Speaking Shame

Today I am feeling discombobulated and out of sorts. Tiredness is making it hard to process my emotions, but I am trying to allow myself to feel them instead of burying them; to appreciate that, in this moment, this is how I’m feeling, and whilst it may not be that pleasant to feel this way, it’s okay, and it will pass. I have learned through my studies that acknowledgement without judgement and self-compassion are essential when dealing with negative emotions, so as well as doing my best to practice those I’m trying to rebalance my mind and body with gentle exercise classes like Pilates and Body Balance (particularly the latter with its mix of Pilates, Tai Chi and Yoga).

As part of my Master’s research I’m reading a book called Daring Greatly by shame researcher Brené Brown, in which the author stresses the importance of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable in order to become resilient to shame. In the spirit of this teaching, the following is a snapshot of the things currently swirling around in my brain:

  • I’m worried about the world my son is going to grow up in.
  • I’m worried I’m not doing enough to make it better for him.
  • I’m worried I’m not a good enough mother, that I’m too selfish to ‘do motherhood’ properly.
  • I’m worried about having another child, and whether I would cope.
  • I’m worried about having another miscarriage, or not being able to have another child at all.
  • I’m worried that sometimes I’m not a sensitive enough wife.
  • I’m worried about my ability and motivation to succeed in my chosen field.
  • I’m worried that this venture will fail like others before it, and that I will let this failure eat away at me until there is nothing left.
  • I’m worried about money.
  • I’m worried about (everyone’s) health.
  • I’m worried about death.
  • I’m worried that even when my life is damn near perfect (which it is) I still manage to find things to be worried about.

Many of the things in this list elicit feelings of shame, but as Brown herself says, speaking shame is the first step in defeating it. When we keep these kinds of emotions secret, they send us into a negative spiral, preventing us from connecting and empathising with those around us. They gain power over us, making our focus turn inwards and closing us off from the world. But when we shine a light on those emotions, admit to having them, share them with others, we realise that we aren’t alone in having them, and their power dissipates into the ether.

After writing my list I already feel lighter. What’s on yours?

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Update from Gare du Nord

Last week I didn’t go to the Gare du Nord for what has become my weekly visit. I had a cough and wasn’t feeling myself, and as it’s so vital to bring positivity to that situation I decided to stay away. Tonight I knew for sure that was the right decision, as I felt recharged and was looking forward to going back. I had the last five sleeping bags from my fundraising effort to take down there, along with a bag of brownies, oranges and fruit that I picked up on the way to work this morning. As soon as I arrived the food was hoovered up in seconds! On Tuesdays the charity provides hot drinks but not hot food, so people were hungry. As it took some time for the drinks and donations to be handed out, I stood to one side with the sleeping bags. I got chatting to a man called Abdamune Sidiq [sic] from Sudan. He told me how last week the police took away his blankets, and since then he has got sick. This made me really angry, and even more glad that we created this petition last week to try and stop the police taking away people’s sleeping bags, even though I don’t know if it really made an impact.

Tonight, in addition to the normal donations there were 100 goodie bags for St. Nicholas (here in Belgium they celebrate Sinterklaas coming on 6 December – our office is full of chocolates!) from the students of ISB Service Learning/CAS. They were full of sweets, and it was so lovely seeing people patiently queuing up and then sharing the contents of their bags with others – I was given sweets by three people, they must have thought I needed fattening up! There was a happy atmosphere despite the cold, and some new faces too, although I didn’t see my friend Bakare, which has worried me a little. I hope he’s okay.

So all in all another positive experience, although it’s true that people are getting sick now that the temperatures have dropped, and even though we try to bring as many sleeping bags and warm clothes as we can, there is always a need for more. I’m worried for these men as winter progresses, what will they do and where will they go when it starts to snow? Surely they can’t sleep in the park then? All we can do is try to keep their spirits up, their tummies full and their bodies as warm as possible, and hope this is enough to get them through. I’m so happy that from January they will have more support from Unless, the wonderful new non-profit organisation which has raised money to rent a nearby building, where people will be able to have hot showers and get their clothes laundered. Hot food will also be available five times a week instead of the current twice a week arrangement, which is just fantastic. They are seeking donations to raise the monthly running fee of 5,000 Euros, so if anyone is feeling generous as Christmas approaches, I can personally guarantee this would be a brilliant and worthwhile cause.

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Doing What We Can

Tonight was my third consecutive week volunteering with Serve the City ‘s Food 4 Friends iniative to help the homeless (refugees and other misplaced people) sleeping rough around Gare du Nord station. I took eighteen sleeping bags, bought with money generously donated* by my lovely friends. At the start it was tense. The temperature has plummeted and tonight it was barely above five degrees. People are cold and worried about the impending winter. And understandably so. As we began to distribute the sleeping bags tensions rose still higher, until at one point a fight broke out. Fortunately it petered out and we resumed the distribution, but even then there was a lot of pushing and jostling as people desperately tried to make a claim for a sleeping bag. It was heart wrenching.

I was so happy to give my Sudanese friend, Bakare, the sleeping bag I promised him. I was also, thanks to the generosity of a friend, able to buy him some new shoes. He said “when I see you, it makes me happy,” which made me feel amazing. It feels so good to be doing something at last, even if it is just being a ferrier of sleeping bags and offering good cheer. What made me less happy was meeting 13 year old Alaudin, who arrived in Brussels two months ago after making the long three month journey from Sudan with his brother. Alaudin is a tall boy, skinny and quiet, with huge doleful brown eyes. He was wearing only a thin jacket and was shivering. I was happy to see he had managed to get one of the sleeping bags I brought, but I was still worried for him. So I took him to the volunteer serving chai and got him a cup, and then went back to another volunteer who was handing out clothing donations (tonight we were very lucky as a church group who had gathered a lot of clothes and sleeping bags made the journey into Brussels to deliver them – without those donations it would have been much harder to manage giving out mine) and managed to grab him a fleece jumper, pair of gloves and scarf. The gloves weren’t warm enough though, he needs some better ones. I promised to bring some next week.

There were more people tonight than the last two weeks. The fight at the beginning aside, I saw only smiles despite the plummeting temperature. It is so clear that people appreciate the volunteers and the work they do. And being able to speak with everyone and find out their stories is so humbling and such a privilege. I feel almost ashamed when people ask me where I’m from and I say “England,” because I know that all they want to do is make it to my country. It feels so unfair that I can hop on a Eurostar or drive through the tunnel without a care in the world, when they can’t even dream of such an easy life.

But we stay strong. And we stay cheerful. And we continue to help our friends all that we can.

*Cash donations will continue to be gratefully received to help provide some comfort during the cold winter.

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If Carlsberg did overtime…

This weekend we’re recording a short film with some of our young people which will be shown at the charity’s annual supporter event in November. Tonight was the first stage; getting everyone together to rehearse their stories so they feel comfortable in front of the camera when we shoot for real tomorrow.

I knew it would be a powerful experience but in reality it blew me away. Even though they’ve all faced so many challenges in their relatively short lives, every single one of them was able to open up and tell their story honestly and from the heart, which was testament to how much they trusted and felt supported by one another. The rapport between the group and the strength of positive feeling towards the charity – all the young people without exception attribute it to changing their lives for the better, some even said they didn’t know what would have become of them without the intervention – was so incredibly moving, my words can’t even do it justice.

The whole experience left me full of admiration for these astonishing young people, who are taking their negative experiences and turning them into positive ones – literally turning their lives around with our ongoing support and encouragement. I feel humbled to have been present as they shared their stories, and so excited to see them again tomorrow as they do it again ‘for real.’

And, most of all, I feel incredibly fortunate to have myself had such a comparatively trouble-free life. Hearing some of the young people’s stories really made me realise just how trivial some of the things I’ve been through really were, even though at the time they may have seemed horrendous (I always have been good at melodrama). That’s not to say at times I haven’t been through tough times, just that I’m so grateful to have always been supported through those times by people who loved me.

Wow, what a night. Sometimes working overtime isn’t a chore at all – it’s an honour and a privilege.

Giving thanks

This morning at work we had an informal staff meeting, during which everyone (there were about twenty of us present) was asked to ‘check in’ – a technique used in the psychology practice that underpins the work the charity does. When you check in, you simply tell the other members of the group how you are feeling, and any other information that you wish to share. Today, for example, we all talked about our experience of the summer, where we’d gone on our various holidays and how we generally felt the season had gone. We also talked about our work, sharing our successes and any challenges we had faced. At the end of the meeting one of our facilitators and two of our young people turned up and joined in, which felt really lovely and inclusive.

I must be honest and admit that I usually begin sharing sessions like these with an attitude more befitting of a petulant teenager than a grown adult. I feel a bit awkward and embarrassed, and I can’t concentrate for worrying about my ever increasing to do list and how the gathering is delaying me actually getting any work done. But as soon as the sessions begin I start to relax. And today, as I listened to all the positive things my colleagues said I felt a warm glow and a real sense of pride at being part of such a fantastic and inspiring team.

It strikes me as I write this how sad it is that few people take the time to really get to know the people they work with and spend what is, let’s face it, the majority of their waking lives in close proximity to. When work builds up and you’re feeling the pressure it’s far easier to fire off an email than pick up the phone or meet face to face. It’s also easy to let small niggles about another person build up so that, before you know it, your whole relationship has deteriorated beyond all repair, with you treating one another at best like automatons and at worst with ill-disguised contempt rather than as fellow human beings with feelings, wants and needs.

Key to the checking in process is the act of congratulation – praising people for the things they have done well, and saying it from the heart. It really means so much to be recognised for your achievements, not in a generic appraisal email but in person and in front of your co-workers. This is why, despite the inevitable frustrations that arise in any workplace, I’m so thankful to work in an environment where people genuinely care. Don’t get me wrong, we’re hardly the Waltons of the work world – far from it – but it’s certainly a world away from the hard, corporate environments I’ve worked in before. And you know what? At this stage in my life, that’s more than enough for me.

How could I not be inspired working alongside these fab young people?

Privacy in a world of self-publicity – does it exist?

Today I’d like to talk about privacy. In case you haven’t seen the latest message that’s spreading like wildfire across Facebook statuses the world over, I shall post it in full below to get you up to speed:

Dear friends: I want to stay PRIVATELY connected with you. I post shots of my family and friends that I’d prefer strangers not have access to. With recent changes in FB, the “public” can now see activities on ANY wall. This happens when our friends hit “like” or “comment” ~ automatically, their friends see our posts too. Unfortunately, we can not change this setting by ourselves because Facebook has configured it this way.

 PLEASE place your mouse over my name above (DO NOT CLICK), a window will appear, now move the mouse on “FRIENDS” (also without clicking), then down to “Settings”, click here and a list will appear. REMOVE the CHECK on “COMMENTS & LIKE” and also “PHOTOS”. By doing this, my activity among my friends and family will remain private.

Now, copy and paste this on your wall. Once I see this posted on your page I will do the same. Thanks!

In response to this message I today felt moved to update my own Facebook status as follows:

Dear friends who want to stay PRIVATELY connected to me, I’m interested to know what it is exactly that you think the big bad “public” are likely to do with those pictures of your sister in her Christmas jumper? Sell them to the online Christmas porn industry so Rudolph can get his kicks over in Lapland? If you think Facebook (which is, incidentally, a PUBLIC forum) is so evil kindly stop cluttering up my timeline with paranoid privacy status updates and revert to more traditional forms of communication such as email and telephone – and keep your treasured personal pictures in a photo album on your shelf. Thanks!

Perhaps you’ll think my response flippant, and perhaps it is, but if a prospective employer was shallow enough not to hire me because of a few pictures of me wearing silly hats and drinking alcohol I’m not sure I’d want to work for them anyway. Also, quite frankly, if they’ve got time on their hands to search through all the pictures of me on Facebook with the sole purpose of finding something incriminating I’d not only say good luck to them, but would also seriously call into question their business practice and resource allocation.

What irks me is that in this age of self-publicity, where every other person has a Facebook account through which they delight in making people jealous about their holidays and other (ironically rather banal to a complete stranger) happenings in their lives (please know I don’t exclude myself from this group of individuals – quite the opposite), those very same people are so ludicrously sensitive about having their information shared. Admittedly they may not want the whole world to see their holiday snaps, but it’s the fact they so egotistically think the world will care in the first place that’s so ridiculous. There is no privacy anymore – welcome to the digital age, wake up and smell the tweetable, shareable coffee!

It’s true that sometimes bad things do happen to people’s information – accounts get hacked, photos get posted on porn sites, people’s reputations are sullied through no fault of their own. But it’s important not to listen to the scaremongers and get a sense of proportion. These things don’t happen all the time. Employers do not have time to trawl through all their employees’ personal photos in search of one that will give them a reason to send them packing with their P45. Providing there aren’t photos of you shooting up heroin in a dingy bedsit it’s highly doubtful you’ll get fired for a few pictures of you having a good time.

What is it people are so frightened of really? Losing control? Of their photos, their reputations, their minds? Personally – and this may well come back to bite me in the proverbial arse – I think this privacy nonsense has gone too far. If you’re that terrified of seeing your face staring back at you from OneHotMomma.com then it may be best to remove yourself from the world of social media altogether. Perhaps you’re just not cut out for involvement in the digital world. Cut your losses and be free (and safe)!

But if you’re a sane, rational being who is relatively careful with what information they share on the worldwide web, is it really the end of the world if the world can see?

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Having written this post I did a quick search through my own Facebook photos to try and find one that was suitably incriminating – this is what I came up with. It’s a picture of me and a friend (who I’m pretty sure will be reading this!)’s boyfriend, taken on new year’s eve in 2011. I’ll admit it looks somewhat dodgy, but I refuse to believe my professional integrity would be called into question on the basis of what is clearly a silly picture taken at a party. OBVIOUSLY in real life I don’t walk around in a pink wig pushing my boobs in the face of bespectacled shellsuit-wearing men. OBVIOUSLY I was just HAVING FUN. Last I checked this wasn’t a crime. Or am I not moving fast enough with the times?