Friday, March 10, 2017

SHAME AS A WEAPON


As a person, I always dive headfirst into everything. Friendships, career ambitions, you name it. If something interests me, I always follow its trail full-bore, to see where it will lead.

Thus, I’ve gotten to know people. Lots of people, in many different social situations. I understand the unspoken attractions and hostilities—usually communicated via subtle quirks and peccadillos —inherent in most relationships. And the one driving force I’ve come across in human relationships again and again, ad infinitum, is the exploitation of shame.

In the human character, shame reveals itself as a weakness, a fear, an insecurity. When shame is strong, you can basically smell it on another person. Whatever they are ashamed of—their looks, their level of success, their sexuality, their level of intelligence—will be immediately communicated to whomever they are in contact with through a series of subtle unconscious clues.

This shame almost always begins in childhood, and I will use my own as an example. I was raised by two parents who were very narcissistic. My father was a French Canadian high school dropout with an extremely strong intellect, and a savant-level musical ability. He idolized people like John Belushi, and shared that comedian’s penchant for indulgence and performance. My mother was a foxy, dark-eyed, petite beauty. She was adventurous, artistic, well-read and naturally sophisticated. Upon graduating high school, she worked at a job long enough to save money to move to Europe. When she returned from living in France, she met my father, who played in a local band. Together, they formed a dashing pair. I think she appreciated having someone she could speak French with.

She got pregnant, and they got married and moved into a “commune” called Trask Farm, which I think was really more like a party house. My mother had the cachet of being a beautiful, not-dumb painter who’d lived in Europe, and my father had the social currency of being a musician who at times rubbed elbows with some famous druggie musicians. These superficial charms worked until they didn’t, and eventually things began to unravel. Without getting too much into their story, I will say that, with regard to having me as a daughter, my parents (who are both deceased now) got someone they didn’t expect. My father’s relationship toward women was hateful and exploitative, and (as with my mother) he saw me as someone who would only benefit him if I could somehow improve his social currency. When his band played outdoor shows in the summer, he would command me to dance out in front, so that (I assume) people could watch me being cute and enjoying my father’s music. So that I could make him look good. That was on the lighter end of his exploitation of me. I won’t get into the darker end here.

My mother, in direct opposition to this, did not want a pretty female around to compete with—and would not task herself with motherly protection if she saw this pretty young female as a threat to her ego. She hewed to the archetypal beautiful competitive mother, to the point that I felt the only way to get through adolescence was to gain weight to obscure my breasts, cut my long hair into a boy’s crop, and basically become extremely tomboyish and nerdy. To deny myself my femininity.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, I was also gifted with my father’s level of intellect, which made me far less passive and willing to turn the other cheek to these injustices. As much as I was—and to a certain degree still am—riddled with the shame that my parents gifted me through their need for me to be someone other than myself, I was also very aware of the injustice of all this at a very young age. It allowed me to disconnect from my parents very young, which I think in some ways saved my life.

But my shame has followed me, and once someone gets a whiff of it—it’s hunting season. Up until recently, my friendships with females (and some males who have taken on more feminine characteristics) were about me trying to manipulatively placate them into some kind of noncompetitive situation, and them always finding a way to compete. To put the onus on myself: my abuse by men at a young age made me constantly on the lookout for women (and feminized men) who would “protect” me, at the cost of me letting the spotlight shine only on them. Because I would always hide in fear backstage, they could shine as the star. And I would get the companionship I needed without the risk of being abused by a man. This worked, for a time.

My relationships with men have always had the same putrid flavor of my father’s initial exploitation, with the exact same underlying questions: “how will she make me look?” “do my friends think she’s hot?” Spoiler alert: the man's friends, responding to his own shame around women and social standing, almost NEVER think I’m hot enough—regardless of whether they are attracted to me or not. Of course not! She’s a fucking loser. She’s just going bring you down, bro. You can do so much better. This pattern has played itself out to the point that it has ceased to be excruciatingly painful, and has become almost amusing to me. That’s the hard-won gift of self-awareness.

So shame is shame. It begins in very early childhood, and roots into the psyche with a frustrating and painful tenacity. You can pluck the shame out via ending a relationship, but because the root is so strong, another relationship with the exact same characteristics will grow in its place. And what intrigues me most about this is how people know almost instantly how to wield shame so effectively. I cannot tell you how many times, now that I’m aware of it, I’ve seen people wield shame. I’VE WIELDED SHAME, I’m embarrassed to say. Because my belief in my intellect is so airtight, and because my mother’s Achilles heel was the fact that she leaned on her appearance rather than her intellect to get things, I’ve often subtly inferred to a woman that she wasn’t very smart. Even if she was smart.

That’s what shame does. It makes people, all people, absolutely horrible. When I am a witness to these dynamics in other people’s relationships, I just cringe, because it’s literally like watching someone dig their finger into an open wound. I would much rather someone just insult me directly, rather than digging into my shame. I wonder if we can get to the point where we can stop hurting each other in this way. I wonder how that might happen.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

LOVE ME OR HATE ME


I just felt an intense urge to write something very personal about an experience I’ve had over and over again since I was a small child, in the hopes that writing it out might bring some clarity to me (and perhaps even some communion with others).

I often try to downplay myself and my achievements when I first meet people, because I find that, without fail, over and over again, people have such an absolutely black-or-white, acutely polarized response to me. People either really love me or really hate me. There is no in-between. And when people hate me, they really, really, really despise me. This can happen immediately upon meeting me, or—far more problematically—it can happen after a friendship is established.

One thing I’ve learned is that people always act in a way that makes sense to them. Even if it seems crazy or strange—there’s always a reason for the way people act. What is interesting is that, for me, the only time I have an intense reaction to someone is when that person is a male and I am very sexually attracted to them. That brings up all kinds of issues for me, and can make me act a bit irrationally. Or a lot irrationally. But there is a sort of rationality set up in that “irrationality,” based on my past experiences and so forth. Based on fear, essentially. My irrational reactions do make sense (at least to me) on some level, and I do try to explain my situation to the person I’m directing this energy toward, so they can try to understand as well.

But on almost all other occasions, when I meet someone who is clearly not, say, a racist psychopath (whom I would just avoid at all costs), I have a neutral, leaning-toward-positive feeling and response toward them. I don’t really care if a person shares my same interests or beliefs, since I find it more interesting when someone isn’t exactly the same as me. Shared interests and beliefs wouldn’t make me like someone more, and a lack of these things wouldn’t make me like someone less. I truly love human connection and enjoy learning about people. When I teach, I always adore all of my students equally, even the ones who are less open or less engaged, since they all have something unique to bring to the table. I find it really charming to learn about each individual’s quirks and affinities. I take great joy in people. I like nothing more than to sit down and talk with someone, anyone.

So that’s why I find it so interesting that the reactions I commonly get from people are so intensely polarized toward the positive or negative. When meeting people, I tend to come in on little cat feet, as the poem goes, because I’m so desperate for a simple, neutral response. It would be much easier for me to accept and understand. But it doesn’t work. Trying to present myself as nonthreatening (which I truly know I am) seems to only elicit stronger feelings from people.

This has always been the case. Even when I was little. What I often fear more than hatred at first sight is someone who seems really smitten with me, since their affection often seems to turn to loathing or competitiveness at the drop of a hat. I truly do not understand this. I cannot think of one time in my life where I liked someone, then stopped liking them for no discernable reason. I also think it is crazy to want what someone else has. I can understand being inspired by someone, but I can’t understand feeling threatened by that inspiration.

These polarized responses make me intensely aware of how protective I am of the people I deeply care about, since I don’t want to put them in the same line of fire I’m in. I often keep relationships and friendships separate, because I find that many of my friendships are not meant to last very long, and that I sometimes have to bear the brunt of extreme cruelty and vindictiveness. I don’t want others to have to shoulder that, specifically not those whom I really care for. I know that I am a very strong person, and I sometimes wonder if I am constantly put into these positions to test this strength. It gets very lonely and isolating.

I also know that accessing my spirituality over the last few years has made me even weirder, since it is now impossible for me to engage in the de facto social bitchery that New York demands. I’ve experienced many important events over the course of my life, but my spiritual awakening is by far the most intriguing, challenging and confounding experience I’ve ever had. It is also the only experience I didn’t actively choose or pursue. But, it allows me to see the truth of people much more quickly, so these polarized reactions don’t cut to the quick, or come out of nowhere, as they used to. However, it also creates extremely frustrating situations regarding connection, since most people are not spiritual and have not had this type of awakening. If someone is not spiritual, my perspective and the way in which I think and act can seem weird, to say the least.

Non-religious people who are guided by some unseen force to open the Pandora’s box of spirituality typically have pasts that mirror my own—abuse, parents who died young, suffering and trauma that gradually unscrew the Vaseline lens of ego and identity, to reveal what the world really looks like. The new James Franco movie I Am Michael details one version of a real-life non-religious man’s spiritual awakening (he, like me, was a magazine editor, writer, and theory nerd whose parents died young). While I found flaws with how his story was told (I am always mystified and hurt that people who have not experienced losing their parents young tend to downplay this experience and not even attempt to understand the profound consequences it has on a person's life), I found it extremely edifying that this story was being told at all. Mark Matousek’s spiritual memoir Sex Death Enlightenment is another great depiction of a NYC magazine writer and editor’s spiritual awakening.

My spirituality has definitely constructed a sort of poetic logic to frame the polarized responses I receive from people. I think I do tend to hold up a mirror to people, and not everyone likes what they see when they gaze into it. But, at the same time, in the material realm, these reactions continue to make me feel very isolated and sad. I don’t want people to hate me. I want to feel, from others, the same genuine love and affection that comes so naturally to me when I interact with the world. I know I was meant to experience and understand this hatred and vindictiveness for a reason. I know it is part of my journey in this life. But I also feel like, especially lately, it has caused me to really fear and avoid meeting new people.


But I’m getting over it, and I feel very inspired by the newly spiritually-engaged people I am meeting and encountering. I believe that radical authenticity of the self is truly the next step in human evolution, so I am putting away my little cat feet, and attempting to greet people with a more honest, less aww shucks humble-pie self presentation. I think the current social climate is opening a door for much more openness and authenticity, and far fewer assumptions and kneejerk reactions. Less fear. I do love this world, even when it acts stupid and crazy. And I know that it loves me too, in its own complicated way.