Meet my critic, Delilah
It was during the first encore that I realized I was really in trouble. I needed both hands to push myself to a standing position for the ovation, and I still didn’t make it all the way. I made that old man grunting noise and only managed to perch on the arm of the chair.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to walk out of the theater because the nerve symptoms in my feet made them feel like they each weighed a thousand pounds, and it hurt like crazy to pick them up. I was trapped, and there was still an encore coming, so it would get even worse.
When I’m in that much pain, I get anxious and embarrassed, nervous that the people I’m with are embarrassed by me too. Shame makes me quiet and defensive and generally unpleasant to be around. It was going to be a deeply crappy end to what had been an otherwise wonderful evening. Delilah Shame was whispering in my ear, “You’re pathetic. You’re weak. Get yourself together.” Delilah Shame kind of sucks.
"Delilah Shame" is the name I gave my inner critic. Like the biblical Delilah, I love her, but she betrays me. On days when I’m tired or in pain, she gets louder and meaner. Her voice tends to overrule all rational thought. But even on days when I’m my best self, I struggle with her. She’s the one who got me in trouble at the concert in the first place.
Pain and Shame
I was invited to go by some new friends who I don’t know very well but who I am excited to get to know better. I hadn’t told them about my Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, my chronic pain, or that sitting in chairs for long periods is painful. So when they suggested we meet for dinner beforehand and then go see the show, I agreed despite that the fact that I knew it would cost me. My self-self knows that I have to choose between a restaurant and a concert because my body can’t tolerate both. But Delilah Shame told me that I needed to impress my new friends and that I should just try to be normal and not ask for too much.
(I’ll apologize to those friends here. They are very nice people who hated seeing me in pain. My self-self understands they would have been happy to meet at my house and order in. It was Delilah who didn’t trust them enough to ask for that).
And so there I was at the end of the show, realizing that Delilah’s dumb non-strategy had backfired completely. Not only were these friends going to witness my pain at its peak, but one had to physically support me as I shuffled sullenly through the crowd, head down to concentrate on moving my feet and not falling.
Learning to Live With Shame
In general, my reflex is to get mad at myself for listening to Delilah, and I insult her and try to push her away. That’s part of the struggle. Feeling bad about myself for having shame is, at best, unhelpful and at worst, downright destructive. After all, some amount of shame is necessary for a functional society. Shame has pushed me to act fabulous and achieve, which every now and then has resulted in me being fabulous and achieving. So shame does serve a purpose.
But, research shows that as a woman with chronic pain, I am especially vulnerable to shame. As a woman, I’ve been socialized to want to please others. I also live in a society that perceives pain as weak and being able to push through pain as strong, and my training as a gymnast made that perception 10 times worse. But as a person who lives in pain all day, every day, I simply cannot push through it all the time. When I do, I get hurt (see previous paragraph about being unable to use my feet). It took two full days for me to recover from dinner and a show.
So the challenge before me now is to recognize when it’s Delilah Shame talking and use my self-self to assess what (if anything) is useful in what she’s saying. Even when she’s being ridiculous, I need to give her a little compassion instead of yelling at her or calling her names (poor thing is obviously miserable a lot of the time). I need to learn to thank her for her service and politely ask her to pipe down.
I’m working on it.