Sometimes I Just Need to Get Out of My Own Way

Just before I fell asleep last night I realized that, when I look back at my life, I always decide that I have been a complete and utter idiot up until very recently. Whether I have any sense now is remains open to question, but if I try to be in the moment, I usually think, "I'm okay. I am a good person, and I quite enjoy hanging out with myself. I like what I make, and do, and I think I have finally got a bit of a handle on things."

And then, something springs up from the past, and blindsides me. This is what happened with two lovely comments from Blandina and Lis on my recent amulet tutorial. They both thanked me for the post, and reminded me of the travel amulets I had made and sent them before they went to Japan for a workshop with Bryan Whitehead.

I was shocked! I had made them amulets? Really? Slowly, the mists parted, and I remembered. Of course! They went on that workshop that I would have loved to have gone with them to. It was at some chaotic time of my life or other, and I couldn't afford to go, but I could send a bit of my energy with them. After Blandina and Lis returned and I heard about how wonderful a trip it was, I was happy for them and then, I guess, I kind of forgot about the amulets. But they didn't obviously. What a wonderful little hit of energy was returned to me, years after it was sent out into the world!

So what can I conclude from this story? No, not my default position that I am a complete and utter idiot. How about, maybe, I have been a better person that I thought I was? All along? Could that be? Or maybe, just maybe, those years of therapy actually worked. Or, simply, I am not the impartial observer of my own life that I thought I was.

Quite often I have made things and they go out into the world and I forget about them until stumbling across them years later. I am usually astonished. "I made that? Wow, it's better than I thought." When I am too close to something, all I see are the flaws, the bits I could have done better. Time has a nice way of giving distance and revealing truth.
 I don't think it is a coincidence, that just before turning off the light and having my little epiphany last night, I was reading the genius Lynda Barry's  new book Syllabus. It is a real mind opener and I unreservedly recommend it, along with her brilliant What It Is and Picture This.


  1. I believe that many of us are our own toughest critics ... and I somehow passed that on to my daughters (which, now that I think about it, isn't surprising since they spent their childhoods absorbing my example)

    And yet ... they are wonderful young women. Am I willing to accept that also may have been by example?

  2. You're right Liz. There must be part of our brains that is this horrible shouting critical force, that overshadows the complexity of who we really are, and especially doesn't allow us to appreciate our own goodness. Freud might have called it the superego, but I think is maybe more biologically based than the good doctor guessed.

  3. It's the voice of shame. It is my understanding and belief it is learned both through imprinting from our parents modelling but also from them shaming us. And the brain being what it is, once those neural pathways are established they become more and more entrenched over the years. It comes through being shamed for our beings rather than our behaviours. both our cultures messages, and our parents, being raised in the same culture, tend to effectively say 'you are bad' , rather than 'what you did was bad'. So we all grow up believing that we are fundamentally flawed beings, rather than beings who are basically okay but occasionally do not okay things. And of course parents or not, we all pass it on, because we all also learned how to do it.

    But not all cultures operate like this - Anglo American and Japanes culture are highly shame bound, for example, others less so.

    Gestalt Therapists call shame the 'master Emotion' because it has such enormous power over us and there's some very new research now beginning to link what John Bradshaw (and what we are talking about) calls Toxic Shame and adult mentall illness.

    At the very least, this kind of shaming prevents the healthy development of core self esteem - the sense that we are basically, okay people- this does not come from our accomplishments, but from learning that we were good enough as children. If we didn't learn this it's because our parents have the same issues - we cannot teach our children to feel good about themselves if we don't feel good about ourselves, so I'm not saying all parents are bad here - more that this stuff is handed down from generation to generation simply because people hadn't the resources available to them to learn new ways. And as I said before it is embedded in our culture.

    Learning we are okay doesn't require that we have a completely shame free childhood, it doesn't require perfect parents, you just have to think of it as a scale - if the feeling and experience of being good enough and loveable outweighs the feelings of being shameful and not loveable then we will be okay, we will have a sense of our own okay ness. But if it doesn't then we will at the least be haunted by a sense of never being good enough, and at worst we will be thoroughly shame bound and detest ourselves and may wind up with serious drug and alcohol problems, maybe in prostitution etc etc...

    If I had stayed in Academia this is what I'd be doing - it's my second interest... Mostly because of my own struggles in this area. I think a lot of us had an almost equal amount of loving and severe shaming so we end up on a see saw of feeling intense self loathing for a while, followed by some relief as we begin to be able to see our better qualities again and feel okay for a while. Until something triggers the shame again.

    Well that's an essay!

  4. You are on a roll with your amulet posts Heather...each one goes deeper, and have led to this place of self acknowledgement which is good for all of us to witness and integrate. Self appraisal seems so clear and objective when we are dishing it to ourselves, but it is really part of the fog. Amulets seem like a good way to connect to the deeper river of feeling that is more subjective and more true.

  5. Anonymous10:30 AM

    I treasure my amulet you sent before I went to Bryan's. The little envelope it is in is glued inside my travel journal and it goes with me where ever I go. :)

  6. Oh my. That's an amazing dissertation on shame, Sarah! I've never really understood what that meant for so many people. Thanks for clarifying.

    Heather, I think we very often need distance from our creations before we see them clearly. I've done the same double-take when I come across things I've made long ago: did I do that? It's really pretty good! I remember reading something I'd written without even knowing it was me at first. Yoiks.

  7. Sarah; thank you for a clear description of that whole shame-stuff.
    Heather; I know just what you mean about only seeing what's wrong with something I've just made! Happens all the time! And now I look and think, well...I'll think of it as my art-critic, aiming for me to do better! But the thing about looking back at things, and seeing them differently....more 'Oh did I make that!' in a good way...yes.
    I've just written something about my art/textile work, for the chapel where I regularly exhibit. I wrote about attending art college and how unsympathetic I found it. YET the writing made me understand where I had been culturally, and politically; in 1980's Britain, the rise of Thatcher, and the free-market, the miner's strike, and feminism, and feminist art. I KNEW these things; but I began to understand my problems with art college more clearly; and see how my responses were actually quite radical! And how they have fed into my art until today. Sometimes, looking back can really throw a light onto our art practise, in surprising ways! XX


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