts with recognition.

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Shame undergirds fundamentalist-type religions, and it is a match made in hell. In these sort of groups, judgement is based on a “goodness vs. badness scale”. A person’s inclusion or exclusion in these groups depends on where they are perceived on this scale. Therefore, to remain in the ‘in’ group of belonging one’s perceived ‘goodness’ is foundational. Acceptance and belonging are extended to those who fit the groups’ philosophical ideals of ‘good’.

Boschen sums up the rules of shame-bound persons, marriage, churches, synagogues, mosques and temples:

1. Always give the impression of being in control of one’s life at all times. This is the cardinal rule of shame-bound religion and relationships – all other rules flow from here.
2. The second rule of shame-bound fundamentalism is that one must always be right and do the right thing according to the laws of the group, especially the leadership.
3. Blaming is vital in ensuring that a person remains above reproach. Blame the other. Blame helps maintain an illusion of control and keeps the system pure.
4. Denial is very important in a shame culture. The person controlled by shame must deny certain feelings, especially the negative and vulnerable ones like anxiety, fear, loneliness, grief, rejection, neediness, and caring. In the shame-controlled family, group, or church, remaining task-focused can keep dangerous inner realities hidden.
5. Unreliability and inconsistency: a shame driven culture can create a person who shines with ‘holiness’ on Sundays and abuses their partner the following day.
6. Incompleteness – resolving hurt and conflict in families or church is not important. Issues can remain unresolved for months and years.
7. And Golden Rule number seven weighs in at ‘Do Not Talk’. Never discuss the disrespect, abuse and shame you feel. To talk about it would be to bring up the past and with that a sense of shame. For religious fundamentalism, this is vital as to talk means to transfer information, and with that power. Ideas about ‘honour’ keep this ‘no talk’ policy in place, along with excusing the shaming behaviour as ‘preserving the integrity of Scripture’ or ‘defending orthodoxy from liberalism’.
8. Last lucky number eight is the rule of disguising shame. Shame-bound behaviour is minimised and outworked in other addictive behaviours.

Boschen concludes with: Religious fundamentalists are shame-bound persons in shame-based systems. They are guided by a set of rules generally designed by those in positions of power, who require conformity in order to be acceptable.

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The effect of shaming on children is extremely detrimental. In shame-bound settings, a child’s behaviour reflects directly on a parent’s ideal image or their sense of shame. Therefore, shame is used in turn to modify a child’s behaviour. This is often seen as an acceptable form of ‘discipline‘ in homes or schools, where a child can be reduced to nothing more than their behaviour. Self-concept, the way we see ourselves, is formed in our earliest years by our parents, caregivers and figures of authority. Therefore, if a child is consistently shamed, told they are ‘bad’, ‘naughty’, or ‘sinful’ because of their childish behaviour, this is the perceived reality of themselves that they will take into adulthood.

This blog post is only a tiny tip of the iceberg on this enormous subject of shame that so drastically affects human thought and behaviour. I am still unravelling the role of shame in my own life, especially the years of tightly held fundamentalist philosophies that disguised themselves as ‘pleasing God’. Shame’s need to have it all together only produces hypocrisy and judgement. I am learning to trust grace in a whole new way and rediscovered the words of Jesus, “I have come to give you life, life to the full”.

Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare. – Brene Brown

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