Shame

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When I was a teenager I used to say I would die when I was 37. What can I say? I was a weird kid. My sister can tell you. Now I am 37 and this belief that I had when I was younger has affected me a lot. Getting sober at age 36, I started to think that rather than dying at 37, perhaps I was supposed to start a new life. Perhaps rather than literally dying, the ‘old me’ would die and I would experience a rebirth. A lot of fate and superstition for someone who’s supposed to be critical thinker/scientist/atheist huh?

Well the crazy thing is, that I came really close to changing my life significantly, getting a new job and moving to a different country. Not only was I really excited about this opportunity, it seemed fated. I was set to work in an alcohol addiction research group, in a fabulous city at one of the best Universities in the world. And I’m 37! It was meant to be!! Mentally I had already created my new life and left the old one behind. I knew what suburb I would live in, what transport I would get to work each day etc. I got through the first two Skype interviews, flew all the way out there for a full day of interviewing, gave it my best shot… and then I didn’t get the job. Shiiiiiit.

When I was younger. I suffered from depression on and off many, many times. I have had a lot of therapy to work through these issues, and tried various medications. It’s part of the reason I wanted to become a behavioural neuroscientist, I wanted to understand how my brain worked and why I am the way I am. Through all of my personal experiences as well as my studies I have realised something: the times when I feel depressed are the times when I feel like I am just not good enough as a person. When I feel like there’s something fundamentally wrong with me. When I was younger I thought this meant that no-one would ever love me, that I am unloveable. I think that wound has been healed now with the help of my loving family. However, now my self-esteem issues revolve around my job and not thinking that I am good enough. As Brene Brown talks about, it is about shame.

If you don’t like it, put a label on it?

I never thought much about shame when I was still drinking. Even though that’s what I was often drinking to escape, I never had a label for it. It wasn’t until I wasn’t until I was listening to a recovery podcast that recommended Brene Brown’s book “The gifts of imperfection” which I downloaded and read, that I really connected with this concept of shame. I honestly think that one of the biggest breakthroughs for me from listening to/reading Brene’s work is simply that it helped put a name on the shame I was feeling. By putting a label on it and knowing that most people experience this feeling, it made me realise that to feel shame was normal. Shame is widespread, and I am not alone. PHEW!

When I was still drinking I would have scoffed at reading this kind of book. Even now, self-help books are not really my vibe. I’m currently listening to “the subtle art of not giving a F*ck” which is entertaining, but I’m not really buying into it. It just seems to me like a whole lot of someone’s opinion. I’m a scientist. I need evidence. That is why Brene Brown is SO on the money. She’s not just talking about her opinion, she’s telling us about what the data show. She’s a researcher, and has studied shame for many, many years. She’s also sober, although this isn’t a prominent feature of her work.

Layers of shame

When I was younger and depressed, people would say things to me like “what do you have to be depressed about? You are young, attractive, intelligent. You have everything going for you! Just put on a big smile and go out into the world!”. Not only did this kind of advice not make me feel better, it made me feel worse because I was depressed and I had no good reason to be. So I would feel shame that I felt shame – if that isn’t the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard. More recently when I didn’t get the job this feeling again reared its head. I am a member of a lot of recovery groups, and in those people are going to jail, their kids are getting in car crashes. People are dying of this disease, and I’m sad that I didn’t get a job. Boo hoo. So now I also have shame that my problems are not important enough.

Then I posted something about having first world problems on twitter. A couple of well-meaning respondents told me that I wasn’t unique, and that there are other people as educated as me in recovery. So on top of how ashamed I was starting to feel about not getting the job, and my problems not being important enough, I added yet another layer of shame – I felt like a pretentious twat for suggesting that my problems were unique, or that I was special compared to others in recovery. Shame, shame shame!

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Vulnerability: a Path to Resilience?

The point of course is that these respondents were right. My problems are not special, and I am not unique. Just because not everyone has the same problems as me, doesn’t mean that they cannot relate to how I was feeling. Many people know how it feels to put yourself out there and fail.

So what did I do differently this time to ensure that my shame didn’t overtake me? Well, I wrote to two members of the selection committee and asked for feedback, which they very graciously provided me in great detail. Overall, receiving this feedback did two things 1) it allowed me to stop speculating (ruminating) about all the reasons I might not have gotten the job (spoiler alert – it wasn’t because I wore the wrong trousers), and 2) gave me an idea of what I can work on to do better next time. And the important thing is that I CAN work on everything they mentioned in their email. Nothing in there said I was fundamentally a bad researcher or not good enough.

So there it was. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with me. I just need to work a bit harder in certain areas, and next time I will do better.

Another lesson that I learned was, as Brene Brown also says: vulnerability is not weakness. I’m sad to say that it did briefly occur to me that if I were still drinking I wouldn’t have gotten so far in the interview process, and therefore wouldn’t have failed. But what good would that have done me? If I hadn’t gotten this far, had a go, and failed, then what would I have learned? Not just in my work, but personally, about being vulnerable and overcoming my fears. Ultimately, about how resilient I can be (shout out to my recovery coach Omar Pinto for helping me gain this new perspective on my situation). I flipping flew all the way to another country, interviewed at a top University, and it was terrifying! But I did it! I had great conversations with amazing neuroscientists, made some great contacts, and honestly had a great day. I also had a great holiday with my family who tagged along. So really, I gained a hell of a lot more than I lost.

As Brene Brown says “vulnerability is courage. Vulnerability is the birth place of innovation, creativity, and change”. So now, in sobriety, I once again have learned to try and to fail, and to become resilient. Most of all, I learned not to drink through my failures and to come out the other side with more knowledge and a little more maturity. Maybe this was the lesson I was supposed to learn at 37. Or maybe I’ll get hit by a car tomorrow and die as I always imagined. But if I do at least if I do I won’t be dying with any regrets about missed opportunities.