The Power of Caring
·˚ ༘˚.🎅🏻*°࿐ It’s beginning to look like Christmas. °˖
Cheesy movies are all over our streaming platforms, the long (too long?) Christmas lists were sent to the North Pole, and today is the official day when I start to indulge my ears again and again and again with Christmas playlists, starting with the Christmas album of the first lady of jazz, Ella Fitzgerald.
Still, my perennial question to you: How do you feel?
Excited to kick-start the holiday season? Or bittersweet about a season full of souvenirs and present uncertainties? For me, and likely for you, it’s a mixed bag.
There is a poignancy around Christmas, new joy and old grief. We all remember particularities from our holiday seasons. The ones we wished to have, the ones we got, the ones we would like, the ones we miss.
Wherever we are at the moment, can we still choose to feel light and hope, tapping into the glow and richness of our hearts? And find Joy. Not because it comes in the denial of suffering, but in the humble acceptance of the role it plays.
Life is meant for living. So. Can we choose to greet the holiday season with an expansive, jovial, light-filled, and perspective-shifting mood? Despite the glooming, the vexing, the worrying, the disappointing, the despairing, and the raging in our lives?
Here is Mary Oliver’s wise poem “I Worried,” as an invitation for a refreshing “Why not?” in our lives.
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?
Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
Finally, I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.” — Rachel Carson.
Why not? Why not accept that life has always been made from pain, uncertainty, and constant work? This constant work fueled by braveness, courage in front of the besiegement in our lives, all these unguarded moments and unveiled vulnerabilities to get into our darkest forests and drink the well of our magic, this awe, this wonder, this radiance. Unafraid. Finally.
The highest level of creativity is to be able to craft something new in the face of adversity. When we touch, see, feel, taste, and hear the awe and wonder behind the dry veil of our realities, we find the reserve of strength. This faculty to be taken by the beauty, the mystery of the Earth and our dancing entanglement with it, so vital to endure our life.
What would it be like to start cultivating a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life and work as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of our adult lives, the sterile preoccupation with artificial things, the alienation from the sources of our strength?
My blessing for us, during this holiday season, is to search for a renewed excitement in living; remember our inborn capacity for wonder; regain our appetite for goosebumps; rediscover the beautiful, the joy, the excitement, and the mystery of the world we live in.
It is time to stay grounded while reaching the stars and asking for the moon.
A Purposeful Season
“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.” — Emily Dickinson.
We all have places that we hold precious in our imagination. I would like to start with an extract of my favorite Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as an invitation to ask: What do we wish for? What do we want? And, more importantly, what are we afraid of?
What is the change that you wish for? But why, when we are so desperate for change, do we become even more desperate when transformation begins?
Why do we lose our childhood faith in growing? Why do we cling to old attachments instead of submitting ourselves to new possibilities — to the undiscovered worlds in our bodies, minds and souls?
Insecurity lies at the heart of the fear of change. We live in societies that deliberately program themself to a set of norms and scripts that have very little to do with instinct, love or privacy. Then how can we become individuals in the dignity of our soul and the creativity of our imagination without being afraid?
How many of us have been trapped in at least one of the three major unfulfilling, shaming and conflicted cultural scripts: compete for success, stand independent and self-sufficient, and yet be popular and conforming.
The first one is success injunction, when we are pushed to compete with/over others for success and achieve external performance standards; when we are taught to view achievement as the measure of our intrinsic worth or adequacy; when our external performance becomes the measure of our self-esteem.
Can we see the danger of this model? The anxiety that comes from a fear of failure because success can never entirely be within our control? The generation of hostility against ourselves and others and the disregard for care and vulnerability. The inevitable loss of self-esteem and feeling of inferiority as failures inevitably arise. How many times, in the face of hardship, do we speak to ourselves in a derogatory way? “Idiot.” “Fool.” This voice inside us reminds us that we are not worth much. It creates shame and all its defense mechanisms: disconnection, contempt, rage, etc.
Of course, in front of these failure tests, wisdom would tell us to ask for help. But the second injunction blinds us from acknowledging, or even recognizing, our needs.
Do we ask for help, or do we feel shameful and inadequate even just thinking about it? When our culture asks us to be independent and self-sufficient; when we have been fed by heroes who stand alone, never needing anything, never depending on anyone; when needing becomes not a source of strength but a clear sign of inadequacy. Can we see the harm behind this narrative? We are not allowed to be vulnerable; we are shamed for being human. Our memories, emotions, needs are repressed , denied, or disassociated for who we are. The sadness that comes and the loneliness. How can we not be tempted to numb those unrecognized, devalued feelings?
Finally, in our culture, conformity and fixed personalities are encouraged. What we have been asking is to be popular and conform. Hence, individuality is neither recognized nor valued. Differences are condemned, mocked, and seen as deficient and shameful.
In a sense, we never grow the need to identify. These issues arise when the cost of belonging to any particular group from childhood to adulthood implies hiding, fearing, shaming, and despising. There, our needs for identification, affirmation, and differentiation are not met. The fear of giving up the accustomed façade or mask prevents any genuine exchange. We can’t be real, and so are impeached to grow. We sense that we are missing life.
“If I seek genuine expression of my feelings in a genuine form of communication, everything that was built on lies and insincerity will fall away from me. Then I will no longer strive for a relationship in which I pretend to have feelings that I do not have or suppress others that I do have. Love that excludes honesty does not deserve the name of love”. — Alice Miller.
What can we do in front of those damaging narratives so ingrained in us? Awareness is the first step: How do these injunctions play within, and what do we feel when they drive our behaviors and ways of being in the world? Only then can we start doing something about it.
Even if it means changing our minds and contradicting ourselves. When we change/grow, there is a 100% possibility that we will contradict ourselves. And there is nothing to be ashamed of. Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. It is okay to be wrong. It is okay to mess up. It is okay to be troubled. It is okay to be scared.
Always, there remains the possibility, if not the potential, for growth if one takes the risk. And growth is, at best, a risky prospect. No one can ever claim anything, even approaching certainty to know the outcome. Thus, the uncertainties of life provide us with the possibilities for restoring ourselves and growing.
If we choose to do the work and grow, there is a great chance that for some time, we will become outcasts, cut off from parts of society and, to a greater or lesser degree, from our instincts. When we choose integrity, authenticity and vulnerability, we may often think we are crazy — and alone. Still, we can’t give up the self-awareness gained, this friendship within, and this sense of wholeness that arises. We can’t give up our faith in our own journey. So we keep going. “If a fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise” reminds the poet William Blake. True confidence is living in uncertainty and moving forward willingly.
What we don’t want, we don’t get; there is a deep passion that we need to get in our life.
“Strange, isn’t it? Each person’s life touches so many other lives.” — Clarence the Angel.
That’s why I like the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” so much. Sometimes, life sucks. Like George Bailey, we may feel all alone and unappreciated at various times in our lives. The world can sometimes tilt against us. The “Mr. Potters” can bear down on our dreams and crush our self-confidence. But regardless of feedback or external validation, we can’t lose our way. We have to stay strong. Our corner of the world needs us to know more than we will ever know.
Let’s remember that, despite our struggles, disappointments, and despairs, there is immense power in appreciation and perspective. These transcending truths resonate across gender, age and socio-economic lines. And they are the cornerstones of our personal and professional lives.
So what do we want? What do we think we deserve in this life? What is natural?
Can we go beyond the obvious and dictated rewards we have wished for, the materialistic ones, the numbing ones, the surface ones, the show-off ones, which actually are not good for us; instead, can we reconnect to our unspoken and unconscious goal, the one we haven’t dared to identify on the surface as yet?
“It’s a beautiful and disturbing question to ask ourselves: What is the star I do not know I am following?” says the poet David Whyte.
Can we remember our promise to our souls, hearts, and whole beings? It’s a promise we often feel we do not deserve. It is time to stop listening to the voices saying we don’t deserve this never dared life for ourselves. It is time to recover some sense of compassion, care for ourselves, and meet what we really want. Let’s follow American poet, essayist and journalist Walt Whitman: “I am larger, better than I thought; I did not know I held so much goodness. All seems beautiful to me. Whoever denies me shall not trouble me; Whoever accepts me, he or she shall be blessed, and shall bless me”.
“Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9% of what you think,
And everything you do,
Is for your self,
And there isn’t one.” - Wu Wei Wu (trans. Thomas Cleary)
We, as adults, struggle to maintain a secure place in a changing world and must ask ourselves: What am I really? What is the core of life for me inside? Where do I belong? These ageless questions renew themselves and recur as life unfolds.
We have been called to develop our own philosophy of life in the face of life’s vicissitudes. And it is paramount. A never-ending task to meet ourselves with courage, generosity, and grace. From investigating what we have received from our environment and the circumstances and events of life, we find new ways to maintain our integrity and learn how to care for ourselves.
Meeting with Shame
“Grace means that all of your mistakes serve a purpose instead of serving shame.” — Brené Brown.
To be in touch with our wants, can we remember all we did not get and meet our shaming voices in there?
Shame has a profound impact on our personality, as well as our interpersonal relationships. We have always lived with shame, even if we hadn’t known it as such. We all experience shame. It is an absolutely universal emotion.
The less we understand shame and how it affects our feelings, thoughts and behaviors, the more power it exerts over our lives. However, if we can find the courage to talk about shame and the compassion to listen, we can change the way we live, love, parent, work, and build relationships.
It is in our courage to meet head-on with defeats, failures, and rejection, particularly when these events are sudden or unexpected, one principal source of fresh encounters with shame as one proceeds through life.
In the honest facing of those tests, we must especially find out what stuff we are made of.
For it is how we face those inevitable defeats, these necessary failures, those painful rejections — not whether they were deserved — that matters most in our way of being.
We can either emerge from such a crisis, such confrontations with shame, more solid and secure in our personhood, or more uncertain, self-doubting, and confirmed in defectiveness.
Because the problem is not that these things happen but when they begin to accumulate.
These failures create an internal experience framing the narrative that we are the reason why these failures are occurring. With repeated shaming experiences, we begin to take it in, as some reflection on some defects in our body, in our being.
Here is the definition of shame from American professor Brené Brown: Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and, therefore, unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.
To feel shame is to feel seen in a painfully diminished sense in a sudden, unexpected exposure both to ourselves and to anyone present. We suddenly feel deficient — and alone — in some vital way, as human beings. And impotent, as we think we can’t get away from it. To live with shame is to feel alienated, defeated, and isolated, never quite good enough to belong. The moment we experience shame, sustained eye-contact with others becomes intolerable, the head is hung, spontaneous movement is interrupted, and speech is silenced.
To escape the danger of feeling ashamed, embarrassed, shy, anxious, self-conscious, inadequate, inferior, outcast, and guilty, we adapt and deflect with defense mechanisms. Some strive for power as a direct attempt to compensate for the sense of defectiveness, gaining maximum control over others or themselves in every situation and encounter. Others strive for perfection to avoid being vulnerable to shame. Many who are confronted by externally based sources of shame will try to cope through internal withdrawal (afraid that people would find out about their defectiveness), contempt (distancing ourselves from others, artificial elevation), transfer of blame, and rage.
Understanding Shame-Based Work Setting
“I hated the internal wounds, the words that said I was worthless and unwanted, the teasing, the ridicule that echoed in my ears and shattered my insides into dust. If given the choice. I’d have picked a beating over being shamed.” — Antwone Quenton Fisher.
For most of us, the work setting constitutes a new family, a “work family.” As a group of colleagues, we live together for a significant portion of each day and return daily to combine our efforts toward a common set of objectives.
If competence, achievement, and performance play an enormously important role in the work environment, then power, identification, and affirmation are critical to our interpersonal well-being.
First, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that power and shame play a significant role in the work setting. There is an inverse relationship between shame and power: To the degree that one is powerless in any work environment, one is more vulnerable to shame. Powerlessness breeds shame.
Second, each individual has an innate need for identification and a sense of belonging. People need to feel consulted at work to believe they have an impact. When this occurs, the individuals involved will experience a measure of power. When employers and managers arrange the work climate to encourage positive identification, the organization and its aims become prized, along with those of the individuals.
But in the absence of identification, shame in the form of alienation will magnify. We will feel disconnected from the company for which we work and from the people with whom we work.
Third, each person has a need for affirmation. Each of us needs to feel recognized and admired: We need to feel valued and respected. To the degree that if this need is not provided for at work, shame will inevitably ensue, and we will feel like outcasts, devalued where we most need to belong and be admired.
In shame-based companies, punitive, negative scripts are at play. Management is built on bullying, criticism in front of colleagues, public reprimands, or reward systems that intentionally belittle people. Rules, even unwritten ones — like, “keep secrets,” “don’t expect accountability,” “it is always someone else’s fault,” “control to get what you need,” “manipulate to ensure your own survival,” “none of this is happening,” “deny reality” — are present from the top to the bottom of the organization. Employee differences are translated into comparisons, leading workers to experience themselves as “less than,” precisely for purposes of rank, raises, and promotions.
Management interactions become occasions for agonizing comparison-making, devaluing and contempt generation where employees rate themselves — or are rated — on a sliding scale of “inferior” to “superior.”
This shame-based culture creates the perfect petri dish for workplace mistreatments like acts of bullying, mobbing, and abuse that will invariably trigger scandals with reputational, financial and legal impacts for these organizations.
Furthermore, shame as a performance management tool has a terrible effect on teams, and so on performance and financial results. The interpersonal bonds so necessary for collaboration, problem-solving, and feeling connected/fulfilled at work are broken, leading to decreased employee morale, pervasive pessimism, multiplications of errors, and potential for ethical and legal breaches.
When We Are Real, We Grow
What if our worthy wishes for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for our organizations are on the other side of the barrier of shame? How about healing our shame wounds to live fully, with nobility and care for all lives?
When we are real, we grow is the leadership recipe that heals shame wounds. What we have been asked is coming out of hiding, reclaim our worthiness and start being our true self. Vulnerability, transparency, authenticity, aliveness, spontaneity, sensibility, wonder, intuition, imagination belong to the workplace. They guard our organizations from their shadow sides; saying no to unethical temptations, reminding everyone what the real priorities are; refusing to shame ourself or others in order to make our way through the organisation; enabling perspectives and adaptability to sustain.
Getting rid of the toxicity of shame can be difficult because of our lack of understanding of shame and its triggers and because of the constant shame-based cultures and workplace pressures. It is a hard work of remembering, deconstructing, reparenting, realigning, and loving.
Still, when we practice critical awareness and recognize that shame appears when we fail to have our needs met appropriately by any significant other or ourselves, we can start doing something about it.
It means accepting our own weaknesses, wants, feelings, vulnerability, and dependency needs. It means reaching out. It means asking for what we need.
Then, we start deflecting shame by responding appropriately; we understand and openly acknowledge our needs and those around us. Whether or not they are gratified.
First, we must move from feeling worthless to feeling wounded; then, to shift from silencing ourselves to sharing our sorrows. The third movement is to switch from holding ourselves in contempt to holding ourselves with compassion.
The Power of Caring
Empathy is the primary antidote to shame.
It is what it takes to be secure in our sense of belonging and self-worth. From there, we remember our self-affirming capabilities, the attention, the respect, the understanding for our emotions, the sorely needed protection, and our unconditional love. With our own medicine, we restore, value, and love ourselves, we find new ways to nurture our integrity.
We all deserve our needs for identification, differentiation, affirmation, and power (which is fundamentally a need to predict and control and thereby experience inner control) to be satisfied first by ourselves, and then by our respectful relationships.
Unguarded and uncomfortable moments will continue to happen to us, but from our capacity for self-awareness, self-love, and self-affirmation, we will gain internal security that will ripple into external healing waves.
May we find the strength to disarm the influence of shame to cultivate a life of greater courage, joy, and love. Love, by which I mean affection, attention, care, protection, kindness, and the willingness to communicate.
The Cultivation of Christmas Trees
I will leave you with a beautiful poem from T.S .Elliot, The Cultivation of Christmas Trees. Please Enjoy.
As always, I thank you for taking the time to do this reading with me. I am so grateful to journey alongside you. Please feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org with ideas, suggestions, or comments.
Your presence is my purpose.
I wish you the most joyous holiday season. Be safe and be watched over until we meet again in January.
There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish — which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.
The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St. Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):
So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By "eightieth" meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.
PS: To go deeper on the subject of shame resilience, I recommend the work of author, and analyst Francis Weller, author, doctor and professor Gershen Kaufman, and author, and professor Brené Brown. Banner Art : Image from the Webb Space Telescope.