For most of my childhood I was told I was a wimp, a nerd and a geek. That was humiliating. When I got sad about it I was told I was weak. When I got angry about it I was labeled a spaz. Those feelings were also humiliating. Of course I did not like feeling humiliated but I was stuck in a no win situation. The best solution I could come up with was to hide my sadness and my anger because I did not want to feel humiliation on top of humiliation. In this way humiliation kept me from feeling my sadness and anger.
But the sadness and anger did not go anywhere. They were still there, deep down and came out from time to time like an erupting volcano whenever I was pushed past my breaking point or when I was safely alone. For some reason every Christmas Eve I found myself alone watching A Christmas Carol and wept uncontrollably whenever I saw the scene where Scrooge finally accepts his nephew Fred’s invitation to dinner and Fred welcomed him happily even though Scrooge assumed he would not. When the sadness and anger did erupt in front of other people (and to a lesser extent when I was alone) I felt the sting of humiliation which pushed those feelings back down again. The humiliation had the effect of negating my truly feeling those emotions and getting the relief they should have provided me.
I have since learned that in order to be a full person and to grow I must be able to feel my sadness and anger without humiliation. I need to own those feelings as authentic and acceptable parts of me. I need to welcome them in a non judgmental manner and with love. They are the truest emotions I have and I can never fully feel happiness if I am never allowed to feel those feelings without feeling humiliated for expressing them outwardly. They reflect my true self and if I reject them I reject my true self as well.
For a long time I did not know any of this. I thought it was wrong to express sadness and anger. I thought strong, responsible people do not do this and only weak and irresponsible people cannot control the outward expression of their true emotions. But suppressing or perhaps repressing these emotions caused anxiety and depression. It also caused passive aggressive behaviors like internet trolling, and the sarcastic judgment and shaming of others. It also gave rise to addictions that numbed out the feeling of humiliation.
When I finally was able to feel my sadness and anger without humiliation the anxiety, depression and all the rest of it began to ebb. It was as if the humiliation was a foreign entity that invaded my body. It was a parasite that reproduced itself from person to person by the way I was treated and by the way I in turn treated other people. By becoming aware of this dynamic not only did I begin to heal myself but I also took steps to stop the spread of this illness.
I have always been afraid to speak my truth because part of me believes that if people really knew what I was thinking they would reject me. As a result I tried to figure out what whoever I was talking to wanted to hear and said it. Over time I developed this skill until it came off as natural. People seemed to like me. The only problems were that I eventually lost touch with who I really was I what I really wanted in life. There was a true self buried deep down that was becoming angry (and sad) for being imprisoned.
At a family wedding I recently attended I had a conversation with my sisters about my aging parents. Later in the night back at their hotel room after a few drinks I sort of let my guard down and started saying some rough things about my parents and them. I let out all my resentments regarding my up bringing and how that created the situation where I no longer knew what I wanted and felt pretty much like a failure.
I told my sisters that I did not really have any feelings for our parents anymore and that every time I talk with them I feel horrible. My Dad does not say much anymore. My mother always makes me feel like I have done something wrong. I do not like feeling this and I am starting to question why I have to submit myself to those feelings just because they are my parents. I also went off on my sisters about how they treated me when I was younger, how cruel they were and how humiliated they made me feel.
My older sister tried to turn it around on me and I told her to go f*ck herself. Essentially I never felt entitled to my anger and grief. If it ever came out of me they made me feel humiliated for it. If I spoke my truth I was made to feel humiliated. That negated any entitlement I had to my true feelings and to my true self.
A therapist told me that because of my upbringing I now have to be willing to feel humiliation in order to express my truth. If I am unwilling to feel that then I will never be able to express my truth. For a long time I was unwilling to feel humiliation and as such for a long time I never grew. I was stuck repeating the same old patterns, feeling the same old frustrations. My truth only came out when my guard was down. When my truth came up I felt humiliated both for the truth I expressed and the circumstances under which it was able to come out.
For a few weeks after the wedding I felt the lingering humiliation for saying what I did to my sisters. I’m sure they thought I was the same old weak little brother they grew up with. Only now I am 40 with a drinking problem. I know what I need. I need to feel my anger and grief. I need to own my anger and grief. If I feel humiliation when that happens I need to not abandon myself and join the forces who think that I deserve to be humiliated. I need to put my arm around that humiliated kid and tell him that I am on his side.
I remember drinking vodka and fruit punch in the basement of my parents’ house in high school alone on a Friday night. I felt the buzz. It felt different, as if something uncomfortable was being erased. I liked it. Throughout High School I would not say I was a heavy drinker. When I did drink it was at house parties generally. I remember the first party I went to and got drunk. I do not think I got sick and I do not think I felt sick the next day. I felt like I was doing something different that would put distance between the shy, awkward, geeky persona I projected and make me one of the cool kids.
Then there was the time a friend slept over and we drank, played Monopoly and dipped tobacco in the basement. In the morning I was really hung over. I think I told my mother I was sick. My friend went home and I went to sleep in my room. My mother later discovered the half-finished bottles in a cooler in the basement. She made me feel like I was the worst criminal in the world. I think she also suggested sending me to a rehab or a counselor, which I refused. I did not think there was anything wrong with me. I was just doing what kids my age did. Later on my Dad drove me around in his car and interrogated me about what I had done. I remember him asking me if I had mixed the alcohol or drank it straight. I remember not knowing why he wanted that information and feeling really embarrassed and frustrated about answering it.
In college I joined a fraternity. I drank in the fraternity to be one of the guys. For the most part it was the time of my life. The worst part was getting so drunk that the room spun or waking up hung over. But there was also something in me that told me the more I drank, the cooler people would think of me.
I did the same thing after college when I worked and went out with friends (although not to the same degree or extent). When I went to law school I did the same thing, perhaps to the same extent as in college, but I was living in New Orleans so that is probably an exception.
At some point after I got married and was working for a law firm alcohol became a way of coping with anxiety and depression. It switched from something fun and seemingly inconsequential to something I began to be concerned about and had trouble stopping.
The good thing and the bad thing about alcohol is that it obscures feelings. It is bad in the sense that if my feelings are obscured then I do not deal with them and do not move past them. It is good in the sense that sometimes feelings are too much to endure. If there is no escape and no dealing then maybe it is a good thing to have alcohol around to escape. Of course the danger of that is addiction and damage to health. It is not easy to control and becomes more difficult if whatever feelings are being obscured by alcohol are never dealt with. In my case that feeling was shame.
So the answer in the long run is of course to deal with feelings and ultimately that is how to overcome a problem with addiction. It is a chicken and the egg type of situation (maybe).
There are two feelings I don’t want to feel, the feeling of missing out and the feeling of humiliation. I have come to understand that both of these feelings are two sides to the same coin which is shame. The explanation is a bit circular. Humiliation is a terrible mental and physical feeling. It is the feeling of being judged negatively by others and agreeing with them. It is the feeling of knowing I have no worth and do not deserve respect. Further, it is the feeling that I deserve to be disrespected because I have no worth. Because I fear feeling humiliation I am reluctant to try new things, take risks and otherwise “put myself out there.” So I make safe choices and stay within my comfort zone. But within this comfort zone I feel like I am missing out. So I stay within my comfort zone until it becomes stifling and intolerable. At that point I reach out for any sort of change. Because the change is new and different and not very well thought out I often fail and when I do I feel humiliated. When I am humiliated I seek safety which then repeats the cycle. This cycle is shame.
Generally, shame is the painful feeling that I am not worthy of respect. This is not merely a mental conclusion but also a physical, bodily sensation. There are two typical ways I deal with shame: hiding my shame from others and distracting myself from my own shame. I hide it from others by pretending or acting to be something other than myself. Implicit in this action is the belief that I am contemptible and if others knew the truth about me they would reject and abandon me. I distract myself from shame through addiction. I drink alcohol, I have taken drugs, I bite my fingernails, I masturbate to pornography, I gossip, and I try to make other people feel shame. All these distractions are a very short-term fix that produces an immediate form of pleasure. This is the nature of addiction. The desire for distraction comes from the primitive brain called the limbic system. The aim of the limbic system is survival via the avoidance of pain and the seeking of pleasure. This aim creates the addictive desire. Unfortunately, the modern brain called the prefrontal cortex, kicks in once the limbic system is satiated and goes to sleep. The prefrontal cortex then makes me feel shame for giving in to my addiction. The prefrontal cortex, whose aim is to plan for the future and preserve the society that protects me, knows that a society of addicts is no society and will fall apart. My prefrontal cortex tells me that by giving into addiction I am responsible for the impending downfall of civilization. I believe this and then I feel ashamed and unworthy of respect. This feeling is painful and will eventually wake up my limbic system who will then recreate the addictive desire to distract myself from them.
This describes the cycle. I do not want to feel humiliated so I seek safety. I then feel stifled and reach out of my comfort zone. When I do this I feel humiliated. This cycle of shame is painful. I hide it from others and I distract myself from it through various addictions. The solution is difficult but achievable. It starts with becoming aware of the process and that is the aim of this blogpost.