It’s been 2 months to the day since my sister left this world. A lot has changed in those two months. Clearly my sister’s absence alone is a huge change, but her loss has initiated a chain of other changes in my life.
Since graduating and passing the bar in 2013, I had been practicing as an attorney in civil litigation. I was sworn in on November 18, 2013 (my dad’s birthday). At first, things were exciting as I was practicing law. It didn’t take long before I became restless and unhappy in my position for various reasons. I tried to convince myself I needed time, or I would find something better. I applied to thousands of jobs, went to interviews, and nothing panned out. I told myself I had to be patient and hang on. I was convinced I deserved the unhappiness that I was in, and I had chosen this path. Others even tried to tell me so. I had made the decision to go to law school, and therefore would have to stick it out here to pay off my dues (literally massive amounts of school loans).
I thought about leaving my job for a long time, but was too afraid. I was afraid of not having enough money, of what I would do next, of the actual leaving, and finally of what others would think of me. That last one is a big one. Anytime I thought of leaving my job I immediately created scenarios in my head where people judged me. I would even think about changing my employment on Linkedin and how embarrassed I would be and all the people that would see it and laugh at me or think I was a joke. I stared at other people’s fancy job titles, and how I needed one of those. No job title was going to change how I felt: unhappy.
When my sister passed I realized how very short life is. We only get one. When I started to think about how I only get this one life, this one chance and opportunity it seemed insane that I was spending most days completely miserable. I felt emotionally and physically sick. I finally lost it at work, became paralyzed with fear and panic, and had to leave. A few days later, and I let my boss know I was done for good. The days in between my breakdown and leaving for good, I was living in the unknown. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, and desperately wanted someone to give me the answer. I wanted finality, when what I needed was to sit with the discomfort to find my answer.
I realized I had been waiting for someone else to confirm what I had felt for a while: I needed to leave my job. I so desperately wanted outside validation from my family, Tommy, and friends. The thing is, no one could give me that. This was up to me because no one else could know how I felt everyday or what was best for me.
The minute I walked out of my office after leaving my job I felt an intense rush of relief. It felt as though I had been wading through fog, with a giant weight on my shoulders for so long. I had no idea how burdened I was until I let it go. Some of that was shortly intruded upon by my fear of letting my family and friends and Tommy know what I had done. I had not asked their permission or what they thought one last time. Yeah you read that right, I felt as though I needed permission to make decisions for my own life.
Even afterwards, I was waiting on validation that I had done the right thing. I was disappointed when I didn’t get the exuberance and confirmation I had hoped from everyone. I wanted to know I had done the right thing, and that I had the right feelings about it.
After my first day waiting tables, I found myself in tears at the end of the day. I felt so confused and lost as to what I was doing with my life. I wondered if I was a loser for “throwing my degree away.” I ran into a fellow classmate who looked at me in utter confusion and dismay when I told him I had left my legal job to teach yoga and wait tables. He put a voice to my shame when he said, “you mean to tell me you are a licensed attorney in South Carolina with a law degree and you are waiting tables?” (please make sure and place a tone of disgust when you read that.) Initially, I was humiliated and embarrassed. Then, I remembered that I was the one who wanted this, and I had made this decision. I remembered how unhappy I was. I realized my shame was peaking up about what others would think of me, and what I would think of me. I realized my shame and ego were total assholes.
I have so much shame around my job, money, career. My self worth is tied to those things.
Benee Brown writes about shame and vulnerability in her book, Daring Greatly. In fact, she is a shame researcher. She defines shame as the fear of disconnection. Shame tells us we are not worthy or good enough. It tell us we don’t belong and we are not connected. She says,
…shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and are therefore unworthy of love and belonging.
She sets out twelve categories where we usually find shame:
- Appearance and body image
- Money and Work
- Motherhood and fatherhood
- Mental and Physical Health
- Surviving trauma
- Being stereotyped or labeled
I have shame around more these one of these categories, but right now I am talking about money and work. Shame kept me in a job I hated and that made me miserable because I felt that I should be an attorney because it is what I went to school for. I should have this job so I can make enough money. I should have this job, because otherwise people will think I am a loser. I was shoulding all over myself.
The people that truly love me do not think I am a loser. I’m the only one who thought that. And maybe a few extras, but they don’t matter…at least not me and my worthiness as an individual. The minute that I spoke my shame and said I felt like a loser I felt a bit better. See, shame hates being spoken and likes to hide out. The more I talk about what I am feeling, and going through it is as if my shame barrier breaks down.
As I have shared my story with those around me, I realize I am not alone. So many people have faced transitions like me. People have left careers, really good ones, to be happy. People have faced trauma, and moved through it in various ways. I began to believe what a wise teacher told me, that I was brave.
It is scary to face your shame. It is scary to leave the comfort of hiding in your shame, even when it is immensely uncomfortable. It is scary to walk the path of your own life, and redirect your own story.
It is brave. It is courageous. It takes vulnerability.
I didn’t flip a magical switch and feel better. Everything didn’t turn to roses when I left my job. I still wonder about myself, and somedays feel confused and a bit lost. I second guess myself a good bit. When I have time for me at home alone, not working a traditional 9-5 job, I feel panicked and uneasy as though I must be doing something wrong. I want to find something “to do”, rather than just “be”.
It takes time to adjust the sails with these changes. Life isn’t smooth sailing all the time. Some days are beautiful and the weather is clear, while others can be storms from hell. However, it is all part of my life of which I only get one and therefore love.
I fight my shame everyday. It will never go away, because I am human and it is inevitable. Instead, I am working on shame resilience.
Benee says shame resilience is the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame and move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out the other side of the same experience with more courage, compassion, and connection then we had going into it.
Benee Brown sets out four elements to shame resilience:
- Recognizing Shame and Understanding it’s Triggers
- Practicing Critical Awareness
- Reaching out
- Speaking Shame
I know when my shame comes up. It comes up when I have time alone to myself without obligations. It comes up at work when I see people from school. It comes up when I see others succeeding in what they do. It comes up when people mention certain legal jobs to me that I absolutely do not want right now.
When I get into my critical awareness I remind myself that I am brave, it is my life, and I am living it one day at a time. I remember that money does not equal happiness, and what my values are. I realize the people who love and care about me truly just want me to to be happy.
Sometimes reaching out is hard, but when I do it feels better. I have reached out and shared at women’s events, with yoga students, with yoga teachers and with friends. I always find safe havens in these places. I find people who can relate. I find empathy. I find compassion which are the antidote to shame.
When I reach out I share, but clearly this is a big share. I do not share until I feel ready and comfortable, which is why it has taken me bit to write this. I wont ever share as much here as I do in private with those who have earned my utmost vulnerability. While it is important to share, make sure you are doing it with people who deserve it, otherwise you’ll get burned.
I move through these four steps all day everyday. I focus on what makes me happy, and what I enjoy doing. I remind myself I am worthy of love and compassion, not just from others but from myself. In the end, that’s what we all want: to be worthy of love and belonging.
I am enough. I am loved.