For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about this blog, letting it really bake before releasing it to the world. What I was really waiting for was some kind of inspiration and anchor to assemble my thoughts to.
Along came Dr. Brené Brown. Dr. Brown is a writer, researcher, educator, and activist. She is an award-winning member of the research faculty at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, where she has spent the past ten years studying authenticity, belonging, and shame, and the effect these powerful emotions have on the way we live, love, parent, work, and build relationships.
I recently spent some time looking at all of Dr. Brown’s videos online and realized that through my treatment and recovery of bipolar disorder I had not been taught how to deal with the guilt and shame I experience on a daily basis.
For 10 years of my adult life I held a secret close and tight to my heart; not letting anyone see the pain, guilt, shame and pure embarrassment I felt for the actions I took before, during and after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This way of behaving impacted my ability to be effective and have social and personal relationships that I could count on.
At work, part of my mind was focused on how could I trick them into seeing me as a great employee? My friends got the version of “Leslie” I wanted them to see. I wish I could tell you that I was interested in their concerns, hopes and dreams, but I wasn’t. I spent all my time and energy trying to look and act “normal”. Because of this behavior, I missed opportunities to connect with people on a deeper level. Really missed them. Each time I got to interact with someone at work or in a social situation my mantra was – “don’t let them see the real you, because if they do, you’ll be voted off the island”.
This missing the opportunity reminds me of when I used to play 3- pitch in the 4th grade. In 3 Pitch the pitcher is on your team – talk about upping the odds of hitting a home run! They pitch in a way to have you hit the ball – but in my case I was just swinging and missing, swinging and missing. Each time I interacted with someone I would play a different part, a different character. It was mentally and physically exhausting. It was hard to keep up, but I was determined that nobody find out my secret.
The whole act was in service of hiding the real me. My thought process was if you found out who the real me was, the broken me, the less worthy me, the unstable me – you’d change your opinion of me, you would not want to be my friend, you would not hire me or promote me; and you definitely wouldn’t trust me with anything of value. It made sense to me at the time. Why would I risk anyone knowing the real me? I needed the evidence to prove I wasn’t broken. If I could hang on to friends, jobs, contracts and gain trust from the people around me it must prove that I am a worthy human being, not broken like my mind tells me.
The foundations of my relationships was faulty and built on lies, half-truths and fear. I couldn’t see the impact this was having on me or anyone else. It was in one of my “blind spots”.
I’ve been living with these two friends: shame and guilt for a long time. It has been a tedious relationship, one that I have not been able to shake entirely.
My original treatment and recovery plan didn’t focus on these feelings of shame and guilt; No one said that I would have to manage this. No one prepared me for what it was going to be like. Mostly I got support via medications. Feelings of depression were very familiar to me when I came home to live with my parents after spending weeks in Vancouver denying I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The solution was an antidepressant, which I’m still on and some psychotherapy that lasted about 6 weeks.
In the therapy we talked about what it was like to be diagnosed – I remember the Dr. gave me the image of climbing a mountain as a comparison in how I was going to have to come to terms with it. And that’s where it ended. The idea of having to manage the shame and guilt about the illness was never addressed.
We didn’t come up with any strategies to support the shame and guilt I experienced associated with:
1. My manic and totally out of character behaviors and actions I took prior to being diagnosed. (In my case I was manic, delusional and had psychosis)
2. The feelings of stigma and shame I feel every time I choose to disclose that I have a mental illness, even if it’s in front of others who have been diagnosed with something similar. In most families this is kept as a secret, which was the case in mine or at least that’s how I perceived it.
3. The overwhelming feelings and emotions of being professionally told I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; in my head I created this as equaling I’m less than someone who is “normal”.
So this weekend I took on writing about the shame and guilt I experience. I realized that over the last 15 years I’ve done different exercises and therapies to support me with managing and dealing with the diagnosis, however I had not done any therapy to deal directly with my feelings of shame and guilt.
Here is the process I took on this weekend:
Step 1 I began writing this blog and got stuck with what to say.
Step 2 I took a break and remembered that collaging is a great way to get underneath something that is challenging me.
Step 3 I used a white bristol board and wrote the shame and guilt statements on it to remind me what I was looking for.
The mind is a smart and manipulative place – it’s easy to forget what you are doing when it’s uncomfortable and painful.
Step 4 I looked through old magazines to find images and words that represented the statements I wrote on shame and guilt.
Time boxing any activity gives focus and support to achieving your outcome.
Step 6 I glued images and pictures onto the bristol board. (See main picture of this blog)
Step 7 I identified the patterns and beliefs from the collage and finished writing the blog.
At the beginning it was it was hard to find pictures and slogans – most magazines write and include photographs of happy healthy people. My mind kept saying to me – I don’t have guilt or shame about my diagnosis anymore, which I believe is just my ego not wanting to be vulnerable in admitting my feelings about this.
I was hard pressed to find a story or slogan about guilt or shame.
I came across an advertisement for Abilifly – a mood stabilizer used in the treatment of bipolar disorder and the picture of the person in the ad was looking away vs. into the camera.
What I learned about shame and guilt.
- Having people around me who understand, get it and can say “me too” is really a powerful place to hang out. I’ve been attending a peer support group that is designed for individuals who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I feel comfortable, I can tell any story about my manic episodes, or how I’m currently feeling and know that everyone in the group has their own version. I urge you to find a peer support group that you too can feel comfortable in.
- The more I detach myself from “I’m a mistake because I have a mental illness” the clearer I become in my work and ability to communicate. My creativity is unleashed and my effectiveness in creating powerful relationships is unstoppable.
- To conquer shame you’ll need to transform how you think. It’s a change of state for your mind. Begin looking into ways to transform your thoughts about yourself. The antidote to shame is empathy.
- Be vulnerable with people you trust. You could start with yourself and write about your feelings of shame.
- The more I speak publicly about my journey with bipolar disorder, the less shame I have about it.
- Something Dr. Brown suggests; be grateful. In those moments when life feels amazing do something that shows your gratitude.
o Write in a grateful journal.
o At 12:34 pm (1234) speak, tweet, or write what you are grateful for.
o Tell someone how much you love him or her.
o At dinner, before you begin to eat, say what you are grateful for.
What do you do to support and manage your feelings of shame and guilt?
Please comment I’d love to hear from you!