The power of shared experience and connection in the midst of shame is one of the most incredible things I’ve experienced as a person and a therapist. Lizabeth Wesely-Casella, founder of Binge Behavior and and all around amazing woman, shares how she came to recognize just how significant that experience could be.
Shared experience is one of the most powerful life events a person can have. Just by having endured something together, individuals have been known to overcome prejudice, overlook bitter rivalries or simply respect one another for knowing what the other person has been through.
You see it in the solemnity and sometimes tearful exchanges between military veterans or in the way a seasoned mother knows just how helpful it is to load and run the dishwasher for the new mother who is struggling to find her stride. You see it in the way a person who has been walking around lost in their own shame breaths easier when they find someone who doesn’t tell them they are ridiculous for feeling ugly or fat or worthless, but instead shares that they too struggle with their self esteem. Shared experience forgives, rebuilds and nurtures.
Until relatively recently in my life I didn’t get that I needed to have a shared experience in my life. I was prideful and yet I was filled with shame, nicely cloaked as “personal strength.”
I always thought my greatest strength was being compassionate; that it was fulfilling to listen to and love others and that everyone needs that, external to me. In my mind my problems weren’t big enough to matter and there was no need to seek compassion for myself. I also took it to mean that by being listened to, I was taking up someone’s valuable time with my petty, self-made problems and that doing so made me selfish.
My feelings included thoughts like, “I’m larger than the ideal woman so it must be a selfish lack of control that I’m this way.” Also, “So what if I feel shame every time I walk out of the house, come face to face with a magazine or try on clothes that were fashionably cut for a size 2 and merely expanded to my size 18 body? How can I possibly consider these feelings worth sharing? Who wants to hear a ‘woman of size’ complain about her size?” And, “I must be horribly weak because even this oppressive shame can’t make me change into the shape our culture celebrates.” I thought that if I shared those thoughts, people would see just how shallow my feelings are, were, and have been for years.
In my mind, these thoughts of mine didn’t merit sharing. There was nothing wrong with other people feeling this way, but in my mind I had no right to these feelings. I had (thankfully, have) a healthy husband and dog, I clearly wasn’t starving, I had a safe home… I was bitching about the little stuff. Well that “little stuff,” it really hurt me inside and by not sharing it, I only added to that hurt and piled the shame on higher.
Then came the day where the need to share broke me.
It wasn’t planned, it wasn’t even the right forum, but it happened in all of its vulnerability and power and tears and snot and… compassion. I was speaking to a group and was given a really heartfelt compliment which I struggled to gracefully accept and that breached the walls. I could no longer hold in my pain, my shame, my fury at being unable to cover it with my social mask any longer and it all came out in an unstoppable flood of admitting my feelings.
Now, as luck would have it, I was among compassionate people. It’s wasn’t a group therapy scenario and these weren’t people I would interact in this manner ever again; however, the experience prepared me to seek out the right venue for sharing my feelings. It showed me that I’m not the only person can listen without judging; who needs to give compassion in order to get it and it also showed me that the “little stuff” feelings are more common than I thought. I had a shared experience in thinking about myself the ways that I did and I was not alone in being ashamed for feeling those feelings – I was not alone in that group.
When I finally found the right place for me to discuss my struggles with my body image and my binge eating disorder (after finding out that those were the struggles that I was having in the first place), I found that by sharing I was getting and giving a free pass of sorts. I was present with people who had checked their judgmental selves at the door (or the Login page) and for us as participants, no topic or feeling was to go un-honored. We each needed to know that our feelings were like the feelings others had and in knowing that, those feelings become less burdensome on us as individuals. They became less troubling and far less powerful.
Those people that I have shared experiences with, they are part of my pack. I will protect them and support them and I know that they will do the same for me. We may not have met otherwise, we may not have otherwise enjoyed each others’ company, but in knowing the struggles we share, knowing them bone deep, we respect and stand for one another.
Shared experience means that you know from your own life what I’m dealing with in mine. Can I count on you to value all that “little stuff” that I question about myself? Can you trust enough in yourself to ask the same of others? If sharing my own story has helped encourage you in any way, then that “little stuff” just became a little more valuable.
Lizabeth Wesely-Casella is and advocate for people with binge and impulse control disorders. She is the Founder of BingeBehavior.com and she uses her experiences with binge eating, binge drinking and trichotillomania to support others through writing and speaking. Stay current with the latest information and join the forums at www.BingeBehavior.com or follow on twitter at @BingeBehavior.