Shame vs abundant life (learning to live fully on the red dirt road)

I once had a boyfriend who loved country music.

Out of all the songs that he would put on while driving or cooking or relaxing, one stood out to me. It’s a song about significant memories, an attachment to a special place and a life lived to the full. The chorus goes like this:

It’s where I drank my first beer
It’s where I found Jesus
Where I wrecked my first car
I tore it all to pieces

I learned the path to heaven is full of sinners and believers
Learned that happiness on earth ain’t just for high-achievers

I’ve learned, I’ve come to know
There’s life at both ends
Of that red dirt road

Brooks and Dunn, Red Dirt Road.

This song that I haven’t heard in nearly seven years has been going around and around in my head lately. A couple of weeks ago I decided to listen again and leaned in to hear what God was saying to me through it. Something jumped out at me that I hadn’t noticed before:

learned that happiness on earth ain’t just for high achievers.’

Just that one line uncovered a hidden pattern of self-destructive behaviour that dates back to at least my teenage years.

It starts with a thought: ‘I don’t deserve to enjoy myself until I’ve achieved something.’ For example ‘I don’t deserve to draw until I’ve decluttered.’

That thought leads to a feeling of unworthiness.

Then, because I’m feeling unworthy, I punish myself. I deliberately withhold enjoyment from myself because, according to my shame-based logic, I just don’t deserve to enjoy myself.

Then I think yet another shame-based thought that just makes things worse – this one’s so well hidden that it’s hard to spot but it’s there alright – ‘because I don’t live my life to the full and get distracted a lot, I must be a less valuable human being.’

I don’t usually word it exactly like that because that would be too easy to find and uproot. Instead it shows up in comparison and ‘shoulds’, like ‘I’m an adult, I should be able to manage my time better by now.’

That pattern is 100% rooted in shame: shame causes it, shame perpetuates it and shame is produced by it.

Learning a lesson from the ants

Yesterday I sensed God calling me to look at a patch of the garden where there were ants crawling all over the soil and plants. I stopped to watch for a while and noticed that, even though every ant I saw seemed to be in a hurry, not a single one was carrying any food. It was like they were constantly searching but never finding what they were looking for.

There’s so much of that that I can relate to.

The bar that I set for myself is so impossibly high that I almost never reach it. Once I’ve achieved something there’s always something else that needs doing before I can enjoy myself. It’s an ever-shifting goalpost.

Even if I worked for 12 hours a day, I would probably still have this mindset that I haven’t achieved enough to deserve to enjoy myself.

It’s painful to write those words. I actually feel quite sad that I would treat myself like such a bully. Especially when I have chronic health conditions that mean I need to rest for much of the day – even rest feels like something I have to earn sometimes. I’ve come so far on this journey to get free from shame but it’s things like this that make me realise that I still have quite a way to go yet.

Setting new boundaries

If I’m to love myself and ditch the shame, I need to learn how to live fully alive so I’m setting myself some healthy boundaries. I’m choosing to see these as gifts to my future self rather than harsh rules.

And I definitely won’t be punishing myself if I get it wrong as I so often do.

  • I choose to do at least one thing I enjoy every day and to prioritise this, even if I don’t achieve everything I want to achieve. I will continue on my journey to learn what makes me smile.
  • I choose to celebrate the small wins just as much as the big wins.
  • I choose to go easy on myself when I’m having an off day.
  • I choose to never let the things I enjoy become stressful chores (including this blog).
  • I choose to live in the moment and appreciate all the good things in my life.
  • I choose to stop looking at screens by 7pm (where possible) and just relax in the evenings.

I’ve already started this week with some tiny baby steps. Before I sat down to write this post, I lay in the garden under the trees and watched the butterflies and listened to birdsong.

Putting my new boundaries to the test

The day after I initially published this blog post I had an excellent opportunity to put my new boundaries to the test.

I knew in advance that I wouldn’t be able to tick any items off my to-do list because I had plans to see people and knew I wouldn’t have much energy left over for the tasks I wanted to complete.

In the evening, although I was tired and needed to rest, I felt agitated and kept flitting from one thing to the next. Thankfully, I was able to recognise the thought pattern I described above and could see that I was feeling unworthy of rest because I hadn’t achieved anything.

So I made a decision to honour my boundaries and turned off my computer and went outside to relax. Just noticing how I felt and making that choice made such a difference to me. I decided to list all of my ‘wins’ from that day so that I could feel better about myself. I may not have been able to tick anything off my tasks list but I realised that what I achieved that day was far more important:

  • I helped my friend to process some difficult thoughts and painful emotions and encouraged her that it was perfectly fine to feel that way;
  • I showed my nieces love and affection and held my three-year-old niece’s hand to help her balance as she walked around the edge of the raised bed;
  • I listened to my mum share some of her recent breakthroughs and gave her encouragement;
  • I sent an email to a friend to empathise with her struggles;
  • I asked my parents about their childhood memories and listened as they shared about what they used to want to do when they grew up.

All of those things are far more precious to me and to others than anything on my to-do list so I’m starting to celebrate these seemingly small but very significant wins in my life and it’s getting me far already.

How about you? If you’ve had any similar breakthroughs in your own life I’d love to hear about it. Is this an area you struggle with? What are your tactics for overcoming the shame-based mindsets?

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Kirstie Gale
2 years ago

There’s so many things in here I don’t even know what to comment on. You are learning so much about yourself and I’m so pleased you are treating yourself with compassion ( even if not all the time, but who does ?) I do resonate with the constant urge to achieve something / learn something / do something, even if I do ‘ nothing ‘ I feel guilty . It’s as though my natural self is not good enough.
I do question that though, like you.
Keep the blogs coming. I’m really enjoying reading them.
We can watch for birds and wildlife in the air B and B, hopefully – ‘ do nothing ‘ 😉

2 years ago

Helen, you are being so honest in this blog. That’s brilliant and will really help those who read it. Lying under the tree watching butterflies and listening to the birds , a beautiful image and something we should all do more often 😊
Interesting that the same line from the song jumped out at me “Learned that happiness on earth ain’t just for high-achievers”