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How I’m Freeing Myself from Guilt, Shame, and Perfectionism

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When I was 19 years old, I traveled to Costa Rica with my boyfriend’s family. While rafting on very intense Class V rapids, our boat hit a rock and everyone except me and one other person fell out.

The rapids were billed as Class II, but a recent storm had changed the water patterns and 15 minutes after launch our trip turned from a fun ride to a survival feat. None of us had any river rapid experience.

I remember turning around and seeing empty seats behind me as our boat lurched forward.  Somehow, two of us steered the six-person boat to the side of the river. The next thing I knew, I was standing on the bank watching people struggle through the rapids, feeling powerless.

My boyfriend’s sister-in-law, Gina, was suddenly sucked into a whirlpool hole of water right in front of me. The water pulled her under, then spit her up so she could catch her breath, only to yank her under again like a giant rag doll.  I watched, petrified.

As Gina later told the story, she reached a point where she thought: “This could be it. This might kill me. I might die.”  Finally, something shifted and she was propelled down the river, out of the whirlpool. Our safety kayaker pulled everyone out, with no major injuries except insane bruises and one broken rib. The experience still haunts me. Even now, I am not a fan of rivers.

My brain is doing to me what that river did to Gina.

Over the past few months, I’ve been exploring my anxiety, depression, and daily experience. I recently realized something really amazing and extremely f-ed up: I’m living in a constant whirlpool of shame and self-sabotage.

Although this shame whirlpool won’t kill me, if I don’t shift something it might kill my chance at happiness and joy.

I used to think that my inner critical voice helped me. I used to think that it kept me safe and secure through life. Now, I realize that it’s not saving me from any danger in life. It is keeping me from life.

Here’s how it works:

First, a voice tells me that I’m not doing enough or not doing something “right.”  And, if I look around at my life, I can point to a zillion reasons to believe it. I procrastinate regularly. I’m always behind on something. My house is usually dirty and disorganized. And there are clothes on my floor about 90% of the time.

Then, I’m under water. I feel guilty and ashamed. Being mired in guilt and shame feels heavy. It makes it hard to breath. If I’m being really honest, it actually does feel like I’m being pulled under water, unable to win the fight.

So, I work harder to do more and to do it right. I swim and swim to get out of that feeling of guilt and shame. And I start winning. I get my head above the water and I catch my breath. The guilt and shame recede and I start to feel, dare I say it, good.

Then just as I start to relax and congratulate myself, something happens. I do something or I fail to do something. I put the clothes on the floor. I put off accomplishing something. I miss a bill or I forget to call someone back. I self-sabotage.

And poof, I’m back under that water again, feeling like I’m not enough. Guilt and shame wash over me and pull me down. So I work harder again, catch my breath again, and then I do something else to self-sabotage. And on and on…

Did you know you can get addicted to your emotions?

What’s so crazy and f-ed up is that I think the reason I self-sabotage is because I’m actually addicted to feeling “not enough.” I’m addicted to guilt and shame. I’m addicted to feeling like I have to push and berate myself to fight that shame. I sabotage to get my fix.

Here is a more detailed explanation, bear with me. Emotions produce a biochemical response in our brain, releasing certain chemicals. These chemicals bond with the receptors on our cells.

Imagine that each cell has a bunch of locks (the receptors), each with a matching key (the different chemicals). Different emotions produce different chemicals, and each chemical has a matching receptor on your cells.The receptors bond to emotion chemicals the same way they bond to drugs like cocaine or heroin.

If you feel one particular emotion regularly over a period of time, your body makes more receptors to bond to the chemicals that your brain keeps releasing. So since I feel guilty regularly, my body has created a plethora of receptors on my cells that are now jonesing for a shower of guilt chemicals.

The documentary “What the Bleep Do We Know”, explains how we can become addicted to particular emotions:

“It’s our addiction that’s the problem. The thing that most people don’t realize is that when they understand that they are addicted to emotions…”
”it’s not just psychological… Heroin uses the same receptor mechanisms on the cells that our emotional chemicals use. It’s easy to see then that if we can be addicted to heroin, we can be addicted to any neuropeptide.” “Neuropeptide” is the name of the type of chemical that our emotions cause our brain to release.

So, when I start to feel good, or when I celebrate, my cells start craving more guilt chemicals. So there I go, sabotaging my life so that I can feel guilty! Holy crap.

I’ve been living like this for as long as I can remember, stuck in this whirlpool of guilt, shame, and self-sabotage.

THIS is what causes my anxiety. 

My anxiety is analogous to the swimming. I work so hard. I swim so hard to poke my head up from the guilt and shame. I push myself, work harder, skip breaks, fail to eat right or exercise, and feel generally anxious, all in an attempt to appease that critical voice and escape the awful wave of guilt and shame. My perfectionism is fueled by the struggle to prevent guilt and shame. Most decisions I make are fueled by that struggle.

But the game is fixed! I can never appease the critical voice and I can never prevent guilt and shame by doing more. It’s not about the voice at all. It’s not about what I do or don’t do. It’s about me craving the feeling of guilt, anxiousness, and inadequacy.

I’ve been recreating exactly what I don’t want because deep down my body is so used to feeling this way that anything else feels odd!

Hello, my name is Lauren and I’m a shameaholic.

As long as I’m addicted to the feeling of guilt and shame, I will continue to recreate the circumstances that will bring that feeling, over and over again.

The good news is that I’m doing this. I’m the only one who is responsible for this whirlpool. And I’m the only one who can free myself.

Now that I know this, I already feel my pattern shifting and the water calming down. I believe that realizing our patterns is more than half the battle.

Now I can stop fighting and struggling to please the critical voice. Instead I can start focusing on the solution – freeing myself from this addiction to guilt, shame, and self-sabotage.  Onward and upward!

Do you think you are addicted to any emotions?

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