Thin Skin and Thick Shame

Lord knows I have plenty to do right now. But I’ve got feelings clogging up the works so here I am, doing what I know best, and writing them into the internet void so I can clear the clog and maybe get something done. I’ve got a thick case of re-awoken shame slimming everything I touch. Shame’s like that. It pollutes everything until it’s been faced and treated.

And I only know of two ways to really remove shame. The first is highly, strongly not recommended. Suicide. Shame is what causes suicide. The second option is the one that I’ve had success with: turn a brilliant spot light on it, drag it out into view and talk about it. Shame needs silence to do it’s putrefying, slimy work of dragging us into the void and corrupting our souls. So here I am. Trying to delicately write about something deeply personal in a place literally everyone can read about my nastiest monster. But I’ve also learned usually these terrifying dark basements just need someone to scrape together the courage to go first and once someone does that there’s a whole community who also have all the same fears and then it’s not so bad. So here I am.

I’ve always had both literally and metaphorically thin skin. Too sensitive to everything.

The blessing of this is that even mosquitoes have a really hard time biting me. I always know if there’s fruit flies or gnats or spiders or random bits of cat fur in the air. And I feel the world’s pain in my own heart. I get to love across all the boundaries of race and religion and nationality because of this thin skin. Which is really cool. I have great friends who are nothing at all like me. It makes me open-minded and open-hearted. It makes me really good at accepting and loving people how they are, for who they are.

But the curse of this is that my whole being is one raw, exposed nerve ending. Things that are “just jokes” can cut me all the way through. And at this time of year the cold, dry air is enough to peel my skin off. And most of the moisturizers just irritate it even more. I’ve had chemical burns from hypo-allergenic sunscreen. I wake up three or four times a night scratching my ankles. I slather on lanolin before bed and still my hands crack open and bleed.

So there are a lot of “normal” things I just can’t do or have to do very, very carefully. Mostly lipstick is OK and some kinds even help fight the terrible cracking and splitting. But makeup and perfume can be sketchy. I can spend $20 dollars on a product that’s supposed to be gentle for sensitive skin, use it once OK, use it twice OK, think I’m in the clear, use it a third time and end up covered in itchy hives. I quit shaving my legs years ago. First I kept trying different products, different creams, different razors, different lotions, different methods. And eventually I just gave up. Come to find out I have whole bald patches where hair won’t grow because the skin has been damaged by so much scratching and pealing and flaking. Mostly shampoo is OK if I use just one drop and rinse my hair quickly. Sometimes I use baby soap.

Over the years I’ve mostly made peace with this, accepted it as reality, learned to wear soft clothes that cover and protect my body. And mostly I’m old enough just not to care.

But sometimes, something rubs me the wrong way and I feel totally worthless and useless and ugly. I feel like I’m not a “real woman” and not “normal” and “too sensitive.” And because I’ve lived my whole like in a toxic waste dump of body shaming and beauty standards and bizarre expectations It Really Hurts. And the whole shame complex gets activated. And here I am. Feeling like I can never be good enough, like I’m defective and broken and horrible.

I have a Facebook reminder that keeps popping up about being invited to one of those makeups parties. I hate those. Because I already know that whatever they’re selling is just going to make me sick. I have a huge fight with someone I love dearly because I can’t explain how much of a problem this is for me and he doesn’t understand. And I hate it because I already feel so much shame about my failure to get anywhere near the standards for What Women Should Be. I have a calendar full of things to do and my heart is in a billion pieces watching the political situation. And I hate it because I can’t focus on anything while I feel the aching feet of 5,000 desperate refugees walking thousands of miles to try to find safety. And even more I hate being told so often that I’m too sensitive, that I should be able to take a joke, that I should just change the way God made me.

I’m constantly reminded that I’m wrong, unnatural, abnormal, shameful. And today, at this moment, all this is right in my face, right here dripping down my back like cold egg, clinging to my hair like old spiderweb. And I feel ashamed of feeling ashamed.

And all the Not Good Enoughs are piled on thick and deep. Not a good enough mother. My kid’s in trouble at school and ran up $120 in fines. Not a good enough student. I got a paper back with a Rewrite grade. Not a good enough writer. No one wants to comment on or share my posts. Not a good enough housekeeper. There’s a funny smell in the bathroom. Not a good enough woman. My legs are a little fuzzy. Not a good enough human. My heart is always on my sleeve.

And recently I’ve been well-reminded about how all this is simple and normal for most people. And I just kinda want to curl up in a little ball in a dark cave and never show my face again. Because I’m not most people and I’m not normal and it isn’t simple for me.

And that’s just how I feel right now. And feelings don’t give a crap about arguments against them. Feelings just hang around like closet-skeletons until they’ve been faced and felt and can wonder off on their own.

It would take a whole book to really write about all the ways I learned shame, all the ways it was taught to me, inflicted on me, used to lure me into dark and evil places. So I won’t do that in this post. But shame is one of those horrid things that loves to go around and around, to bring up all of the most awful moments and memories and use them to prove itself. I remember being 4 years old and sick and being shamed because I didn’t make it to the toilet in time. And all similar moments for the last 35 years. They’re all right here with me, looking over my shoulder begging me not to write about them, to take their hands and let them lead me to the pits of hell.

Trying to protect my thin skin, my sensitivity, sometimes makes me angry and aggressive and cruel. (I once over-heard an adult call teenage me harsh and aggressive. More words that have lingered like shards of glass in my heart, cutting and tearing). It’s too easy to take all the sharp words directed my way, all the times I’ve been blamed and shamed, and turn them back, amplified. It’s one of those survival skills that only works temporarily. I once knocked a kid’s teeth out with my library book (we were both 6 and they were baby teeth) because she shamed me for knowing to many numbers and too much math. Because lashing out was the only way I knew to deal with it. And of course, I got suspended and shamed for the incident.

And I want to be clear that I don’t write this because I want suggestions or solutions. All I really want is to feel like I’m OK just exactly how I am. And no one can give me that. I would like to request that maybe we all try to be a little more thoughtful about each other. I’m sure everyone on this planet also has something they struggle with, something they’ve been shamed for, something they are sensitive over, something they want a little understanding and compassion with. And I’m sure of this because my heart is sensitive to it. No one of us can ever really know someone else’s challenges and struggles. I don’t really want to find a way to be normal, that’s the shame talking; I really want to find a way to turn my own pain into something productive, something that can make a difference, something that lets someone else know they aren’t alone, something the reminds us all to be kind and not place impossible expectations on one another.

Because that’s really where shame comes from, it comes from not being able to meet expectations. It’s all those Not Good Enoughs. It’s knowing that we aren’t “normal” or “natural.” We start out as tiny little humans and don’t meet the standard and get shamed. And then we’re slightly bigger humans and that shame gets stuck inside our souls so when we don’t meet our own expectations we shame ourselves. And then we’re even bigger humans and someone else doesn’t meet our expectations so we shame them because they aren’t “normal” by our standards. And it’s certainly not normal to drag your basket of dirty shame and hang it up online where the world can see it. But that’s exactly what I’m doing.

Here I am, getting ready to hit the publish button, getting ready to just tell the whole damn world a little piece of just how deficient and defective I am, getting ready to admit to having one of those feelings we’re not supposed to ever admit to (Hey, look! Another reason to be ashamed!).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Most People” and Other Arguments I Don’t Wish to Have

I’m not sure how to introduce this post. My blogging skills are getting rusty from disuse. I guess that’s an expected side effect of Project Get More Education. I’m nearly a month late on my Reading Blog post but this isn’t it. There’s something else on my mind tonight, something begging me to write it.

Once upon a time I was mired in a relationship in which the ambiguous “most people” were frequently called upon in discussions arguments about any and all topics. What “most people” do/don’t do could/can be used to justify or (smugly self-justify) any position or practice.

Sometimes “everyone else does it” sounds like a great excuse to do it too. Sometimes “most people don’t do it” make an excellent method to feel superior and self-righteous because we do do it. But either way it’s invoking (usually imagined) other people to make ourselves feel better about something we don’t want to really think about.

And I’m not quite sure how to say this but any argument that relies on “most people” (whether “most” is 50.01% or 99.99% is irrelevant) is a bullshit argument and a toxic discussion to have. Frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn what most people do or don’t do. Spending my life worry about most people never got me anywhere other than insecure, paranoid, and pressured.

“Most people” is how we get conned into “keeping up with the Joneses.” It’s how we get trapped into doing or buying things we don’t need or want and probably aren’t even healthy for us. “Most people” is a great way of selling stuff, of creating fear and paranoia, envy and greed, alienation and insecurity.

This is where all my new-fangled education comes in. Where do “most people” come from? Let’s break it down. Our ideas of “most people” are formed largely through media. We imagine “most people” based on what we see on TV, what we stream online, what we read. There’s little to no actual reality in our perceptions of “most people.” Usually we know that when we see a “middle class” family sitcom where they have an eight bedroom house that this isn’t real. But when we see hundreds of thousands of pictures of women airbrushed to appear they have no body hair or blemishes it adds up and we assume this is normal and desirable.

“Most people” is purely imaginary, it’s what we have been conditioned to assume is normal and good. It’s a construction we have in our minds. This is part of how culture is made. Culture is not and never has been something static and simple. All cultures are always dynamic, adapting and changing and influenced by a wider context. The modern assumption that culture is set-in-stone tradition is itself a recent cultural construction. Humans have always participated in exchange and change. It’s what we do.

Sometimes we have constructed our cultures with stories around the dinner fire, sometimes with written texts or pictures or dances, sometimes with TV and radio and popup internet adds. I ascribe to the idea that these media representations form a circular relationship with culture, they simultaneously represent and disseminate understandings of reality. They aren’t necessarily real but they do important work in how we interpret reality and imagine what is desirable and normal.

These cultural productions are how we learn what “most people” do, they’re a point of comparison for understanding ourselves in reference to others. Yet they often have very little to do with what “most people” actually do. And if enough of us become convinced that the things we see “most people” doing/having are things we need to do/have then these representation become reality by manipulating us into making them reality.

There’s a plethora of nasty examples of how this works in current media. Think stochastic terrorism. Somebody says enough hateful shit uses enough hateful rhetoric and sooner or later someone internalizes and normalizes that hate into behavior. Their behavior gets wide media attention and more people emulate it. Over time it becomes a new normal, one that “most people” don’t question because “most people” are participating in it.

That might be an extreme example but it’s also a good one. An awful lot of what we think of as normal came to be normal through exactly this process. And frequently these things aren’t at all healthy or beneficial. Sometimes this effect can be leveraged for the betterment of the species and toward health, stewardship, and safety. And sometimes cultural changes are benign and superficial. But too often bizarre and violent behavior comes to be normal because “most people do it.” At different times and places this has included things like blood-letting, rib-breaking corsets, drinking and driving, infant abandonment, school shootings, crusades, invasions, and genocides.

Just because we think “most people” do it or have it doesn’t mean we should too.

What if we normalized bodies that aren’t airbrushed? What if we normalized non-coercive, non-violent conflict resolution? What if we normalized simple lifestyles based on contentment with having our needs met rather than dissatisfaction about the things we don’t have? What if we normalized genuine pluralism, justice, and equality? What if we normalized open arms and open hearts in the face of tragedy?

You see where I’m going?

I don’t want to worry about “most people.” I want to focus on what I can do to live up to my values, to live a new normal which might not be anywhere near perfect but in which I am intentional and thoughtful about where I spend my time and energy. And I want this to be a new normal.

New norms always have to start somewhere. We have to live them and we have to make the media and culture that give them life and longevity.

 

 

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Because I Don’t Want To Merely Survive

It’s one of those days when I can taste despair blowing in the dusty desert wind. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Do I still have any loyal readers who’ve been with me long enough to remember that this little bog used to be called “Stories of Survival?” How my early years here were so focused on just trying to get by as a single-mom, to make the ends stretch a little further, to stay alive to write about another day, to put the pieces of my shattered self back together?

And then one day I didn’t want to be branded as Survivor, I wanted to thrive, to live.

Bare with me, these threads will come together!

I don’t have much time to write these days. I’m halfway through my first semester of grad school. And it’s tough. The ends of myself are never quite long enough to tie together. I have better support now than I did. And that helps, a lot. And there’s this human I love deeply who’s very, very far away but does so much to hold me up and hold me together. So much of making it is defined by our relationships, by the webs of human connections that hold us and sustain us.

So I’m in grad school. And I love it. And it’s really, really hard to keep it all together. See, I’m not studying something safe and sane and easy. Not me, that’s not my way. Oh, I didn’t tell you what I study? American Studies. Every.single.day the failures of the liberal political project (classic liberalism as in the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, Enlightenment philosophers, etc.), the exclusions and power structures of colonialism, imperialism, racism, sexism, capitalism are right in my face. There is no safe place for me to tune it out and stick my head in the sand. If you need a friend to take the fun out of anything, call me. Every movies has problematic representations, every product has a backstory (there is no ethical consumption under capitalism!), every sport/hobby/escapist activity has a history. Even a walk in the woods is a classist and racist assumption about who can access the woods, who can pay the park fee, who has a car (global warming!) to get to the woods. Nothing is safe from my ability killjoy skills.

Not too long ago we had a class discussion that brushed on the topic of hope and hopelessness. And what comes after hopelessness? Survival. But I don’t want to survive.

Yes, when you’re one of the disposable people who’s supposed to conveniently die off surviving is damn radical. Living to tell the tale is, after all, what I do best. So far I’ve succeeded in that endeavor every day for more than 35 years. Refusing to go away quietly is rather inconvenient for those who want us to go away quietly.

BUT SURVIVING CANNOT BE ALL THAT DEFINES US! And so I disagree with that answer. Yes, survival comes after hopelessness. After hope is gone and we try to reimagine the possibilities without the crutch of hope. But I don’t want to survive. Victims die. Survivors remain scarred and defined by the act of surviving. I want to thrive, to live. And to do that I have to constantly find something way more solid than the nebulous promises of hope. Hope is a lace-eye in the boots on our backs. As long as we have hope we’re still betting on business-as-usual getting better, we’re still believing a narrative in which history bends towards justice.

It doesn’t. The arc of history bends towards power. The few times it’s swerved a little toward justice have been the moments power has slipped a little, the moments people have come together to name and claim their power. And usually this is followed be a reorganization of power which conscripts justice into some fuzzy concept of diversity which can be marketed by athletic shoe companies. A political project built on exclusions and consolidated power is not going to ever function in the favor of the excluded.

So, just as a thought-experiment, what if we let go of hope and move into hopelessness and see what happens? Hope is the last thing to lose. What happens when we have nothing left to lose? That’s a position of frightening power, a place from which everything is to gain. A place where we can imagine a project where the category of human is broad enough that no one can be written out of it, where exclusion is no longer the basis of freedom, where freedom can be defined not as an opposition to slavery but as a facet of being alive.

Hopelessness doesn’t have to result in merely surviving. There are other possibilities. It does not require a binary decision to either give up and die or simply survive. Perhaps hope is the last illusion which prohibits us from collectively imaging a true freedom which emphasizes not liberty and justice but FOR ALL. Because that’s what I really want. I can’t thrive while people I love suffer.

Thriving is a relational space. It’s a space where no supreme court confirmation, no electoral collage, no weapons deals disguised as aid packages, no whiny white boys, no famines or environmental disasters can tear us apart or break us down. We can only thrive when we reimagine and reconfigure ourselves and our relationships in such a way that it’s always about us. All of us. Because that’s both where the real power is and where the real love is. We can reconfigure our whole world if where willing to let go of the illusion of hope that this is all there is and there’s only two ways to change it (violently by force or at a snail’s pace by votes and protests which seem to have mushy results) and it’s going to slowly get better. Without eyes clouded by hope the possibilities are endless. Hope is a revolution which merely redistributes power to a few more people. Moving through hopelessness and beyond is a reconfiguration where power is no longer the name of the game, where we can play a new game entirely. Or even better, where there is no game, where no one is hunted as game or devoured for sport. What does that world look like, that one where we have no need of hope, where life is not merely surviving? That world where all our energy goes to thriving, to building, growing, creating, loving?

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