I did a thing last summer that was a very big deal for me. I took my car to the car wash before pre-cleaning it. This was a MAJOR exercise in exposure to shame, and my inner-good-girl-perfectionist (who I thought I had managed to manage) was FREAKING OUT. See here’s the thing: I have some very entrenched beliefs about allowing people to clean up my messes. Because for people to clean up my messes, they have to SEE my messes. And being seen in this way would mean that I’d have to put my less-than-perfect foot forward. But here’s the thing: I do not actually have any perfect feet. And exposure to shame is about taking up space in the world and being seen, without apology, without safety behaviors, imperfections and all. (A safety behavior, for those who don’t know, is a behavior that eases the anxiety that is caused by the exposure potentially by distracting from the emotional experience of the exposure. For example, if someone is exposing to fear of spiders by hanging out in a room with a small, non-venomous spider, a safety behavior might be holding a can of insecticide at the ready. The presence of the bug killer might alleviate spider-based anxiety, but then we’re not fully engaging in the exposure activity, and we’re not allowing our brains to learn that we’re actually okay with Charlotte.)
So last summer, I rolled up to my car wash without pre-cleaning my car, which for me, would have meant taking a vacuum to the interior (especially the back) to get at as many cracker crumbs as possible. I did clean out the cracker and fruit snack wrappers my darling offspring dropped into the back of my car. This was not a safety behavior – the guys at the car wash cannot vacuum the interior of the car if they cannot see it through the wrappers. I requested an interior and exterior clean. I pulled up to the interior vacuuming area. And I stepped out of my car.
There’s a little spot near the vacuuming area with benches for folks to wait at while the insides of their cars are getting cleaned. I sat there and very deliberately attended to all of the emotions, body sensations, and thoughts I was having. I kept my phone in my bag to avoid the temptation to distract. I committed to this practice. And folks, I was UNCOMFORTABLE. My stomach was a little queasy. I could feel the nausea in my throat. My palms were sweaty (and not just because it was August). The ticker tape of my thoughts read something like this: “they must think I can’t get my shit together;” “what kind of grown-ass woman drives around with a car full of cracker crumbs;” “they shouldn’t have to clean up after me;” “they’re judging me;” and a variety of similar self-critical, judgmental, truly non-compassionate and non-fact-based thoughts. And the primary emotion that kept coming up was shame, associated with the thought that I was wrong for living like this. And then they were done. This whole thing took MAYBE 5 minutes during which I felt like I was dying. (This was a feeling, and feelings aren’t facts.) And as they told me they were done, I took a deep breath. I survived the excruciating shame of someone cleaning up my mess. I made it, without apology or safety behavior.
And that’s when I erred. I tipped the guys, as one does. But y’all, I tipped them 125%! That was NOT a thanks-for-doing-a-great-job-cleaning-my-kiddos’-mobile-kitchen tip. That was a I’m-so-sorry-you-had-to-clean-the-mess-my-kids-made-even-though-that’s-what-you-get-paid-to-do tip. That tip was an apology, a safety behavior. It took the edge off my shame. And spun my perfectionistic self into a whole new level of self-criticism, a la “you can’t even expose to shame right!” Which led me to needing to do a little more work in this area before I could share this experience with you.
So here’s the thing. Our inner-perfectionists are beasts, and they HATE shame. They will tell us that shame is bad and dangerous and to be avoided at all costs. And truly, most of the things we feel shame for are not actually shameful things when brought out into the light of day and talked about with those we love and trust. For example, no one I’ve shared this story with so far was at all aghast at the fact that I had been driving around with enough graham cracker crumbs in the back seat of my car to make s’mores sundaes for both my kiddos’ preschool classes. But for us to be able to learn that parts of ourselves that we perceive as shameful are truly acceptable, we have to be able to act opposite to shame, take up space in the world, and be seen for who we are. And we have to do this over and over and over again because we’re not necessarily going to get it right in one. We’re not perfect – we’re human. And being human can be messy – and that’s NOT a shame.
**Lokah samasthah sukhino bhavantu. May all beings be happy and free.**