Perhaps because I felt defective, I had a strong inclination to hide, cover up, and use deliberate caution in any situation. Even though I liked to be hugged, I pretended I didn’t like it. I was embarrassed to take my shirt off to go swimming. I couldn’t say “I love you” even to my parents. I craved the affirmation from those in authority, because their acceptance was the only thing that distracted me from feeling...not quite right. Therefore, I was an extremely well-behaved and compliant child. I remember my 10th birthday—and what happened—so vividly, because even by that time I rarely let my guard down.
We were at Timber Lanes Bowling Alley in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma on a Saturday afternoon. With me were my sister, two cousins who also lived in Tulsa, and two other cousins who lived in Toledo, Ohio, visiting. They were my best friends. Around them, I felt safer than anywhere else. We made each other laugh.
That particular day, we were really cracking each other up. It was the kind of laughter when tears are actually flying out of your eyes; when you’re actually bent over holding your stomach and gasping for breath; when “throwing your head back and laughing” actually happens in real life.
Laughter has a way of lowering your defenses. I was feeling great. I exuberantly flung the heavy black ball down the alley, flapped my hands and arms in excitement, and wiggled my body and hips to will the ball to hit the pins. In these moments of joy and freedom and vulnerability, I forgot there were other people around us. Watching us. Specifically, there were 3 or 4 boys a little bit older than us in the next lane.
How could I not have noticed this?
I can’t remember exactly what made me see him. But I remember what he said and how he said it. With a look of disgust on his face, he said contemptuously: “Are you a BOY or a GIRL?” His friends around him were laughing.
It was like someone had thrown a water balloon right in my face: a shocking *SLAP* that left me stunned and ice cold. I tried to cover and said, lamely, “What do YOU think?” And he said something like: “I don't know! That's why I'm asking!” More laughter.
I tried to ignore him, tried to recapture the momentum of the fun we were having. But it was gone. I was shamed back into hiding. I was careful before, but this clinched it for me: I vowed to keep my shameful exuberance in check from then on. I never wanted to feel that way again.
This past weekend was Gay Pride weekend in Portland. During the early years when I struggled to integrate my sexuality, identity, and spirituality, I was uncomfortable with that word pride. When you are raised as an evangelical Christian, pride is a sin—one of the seven deadly ones, in fact. Also, I wasn’t really proud that I was gay. In those days, I sincerely wished I wasn’t. Life would be so much easier. Even so, I had learned to accept it. If anything, I wanted to march in a Gay Indifferent parade.
“We’re here! We’re queer! And we don’t feel that strongly about it one way or the other!”
As more time went on, I learned not only to accept my sexuality, but to embrace it as a gift. This gift has given me a pathway of spiritual growth, as well as opportunities to develop empathy. It has given me numerous friends I never would have known, had I not been forced on a journey to find something better than a shame- and fear-based faith.
It was just this past weekend that it dawned on me: Gay Pride is the opposite of Gay Shame. “Pride” in this sense does not describe superiority, or blindness to others, or lack of humility, or obnoxious arrogance. It is the state where one can laugh, flap their arms, sing, and express joy without paralyzing caution. Being “Pride-ful” is being whole, more fully human, yourself.
Overall, my relationship with the LGBTQ community has been positive; I’ve received support, love, and wisdom from friends and from the community at large. But being a member of a large, supportive community doesn’t exclude tension, disagreement, or resentment within that community. I’ve written in the past about how confident and exuberant people expose my own Shadow.
You're not supposed to act that way! If you do, bad things will happen, like getting shamed at a Bowling Party!
This weekend, I discovered more nuance as to why I have such strong, negative feelings of resentment and social anxiety around such people, including those within the LGBTQ community. These nuances came to light by watching the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus (PGMC) Pride concert. I used to be a member of that group, but recently took a break to work through some issues. As I sat in the audience, I was feeling those same vague feelings of resentment and social anxiety.
WHY? What can’t I just enjoy the show and shed these negative feelings? So I tried something that my therapist often encouraged me to do when I was having confusing feelings—I “went into the weeds” of the feelings and just sat in them. Soon, I had an epiphany. To summarize:
- When I see confidence and /or exuberance on display in people that I find to be shallow or unkind or insincere, the really negative shame and anger cycle begins. Cue resentment.
- When I see confidence and /or exuberance on display in people that I find to be smart, kind, and sincere, I want them to like me SO BADLY! And if they don’t, then I feel horrible. Cue social anxiety.
IMPORTANT NOTE: there are so many wonderful men (and women!) in PGMC. My partner and I have established some wonderful friendships with other choir members. Because the group is over 120 people, and because of my own introversion and Shadow, it only takes a handful of people to set off these feelings—whether or not these few people actually are shallow, unkind, or insincere! My Shadow would be exposed by any group of 120+ people. I love and respect PGMC and its members; I only refer to it because I have learned so much about my own issues by being a member.
There is so much power in being able to give a name to something that oppresses. Now that I have greater understanding of what’s going on internally, my hope is that I will be able to honor and integrate these feelings—becoming more whole, more fully human, and more myself. Related to this, my friend Emily wrote a piece about identifying (and feeling) the negative emotions of loss. I believe it is so important to be able to enter into these negative spaces and feel them, rather than trying to hide from them. As children, we learn how to cope with a lot of pain by hiding. This develops the Shadow. A primary task we have as adults is to let go of these coping mechanisms and learn to face our pain.
The journey out of shame is long and arduous. But I feel incredibly grateful to have found joy (even exuberance!) as a result of taking this journey.
What about you? Is there a type of person or behavior that brings out the Shadow in you? When you recognize it happening, what do you do?