In the last post I gave you a lot of back-story about being sick throughout my twenties. I hated putting up that post. I felt exposed, embarrassed and like everybody would be judging me. I have always felt that getting sick is a huge weakness, something to be ashamed of.
I experienced what Brene Brown calls a ‘vulnerability hangover’ – which is where you cringe about what you’ve just shared. You want to run away and pretend it didn’t happen. It was like when you say something stupid in front of a guy and just the memory of it makes you feel hot and sick weeks later.
Anyway, no doubt I’m heading for another vulnerability hangover but I’m going to finish the back-story…
After years of sickness, self-loathing and pushing myself into the ground at work, I left my job to go freelance when I was 30 and I managed to get my physical health largely back on track.
Work got better with more freedom and distance from the office and for a while life was OK. I got drunk, went shopping, and did the usual stuff. I coasted.
But there was a hole and it grew bigger.
For years I’d thrown myself into work thinking that if I could just be good enough at that I’d feel OK in myself but obviously it didn’t work. Now that I wasn’t working so hard there was more time to see all the things that I didn’t have.
All my friends were moving on, getting married, buying houses, starting families. Meanwhile, I’d go out with a guy once in a blue moon and it rarely lasted longer than a couple of months. I was terrified of any real intimacy. I was also broke, with no house, no savings, no plan.
I felt lost, alone and irrelevant. A failure.
I was fed up of going out on a Saturday night hoping to meet someone, getting drunk in the process and coming home on my own on the tube (being single at weddings and going home alone on the tube are the two worst bits of being single). So I stopped going out – instead I’d lock myself in my flat watching hours and hours of television. Whole weekends would go by without me leaving the house. Not healthy.
Around this time something a friend had talked about a few years before kept coming into my head. It was a course that her sister had gone on, called the Hoffman Process, which has been dubbed ‘a lifetime of therapy in a week’.
Although she didn’t tell us any details, I sensed it involved sharing your deepest darkest secrets with a group of strangers and analysing your family. We agreed at the time that it sounded like hell.
I booked it.
Then I panicked.
On the journey to Seaford in Sussex, where the week was taking place, I felt like I had a stamp on my head that said ‘this girl’s a total failure! She can’t get a boyfriend so she has to go to a therapy week.’ I actually half wished the train would crash – just a baby crash with nobody hurt – so that I could get out of the whole thing.
When I arrived I was surprised to see that everyone looked so normal – nice jeans, good shoes – no weirdos. What was wrong with them? Why did they need this? Was I worse case than them? Would they laugh at me? (I always think people are going to laugh at me – and not in a good way).
The first day we were invited to stand up in front of everyone and tell people why we were there. My worst nightmare.
My legs shaked as I talked about not knowing what I was doing, that all my friends were getting married and having babies, buying houses, moving on… and I was staying in the same place.
‘I’m unhappy all of the time,’ I said. ‘I know I shouldn’t be, I’m lucky compared to ninety per cent of the world…. but I am…’ and then I stumbled upon the truth that I’d been living with for years, without realising:
‘I don’t think anyone decent will ever love me,’ I said and then burst out crying. They were snotty, sobbing tears that were out of my control. I’ve never felt so exposed – or vulnerable – in my life.
Brene Brown talks about shame as ‘the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.’
That’s what I had. Of course I could never hold down a relationship – I didn’t think I deserved it.
‘People often want to believe that shame is reserved for people who have survived an unspeakable trauma, but this is not true. Shame is something we all experience.’
Brown says that the only antidote to shame is to talk about it.She writes that ‘shame cannot survive being spoke and being met with empathy.’
That moment, when I stood up in front of 25 strangers and poured out my heart, changed everything.
In the tea break afterwards, a guy came up to me and, saying nothing, put his arm around me and gave me a squeeze.
He was exactly the kind of man I would normally be intimidated by – good looking, successful, cashmere jumper (See earlier posts for men in cashmere jumper obsession) – and the fact that he was so kind to snotty, messy me, blew me away.
That continued. Throughout the week I shared my worst bits with people and they didn’t run away – quite the opposite. They were unbelievably kind. I learnt to trust people, I think, for the first time ever.
I also learnt that you can never judge what’s going on in people’s head based on what they look like on the outside. Everybody on that course looked normal, successful, in many cases high achievers – but what was going on their heads was a different matter.
It turns out that no matter what walk of life we are in we all battle with shame, of feeling flawed, unlovable, and not good enough.
In Hoffman there’s a lot of exercises to help you understand why you feel the way you do – it’s mostly family stuff – and then exercises that help you get rid of those beliefs.
We did one exercise where we had to write down all the bad things we say to ourselves and my list filled out a poster size piece of paper. It was stuff you wouldn’t say to your worst enemy.
We then had to beat the living daylights out of that paper with a shoe (it was a weird week). And after nearly an hour of bashing the most amazing thing happened. For a split second I felt what it was like to not hate myself. It was bliss. I not only loved myself but I opened my eyes and looked around the room and I loved everyone in it in a way that I’ve never loved other people before.
It was beautiful.
Turns out it’s impossible to really love other people – or allow them to love you – if you’re busy hating yourself. That takes up all your headspace, there’s no room for anything else.
I came out of that week a different woman.
The whole man thing is still very much a work in progress but I no longer think it’s beyond the realms of possibility that someone decent would love me. The voices are still there but much less than they were and I now know what they are – just voices, not the truth (this is something the Eckhart Tolle writes about a lot in The Power Of Now, which I think I’ll do one month.)
I would never have the guts to do this blog if it hadn’t been for Hoffman. I suppose that actually this blog is an extension of that week – I’m sharing my shame and trying to ‘Dare Greatly’ and build a better life.
In that Hoffman week I got a stronger sense that what I’d read about in self-help books could be a reality – that life can be bigger, better, richer (not necessarily financially) than the daily grind of commuting, shopping, eating, sleeping. You can have a life in which you truly love yourself and the people around you and you allow yourself to be loved. A life where you wake up every day and do things that you love and which make the world a better place. A life where you feel vibrant and alive as opposed to sick and depressed.
All big aims but it’s what I’m striving for. I have to remind myself of that on the days and weeks where I feel this whole project is crazy and just too hard.
Anyway, that’s my story.
Onwards.Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead