My Autumn Journey, Part Three : Unconditional Love

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More views form my visit to New Brunswick in October, 2014.
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Most of my postings are travel-related but my Autumn journey to Quebec and New Brunswick became more an inner journey than an outer one. So thank you for joining me as I continue to explore the teachings of Brene Brown. As I apply them to my own life, I hope you will take the time to reflect and apply them to yours.

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend visiting http://www.BreneBrown.com for these universal lessons.

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My August Journey, Part Three : Unconditional Love
Learning how to live a wholehearted life

Brene Brown studied people who she described as living a “wholehearted life”. Apart from feeling worthy of love and acceptance (belonging), she discovered that these people had traits that she would come to describe as “shame resilience”.

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I have now written several times that Brown describes shame as coming down to “the fear of being unlovable”. Being loved and belonging are the two essential traits of a happy life, in fact they are essential human needs. It should therefore be no surprise that without these things some people become depressed or even suicidal. It would seem that shame is the main block to feeling worthy and therefore the main block to being truly happy.

Brown tells us that to live and grow, shame needs three things. And unfortunately, these things tend to self-perpetuate when living in shame. It needs: 1. Secrecy, 2. Silence, and 3. Judgement. It’s pretty easy not to talk about our greatest secret, but over time can lead to all manner of mental health issues. For me, I have mostly suffered anxiety and depression.

In fact, my shame that caused me to suffer anxiety and depression grew still and I also became ashamed that I was depressed, and ashamed of my anxieties. The self-punishment we humans inflict on ourselves! I went to great lengths to hide my depression and was so successful that it was only discovered after a serious suicide attempt landed me in the hospital for some time. One of my doctors figured it out.

Eventually this led to my acceptance of being gay and the incredible release of shame that I had had around that. I was happy for a few years. How did I release my shame surrounding being gay? Exposure. First I met other gay people through a somewhat secret group organised by the counselling department of my university. In meeting other nice gay people, I realised that they were good people who should not be ashamed of being gay. I could see they were worthy of love and acceptance. Soon I was able to apply this to myself.

Shame hates to be exposed, it nearly requires secrecy and silence. And the judgement was both self-judgement and what I had been taught growing-up with Christian convictions. Most peoples Christian convictions have now adapted to accept people much more than at that time.

I spent the next few years after university mostly living abroad. It seemed I had recovered fully from my depression that had lasted through my younger years, that by releasing my shame of being gay and by living openly I was whole again. But it didn’t quite work out like that. That was a big lift, for sure, but eventually shame crept back again and brought with it depression.

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I went on antidepressants some months after my return to Canada. I just couldn’t seem to break a sadness that had re-occupied my mind. I had perhaps forgotten my past while living overseas, but I had not adequately dealt with it.

There is a difference between forgetting about something, and having closure with something. When we force ourselves to forget it may seem like we are healthfully moving forward rather than reliving the past, but in reality the past comes-out in our choices and our actions whether we want it to or not. We may end-up choosing relationships that repeat unhealthy relationships from our past, because they were not finished. We may unknowingly self-sabotage – feeling unworthy of being happy, or unworthy of being successful. We may make poor choices, clouded by repressed anger or frustration or hurt. My greatest tendency is to isolate. It comes from a fear of being unworthy combined with self-preservation. As in introvert, I need some alone time to recharge. If I don’t get that time, panic can ensue.

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For me, the pain of too much interaction is worse than the pain of too little interaction. I have come to see this as a strength – many people can not have solo travel experiences as happily and successfully as I do.

We humans are wired to connect with others. I prefer to do this meaningfully, I prefer quality over quantity. I am happy to explore all day by myself and if I can then meet people for some real conversation in the evening I have had a perfectly balanced day. I can even achieve this through Facebook or the phone or even email if needed. Many extraverts, for whom it often seems the world was designed, would find my current life painfully lonely. So it can be seen as a weakness, of not being able to always be with others, or as a great strength, of being able to be happily alone.

Antidepressants definitely have their place. I was trying therapy but had very poor luck with the therapist I tried, and I was quick to suppose that I had grown-up feeling depressed, so perhaps that is just the way I became wired. Eventually I also ended-up on ADHD meds, which also had an off-label use for treating anxiety. In my case, they may have contributed to developing anxiety, also a known effect.

I stayed on antidepressants for much of my adult life and I am thankful to have had them until I weaned myself off all medications during my India travels in 2013. I have realised since that even without the specific shame I had attached to being gay, I have a generalised shame, as so many of us do. That I am not good enough.

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In this next bit I don’t mean to mislead. Let me be honest and explain that I don’t actually believe in Jesus but I do believe in the metaphor of Jesus. Lately, I have even chosen to attend a Christian church that promotes love and acceptance for all. I attend because I believe in connection and community and moving forward and the positive values this particular church encourages.

It is interesting to me that even though I am unable to force a belief that Jesus existed, I can still embrace much of what he stood for as an icon. I even take communion now, whereas I hadn’t for some years. Because I believe that we are all one; we are all connected. We are all a part of the same universe. That when we hurt another, we hurt ourselves. When we help another, we help ourselves. We must love ourselves to love others, forgive ourselves to forgive others. We need to feel worthy of love to feel loved. To feel worthy of forgiveness to feel forgiven. The message is that we are worthy. So worthy, in fact, that we are worthy of someone sacrificing himself for us. So that we may live. Not just be alive, but LIVE. Even if I don’t believe it physically happened, I believe the message is true.

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The church has long used our shame issues as a hook, with the message that Jesus loves you (even if no one else will). This is a very healing message and it plays into our fear of being unlovable (shame).

We are told that God can see into the deep recesses of our heart (where shame dwells); that he knows our deepest secrets but he loves us anyway. With this belief we feel exposed to him and accepted by him. This, according to Brown, is exactly what is required to be healed from our shame. Exposure (telling someone) with acceptance (someone loving us anyway). Brown points out that we need to choose carefully who we share our shame stories with, the person needs to earn our trust first as someone who will accept us, as to not become a reinforcement of our shame story. Basically, we need to share with someone who will either not judge us, or who will exercise unconditional love.

The good news is – when we learn to be vulnerable and share our shames with these people we trust, we discover that many fellow humans can still love us too. Not just Jesus.

Because none of us are perfect.

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I hope you’ll join me for Part Four of “My Autumn Journey”. Click on “Follow” and enter your email address to get my postings (and nothing else). You can unfollow at any time with one click on any of the emails.

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My sister’s dog, Andy, also visited New Brunswick (from Toronto) when I was there. My sister came with him. Here he is reflecting on his own shame issues (most of us have some) while looking out to Mom’s patio.

If you’re not sure about your own issues yet, watch Brene Brown’s Ted Talk (that has already been viewed more than four million times) by clicking here: http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame

My Autumn Journey, Part Two

The greatest predictor of feeling love
is whether or not you feel worthy of love.

The greatest predictor of belonging
is whether or not you feel worthy of belonging.

Brene Brown.

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This posting contains scenes from my visit to New Brunswick in October, 2014.

I paused a long time before sharing part two, because I’m feeling vulnerable sharing shame stories and I wasn’t sure if anyone wanted to read about this anyway. Then someone emailed me about part one, with interesting and thoughtful remarks and asked when part two was coming. So If you’re not interested in this, just delete it, no harm done!

My Autumn Journey, Part Two
Learning How to Live a Wholehearted Life

Thank you for joining my journey!

In part one I introduced some ideas from leading shame researcher, Brene Brown, mostly from her book, “The Gifts Of Imperfection : Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life”. In this posting I continue this topic which came onto my radar while visiting Montreal. Issues come up for us when we are ready to deal with them, no matter where we are and what we are doing. Just because I am travelling does not mean I leave my issues on-hold at home. Quite the opposite is true for me, a variety of experiences bring-up a variety of issues.

As I mentioned before, we all experience shame in some form (with the exception of those who are incapable of empathy) so I hope you’ll take some time to examine your own life and the role that shame has played for you, and to see if maybe it’s time to change it’s role. This is about embracing ourselves fully and accepting that none of us are perfect. I highly recommend spending some time on Brown’s website: http://www.brenebrown.com

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As a kid I felt an enormous amount of shame and that tends to come-up for me every year on my birthday. I was ashamed for being who I was. I was ashamed that I liked to colour rather than to play baseball. I felt shame for wanting to create things rather than destroy things. I preferred quiet activities over physical ones. I “knew” it was wrong to like these things, although I had no idea why.

This was my early elementary school years, age 5 to 10. The most innocent years. Society, especially at the time, tied sexuality to things that have nothing to do with sexuality, but most people didn’t know better. There was also the misbelief that pursuing creative things would cause one to become homosexual, so many caring parents would try to guide their kids away from their natural talents with the best of intentions.

My fear of not being good enough (shame) caused me to retreat more and more. Added to this was being introverted (recharging by being alone) and being highly sensitive (overwhelmed by too much noise, light, commotion, crowds) , making school one huge confusion. I had a nice friend in grade three, but I felt unworthy of his friendship.

I befriended a kid on the fringes who I suppose I felt adequate to be friends with, but in so doing I lost my only real friend. I had feared his eventual rejection anyway, I figured it was only a matter of time before he realised I wasn’t good enough, so I hastened the process, around age 9. At that time I also remember feeling ashamed of my body, his body was much better than mine, more what it was “supposed” to be. Manlier. It could have been as simple as he was hitting puberty before me because I was young for my grade and he was a year older even though we were in the same class. My new friend had issues with obesity and I was more comfortable with him even though he tended to be loud and we actually had very little in common apart from both feeling like rejects.

My friend had a tendency to be obnoxious and by grade seven I could not abide his company any more. Knowing him definitely encouraged my introverted tendencies as he was really draining. I didn’t know being with other friends would feel differently. Everything went wrong in grade seven and I would become friendless for some years, although no one knew or noticed. I now know that this was entirely caused by me feeling unworthy to be loved – which translated to feeling unworthy of having friends. Being an outsider and not having any one-on-one friendships became my greatest shame that I spent a lot of effort hiding. Later as I started to notice an attraction to guys more-and-more and not to girls, that became another great shame.

Like so many of us, I still attach shame to my body. No matter what the shape, too. This was the case when I was a fit and muscular rower during uni, when I was very slim during my years in Japan, when I was carrying extra weight a couple of years ago, and still today when I’m an average healthy size. I looked back at photos from earlier years and was shocked to see that I had a great body. I remember being surprised even at the time when I saw the photo of me at a beach in Thailand. I hadn’t felt sexy, so seeing it was like, wow, look at me last week. I shared that photo with friends. I remember wishing I could feel the way I looked, but I still had shame for my body NOT BEING PERFECT. Luckily it was never enough to encourage an eating disorder as it is for so many women. That must be another whole level.

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Even if you are a hundred pounds overweight, that is not a moral issue and there is no reason to attach shame to that. You might feel guilty when you eat too much, or exercise too little because you know that those behaviours are not helping you to lead a happy and healthy life. But lots of people judge others and we judge ourselves based on size. I am well-aware that many of us do attach shame to our bodies and that we may even be shamed by others for our bodies. It is great to be fit and slim and healthy, a worthy goal for sure. Whether you are or not, you are still worthy of being loved and accepted as you are.

That bears repeating.

You are worthy of being loved and accepted as you are. However that is.

I think that when you feel worthy of being loved and accepted, you actually attract people to love and accept you. You can also send a signal of worthiness or non-worthiness. Twenty years ago, I came-out publicly after I had pushed-back the shame and fully accepted that I was gay. (That was a very long and difficult road for me.) I am sure that my own self-acceptance was instrumental in how people reacted.

I expected acceptance and most people lived-up to my expectation and accepted me at a time when few people around me even knew of someone being gay in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Except my church community – I was completely rejected there. I was expelled from the quartet, banned from the youth choir, cancelled as a soloist, and asked not to attend the university-age youth group. I would be allowed to attend as long as I didn’t “talk about it”, but people acted like I was highly contagious. Former church friends would cross the street just to avoid saying hello. Suddenly turn the opposite direction when they had been coming towards me at the market. I didn’t afflict my discomfort on them (not theirs on me), I never attended that church again. Nor any church for a long time.

This was before Ellen, before Will & Grace, the only icon I knew of was the late Liberace, who only added to the misconceptions.

I had learned that being gay was not something to apply shame to, but I continued to apply shame in other areas of my life.

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As for my birthday? It’s embarrassing for me to admit this but I am practicing vulnerability so here it goes. People hide behind pride and it only separates them from others. The specific yearly shame came from not knowing friends who I could invite to a birthday party, so I only had family birthday parties. Actually, I feared no one would WANT to come – I did know lots of people. I feared and expected rejection. This was from as young as I can remember until about age twenty. So when my birthday came-up each year, I felt embarrassed – and ashamed – that I didn’t have any one-on-one friends. I kept it a secret, I didn’t want anyone to discover my pathetic reality. And on the actual day I feared that someone might notice and point-out that I wasn’t doing anything with friends for my birthday. In high school I looked like a popular kid; no one knew how differently it looked from my angle. I should have felt like a popular kid too – I just didn’t know it. Apparently people liked me but I couldn’t believe it because I didn’t like myself.

This year I felt very loved sharing my day with mostly new friends in Montreal a few weeks ago. So thankful was I that I decided to write each one a thank you note that I gave out at the end of my birthday dinner. I put myself on the line being vulnerable, expressing honest love and affection to each person who attended, writing completely different notes for each person.

Everyone responded to my notes of flowing affection, thanking me for my words or expressing their fondness in return. Except for two. I had the feeling of dropping the “L-word” and then the other person awkwardly looking away because they don’t feel the same. All I needed to hear was, “thank you for the note” so as to not feel awkward about what I’d written. In my insecurity, I needed to know that what I had written was okay. This was highlighted by most people replying, so that those who didn’t stood out.

A number of days passed before I dropped the mental ball, eventually misinterpreting their silence about the notes as non-reciprocity of affection. I was no longer in Montreal, but we had a few casual texts. It blew-up in my head until I decided I must have shared too much and offended them. Why else would they not mention them like everyone else did? It seemed like the notes were something we would have to put behind us rather than the affirming expression of love I had hoped for. I regretted the whole day.

Notes to Self:
-Turn down the affection a bit.
-Work on reducing my insecurities.
-Don’t be so fast to anticipate rejection.
-Don’t interpret something from nothing.

I finally addressed the issue in the manner it had grown in my head and discovered my complete error. No, they hadn’t responded to the notes for any reason except that they hadn’t. We were totally fine. They also didn’t say anything because, of course they liked the notes, how could I think they wouldn’t? They’d shown affection by their previous actions, why would I think that suddenly changed? (Answer: Because of my insecurities. Because for many years, I saw myself as someone unworthy of friends.)

Notes to self: Turn down the affection a bit. Work on reducing my insecurities – don’t be so fast to anticipate rejection. It was a mistake for me to interpret something from nothing. My insecurities kicked in – my brain said, “You were wrong. The only person feeling love at your birthday was you – you only thought they were feeling love because you were.” My brain wants to repeat the same old pain story rather than change the record. I WILL change the record. It will just take more work than I thought.

My mantra:
I am worthy to be loved and accepted, as I am.

I know there are LOTS of people who would benefit from making this their mantra. Repeat it especially when you feel it’s untrue, because then you need to correct your thinking.

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And the struggle to live wholeheartedly continues.

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More scenes from the province where I was born and raised, New Brunswick, Canada.

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Here’s an old photo! I’m around 26 in this photo, in Ko Samui, Thailand.

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I hope you will join me for part three of this series of working towards living a wholehearted life.

My Autumn Journey, Part One

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Feeling the Love in Montreal!

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Where’s the Kitty? Oh, there he is!

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Kitty likes to remind me that he’s here.

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In case you missed it in an earlier posting, I was cat-sitting for two weeks in Montreal during month two.

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“Oh Good, you’re awake. I’ve been waiting for you. On your chest.”

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“I brought some of my food into your bed to share. You’re welcome.”

Is part of why we love our pets so much because we feel their love and acceptance no matter what? We don’t feel judged by our pets. We don’t feel shame with our pets. They love us as we are and we love them. All we have to do is share a bit of affection and all is perfect. Our pets don’t care about what flaws we have. If we feed them and love them that’s all they need. Our shortcomings don’t matter to them.

Why can’t we do this with other humans? I think we can. I don’t care how much money you make or what you have achieved, I only care about how you interact with me. I don’t judge you if you suffer depression or anxiety, I’ve had those human experiences myself. I hope you won’t judge me for having more than you or less than you, but I can’t worry about that if you do.

Most of us carry shame that is not serving us. We let it needlessly separate us from others. Sometimes we may be too proud to reveal a weakness. Or we fear judgement if we are too open.

Montreal became a place where I have practiced being more open. I have often over-shared. Sometimes it has been a bit messy. But in the end, it has felt good.

My Autumn Journey, Part One

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I’m healing my life one building-block at a time. Thank you for joining my journey.

I came to Montreal for four weeks on August 13 and I eventually pulled away on October 8th, making a total of eight weeks to the day. I didn’t want to leave, but it’s not where I live and it’s not where I want to live. Maybe someday, after studying French somewhere else, but not now. I developed some really great friendships and was having meaningful experiences so I just didn’t want to drive away. Home is where the heart is and I am leaving a lot of my heart in Montreal.

I always knew that I suffered a lot of shame growing-up and carrying into adulthood, but in Montreal I really looked at that and faced it head-on. I have carried a lot of shame for a lot of things, none of which was deserved or warranted or served much purpose.

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I was very fortunate that these issues surfaced for me while visiting new friends in Outremont and that I was able to dedicate as much time as I wanted reading and researching about it. I had heard shame researcher Brene Brown through a Ted Talk and I knew that her work was where I needed to go. “The Gifts of Imperfection – Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life” would be my guide for this segment of my life journey.

The following ideas are not my own, but are things that I gleaned through presentations of Brown. I highly recommend this Ted Talk and I will recommend another later. Click on this link to open in your browser: http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame#t-1313554

To be happy, Brown concludes, people need to LOVE and BELONG.

She also discovered that the greatest single predictor of whether one feels they are loved and belong is whether or not THEY FEEL WORTHY OF BEING LOVED AND BELONGING.

That is the magic trick! To find love, feel worthy of love! To belong, feel worthy of belonging. Simple! Now we should all be happy! Yay!

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This raised a major question for Brown. If people need to feel worthy of love and belonging to achieve love and belonging, what are the blocks causing so many of us to feel unworthy? She found the main answer and ended-up dedicating the next eight years of her research, with thousands of case studies and interviews, to SHAME.

SHAME is basically the FEAR OF BEING UNLOVABLE. The fear that others will reject us. The fear of not being good enough as we are. It’s cousin is perfectionism- attaching being good enough with our actions being good enough and taking it to the extreme that only perfect is good enough. We can be ashamed of being fat, of not accomplishing expectations, of not being perfect, of not having a nice enough or clean enough house, ashamed of where we come from. We can even be ashamed of how successful we have become, of having more than others, and we can even feel shame of our greatest talent. It knows no bounds.

Shame is a nearly universal emotion, the only people who don’t experience shame are our sociopaths and psychopaths – those who also do not have the ability to experience empathy. Imagine Dexter except in his case he was taught to focus on “those who deserve it”, his own code of right-and-wrong. For most people, the shame of having killed someone (by their own volition, I’m not talking about war) would be pretty strong.

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Shame differs from guilt. Guilt is the feeling that I DID SOMETHING BAD. Shame is the feeling that I AM BAD. So guilt is about our behaviour, and it serves us well to not repeat poor behaviour, not to repeat a mistake, not to intentionally cause harm. Shame is about who we are and it does not serves us well. I AM A BAD PERSON BECAUSE I CHEATED ON MY TEST, is not a healthy response to cheating. IT WAS BAD THAT I CHEATED ON MY TEST, I SHOULD NOT DO THAT AGAIN, is much more appropriate.

When parents use shame to teach children what’s right and wrong they are teaching their children that they are inherently not good enough and not worthy to be loved. This was more common in the past than it is today, many parents today are much more aware that they should address specific behaviours in isolation. “I am very disappointed that you hit your sister,” is not a great way to teach but is much better than the crippling, “I am very disappointed in you,” said in a very stern and serious tone. Or, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” (WRONG – you should be ashamed of something you did, not of who you are, of yourself.) Add to that, “now go to your room and think about that all evening, I don’t want to see you again today,” and you have a kid focusing on the fact that they are a disappointment to their greatest source of love. Nurturing the fear of being unlovable. Shame.

(Side note to parents, when correcting behaviour it is often a great opportunity to teach empathy or consequence, “Think of how your sister must feel”, or “What would it look like if everyone made a mess and didn’t clean-up?” and actually have them describe the mess. Guilt has a role but don’t teach the child they should feel shame. Separate the behaviour from the person. Because when a person identifies as being a bad person, guess what happens on top of being set on a miserable path of low self-esteem – behaviour does not improve.)

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Some sights around Montreal. I cycled past this old warehouse often.

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“If we paint cute things on the bridges, maybe no one will notice when they collapse!” Good idea! Spend your money there!

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I thought it was cute, a pig encouraging you to buy more pork at the butcher. It would be like McDonalds having a cute animated cow character as their mascot. Hmm.

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“I found you!”

I hope you’ll stay tuned for Part Two of my Autumn Journey. This will be a four to six part topic I feel is important for everyone to think about and talk about.

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