Wearing The Corset Of Shame
What do you do when the Mean Girl is you?
Last night around midnight I found myself a little short of breath as I was trying the cry-it-out method of putting my daughter back to sleep.
I leaned helplessly against the wall right outside her door as she wept as if her heart were breaking — hoping she would go to sleep, praying the neighbors wouldn’t think we were terrible parents.
When she finally passed out and I went back to bed, I lay there and felt my chest getting tighter and my breathing shorter.
I could picture what was happening to me from a hundred silly movies — the mother tells the girl to breathe out, then the maid pulls the corset so tight the girl can barely breathe.
But my doesn’t she look good!
Shame seems to hit me that way sometimes.
One of the first times I remember feeling shame was around 1988, at East Junior High in Boise, Idaho. I’d made the A-team for basketball again, which was a mixed bag— part pride, part frustration. I was good enough for the A-team, but not good enough to do anything but warm the bench most of the time.
After practice one day, I was in the locker room changing when I heard nearby laughter. I turned around just in time to catch a girl who’d just taken a picture of my underwear-clad behind.
I was 13 or 14, and I was as mortified as you can possibly imagine. The mean girls who’d been torturing me for years had struck again. I have no idea how I responded, it’s whited-out in my memory.
I do remember I went home in a panic and wept all over my mother, imagining the picture printed a thousand times and hung up all over school.
The only thing that kicked my panic to a higher level was when mom wanted to call the administration and have something done. I begged her not to do anything, and she abided by my wishes.
“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” Dr. Brené Brown
In grade school and junior high, I was desperate for belonging and acceptance among my peers but felt deeply unworthy of it. Bad hair, socially-awkward, and a little chubby, I was more comfortable playing soccer with the boys than having fake wedding ceremonies behind the school with the girls.
And with every inexplicably-unkind and ultimately terrifying interaction with those all-powerful mean girls, they verified my innate feelings of unworthiness. The corset of shame was pulled tighter and tighter around me until I could hardly breathe.
What’s interesting to me today is that in these two completely different experiences, separated by 30 years, I felt the same tightness in my chest. The same feeling of unworthiness. The same desire to shrink back and disengage rather than face the weight of my own uncertainty.
Thirty years have passed, and in them, I’ve grown and matured and have a few more tools at my disposal. I have deep, rich and meaningful relationships.
I’ve experienced healing and can look at those poor girls in The Club who treated me so horribly and see them through a lens of compassion. I don’t know why they picked on me, but I do know they had to be acting out of their own shame and brokenness.
But at the same time, here I am in a new and uncertain situation— motherhood — and I find myself reacting the same way.
I long to be enough as a mother so much more than I ever longed to be enough to hang out with those girls in The Club — but now the mean girl is me.
I’m the one belittling myself, judging myself, comparing myself to other/better mothers, wondering if “they” would take my daughter away if they really knew who I was or how much of the time I’m winging it.
I’m the one saying — but if I admit that I let my daughter cry it out, what will they think of me? Will they think I’m silly for caring so much or horrible for trying it in the first place? Am I a terrible mother after all?
There is no more Club of mean girls bullying me, but sometimes I wish there was. At least when there were external voices accosting me I could instantly recognize them and fight back, say they were ridiculous, and/or complain to my parents or husband.
But my mean girl voices are internal now, and sometimes I don’t realize they’re speaking until I’m cowering like that 13-year-old all over again, afraid all the things I’m ashamed of are going to be exposed to the whole world.
I’m the one tightening my own corset strings.
The bottom line is not whether we decide to have our daughter cry-it-out or not, the bottom line is — I feel vulnerable and uncertain as a mother. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just barely getting started on this journey and already I question myself every day. How in the world am I going to figure out how to thrive in this new season?
Can I admit that? Can I allow myself to feel this uncertainty and just sit in it for a while? Can I refuse to panic when my mean girl voice is rising? And more importantly, can I breathe shallowly for a minute before I calm down and tell her to just shut up already!
“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” Dr. Brené Brown
Last night I lay with the corset of shame pulled tight around me. I remembered those episodes from junior high and I thought about the future and my chest got tighter.
And then I took a breath and started listening again to the still, small Voice that tells me the truth, and slowly the strings began to loosen.
Breathe in. Breathe out. You’re enough.