Unlearning Shame and Learning Self-Love

So remember that time I was all excited to launch a new blog and really start writing again? Well, you know what they say about the best-laid plans. 🤷‍♀️ The past few months have been a blur. Work stress and anxiety, coupled with my gym/food prep routine and a handful of social commitments, left me mentally exhausted, with no bandwidth for creativity or writing for pleasure. However, the work project that consumed my life for the past 6+ months, is (mostly) over now. And in just a few weeks, I begin a new job that will (hopefully) be much more fulfilling, in an office where work/life balance appears to be valued. Hopefully, that means I’ll be able to write here a bit more consistently.

To catch you up on my health journey, I’m happy to report that I haven’t fallen off the wagon! In fact, things are going really well. I’ve had a few setbacks at the gym (threw my back out once, have been dealing with a recurring pinched nerve, and most recently acquired a pair of particularly pissed off knees), but my brother is helping me through it and I’m still making progress. My brother and I continue to check in every week, I’m still counting macros and I’ve recently discovered I really enjoy weight-training-type workouts (a fact that surprised the hell out of me).

All of the hard work is paying off. First, the most important thing: all my numbers at the doctor’s office are back where they should be. The doctor says my blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and all the other stuff they checked are solidly back in the healthy range. I’m sleeping well, my anxiety is (mostly) under control, and I’m generally just happier and more energetic. Honestly, I feel GREAT. I’ve lost 27 pounds to date, and hope to hit the 30-pound milestone in the next week or two. I don’t really feel self-conscious at the gym anymore, and most of the time, I actually enjoy working out. 😲 Most of the clothes I’ve been wearing are too big (yay!), and I’m finally starting to fit comfortably into many of the smaller, “someday-this-will-fit-me-again” items that have been taking up room in my closet, taunting me for years.

When I started this journey, my brother recommended I take a “before” photo of myself, so I could visually track my progress in the months ahead. I resisted at first – no way was I going to document the fat, ugly, disgusting beast I had to look at in the mirror every day. But ultimately, I decided that if I couldn’t face myself, I couldn’t fix myself. So in February, I begrudgingly set up my selfie-stick-tripod in the living room, scowling as I made an effort not to suck in my stomach for the photo. I stashed the photo in a folder on my phone where I couldn’t see it, and promptly forgot it was there.

Fast-forward four months, and I was feeling great. One morning in mid-June, I stepped on the scale. 20 pounds! I’d lost 20 pounds! Hitting that milestone felt incredible. I was so happy. In the weeks leading up to this, my friends and colleagues had been telling me how great I looked – that they could really see the difference. I decided it was time to see it for myself. Once again, I set up the tripod and took a secret selfie in the living room. I honestly didn’t expect anything earth-shattering. I mean, we see ourselves in the mirror every day, and I still had a long way to go to reach my ultimate goal. So you can imagine my surprise when this is what I saw:

I’m not sure what surprised me more: the dramatic difference in body composition or my reaction to seeing these photos side-by-side.

You would expect my initial reaction to be positive: feelings of pride, accomplishment, satisfaction, happiness. And I did feel all of those. But more than anything, I felt shame. Overwhelming, paralyzing shame.

There was the shame that I expected: I was ashamed of the “Before” photo. Ashamed I’d let it get that bad. Ashamed because I knew better than to let myself go like that. But there was also shame I didn’t see coming: I was ashamed of being proud of myself. Ashamed of thinking, “damn, I look good in that second photo.” Ashamed that I wanted to shout from the rooftops, “Look what I did!” Ashamed of the fact that I felt so fucking ashamed of feeling so great.

So here’s the part where I start quoting Brené Brown. One thing I have absolutely no shame about is reading self-help/self-improvement books. I’ve been reading a lot of her stuff lately, and given that she specializes in shame (and vulnerability), it really resonates with me right now.

Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it – it can’t survive being shared. Shame loves secrecy. The most dangerous thing to do after a shaming experience is hide or bury our story.”

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

As ashamed as I felt about my before-and-after photo, I was also really proud of myself. So I decided rather than blasting the photo out on social media (my usual M.O.), I would just send it to a few people who felt “safe”: my brother, my mom, and a few of my closest friends. But even that made me uncomfortable. It felt like bragging. Like I was digging for compliments or yelling , “Look at me! Look at me!” It felt selfish. So I couched it in language downplaying my achievement. All the texts started the same: “Wanna see something cool? I’m not ready to share this publicly yet, but check this out.” Ugh.

Their responses were what I expected, and frankly, needed: encouraging, supportive, celebratory. I needed other people to tell me it was okay to be proud of myself. And yet here we are, a month-and-a-half later and I’m just now summoning the courage to share this piece of myself with the world.

This whole experience so far – getting healthy, I mean – has by and large been a very positive one. It’s also been very enlightening. Lately, I’ve been coming to terms with the realization that shame isn’t just something I deal with on occasion – it’s a constant state of being for me…a part of my identity. Admitting that is hard. Changing it is going to be even harder. But I owe it to myself to try.

“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” 

Brené Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame

I grew up in a society that told me one of the worst things a person could be is selfish. That humility was to be valued above all else. I was also taught to be thoughtful. Compassionate. Considerate of others.

Merriam-Webster defines selfishness as ” a concern for one’s own welfare or advantage at the expense of or in disregard of others .”

Note that last part: “…at the expense of or in disregard of others.” So what you’re saying is that a concern for one’s own welfare…while still being mindful and considerate of others…is the exact opposite of being selfish?!? 🤯

Loving and accepting ourselves are the ultimate acts of courage. In a society that says, ‘Put yourself last,’ self-love and self-acceptance are almost revolutionary.”

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

I thought losing the weight and getting in shape was going to be the hardest part of this health journey of mine. Turns out, learning to love and truly accept myself may be my biggest challenge yet. I’ve spent so much of my life living in shame for one reason or another – I’m not sure I know who I am without it. But I want to find out.

So I’ve been quietly taking the first steps towards unlearning shame. I’m actively looking for a new therapist, a process that has proven far more difficult than it should be (topic for a future post). I’m reading more self-improvement books as part of a larger effort to be more self-aware. I’m taking every kind word I receive as a reminder to be kinder to myself. I’m giving myself permission to be proud of myself. To stop worrying about what other people think. To be imperfect. To post full-body photos of myself. To look in the mirror, say “Damn, I look good today,” and really truly mean it.

And little by little, it’s working. These days, I walk around with a bit more spring in my step. I carry myself just a little bit taller (there’s only so much I can do at 5’2″). I say “thank you” to compliments instead of dismissing them as undeserved. I walk around the gym like I own the place. I don’t tell self-deprecating jokes (unless they’re actually funny). And most importantly, I feel comfortable in my own skin for the first time that I can remember.

On Saturday, my girlfriend and I met up for pedicures. We got to talking about my health journey – the workouts, counting macros, and the fact that I’ve actively stepped away from dating for the past 10+ months to really take care of myself. “Amy, I’m so happy for you,” she said. “What you’re doing is so awesome and I’m so happy you’re taking the time to focus on yourself. You totally deserve it.” Old Amy would have blushed and dismissed her kind words with something about how I wouldn’t have to do this if I’d taken care of myself in the first place. But I didn’t. In fact, that thought didn’t occur to me at all. I just smiled and said, “thank you. I’m really happy I’m doing it too.” Because she was right. I do deserve this. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.