I’m in the living room of a girlfriend with her, my husband, and a mutual friend who is staying at her place while he’s in town. He has a background in music and South American culture, and he’s tinkering on the piano.
My friend suggests he teach me how to salsa. “No thanks,” I say, not the least bit interested in budging from my comfortable chair, hot tea mug warming my hands on a Friday night. Not to mention the massive social anxiety that comes up when I think of learning how to salsa while others ogle on, feeling sorry for me in all my awkward gracelessness.
She keeps pushing. “Come on, it’ll be fun!”
Ugh. “No thank you.”
“Come on, we’ll move the table for you and you can dance,” she suggests, helpfully.
For goodness sake, I’m thinking. What is her problem? How many times do I have to decline this stupid insistence on dancing? There she is on the couch, warm under her blanket on a cold night, if she thinks it’s such a good idea for someone to get up and publicly humiliate themselves, I mean dance, why doesn’t she go ahead?
She will not give up, and I can not believe how annoying it is.
I say, “The last thing in the world I want to do right now is get up and start dancing for you.”
“Why not, it’ll be fun!”
What would make her think I’d even want to dance? We’ve been friends for a really long time, and have only been in a dance environment on a handful of occasions. She’s cutting up the rug with all her dance-lessons-since-childhood moves, not to mention that…that, whatever quality it is that makes Latinas dance like that. I kinda scoot around on the outskirts until I’ve had a couple of drinks, and even then I barely move my arms. This could not have been lost on her, she knows me better than anyone, maybe even better than I know myself. Give me a ball or tool or firearm, teach me a new sport or skill and I’m right at home; the dance floor to me is what not-water is to fish.
She obviously knows my relationship to public dancing, she clearly knows how unwelcome all this is. And yet…
“Come on,” she’s still at it.
“I don’t really dance,” I explain to our musical comrade.
“Oh sure!” she continues it, incessantly.
I’m beyond annoyed at this point, I’m starting to get extremely hot, I cannot imagine why this is all so weird, I start wondering if I’m in some kind of weird dream. Am I naked in front of a group of people? OK no, I’m not dreaming.
This is all feeling totally surreal, though. How can this be happening? I’m practically suffocating, and she just keeps piling it on.
I turn to our mutual friend, “You know who’s actually a really good dancer?” And I deflect over to my husband who, despite being extremely well poised and maybe bordering on rigid to the casual viewer, is right at home on the dance floor. I’ve always loved to see him dance, such fun!
“Oh nice try!” comes the taunt. It’s like she’s dying for me to embarrass myself. Why is she purposely inflicting pain on me like this?
“Nice deflection, Babe,” adds my [supportive] husband, laughing.
Honestly, what is going on? Is there a hidden camera? The pressure in my head is going into the red zone, I’m trying really hard to be polite.
“You know you want to!” She’s still at it, like I really want to get up and dance in front of everyone and I just need a little nudge? I’d rather die.
Our out-of-town friend signals he is on board, following her lead and ready to participate. He has no idea how excruciating this is for me.
“No I don’t,” I say. “I don’t want to learn salsa. I have no interest in it, never have. I’m fine just sitting here in my comfy chair, just like everyone else.”
“Come on, it’ll be easy!”
Now I’m really going to lose it. My head is full of basically nothing but swear words. My vision is blurry. I’m in an echo-chamber. It’s taking everything I can to be polite. How long is this ridiculous ‘conversation’ going to keep regurgitating itself!
“How about if you try something that’s very difficult for you and I’ll sit over here, belittling you and telling you how f**** easy it is?!?!?!” I burst out.
(Honestly! How many times to I have to decline an invitation? If it were coffee, or shrimp, or cheesecake, would we be at, what, ten minutes and counting??)
She gives me the face about using a bad word and objects that she’s “just suggesting” or whatever. She’s not letting it go.
My husband seems to clue in: “Maybe another time,” he suggests to the room in general.
She doesn’t hear. And clearly she has not been hearing me refuse politely, not picked up how little I appreciate the weird and unwelcome pressure, how I’m happy just sitting in my warm cocoon, and how I’m very uncomfortable. I’m in pain. It’s a 9.5 out of 10 on my pain scale. I’m losing it.
She pushes again.
Now I’ve had it. I’m unravelling, coming out of my skin, pretty sure I will not be able to continue holding it together. I’m about to slip into the black, to that place of utter panic where you are basically no longer responsible for what happens. I have one last chance to survive this vicious attack, so I’ve got to make the best of it:
My voice gets serious. “This is making me very uncomfortable, can we drop it? I feel like I’m going to cry!”
(Not sure how I didn’t just start screaming STOP IT! STOP IT! STOP IT! like a crazy-person…)
I can’t remember how it went exactly, but somehow I was saved from the brink. My husband, repeating “Maybe another time,” and standing up so the energy in the room starts to shift and I’m not longer under a microscope in the hot sun. My heart is still pounding, the way it is when you get home after driving home in terrible weather conditions. I’ve just survived a near-death experience.
“For many of us, there is no form of self-expression that makes us feel more vulnerable than dancing. It’s literally full-body vulnerability. The only other full-body vulnerability that I can think of is being naked.”
Brené Brown, in Gifts of Imperfection
The next day, I was back in the safety of my own home, listening to an audio program by Brené Brown. She was talking about how the various physical symptoms of shame mirror the exact symptoms of trauma.
I thought back to the last evening, what it was like. I had been right back in middle-school: the cool kids (bullies) are in a circle around me, ridiculing and humiliating me for what’s not-right and different about me, what doesn’t fit in, all the reasons I don’t belong. No matter how I try, I just won’t be good enough, I won’t be like them, they’ll never accept me. I know this, but they just keep repeating it, over and over.
There wasn’t middle-school where I grew up, and I was never actually circled in a public shaming ritual. I did experience being ganged-up on a lot of times, though. It took me years to build up the right defensive strategies to avoid walking right into it again and again. It renewed all over again in university with a particularly insidious, bully-genius who set about to destroy me in the most friendly way possible. (Oh, and no wonder I froze and went into that weird space when that one particular Sergeant-Major would come after me at my first Army unit.)
In school, I basically carried the public-shame-circle feeling with me all the time. I knew I was different than the other kids. My sheltered upbringing was a severe social handicap; a therapist later described my experience as similar to immigrant kids whose parents had a hard time relating to the new culture. I didn’t – and couldn’t ever expect to – fit in or find a place of belonging.
And that’s what I went back to in my friend’s living room. I was all alone and exposed, the cool kids pointing and laughing.
From that new realization, I looked back on the previous night’s incident. Had it really gone on for ten or more minutes? Was my friend, one of the closest people in my whole world, really viciously torturing me? Of course she wasn’t. Was it maybe not at all the way I had experienced it?
When my husband wandered by, I said, “Hey thanks for bailing me out last night.”
Puzzley-face. (What could she be talking about?)
“You know, the thing with the all the weird incessant pressure to publicly dance while everyone stood on and watched?”
He was so surprised what personal hell I had been going through as the whole thing had unfolded. He had no idea it was one of the biggest shame-emergencies ever. Apparently, on the outside, I was as cool as a cucumber, like nothing could be more natural.
[Interesting! If I’ve seemed fine when I was in complete terror all these years, it’s little wonder I struggled with not feeling heard. Could I really have edited out my true own voice so completely?]
He said it wasn’t until the very end, round about the time I was on the verge of losing consciousness, that he got the vibe and he moved in right away with his subtle-yet-huge “Maybe another time” save. He said he had heard my voice change: “There was no emotion in it, but you were not playing around.”
I had been in utter humiliation and a vortex of shame-triggers. In my version, the mean kids were all chanting at me to “Dance! Dance! Dance!” And I was terrified not to dance, but even more terrified to do it, inevitably get it wrong, and be humiliated all the more.
I was the weird kid who couldn’t do what the other kids could do because I had come from another planet where no such thing was ever heard of. It was so funny to them that I couldn’t do something so easy, that I didn’t even have the foggiest idea where to start. They were laughing at me in a whole different language and all I wished for was to cease to be.
Wow, yeah, that was a perfect example of what Brené (I’ve spent so much time with her we’re – well, I’m – on a first-name basis) had been describing. Way more perfect than I had bargained for! She’s a great writer and I understood her words, but reflecting on those few, horrible moments gave me the opportunity to really get it.
It brings up so many questions: How often do these shame-triggers grab me and shake me up? If I can perceive that I’m being so cruelly tortured by an extremely close friend, what kind of awful behaviour have I misattributed to others? What shame-storms has my lovely husband unknowingly set off (and borne the brunt of)?
Thankfully I’ve managed not to be the dramatic type, not a lasher-out. Inside I sure am, oh boy! Mostly, I haven’t felt safe enough in my own skin to truly express myself – which has a pile of side-effects – but one of them is not splattering shame-rage indiscriminately. Obviously I dropped the f-bomb last week, though – how often do I do that when the objective situation doesn’t warrant it?
Yeah, I’m not one to freak out: my poison of choice is more along the lines of self-pity. I’d rather wallow secretly in a warm bath of victimhood. Well of course no I don’t actually want to live the life of a victim, I don’t want it to fester into a resentment-cancer. It’s just that I notice I tend to veer in that direction after a shame-attack and I know I need to be mindful: I’m a grown-up now with the skills to deal with these challenges and get stronger.
Working my way through Brené’s elements of shame resistance, I know that the most acute one for me right now is to contextualize, normalize. Hearing her retell the stories of other people’s shame tsunamis has been reassuring. I’m okay. I’m loving and caring. I’m not actually a rage-monkey taking it out on everyone who comes near. These are normal feelings and reactions. I’m normal, acceptable. It’s going to keep getting better.