Shame Series: And the Oscar for Best Actress Goes to...
Here is Part Two of the Shame Series, an ongoing series of essays here on Kindred Seekers exploring the shadowed parts of ourselves. It’s part of my own process of accessing my residual hidden pain and shame, accepting all of myself fully, and stepping more fully into being seen for who I truly am, as well as providing a vulnerable public platform where people can understand they’re not alone. If you’d like to read from the beginning, Part One is here.
In Part Two, I’m awarding myself an Oscar…
As a former teacher, I know how much energy and effort is often spent on the students who struggle the most, either behaviorally or academically. Without small student-to-teacher ratios, there is less opportunity to give each child a high level of individual attention, to really deeply understand and address his or her unique needs. And so we as teachers end up spending a lot of breath discussing those “problem” kids.
I, however, was always keenly aware of the “perfect” ones. The student who never misbehaved, always strove to perform well, was sometimes loathe to speak up or make a mistake. I wanted to know what was operating under the surface there, wanted to let these students know that I saw them, that they were allowed to be themselves, imperfect. I was watching and sensing for what could be going on with these kids, whether they were struggling in other ways. The reason I had such radar for this? Because I was one.
I have struggled with anxiety in many ways, for many years. But no one ever called it that.
Honestly, it wasn’t until recently that I even began to realize the scope of that anxiety, and the fact that it really was a kind of anxiety at all. Because I didn’t present as “anxious.”
In fact, I usually appear the model of poised, cool, calm, and collected.
I have come to realize what a good actress I am. But after suffering with gut ailments for much of my life, I know my body belies that calm exterior.
Outwardly, I didn’t display a lot of worrying signs when I was younger. I did really well in school. I didn’t act out. I didn’t get angry. I didn’t do drugs, drink, go boy crazy, disobey rules. Mostly, I appeared as though I was “doing fine.”
But I was a case of “perfect child syndrome.” I was, in fact, so massively fearful of anyone seeing me as vulnerable, imperfect, messing up, etc. that it wound me into a clenched, anxious mess.
There were some signs that poked through. To make a very complex family story very short, my parents divorced when I was 10, my mother finally coming out as gay via an affair, and leaving our family to pursue that relationship. That partner was quite toxic and controlling (and not good to me), and my mom was pretty absent from my life for the next decade. I’m an only child, so it was just me and my dad for that time. After the divorce, I went through a period where I was so anxious about eating/swallowing that I would work myself up into a lather, feeling as though my throat was closing up. I also went through a period where I was absolutely terrified of fire, to the extent that I couldn’t even light a candle on the school advent wreath in December.
I remember my complete mortification and anxiety when, one day in eighth grade math, I had failed to see the homework assignment listed on the board the prior day and so arrived to class with no homework. The feeling upon realization was TERROR. You would have thought I’d be assigned to child labor camp for not doing the one homework assignment.
On the other side of all this, I can see that it was a classic case of abandonment issues. I felt abandoned by my mother, and the way I internalized that was, “I must be so perfect, so without fault, that no one will leave me again.” Or, perhaps the most damning shame of all, “If someone who loves me whom I depend on could leave me so completely, I must not be worthy of love.”
But doesn’t the Universe have a killer sense of irony? Having patterned my whole life with the mother->abandonment / father->enmeshment dynamic, I attached hard in romantic relationships, seeking out partners who provided a sense of strength and stability that I had only felt from my father, and never had been able to give myself. In 2016, a sudden, one-sided breakup delivered a stinging blow, and I found myself again with that same feeling of trauma and grief. I got left, and it felt eerily like that childhood abandonment.
Anxiety can present in so many ways. We tend to think of the classic panic feeling, or panic attacks. And these are indeed serious and debilitating. I did experience panic after my parents’ divorce, during the initial attempt at joint custody, staying with my mother and her partner. But that panic was more or less warranted, as it was basically an abusive environment. And I did experience one panic attack at 18, trying to transition somewhat unsuccessfully to college life.
A hidden kind of anxiety continued in my adult life. I was fearful of social situations, which often left me feeling lonely or isolated. I lacked confidence. I had a kind of hidden low self-worth in relationships, with my career, in my relationship with money. I was okay...ish. I wasn't a disaster. But I wasn't thriving. In my body, I had chronic gut issues. (I still have them, so significantly, that you should stay tuned for a future Shame Series entitled Full of $h*t. I’m not even kidding.) Is it any surprise that decades of swallowing my feelings of fear and anxiety presented in a complete mess in my gut?
I share all this to remind us that even people who present as “fine” are often not. To remind us that trauma affects us in so many ways, not just the child who experiences sexual or physical abuse, who witnesses violence. I say that not in any way to undermine the severity of those experiences. But those of us with more “hidden” trauma need space to say, “I’m not ok.” We need the ability to name the pain, to feel ok speaking it, to ask for help. We need ways to heal.
I struggle to know what I or anyone who knew me could have done differently at the time. For myself, I should have spoken up, acted out, been a “mess” more. Letting things out would have probably benefited me.
But here is what I have realized as an adult: I absorb my stress inside. I take it in and I swallow it. But it is still there. It has lived in my body for years, and I am now on a journey to to heal that. To become more whole as a person, to live my true, authentic self out loud and in the open, fully accepting all the parts of me, willing to be seen. To heal the deep scars of anxiety in my body, that have taken up residence in my digestive system. Western medicine doesn’t really understand what ails me, but I know deeply that my chronic gut issues are tied very much to the mind, emotions, and trauma.
But I am infinitely grateful for the journey that has led me here. To all of you who experience anxiety, I want to say: you are not alone, and this does not have to be permanent. We are not presented with many options for healing, other than therapy or drugs. (Both of which you should absolutely utilize if you feel the need.) For me, it took hitting a low point after the end of the relationship to begin picking up my pieces and discovering my own strength. It took leaving my teaching career, in which I felt so positive about the work I was doing with students but which ultimately my body couldn’t hack. It took rest, healing, meditation, Ayurvedic treatments, learning to be alone, therapy, myriad self-help books, podcasts, failing relationship tests that were begging me to look at my self-worth, and starting over in a new place. And the work is not done.
Here is what I know: it takes going back to the origins of our anxiety, our trauma, mining our inner child, looking at the shadowy stuff, bringing it out in the open, and beginning to give our little selves what we needed, from our now bigger selves who still hurt. It means opening our vulnerabilities and wounds and accepting them, fully, and sharing them so others can accept us too. It means finding the healers we need to help heal our trauma, whether that is functional medicine doctors, therapists who do EMDR, or, what has been most powerful for me of late, Free + Native’s tools to go back and heal old blocks and patterning and begin to raise self-worth. (All the tools are great, but start with Reparent.) Who knew how much of my own anxiety and struggles were inherited from a mother who struggled so much herself with not knowing who she was, her sexuality, independence, money, standing up for herself, and her own “perfect child” need to never displease anyone? Epigenetics tells us these traumas live in our bodies, and in the genes and modeling we inherit from our parents, and their parents.
To all of you who struggle with anxiety, who want to hide when things feel hard, who think you must be quite alone in all this — you are not the only one. You're doing a good job. Share your stories, your vulnerability. It helps us all. I love you.
To all my former students who stress so much about never messing up, about being liked, about getting bad grades — you are ok, just as you are. I love you.
To my mother, who got married at 18 not knowing who she really was and who has been on a life-long, bumpy journey to truly be herself, who loved me and was doing her very best — I can only imagine how you struggled. I love you.
To my little self…
who needed total acceptance for the magical, sensitive, weird, creative, artistic, intuitive being she was;
who needed to feel accepted and wanted by friends, and desired by crushes and lovers;
who needed encouragement and support to go out and pursue what lit her up (not just praise for her intellect, grades, or how well she "performed");
who needed the modeling of a strong, autonomous, successful mother who was fully in her worth;
who needed the modeling of a connected, healthy, intimate marriage between her parents;
who needed connection and community modeled, not just introversion and isolation;
who needed to know and feel that she was lovable no matter what, that she was seen for who she truly was, and that she was wanted, no matter what…
To her — I give you that now. As much as my older and wiser self can. Step out. Be seen. Be you. Breathe. Surrender. Heal. I love you.
May all of you know courage on your own journeys of anxiety and healing. We’re all in this together.
Art: Andreas Lie.