#606 – The Embarrassing Epiphany

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First off, hi there, I’m Steven, and this is my blog. I haven’t written in it for most of 2018. I’ve been busy with school and life, and honestly, my therapeutic need for writing on a regular basis is mostly in remission. When I started this blog I was pretty much house-bound because of anxiety. Today, I am a successful college student carrying a 3.893 GPA and a member of Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society for two-year colleges. I’m back to doing all the things I was terrified to do a few years ago and I’ve been like this pretty steadily for over a year with only low-grade, brief dips into anxiety and depression in between.

The name of this site, MWMISOSELF.com, is an acronym, meaning “Married White Male In Search of Self-Esteem, Living Fearlessly.” While this originally applied to my mental health, there are other situations in which my self-esteem is suffering, and so I’m returning to my blog to work on those.

A little bit of background about me. I’m 49 years old. If I stand up straight, I’m five foot eight, and as of this morning, I weigh 296 pounds. That clocks me in with a BMI of an even 45, 20 points higher than the threshold of being overweight. (For the record, I put little stock in the BMI, I’m just using it here to illustrate just how morbidly obese I am.) My extra weight is causing me a wide variety of health issues, primarily type 2 diabetes and dangerously high blood pressure. Both are under control, but between these two conditions, I’m taking 15 pills a day with a weekly injection to do so.

I carry my extra weight primarily in my belly, although I’m a little bigger everywhere because of it. That means that my waist measurement is markedly longer than my hip measurement, and because of my body shape my pants are constantly slipping off my waist and down to my hips. As a result, I’m very frequently hitching my pants back up around my waist.

I promised you an embarrassing epiphany, and finally, here it comes.

Yesterday I spent the day traveling from Chicago, where my mother-in-law lives, to Austin, where my wife and I live. Both of us have the flu, my wife much worse than me. (PSA: She’s in awful shape, I barely have any symptoms. I had my flu shot, she did not. Coincidence? I think not. Get your flu shot.) As a result of the fatigue she was experiencing, and also because of a herniated disc in her back, we reserved a wheelchair to get her to the gate more easily. We traveled with her purse and my backpack, as well as two carry-on-sized rolling bags. She carried her purse and the backpack in her lap as she was being wheeled, and I had the two rolling bags trailing behind me.

The guy that was pushing the wheelchair set quite a pace for us, and at one point during the journey, I felt that tell-tale slip of my waistline migrating to my hips. But I had a rolling bag in each hand and couldn’t just hike them back up as I went. So I walked for several more yards, feeling them continuing to slip lower and lower on my hips.

Finally, my pants slipped off my left hip and there was no longer anything keeping gravity from doing its thing, and my waistline fell to my knees before I could catch it. My pants were pretty much the only thing keeping me from an indecent exposure charge and they were in full mutiny. Fortunately, I was wearing my jacket and it was long enough to avoid doing anything obviously criminal, but it was a very close thing. I was mortified, and the only thing that kept me from having a panic attack is knowing that no one that I knew was watching and therefore no one would have any way of knowing it happened. (Except, of course, for this blog post of admission, but I have my reasons for ratting myself out.)

I called out to the guy to stop while I pulled my pants up as quickly as I could, and once I was again properly dressed we continued on to the gate, a trip that involved walking underground from one terminal to another and then to the far end of that.

We got to the gate only to discover that our plane wasn’t even there yet, so we sat for some time before we could board. I was very warm from all the exertion, so once we got settled I took my jacket off and then noticed that the collar was pretty damp with sweat.

It took me a full fifteen minutes to catch my breath from the brisk walk that we took, but in that fifteen minutes, I had time to think about what had happened to me on the way. The waistline incident was just one more reason that I had to lose weight. I’d been tossing the idea around for some time, but nothing more serious than making an appointment for three classes with a nutritionist in January. I know I need to lose weight because of my health, but having my pants actually fall off in public was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It suddenly became a high priority.

At the same time, I was realizing that the trip through O’Hare was the most actual exercise I’d gotten in months, possibly years. I’ve walked plenty, but it’s all been leisurely strolls rather than purposeful workouts. I was scared of how my body would react to doing something that rigorous for that long, but now I knew. I was dripping with sweat, I was heaving trying to catch my breath, and I was doing it all in a very public setting, so there was no ability of me to hide that struggle away – but I survived it. And as I was resting, I realized that I felt more alive at the end of the journey than I did before we set off through the airport. There was an immediate benefit from exercising, one I hadn’t foreseen, and I liked how it made me feel.

So now that I’m home and the holidays are behind us, I’m finally ready to commit to losing weight and all that comes with it – the dietary restrictions, the cardio, all of it. And the timing is such that it can commence with the new year. That’s not to say I’m making losing weight a New Year’s resolution – I don’t believe in resolutions because they’re set up to crumble at the first sign of difficulty – but I will make a goal to lose ten pounds as soon as possible. And when I hit that, then I’ll make a goal to lose fifteen more, and then twenty. At the end of those three short-term goals, I’ll have lost 45 pounds and will be at my first target weight of 250. And then I’ll keep working on goal after goal until the excess weight is gone. My future depends on it. And so does my state of dress, apparently.

Diagnosis and Definitions

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Today’s a two-parter, since I have two completely separate things to talk about today. First, the results of my wife’s (and my) visit to the doctor.

We have strep throat.

We’re now on antibiotics that should help us feel better within 24 hours, but we still have to take two capsules a day for ten days, which is no problem for us, since we are already medicated anyway. So there’s the medical update, Dr. McCoy. (Callback to yesterday’s post, in case you missed it.)


What I really want to talk to you about today is the new book that I’m reading, called Daring Greatly by, once again, Brené Brown. In this book she discusses the subject of vulnerability. I’m still early in the book, but once again, her writing style has proven to be approachable and educational.

Today’s passage dealt with the definitions of four words that are involved with the concept of vulnerability: shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment.

The reason these four words are important is that they’re often used interchangeably, but each has a specific definition that is, as she writes, “much more than semantics.”

I’ve discussed the difference between shame and guilt in this blog before. Shame essentially means “I am bad,” where guilt boils down to “I did something bad.” But what about humiliation and embarrassment?

Humiliation differs from shame because, as Brené quotes Donald Klein in her book, “People believe they deserve their shame; they do not believe they deserve their humiliation.” It’s the difference in saying “I’m an idiot” versus “who is he to talk about me like that, it’s not fair!”

The other important difference between humiliation and shame is that someone that’s experiencing humiliation is less likely to “shut down, act out, or fight back” since they’re not internalizing the triggering statement.

Embarrassment is the least concerning of the four, and the thing which sets embarrassment apart from the others is the realization that you’re not alone in what you’re experiencing, that there are others that have done the same thing or very close to it, and you’re eventually going to let it go. It will pass rather than manifest into destructive self-talk. In time, the situation might even become humorous and the source of a great story to share with friends.

Being able to transfer shaming situations into situations of guilt is a sticking point for me right now, and it’s an important one – it’s a considerable portion of why I’m on disability, because any negative situation immediately turns to shame in my mind and I turn that into obsessive thoughts and eventually self-destructive behaviors. I need to be able to turn shame into guilt or humiliation or preferably embarrassment in real time rather than doing it months or years or even decades down the line. (An embarrassing situation in fourth grade haunted me as shame into my 40s, until I finally turned it into embarrassment.)

I think this needs to be brought up in my next therapy session. It seems like this might be one of the keys to getting back to work. That’s an encouraging thought.

 

Working Definitions

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So, I did something that I said I wasn’t going to do; namely, I’ve started reading I Thought It Was Just Me by Brené Brown instead of re-reading another of her books, The Gifts of Imperfection, which I recently finished. In today’s reading, the book defines embarrassment, guilt, humiliation, and shame, and differentiates between each term.

Embarrassment is a fleeting emotion, and considered much less serious than either guilt or shame. An example of this would be walking out of a public restroom with toilet paper stuck to the sole of your shoe – a momentary flush, and the almost immediate realization that you aren’t the first person to do it, and you certainly won’t be the last – you are not alone in your experience, in other words.

Brown writes that the difference between guilt and shame is that guilt says “I did something bad,” and shame says “I am bad.” Guilt deals with a person’s actions rather than their identity, like shame does. Repetitive instances of guilt can lead to shame, however, as being consistently told that you’ve done something bad or wrong can oftentimes make that switch in the brain to feeling that you are bad or wrong.

The difference in humiliation and shame is that people experiencing humiliation don’t feel that they deserve the action or statement that’s causing the emotion, whereas people experiencing shame feel that they do deserve to feel that way. Again, repeated humiliation can evolve into shame – if you hear something often enough, you start to believe it yourself.

These definitions are very handy to have as I start to pick apart my own feelings of shame. They will be helpful in determining which emotion I’m experiencing in the future, when in the past it’s all felt like the same thing. I think correctly identifying what I’m experiencing will be a first step to overcoming the worst of it.

The Root of the Problem

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This morning I had an altercation with my wife.

I wouldn’t call it a fight – nobody called anyone names and nobody yelled. There was just an instance of me being called on something I had been doing for some time, and my reaction to it.

It all started when I reached for my checklist this morning and remembered that I missed one very simple thing yesterday that would have given me a perfect day and got upset about it. Internally, I was kicking myself for missing such an easy task and my wife tried to console me about it.

That’s when I pointed out that I exercised yesterday, something I rarely do anymore because I’ve been waiting for her to come home from work in the evenings so she can join me and invariably we both get distracted and don’t exercise. In my own self-directed anger, I came across that I blamed her for my not exercising.

Naturally, she got defensive. She raised her voice, but never yelled. She pointed out that yet again she was being blamed for something I failed to do, and that it wasn’t fair of me to make this a habit – which is true.

But the second she raised her voice I went into full panic mode.

I shut completely down and basically let everything go in one ear and out the other because I couldn’t stand the fact that I’d upset her to the point that she was being critical of me. In my head I was listening to every other time anyone had ever criticized me and the red-hot embarrassment that I felt in being called out on my actions. I was deeply ashamed at myself and I was losing myself to my shame.

And the longer this went on the more I obsessed over it.

It finally took the distraction of the outdoor kitty wanting attention for me to start getting back to normal and watching a new movie trailer to fully snap me out of it.

But I still reflected back on all the embarrassments of my life for a long while after that, and the shame that I felt during every single incident.

And I realized that every single time something like this happens, I’m replaying dozens of instances where I felt shame.

Now, I’m not saying I didn’t deserve it. On the contrary, I’m glad she called me on what was errant behavior on my part. It’s something that I’ll need to work on in the future. But I couldn’t separate this instance from every other one that I’d experienced where I’d felt the same thing, and every single one of those past occurrences came back just as fresh as if I were experiencing it for the very first time.

I don’t know why I do this. I wish I understood so I could work on it. But this happens any time someone is critical of me. Call me thin-skinned, I admit that I am, and that I need to suck it up and learn to deal with criticism. But I cannot for the life of me stop this tidal wave of the past crashing down on me every time I’m criticized for anything, and I have no idea how to do so.

Now imagine me at work, receiving criticism from my supervisor.

It’s always been everything I could do to hide the fact that I was rapidly going almost catatonic in an attempt to hide from the shame and those kinds of rebukes, the ones from work, always resulted in weeks of me being terrified that I was about to lose my job. Which invariably cause me to make more mistakes, which brought more criticism and shame and terror that I’d lose my job, until I oftentimes did.

This is likely one of the biggest issues that I need to work on in therapy but I’m so often distracted with the day to day goings on that I’m failing to address the big stuff.

I need to cut the crap and get serious about getting well. I only have a year left on my disability before they reevaluate it, and I need to be ready to go back to work at that point, because we cannot afford for me to lose the disability payments without replacing them with employment income.

The clock is ticking.

 

 

NaBloPoMo Day 19: The Pursuit of Imperfection

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I had an appointment with my therapist today.

During the session, I mentioned my blog post NaBloPoMo Day 12: Learning to Forgive and how I had written the letter to my ten-year old self. I explained the backstory of the letter and then read it to her. This led to a brief aside where I discussed how my interest in sports had improved, and I cited a Sports Illustrated article that presented odd statistics that were coming out of the new NBA season. During that aside, I mentioned Stephen Curry’s average of sinking a three-pointer every 6.8 minutes, which is far more frequent than anyone else in the league. When I presented this to my therapist, she corrected my pronunciation of “Stephen” (stuh-FAHN, not STEE-vin). This may seem trivial, but it ties back into the story later.

We talked about how I felt during the incident, and I told her that I was mortified that someone pointed out the mistake I had just made, and it came to light that I’m just generally mortified by embarrassment. Another example, vague though it is: when I was 15, I was doing something that’s a basic function of everyday life and those within earshot made a joke about it, and as a result that profoundly changed how I execute that function to this day. (I’m still too embarrassed to discuss it in detail more than 30 years later.)

That’s when the subject of perfection came up again.

I’ve talked about my struggles with striving for perfection. They are a lot better than they used to be – once, when I was in school, I crumpled up a test and took the zero rather than mar the paper’s pristine surface with an eraser because I had written something incorrectly – but I still work hard to remember that perfection is not logically attainable.

Take, for instance, pizza. What do you consider the perfect pizza? Mine’s hamburger, mushrooms, and bacon on a hand-tossed crust, with light sauce. I’d be willing to bet yours is different. Yet that’s your version of perfect. Since mine is different than yours, it’s fair to say that perfection is a subjective term in most instances.

I’ve also talked about how I tend to look for perfection in the process rather than the end result. I brought this up in therapy today, and was corrected in my conclusion that a perfect process brings about a perfect result, and so my logic about the result following the process was imperfect. This wasn’t very easy for me to hear, but I knew that it was correct once it was pointed out to me.

She then asked how I felt about being corrected about the pronunciation of Stephen Curry’s name. I told her that I honestly was glad she did, as I think it’s important to be able to pronounce people’s names correctly, especially when talking directly to them. I also mentioned that since it was just the three of us in the room (myself, my therapist, and my wife, who sits in from time to time) I wasn’t embarrassed, but the more people that were around (and, thinking back to it, the FURTHER away from the center they were) would drastically change how I react to an embarrassing situation.

At the end of the session, she gave me my homework: think of a time when things did not go as expected but turned out better than I hoped for. I can think of a very, very big one. When my wife and I started dating, I expected that it would last for about four months before one of us got frustrated with the other and decided it was time to move on. (That had seemed to be my M.O. for a couple years beforehand.) We’ve been together for over fifteen and a half years and married now for over thirteen. That was decidedly something that turned out better than I expected. But it’s also an obvious and unique one. I would like to try and think of some other, less life-changing instances that fit the bill.

I’m not sure what I think about me getting that diagram backward, with me putting more weight on what the outer circles think of me than I do the inner. Maybe it’s because I know the closer to the middle I get, the more secure that they aren’t going anywhere, and so I don’t feel so compelled to make sure they like me. That’s a big, big thing for me – finding out someone didn’t like me once put a dent in my progress for over a year – and it’s something that will likely be discussed in the next session.