“Shame is the most powerful master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.” – Brene Brown
To be completely vulnerable is our greatest gift. It reveals our humanness and leads us to our greatest inner strength.
I dealt with all this before, and I tried to convince myself that I was healed. Completely. After all, I could finally look into people’s eyes – something I swore I’d never do.
For most of my life I choked back a tear every time I heard someone say, “The eyes are windows to the soul.” It hurt like hell because where did that leave me? Nobody would ever see my soul. And if nobody saw my soul, I would remain unknown. To be an unknown is to live a non-existent life, and that’s pretty much where I was. I wanted to die. It saddened me that I wanted to die because deep inside I felt that there was something terribly wrong with that choice. And besides, I couldn’t kill myself. By the time I SERIOUSLY doubted the validity of my existence I already had a son – a precious reason to live.
So, what was my problem? And what, if anything was the solution?
I learned at a very young age that my deformed eyes meant that I was a monster – unattractive, unlovely, unworthy, and unlovable. The strange other side of it was that I didn’t FEEL any of those awful things, at least not until school started. On the contrary, I felt a euphoric zest for life for my first five years on planet earth. I loved to laugh, loved to wake up early, loved to play, loved to pretend, and loved to learn. Most things fascinated me and I made up delightfully funny stories to tell the nurses at the hospital. They fed back to me enough positive reinforcement to take me through a lifetime. They implanted deep into my psyche the belief that I was lovable. I have them to thank, and I wish I could tell them that they probably saved my life.
I started school that fall, and at age five years and three months I learned quickly that I was different. The nicer kids that didn’t ask me straight out, “What happened to your eyes?!” just stared. The meaner ones threw hurtful verbal attacks.
There’s something gravely wrong when you want to die by age six – when you feel so trapped that you just want to fly away and be a beautiful angel.
My two months at the hospital at ages four and five were gone – forever – and along with it went all traces of positive reinforcement. It seemed that the gods said, “You’ve had your cup filled, and that’s all you get – you’ll need to live off it for the rest of your life because the real world is not kind at all. You are on your own now.” So I tried.
I didn’t want my mother to approach the parents because once there was no adult supervision around, things might just get worse. I might get called a cry baby for reporting them, on top of the personal attacks about my looks. I perceived my mother as a person who already had a lot of stress. She had seven other children who were older than me, and I didn’t want to add any further worry to her already-full plate.
I suppose if I were a less precocious child I could have spouted out about it to my parents and other siblings, but that was not how I was wired. I observed who might be safe to talk to, and when, and how. I never felt liberty in any of these. I’m not insinuating that there was nobody, but it IS how I felt. I saw reasons to not share with anyone.
So I hid it well. I didn’t say anything until the third grade. It was winter. I was eight. I hadn’t slept for days. I felt like every part of me was breaking down, and I began to worry excessively about all kinds of odd things – like the house catching on fire as we all slept, or about someone breaking in during the night. My hyperactive, overly stressed mind now had another reason to keep me awake. I had to keep watch in case my parents were too sound asleep and therefore unaware of odd furnace noises or something moving about downstairs. I wondered how ANYONE could possibly sleep with all that could go wrong!
I followed Mom out to our outside shed where we kept some frozen goods, and I blurted everything out. “How do you know the house is not going to burn while we sleep? Are you sure you lock the doors at night … every night?!” One question after another tumbled out until I finally got to what was REALLY bothering me. “And, Mom,” I said, “We have to move.” I could tell by her reaction that this was out of the question. Dad built our house on his very own beautiful, secluded spot of land by the ocean, and they had raised all the children here. But she did ask why we had to move, so I told her that I can’t take it anymore – the name calling and the fact that I was ugly.
Mom’s efforts at encouraging me fell upon a closed little heart.
“You’re just as nice looking as any of them,” was a sincere attempt, but I felt she didn’t understand that I was in a much darker place than nice words could heal. It felt a bit too late for nice words. Words would not save or protect me on the school bus or in an unsupervised schoolyard. She would not be there when the bell rang at recess time and everyone ran to play together while I wondered if it would be a safe or unsafe day for me. She would continue to be at home baking bread, sewing, cleaning, and all the other hundred things that was characteristic of the devoted mother and wife she was. So I stopped talking. She said she would call my teacher, and she asked for names, but I refused to give her names and I begged her to not call the school. She DID call my teacher, but my classmates were too smart to bully someone when the teacher was around, so she never saw it during regular class time. During lunch and recess times, both teachers in our little three-room school sat in their office.
I met and married someone who had lived in foster care and an orphanage – someone who needed someone to lean on just as much as I did. Our dating was spent down by the ocean, walking in the woods, and hitch-hiking – two lost lovebirds, wild and free. I played my guitar and sang him love songs one summer evening after another, as the waves lapped the shoreline. He listened, and he stared in admiration. “You are beautiful,” he said, and I relished his words like expensive wine.
But two crippled souls do not make a whole, so, to shorten the story, after eight years of marriage we divorced. Our son was six.
One brief relationship to another
I was seeking my soul in the love of a man, denying that I never truly learned to love myself. I joined churches, prayed, played guitar, sang solos, and enjoyed a lively Christian singles group. I re-married five years later – a charismatic and devout Christian trucker – and since my son went to live with his father, I went on the road with my new husband. It became painfully obvious that his Christian side was reserved for weekends at church, but the highway and I saw an awkward, troubled soul. He was funny and upbeat one moment and then sullen and dark for days. I must have triggered him one day when I asserted that it would be good for him to talk out what was bothering him. He flew into such an irrational rage that I feared he might lose control of the steering wheel. But what I remember most is the gut-wrenching, intense hatred that welled up inside of me from being hit in the face by a man. He was driving at top speed down Interstate 95 somewhere between New York and Maryland, and I couldn’t even hit back. He had both our lives in his hands, and I was his prisoner.
That first Christmas when it was back to just my son and me is a magical memory I will hold in my heart through eternity. Michael was fourteen, I was free of an encumbered marriage, and my one focus was to be the best mom possible. I slept down in the living room that Christmas Eve night with the tree lights twinkling, and in the magic of that silent night I made a few liberating decisions. I would never seek to find myself in a man – or in anyone else – ever again. I would not look for God in a church – because my most authentic truth tells me we cannot put divinity into a box or a room. I acknowledged my own inner truth as I knew it to be, that the divine source of all creation lives inside of me – and THAT I can take anywhere, at any time. I didn’t need a man, and I didn’t need a church. I needed self-love, motherhood, and a “God” that lives within.
Fast-fast forward to 2015, fifteen years later. I am hit with the realization that I have still been hiding in a dozen little ways. I still try to hide eyes that are not normal. I pretend with make-up. I hide it well. I hide from everyone except myself. The me that lives an inspired life truly does find answers and inspirations in all things, but to really face the whole truth 100% is to admit that I have still been disowning the real Verna who has not come to accept her beauty in its fullness. I am closer, and I know on a cognitive level that I have nothing to worry about. I know I am not unlovely. I know I have beauty. We all do. And nobody gets to have MY beauty but me! If that’s not special, I don’t know what is. But the wounded little me still panics and runs to put on make-up to cover up the shame of looking different.
There is nothing wrong with wearing make-up. Make-up can add a little superficial beauty, and that can be fun. I’ll probably always wear make-up. What IS wrong is the fear of being truly seen, loved, and adored, starting with feeling such things for ourselves, about ourselves.
The Power of Shame
That which we feed grows. Likewise, whatever muscle we exercise grows stronger. Shame is both fed AND exercised whenever we hide who we are, whenever we give into fear, whenever we do not fully own our own worth, whenever we give anyone any power to define our worth for us, and whenever we believe that others are more worthy than ourselves. Shame thrives in such an environment, and if we are not mindful to its tricks, it can become our driving force in every tiny decision we make. It can immobilize us. Shame is the real bully. I am exposing it now.
Don’t give shame a foothold. Expose it. Dare to be vulnerable. Dare to be fully YOU, unapologetically. Be as real and human as you can be to your fellow humans – they need that. They are hiding things too. They need to experience liberation, and yours can be a light for them – a permission to be human. Look people in the eye and help them to see themselves as whole.
In my upcoming book, Healing the Healer Within I talk about the relationships we have with ourselves and how it is that we can easily help others heal because of our own wounds. The truth is that the majority of us who work in the healing arts have come through life-changing experiences. We have reckoned with and befriended our shadow side. We have faced our demons and have dared greatly towards courage in the face of fear. But none of us have arrived. We simply arrive daily at new destinations in self-discovery. We continue to light the flame for our own inner strength. We know that by keeping our own candle burning we not only light the way for others; we continue to heal ourselves.
And you know what? People ARE beginning to see into my soul because I let them in now. I no longer turn my head to avoid eye contact. This is who I am. This is how I look. Opinions of others have very little to do with me. People see others through their own filters and through projections of their own measure of self-love, big or small. I trust myself to love myself deeply; to accept that this means being vulnerable, raw, and authentic. I do not wish to be my own bully any longer.
I am ready to play! Are you?