This is the third blog post in my series “A Year Without Fear.” The theme of this blog series has generated a lot of talk, and a little bit of controversy. The comments went something like this:
“Can we really live completely without fear?” …“Should we even try to live without fear?” …“Can’t fear be a good thing, even though we don’t like it?” …“Isn’t it the fear that reminds us we’re all human?”
I suppose what I mean when I reference irrational fear is really the feeling of anxiety about things over which we have little control. When we’re anxious, we’re afraid—we may be afraid of being rejected, afraid of losing a loved one, afraid of losing our job, afraid of being found out in some way that makes us feel unlovable. We may feel afraid and anxious and have no idea of the cause.
One of the most painful and life-impacting human emotions is shame. Shame is a powerful universal emotion that often emerges when we feel deeply vulnerable about something and believe that others have the power to judge us, and ultimately reject us. Shame tells us that we're not good enough, that we're unworthy, that we're damaged goods.
Shame elicits feelings of embarrassment, and often, a profound sense of humiliation that makes us want to either fight, flee or freeze. The fact that we most often experience shame in response to feeling vulnerable is one reason why shame is such a powerful emotion. Another reason is that shame usually emerges at the very moment we need unconditional love and acceptance the most.
Envision what you feel most vulnerable about – anything that fills you with a sense of fear that those who you love and care about the most will abandon you if they found out. But before they abandon you, they will laugh at you, gossip about you, hurl insults at you, and then abandon you. The feeling you’re experiencing in response to this scenario is most likely shame.
Shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt is something we experience when we’ve made a mistake and we need to fix it. Once we take responsibility for our behavior, and do what we can to remedy our mistake, the feelings of guilt should eventually subside. Unlike guilt, shame doesn’t subside after we’ve taken responsibility for our mistakes, and in fact, regardless of what we do, shame often gets worse in time, hitting us in triggered waves, sometimes for years, sometimes for our entire lives.
Guilt tells us our behavior is bad; Shame tell us that we are bad.
A Gallup Health and Well-Being Index revealed that women approaching midlife had the highest levels of stress among all age groups and genders. What's worse, according to the study, they were far more stressed out than previous generations of women, and there didn't seem to be any relief in sight. Today's women are raising children, working, caring for aging parents, and tending to their partners (or trying to), while doing their best to remain fresh and youthful. And as a result, they often feel too stretched, too overwhelmed, too exhausted, too unappreciated, and way too weary.
The study also highlighted the fact that among a range of emotions experiences by these over-worked and under-appreciated women, the most pronounced was guilt. No matter how much they worked, no matter how thinly they were spread, no matter how caring, giving, and sacrificing (and no matter how damned good they looked while engaging in all of their service-related activities) it never felt like they were doing enough -- there was always more they believed they could/should/needed to do. And at the core of these women's souls lurked a fear that they were failing themselves, their employers, their partners, and their children. According to the study, this type of perfectionism is eating away at the mental and physical health of today's women, particularly those who are parents.
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This is a blog for middle-aged women, like me, who want to live a life of increased authenticity, and greater well-being, with fewer masks and a lot more fun.