Beneath the frenzied activity and the frantic thoughts which dominate our daily lives exists a quiet voice. Frightened, we ignore it, particularly when it is a mere whisper. Our tasks and to-do lists keep us dulled to its pulsing, inner existence.
In a moment of pause, we may hear it. In the quiet of an elevator ride up to our office. In the few minutes it takes for our morning coffee to brew. In the darkness as we drift off to sleep. In a hot shower as we ready ourselves for work.
Am I doing enough?
Do they appreciate me?
Am I impressive enough?
Do I know everything I need to know?
In these moments, the quiet voice roars into our consciousness like an unwanted stranger. This inner voice feels like an enemy. Sometimes we tell it to go away. Sometimes we will it away. Sometimes the next activity dulls it once again. But it does not leave. It will not leave. It is our heart’s constant companion – shame – awakening us to what we’d rather avoid or deny about ourselves. But we’re adept at hitting snooze.
Reminded by this voice that we’re not doing enough or impressive enough or knowledgeable enough or helpful enough, we double down. We organize our desks. We comb through our calendars and emails looking for something we’ve missed. We check-in with others for approval. We look for retweets on Twitter. We rethink our strategy. Or we do a deal with God – I’ll give you my best if you give me yours.
Doubling down, we squelch the annoying whispers, at least for now. With a few successes, we feel a surge of dopamine glory of our addictive busyness patterns, a sense that we’ve conquered the supposed enemy within. We ride this new wave. Maybe it lasts hours, maybe even days. But in time, the annoying ache is triggered again, perhaps by a deadline reminder or a critical email or something you did that went unnoticed or a silence that lasts a bit too long.
This time, it is the inner voice that doubles down. Instead of asking, “Am I doing enough?” we find a more troubling question rising from within. The stranger within asks a more troubling question.
Am I enough?
This isn’t a question that arises in our heads. No, we feel it on our bodies. We feel it on our faces. We feel it burning in our chests. It’s palpable, like a slime covering us. It’s shame, perhaps the most violating inner stranger of them all. We hate this unwanted stranger. We hate ourselves in this moment. And we’d prefer to extinguish this stranger. We would, if we could. And some of us try, through cutting or binging/purging or masturbating or even in a religious ritual.
In these moments, we feel as if we’re the only person on earth capable of this self-disgust. There may be no more isolating, lonely place. And it can happen amidst success, applause, and regard.
The longtime late night host David Letterman once reflected on his own inner battle, saying
Every night you’re trying to prove your self-worth. It’s like meeting your girlfriend’s family for the first time. You want to be the absolute best, wittiest, smartest, most charming, best-smelling version of yourself. If I can make people enjoy the experience and have a higher regard for me when I’m finished, it makes me feel like an entire person. If I’ve come short of that, I’m not happy. How things go for me every night is how I feel about myself for the next 24 hours.1
We all know this inner stranger, the seemingly insidious virus called shame. In shame, we feel seen as the flawed selves we are, exposed in our idiosyncracies and inadequacy. In her breakthrough book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown writes, “Shame works like the zoom lens on a camera. When we are feeling shame, the camera is zoomed in tight and all we see is our flawed selves, alone and struggling.”2 Shame feels like a body invader, slime or tar that clings to our being with relentless fury, impossible to wash away by will.
I believe that its presence is the fuel for our perfectionism, ultimately leading us to burnout and exhaustion. In shame, we hide behind masks which protect us, from ourselves and from others. In shame, we live divided lives, which steal away wholeness and peace. Divided and fragmented, we work tirelessly to perfect ourselves but only end up exhausting ourselves. This is our common story. No one is immune.
This is an excerpt from Chuck DeGroat’s latest book, “Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self.”