When I discovered that a family friend of mine got into her dream college that is also very prestigious, it was difficult to understand the strange mix of negative emotions I felt. I worried that she would no longer see me, someone a few years her senior and is on the surface a few years into the sparkly path she was trying to embark on, as a role model, someone to aspire to be like. I realized that I had relished in being seen as someone whose position in life is unattainable. I didn’t want to be an equal. I also unconsciously deeply feared that she would surpass me in attaining the level of status I dreamed about. This is all coming from someone who has vowed that making the world a better place, not being the most respected person in the world, is my biggest life mission. I realized that I have some internal issues to deal with.
Why did I care so much? Why was I so vehemently judging her for wanting so badly to get into and ultimately choosing to attend a college her peers raved about? After some introspection and a lot of online browsing about Asian Shame (being Asian American myself), I realized that I’ve carried a great deal of shame.
I’ve always had a tendency of wanting to hide after performing below expectations. I remember after doing horribly in a high school debate tournament, when my debate coach approached me afterwards at my table, I literally covered my head with my arms because I was too ashamed to even face him. Through my time in school, I’d push myself to take the hardest course load, but then when certain classes got too hard while still feeling immense pressure to ace everything, sometimes I’d barely study for the exams and of course perform badly. And yet again, I was great at hiding afterwards by not disclosing any disappointing performances.
I truly felt that there was something wrong with me. That I was lazy and weak. Why couldn’t I consistently work hard like everyone else I surrounded myself with? I envied their workaholism, their ability to consistently show up to club meetings and social events without feeling the need to hide.
After college, I did some introspective work and therapy and learned that I was a perfectionist whose way of coping with ridiculously high internal standards was to just not try, believing I couldn’t achieve those standards in the first place. Of course, this tendency just kept me in a cycle of continual underachievement that would reinforce my belief that I couldn’t meet my expectations. Once I realized how unhealthy and perpetual this process was, I luckily have been able to mostly show myself out although of course I still deal with remnants of perfectionism to this day.
Realizing there was more to what I perceived to be failures than just “laziness” certainly gave me more inner peace, but my reaction to my family friend’s achievement showed me that there was still a lot of shame lingering within me. So, I ended up reading shame researcher Brené Brown’s I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough.” To be honest, having read my fair share of self help, I avoided Brené’s books for a while because I didn’t think I needed to be given cheesy lectures on topics she was known for like vulnerability. Like duh, of course, vulnerability helps you get closer to people (I’m sure there’s a lot I could gain from hearing about her research and perspective on this. I was just judging, which Brené gave me a very insightful perspective on.)
But, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t) really did enlighten me. I learned that shame is never helpful because people don’t try to work on their issues if they feel like there’s something fundamentally wrong with them. Guilt, feeling bad about something you did but not letting that infiltrate your identity is, on the other hand, more productive. I learned that my judgements about other people, e.g., my family friend, simply reflect my shame about myself. Never being slow to judge others, this one really humbled me. (♪It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me♪ – the ever wise Taylor Swift.) I learned shame thrives in secrecy. Your aloneness with your shame reinforces your belief that no one would ever love you if they discovered the real you by never letting you see how people would actually react if you told them what you’re ashamed about. I understood then that I couldn’t hide anymore.
So at the book’s advice, I sought out someone trustworthy who would react with compassion when I disclosed everything I was ashamed about in detail, all the bad grades, my instances of pretending to be this continually high-achieving person who’s never failed at anything, the times I’ve treated people badly, etc. I spilled my guts to a therapist. And her subsequent compassion and curiosity about my circumstances during those instances gave a lightness to my chest. Despite my mistakes, I now knew that I was still okay and worthy.
It still surprises me that the process to shame resilience really can be that simple. I assumed I would have to go through various therapeutic exercises after the disclosures to start feeling resolved of my shame. Of course, as Brené explains in her book, as long as people care about their relationships with others, we will always have shame because fearing others won’t love our real selves is what drives it. I will always have shame, but I now have more resilience when it’s triggered. I’m no longer as quick to judge others, and I feel a deeper sense of comfort with who I am and what I’ve done.