On Feelings of Inadequacy and Shame

It was Wednesday night, two days before I was supposed to head down to Indianapolis to help one of my friends celebrate her birthday with a quarter marathon trail run (6.55 miles, for those of you who refuse to math without good reason). I had been back from my Zion/Vegas long weekend for about 3 days, work was beating me up and I was tired. Just plain ol’ tired.

I sat on my couch, in the spot that’s starting to get a little dented in by my butt (I keep trying to sit in other spots, but they just aren’t as perfect as my spot … I feel a little like Sheldon in Big Bang Theory, but not as smart or neurotic) and talked at my roommate.  Most of the conversation wasn’t with her, though, it was a debate that I had with myself. Out loud. Because that’s how I roll. I laid out all the reasons why I couldn’t go to Indy to race. And then countered each reason by rubbing two fingers together, the international symbol for the world’s smallest violin playing a sad song just for me. The violin wasn’t winning this argument, though, not by a long shot.

My roommate, being much wiser (and saner) than me, stood and listened to me argue each side of my debate and after my conversation began to peter out, she told me not to make any decisions; that being tired now didn’t mean I’d be tired on Friday. With that nugget of truth ringing in my ears, I rested my defense and decided to wait until Friday to decide not to go (see how open-minded I was being?).

Thursday night — still tired, still sitting in my spot on the couch — I was doing homework from my Living Brave online class with Brene Brown. One of the lessons talked about how people react to shame: they either move towards it (meaning, they try and people please their way out of the shame), move against it (become defensive and argumentative) or move away from it (disappear and not face it). Clearly, I fall into the latter category — I’m a professional-class Runner and Hider. When I start to get that uncomfortable feeling of not being good enough or whatever enough, I turn tail and actively avoid whatever it is that’s making my stomach all gooey and churny.

One of the exercises had us writing out situations where we might use those three ways of dealing with shame. I got through the first two easily enough (moving toward and moving against, both of which I hardly use) and then froze, fingers poised above the keyboard, as the answer to the “moving away” question popped unbidden into my head: I realized where the “too tired to go to Indy” was coming from. Sure, I was physically tired. When aren’t I? But it was more than that because instead of just yawning and wanting to sleep, I could feel the discomfort that was welling inside me about going.

Huh? Shame was keeping me from going to Indy? My rational brain had told myself that it didn’t matter how fast I was. That I very realistically could hike the course and finish in time. That there was nothing wrong with being slow or even last. My rational brain assured me that the triumph would be in simply completing the course. My rational brain was, well, really rational.

But my lizard brain definitely did not share this rationality; instead, my lizard brain whispered to me that I should be embarrassed for how out of shape I am was. My lizard brain also noted that I would be meeting new people and was that the first impression I wanted to make? And unequivocally, the rest of my brain ignored my rational brain and agreed with my lizard brain. I wasn’t an athlete and certainly not a runner. I wasn’t good enough to go out there, wearing some bodacious capris and acting like I belonged there. And thus — I was too tired to go. Gotta love that logic.

I have to admit that without Brene’s lessons on shame, I don’t think I would have recognized this situation for what it was. I would have just been tired, too tired to go, even the thought of the driving and the running and the driving back too much of a burden to consider. In other words, it would have been like many other times I’ve avoided social situations.

But in this case, I felt the discomfort and I moved right into it. I decided right at that moment that I would go, that I would reward myself with going to bed extra early that night, and immediately I became excited about the trip, like I had been until it got a little too close for comfort. Amazing what a little introspection can do for a person.

Brene often talks about how shame can’t live in the light — that it only thrives in darkness and secrets — which is why I’m talking about it here.  I suspect I’m not the only one who goes through this same thought process and frequently relinquishes victory to their lizard brain. It might not be the same kind of situation, but there’s always something that shame wants to keep us from doing. Our lizard brain tells us it’s protecting us from the big, bad world out there — and that’s so easy to believe! — but if you can find the loose thread and start pulling, you can unravel the entire argument in a heartbeat.

I’d like to say that from now on I’ll always choose the uncomfortable choice, the choice that seems too tiring or like too much work, but I doubt I’m that perfect. What I will do, though, is keep my spidey senses attuned to what might be the real motivation for my decisions and strive to always push myself to do what’s best for me and not just what feels easy.

And so, I went to Indianapolis. I reunited with some wonderful friends, met some awesome new friends and had an absolute blast from start to finish (even including the race, if you can believe it!). And you know what? Just getting to that finish line was triumph enough. No matter how slow or how labored, it was my sweat and heart and drive that got me there. And you know what? I’m a runner. Know why? Because I run. I almost missed out on a spectacular weekend just because I felt like I might not belong. Which is ridiculous, no? I run, therefore I am a runner. Even my lizard brain can understand that.

A postscript: after the weekend was in the books, I was texting with one of those wonderful friends of mine, and she sent me this picture, telling me that she kept it hanging in her cubicle as a reminder. It resonated deeply with me and so I hope she doesn’t mind if I share:

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5 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Laura. I love Brene Brown’s courses and books! I think I fall into the same category as you with my go-to reaction for gremlins and shame triggers. Your post shed light on some of my recent behaviors that I’ve been baffled by.

  2. Thanks Belinda – yes, Brene Brown is pretty damn awesome. I’m constantly amazed at how many things i learn in this course that seem so common sense, but it’s not like it even crossed my mind before she introduced me to it!

  3. Hello LAura! Wow. I love this blog. I’m a frustrated writer. I’m learning so much in the way of self doubt, shame, and daring greatly from this on-line course. I am so grateful for you putting your feelings out for all. I am nit a runner, but an avid hiker. The times in my life I have GONE FOR IT have, by far, been the most rewarding and life fulfilling. Thank you, this really gives me inspiration to write and go out and DO!!

  4. Thanks for reading, Trish! This course has been so utterly eye-opening for me — I didn’t realize how many dark corners there were where shame lives. And you’ve got it right — GO FOR IT — that’s the way to live!

  5. Bravo Laura! Feelings of inadequacy colour my self perception every single day. I admire you for recognising what was holding you back + tackling it head on X

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