When I didn't want to feel it
I arrived in a flurry. Breathless, covered in sweat and fifteen minutes late I felt like an idiot. Is this really how I’m going to show up for my interview at a therapy training institute? I was a neurotic mess. How the hell could I even imagine becoming a therapist.
Little did I know however, that once I got to know my colleagues, I’d soon understand that they were a neurotic mess too. The director of the institute at the time was waiting for me. She was a sly old fox of a trickster. She was so skilfully she danced about with my crazy that I had no idea what was going on.
“Holy crap, I’m so late, I’m so sorry,”
“You’re pretty wet too. Would you like a glass of water?”
“No, I’m fine.” I went on to explain how I debated riding a bike, taking my skateboard, walking or taking a cab. I took so long to decide that once I set out to walk there, I realized that I could not make it on time. Then, I started to run. Then I took a cab. Then. Then. Then.
I was playing the client dog piling game of ‘And another thing…”
Like a cat with a legless vole, she was almost bored in how she toyed with me.
“That sounds terrible. Would you like us to pay for your cab fare?”
I couldn’t tell if it was a really generous offer, a game or a test. I could feel my ears on fire. Regardless of her motivations, I politely declined. I was so embarrassed. The interview went on for some time. Joanne, by the end of it had heard enough. “You’ll fit in here just fine”, she assured me. You start in September. Would you like us to pay for a taxi home?”
Her grin told me all I needed to know. She was fucking with me. It was a bit of a test. I passed. Not through professionalism, but through honesty and humility. Though I was completely caught up in my own neurotic way, I had enough of a sense of personal shame to recognize that my actions were my responsibility.
Shame occurs when we don’t meet expectations - either for ourselves or for the others we are with. I didn’t meet expectations. My apologies were hollow. They were hollow because they weren’t heart felt. They were followed by a litany of deflections and justifications. I did not want to feel the shame of not showing up on time. I did not want to experience the shame of jeopardizing this opportunity.
This was the first time that Joanne Greenaham played skilfully with my sense of shame. It certainly wasn’t the last. It was however one of the first times where my chronic seeking out shame was held and supported playfully enough for me to grow beyond it.
Shame is an acute and oftentimes painful, awareness of the self. This is either in relation to a person's values or how they are perceived by the larger world. Shame is such a basic aspect of our humanity it appears in many of the creation myths. In the book of Genesis, shame is what we were rewarded with for eating the apple.
This ‘self awareness’ can act as a brake. We physically feel heavy, sunken or like our stomach drops out of us during the experience. Shame, seriousness and gravity are like old drinking buddies. You always see them together with their slouched shoulders, red faces, and generally crappy dispositions.
Joanne? She came at my shameful behaviour with a light touch. She used humour and levity to make me aware of the fact that I was late and everything wasn’t about me. Levity is the opposite of gravity. Levity and humour creates a disruption of the certain and opens up room for possibility, empathy and creativity.
Levity can work to ease the sting of shame and bring us to a place of embarrassment and gentle humility.
Once there, a lot more is possible.