I’d read Harriet Lerner’s book Fear and Other Uninvited Guests before, about six years ago, but thought that rereading it now would be helpful for some of my current mommy guilt issues. And it was helpful, but I felt like a lot of the information was very familiar to me, either because I’d read the book before or from my yoga work and yoga reading. So rather than a full book review, I’ll just hit the highlights that particularly spoke to me this time around.
Lerner focuses on fear, anxiety, and shame, three emotions that everyone has but that no one particularly wants to deal with. Lerner’s book is unique in that she doesn’t attempt to come up with a quick solution. What she recommends is learning to work with these powerful emotions: rather than being afraid of them, dreading them, and trying to push them down, she recommends getting used to them and learning how to function with them. I kind of like this approach; it reminds me of what I’ve read in some Buddhist books about moving through strong emotion.
A few sample passages that I particularly liked:
Unlike guilt, the experience of shame is not tied to a specific behavior. Instead, it is linked to who we believe we are, deep down. We feel shame when we think we’re too ugly, stupid, fat, mentally ill, needy, or incompetent to be worthy of receiving love or even walking around on the planet, using up valuable oxygen. Shame feeds the conviction that another person couldn’t possibly love or respect us if he or she really knew the whole, pitiful, God-awful truth about us. Helen Block Lewis, perhaps the first psychologist to give shame its due, made this crucial distinction. Guilt is about doing. Shame is about being. (page 121)
Sometimes, though, our feelings about our appearance have little to do with anything about our physical selves at all. We’re anxious, insecure, or upset about something else. Shame and self-loathing get focused on the body, but the true sources of anxiety are obscured from view. Anytime we become anxiously overfocused on this or that part of our body or appearance, it’s a good bet that we are underfocused on something else, past or present, that we don’t want to look at. (page 155)
I thought these two passages described really well some of the things that I’ve experienced when I’m in a dark place. The first passage really nails my whole “I could be better” problem: it’s one thing to want to do a better job at something, but it’s something else to wish I were better in and of myself. There’s been many a time when I’ve been sobbing my eyes out in the kitchen telling F (or my previous partner, he got hit with it too) about how I fail at everything and wish that I were a better person: a better wife, better mother, better friend, just *better*. Reading this passage really connected, for me, that this wanting to be better isn’t about how good or bad I am in actuality, but is about some shame that I must feel about who I am. I can say confidently that this sort of shame can be really painful and debilitating. I struggle with it all the time.
I like the second passage because it’s the first time I’ve seen someone explain another thing that often happens to me: that when I’m upset about something specific, like a bad day at work or letting a loved one down in some way, the next mental step I take is to get down on myself for my appearance. I call it “falling down the rabbit hole”, because my thoughts just spiral down and down. “I really disappointed my mom – she deserves a better daughter. I was such a slacker at work today, I didn’t get anything done. And I’m SO FAT,” I’ll think in disgust. And whether I’m overweight or not, what the hell does that have to do with anything? Nothing. It’s just another convenient way to put myself down, a shame target for my brain to aim at.
Lerner’s point is that no matter how strong emotions like shame, fear, and anxiety are, we can’t let them take over or stop us from doing what we want to do. We have to keep moving, through the bad feeling. Everyone has negative feelings sometimes – we can’t help that – but if we just hide out and wallow in it, the shame or anxiety will only get worse, more paralyzing. It’s by daring to take action in spite of our fears that we can learn to deal with these strong emotions and get past them.