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It’s like the song “Chain of Fools” by Aretha Franklin, but I have changed the chorus: “Shame, shame, shame, shame of fools…”
Just like the real song, it is catchy and hard to stop repeating in my head. Or like James Stewart in “Vertigo,” I am falling off a building and spinning slowly into a repeating vortex, not of dizziness but of self-hatred.
Call it low self-esteem, call it shame, call it lack of self-love. Whatever it is, it is powerful. It is addictive. And it is kind of a nightmare.
My intention for 2022 is more acceptance, less shame. I am exhausted from all the shame, the poor self-talk, the bullying of myself. I am tired of shoving myself into lockers.
My Big Self loves myself, thinks I’m pretty awesome, admires my intentions and actions to be kind, gentle, and my practicing the Platinum Rule: treating others as they would like to be treated.
My Small Self can go back to slights and mistakes from fourth grade, if needed, to really help start the bonfire of self-abuse and careful mastication of past mistakes and perceived failures of character and action. My Small Self is a master of taking a magnifying glass to anything that seems weak or imperfect or strange, and frying that poor insect straight to heaven.
Curiously, out of all the things that could rattle my cage, the one that hurts the most is failing at home projects. I have owned several fixer-upper homes over the past two decades—homes that frequently need leaky faucets fixed, drains unclogged, windows resealed, light fixtures rewired, toilets replaced, shelves hung, doors rehanged.
Because I love the quality and charm of old homes, and because I am a mental health worker, I am always on a tight budget—thus the fixer-uppers. But I am the last person who should own an old home needing almost constant tweaks.
Just yesterday, I attempted to help my stepdaughter hang five floating shelves. I was stressed about it for most of my work day—people are dying of starvation and dealing with genocide and I am stressed about hanging five damn shelves.
I have found that no matter how I try to buy the right materials, and have the right tools, something always goes wrong. I have watched the YouTube videos, and they usually just further confuse and anger me—these attractive people charmingly making it look so easy in a four-minute video.
After taking forever to make sure the shelf would be straight and where she wanted it, I dove into my disgrace. In this case, I needed flathead screws, but had bought rounded, and although I had bought two different sizes, even the smaller one barely fit into the pear-shaped metal attachment. When I forced it in with much huffing, it didn’t sit quite flush to the wall, drooping a bit like a dying flower.
Perhaps a person without such a gift for shame would have shrugged and made yet another trip to Lowe’s the next day to get the right screw. Not me. I felt my wife’s frustration, my stepdaughter’s disappointment, and a hot, salty wave of catastrophic failure crashed over me. I had failed yet again. I had let people down. I had failed to put up shelves. I had failed at life.
I had to take a long, cold walk and talk to a friend to try to come back to my regular baseline of moderate self-worth. My heart felt hard and tight. Every “failure” and mistake I had ever made was there in the iceberg below the surface of my anger. I hadn’t just temporarily been unable to hang some shelves, I had failed again, just like I have done since I was old enough to remember. Everywhere in the world people were doing complicated science experiments, performing brain surgeries, writing incredible novels, getting their doctorates, building high-rises, teaching philosophy, and I couldn’t hang a goddam shelf.
What causes this level of shame for such small failures? Is it because the failure is small, the task I’m trying to do so seemingly easy? If you can’t hang up a few shelves, how are you supposed to manage being an adult in an increasingly complicated world? That it hurts so much? It’s not like I’m failing at trying to cure cancer.
Yet of course it’s not just repair jobs that make me begin to fall down the black hole of self-loathing. It’s the mistake I made at work last week. It’s losing my patience with my stepson. It’s my daughter’s sadness about not seeing her friends more regularly due to two separate households. It’s that I don’t check in on my elderly dad enough. It’s that I probably don’t make as much money as almost everyone I know. It’s that I have no interest in getting a master’s. It’s that I don’t volunteer my time or donate enough money to good causes. It’s that I never learned a skill—like finally learning to play the guitar I’ve been talking about for 20 years—during Covid, or before Covid, or probably after Covid.
What’s at the root? Could be being the child of an alcoholic dad, or a mom with mental illness. Could be being moderately bullied through most of my primary years for being sensitive and skinny (a blessing in late middle-age, a real detriment in 1980s middle school, rife with budding toxic masculinity). Could be a very difficult first marriage, could be my inability to connect and flourish with those outdated norms of masculinity from my formative years that thank goddess are slowly going extinct, at least in the bluer parts of the country. Could be that I still have little confidence I could change a tire if I had to…
Well, I still have work to do. And many miles to go before I sleep. But a few years ago when I was spiraling in my shame quite nicely, thank you, still in my first marriage, feeling pretty damn hopeless, I wrote down nine things that made sense, and help me to this day when I remember them. We write what we need to remember.
You are not your mistakes. You are the beautiful energy creating learning experiences for yourself, through these wisdom-giving exercises we call mistakes. The next time you are in the middle of a good session of hating yourself because you aren’t as “successful” as you thought you’d be, or you aren’t exercising as much as you told yourself you would, or you can’t hang a goddamn shelf right, or your friend misinterpreted what you said and feels hurt, or you never learned to scuba dive or play the violin and probably never will, or your partner is mad at you for forgetting to pick up the artichoke hearts for the pizza and that means you are always forgetful and never tune into their needs, ask yourself these questions.
Here are my nine ways to comfort yourself when you are feeling horrible about yourself.
1. Are you trying to be kind?
2. Are you trying to be loving?
3. Are you trying to be a good partner, and father, and friend?
4. Are you being grateful when you remember to?
5. Are you being mindful of the moments happening, when you remember to?
6. Are you being fair to your employer and clients with your work?
7. Are you wanting to grow and evolve?
8. Are you doing your best to pay your bills?
9. Are you trying in whatever small ways to make the world a better place?
If so, then you are doing good work. You have nothing to be shameful for.
I have read many metaphysical books about the afterlife, about near-death experiences. There are many examples of typically successful people being surprised that the elders and spirit guides—during the classic life review—were not that interested in their many works of charity, their academic accomplishments, their more formal successes. What they focused on were random acts of kindness, such as talking to a stranger on a park bench who was crying, checking in with them, offering time and support. These acts, they implied, show one’s true nature.
So, my Big Self is able to see the humor of my almost complete inability to fix things, and even to find it charming—often people’s flaws are what we love most about them. My Small Self still thinks it is 1985 and the jocks will make fun of me for not being a “real man” who can “fix stuff.”
Yet there have been many very successful, capable people on this planet who were not very kind, empathetic, or interested in their own evolution.
If we really are infinite beings, what will last, what will matter? If nothing else, be kind.
A crooked shelf is better than a cold heart.