In Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly, she discusses shame and the importance of understanding and combating it. She says, “Language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.” She couldn’t be more right.
When I decided to leave my ex-husband for good, he set out to shame me in every way possible; my weight, my age, my looks, my abilities as a mother, my worthiness as a future wife or partner to someone else, my ability to support myself and our children. Of course, shaming behavior had started long before I decided to leave, but it had never been a concerted, targeted and daily effort. He put all he had into it. He was laser-focused and deadly accurate. After all, we’d had 20 years together. He knew my fears and my weaknesses and which buttons to push.
He began a campaign to make me pay:
He began an ongoing campaign to strip away my self-worth and my safety in every way possible. And he succeeded to a certain degree. His determination to “make me pay” was terrifying. His complete lack of remorse, his objectification of the mother of his children was fascinating from a research perspective, but mostly it was just frightening. He was cold. There was no remorse or empathy.
An absolute mess, I felt like I was drowning. I lived in a constant fight or flight mode while trying to function as a mom, car pool driver, friend, daughter, and employee.
Near rock bottom and backed into another corner, something in me said, “eff that.” Why am I letting him define me? Why am I letting him determine my happiness? My future? My self-worth? Why am I continuing to give him control of my life? Isn’t that part of why I left?
Something happens when your deepest fears of shame and humiliation are reached, you realize that you have nothing else to lose. I also began to share with some of my friends what I was going through, even though some had already witnessed it. Their empathy and reassurance, combined with my new “eff that” attitude, was the life raft I needed to keep from drowning.
It was freeing. I decided I truly didn’t care what he thought. His issues are just that, HIS issues. I began to rebuild. I focused on the untethered joy I feel when I am with my children, my friends and alone. I focused on God, on the love I have for others, on loving myself.
He taught me how to keep a level head and not make life-altering decisions:
Then he was arrested. His story hit the news and my first thought was to take my kids and return home to the safety and comfort of my family. All I could think of was, “we have to move.” How would my kids survive this? Other kids can be mean.
Then I took a moment to calm down. I’ve lost several loved ones and know from experience that one of the worst things you can do is make life-altering decisions in a crisis. So I took stock.
I was a child when my mom died. My family kept my day-to-day schedule the same after her passing. I was not uprooted and it made that adjustment easier. I knew then that I couldn’t uproot my children and take them away from their friends, their schools, their neighborhood and everything they had ever known even if I just wanted the comfort and security of my family.
But then a great thing happened. There was an outpouring of support. For me. And more importantly, for my children. There was empathy, compassion, and love from my neighborhood. (If you’ve seen “Bad Moms” I’m talking about the PTA moms, the stay-at-home moms, the working moms, the soccer moms…) I had known these families for years. They rallied around us and I am forever grateful and humbled by their compassion, love, and offers of help. Those connections helped me see past the pain and humiliation.
One of the things I hear most is that people are impressed with my strength. But the thing is, I was never truly alone. Those connections, those bonds, those relationships that I formed with all of those families have never been broken. Those connections are what keep us intact. Brene Brown writes, “A social wound needs a social balm, and empathy is that balm.” Community is that balm.
I realized from friends who moved away from our neighborhood that what we have is unique. The bonds we formed when we built our houses, stayed at home and nurtured not only our own kids but each other's, are solid and unique. That lesson was learned a thousand fold. Those same people who lift you up, who care about you and yours, they see your vulnerability and love you for your weaknesses and your strengths. That feeling of community grace and God’s grace is truly a blessing.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes and will continue to make more.
We’re human, we all make mistakes. But I won’t be shamed by those mistakes. Yes, I’ll feel guilt and I’ll be sorry when and if my actions don’t align with my values. I’ll try to learn from them so I don’t repeat them.
What I’ve also learned is that I can hold what has happened apart from who I am. I can remember the love I once felt for him, be thankful for my beautiful children and forgive myself for not seeing all of the red flags. I forgive my 19-year-old self and all of the excuses in the last 20 years. I can also feel compassion toward someone who was clearly hurt at some point before I ever came along and who could ever want to hurt someone so badly to want to “make them pay” for everything that has ever gone wrong in their life.
My girlfriend works for a domestic abuse association. She is the one who encouraged me to write, to tell my story, to help others. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, nearly 3 in 10 women (29%) and 1 in 10 men (10%) in the US have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by a partner and report a related impact on their functioning.
Shaming is a way that abusers keep women trapped. Shaming is a way they keep their victims silent. You feel that you have nowhere else to go, but you do. Once you understand that you are enough, it makes it harder to shame you. “When we experience shame, we feel disconnected and desperate for worthiness.”
I know it’s hard to share. This is painful to write and even more so to publish. There will be people who judge, who will see me as a victim. No one wants to be viewed that way. That’s why you stay silent. You keep that shit together and put a smile on your face. But it’s important to share. To not be silenced or shamed. You are not defined by others choices. Your life is what you make it.
Remember and know that you are enough and when you are ready, choose joy.