Our lives are filled with stories—stories we hear from our parents, from our teachers and professors, from our friends and colleagues, and from ourselves.
We are led to believe that these stories about us are true, and that someone in a position of authority over us has authority over all things—the ability to judge us and evaluate our lives. But like any story, none of this is actually true.
For example, two people can watch a football game and talk about it afterwards, but in very different ways. Sure, they’ll tell you who won and who lost—that is what is so—but they will also tell you who played the best, who was the most impressive, and whether or not it was an interesting game. All of these are part of a story, and says more about the person telling it than what actually happened.
Our control over our lives is limited. But we do have control over how we view our lives, and how we approach difficult situations. What can we do when we are faced with a seemingly insurmountable turn of events?
I graduated college in 2007. Those four years were a wonderful time for me. Campus life was beautiful, I had many close friends, and my experience was intellectually fulfilling. It was a welcome change from high school—I finally met people I could relate to. I had confidence in my future. I was also utterly unprepared for what life would hand me.
I moved home in 2008 and found some low-key jobs that helped me save a bit of money. I quit my job toward the end of the summer, and then the Great Recession hit. Stores closed, jobs disappeared, and I was unable to find work. My affluent hometown intensified feelings of shame that accompanied my lack of a job. I didn’t think it could get worse. It did.
I remember waking up while it was dark—it must have been midnight or possibly a bit later. I felt like someone had my head in a vise and was popping my left eyeball out of its socket. I was rushed to the emergency room and strapped to a chair. I was held in place, my eye open, my body at an angle. I had never experienced physical pain so intense and overpowering. It was torture. I wept.
The diagnosis was narrow-eye Glaucoma—a hereditary condition that tends to affect older people. I was 23, and had no family history of the disease. The chances of me getting it were astronomically unlikely, but there I was. Over the following months I received shots in my eye, laser treatment, and eventually had tubes installed in the back of my eye to reduce the pressure.
I was physically limited and spent most of my time in my house (usually in bed) on strong painkillers. I gained weight—about 70 pounds, enough to make me obese. Isolated, in pain, permanently blind in my left eye and burdened with the knowledge that my plans for the future were on hold indefinitely, I fell into a deep depression.
I knew I had a difficult road ahead for recovery. I noticed that people around me made fun of me. Nurses infantilized me, saying things like “Do you need your mommy right now?” Old “friends” from high school slighted me with put-downs like “You’ve literally lost focus!”
I was also shamed for my weight gain and lazy eye. I especially remember one encounter. I called urgent care after feeling some pain. I walked into the office and the doctor motioned for me to sit. He told me to close my left eye. I put my hand over my eye, and he began waving his hand in front of me, and said sarcastically “Can you see this?” He growled, “Don’t come crying to us when you don’t pay attention to what we’ve said.” He patted my stomach. “You’re a big boy now.”
Much of my depression and loss of confidence came from the terrible shaming experience of being overweight, unemployed, depressed, socially isolated, and living with my mother. In my Silicon Valley hometown, with such a premium placed on professional and social success, few people were willing to be understanding about my situation.
We all have a need for social belonging—this is a basic psychological need that is built-in by evolution. We want to feel accepted by others. The brain processes and experiences social rejection the same as it does physical pain. I had not met expectations to be successful, as defined by my community. I felt ostracized and worthless. But I eventually decided to reject these feelings.
It certainly hurt to be judged by society. But what is society? What does it mean to be judged, and how meaningful are those judgments? Whose opinion matters in the end?
Society’s “expectations” are a myth. Expectations of who we should be and what we should be doing vary across cultures and time periods and can be extremely different from each other. They are simply stories, which only have as much power as we decide to give them.
Acknowledging that we have been hurt is healthy realism. But hurtful stories, created by “society”, are nothing we have to give in to. There are things we have and do (like money and a job) but there is also being, which is separate from having or doing.
Being cannot be put into words and is not subject to any outside judgment or evaluation. Recognizing this means freeing ourselves from any social “expectations.”
Once we make the decision to know ourselves—to recognize ourselves as bigger than the sum of our parts and definitely bigger than any social expectation—we can create a story about ourselves that is empowering instead of shaming.
I looked at my experience as a victory, and a very private discovery of something greater than myself. This gave me the strength to ignore the stories of shame and get back on track.
Since my physical recovery, I have found work as a writer and editor, interned in northwestern Ireland, and completed a Persian language course at the University of Wisconsin.
The truth about shame is that it is a cruel lie. We can reject it and embrace our true selves—our great selves.