Shame: my own 'dark passenger'

Who hasn’t been on this ride?

Someone new catches your eye and you spend a little time with them. Realize that they’re taking up more mental real estate than you anticipated. Finding yourself smiling when you’re supposed to be thinking about other things. Suddenly you’re paying more attention to your phone than usual...reading into the off-the-cuff comments that come back to you at wholly unexpected times...composing texts only to ‘save-to-draft’ until your best friends can weigh in on possible meanings/interpretations…

You might think I’m talking about my teenaged/early 20s clients’ experiences...and you would be right. But you’d only have part of the story. At 44, it’s become clear to me that these experiences are just as relevant for us ‘old folks’ - and possibly more so. Sure: the rules are perplexingly Byzantine (i.e. how soon to reach out after a date, and contact is initiated by whom? Until what point is ghosting still ok? With what frequency should we expect/send texts? Is an actual chat on the phone weird???), but for us fogeys it may be even more complex than all that. Because along with the excitement, the uncertainty, the butterflies and the bittersweet yearning, another unwanted passenger may hitch a ride: shame.

Arguably the most powerful of all the emotions; certainly - at least for me - one of the most corrosive, most compelling, most uncomfortable. What feels worse than shame? What else has the potential to derail us as completely? What is harder to tolerate? And - for so many of us - what is more closely connected to shame than vulnerability?

Growing up aggressively smart and invulnerable (or so I thought), my power, my autonomy in relationships, relied on my ability to go it alone. To be clear: while this was not optimal, it was what I learned as a child and for years believed. That if - when push came to shove - no one was going to be there to support me (not really), I would do it for myself. I did not benefit from healthy relationship modelling - not my parents, nor as I got older, my peer group. So, I figured it out on my own - as I always had.

Fast forward a number of years and some pretty affecting relational experiences. Add a newfound focus on integration. Yes, I am smart and strong. Powerful, even. I am also vulnerable. I - like all of us, surely? - want someone to love me exactly for who I am. Warts and all. Vulnerability and all.

Who can’t relate to this desire? And so - with any new person - the push and pull exists: I am strong, autonomous and intelligent and I don’t need you, but I do WANT you...and I want some reassurance that - once I’ve exposed my vulnerability - you still want me. Or: of COURSE you want me; wait: do you???

For anyone who was ever a fan of the show ‘Dexter’, you may remember the allusions to his ‘dark passenger’. Although I can’t relate to his psychopathic tendencies, shame is that - exactly - for me. My own ‘dark passenger’.

And yet. And I have talked about this before. Instead of kicking my passenger out of the car, what happens if I acknowledge and appreciate her presence? What if I acknowledge that this ‘shameful’ voice is the one that stood up to protect me against disappointments that - when I was a child - threatened to destroy me? A kind of bullying older sister who wanted me to ‘toughen up’ in order to survive? A kind of ‘I can beat you up, but no one else can’ dynamic?

Because if I am honest, and - more importantly - if I am brave, I can see that this is exactly what this voice wants. To help, to protect, to shield - if disappointment (a.k.a. vulnerability) feels like death, then a lowering of expectations is far preferable: right? So, maybe I have an opportunity to truly listen, honour that voice, metaphorically hug it out and continue on toward happiness, just ‘me being me’?

I asked at the outset of this post: who hasn’t been there. The twists and turns, the anxiety and the giddiness. It can be hard, but from my perspective, the ride is - always - worth it. And for those of us who have passengers we may want to jettison, perhaps it’s another opportunity to practice compassion. Compassion for that voice that - albeit misguidedly - wants to help; to protect. Compassion for those parts of ourselves that just want to be loved - isn’t that the most human of desires?

So, while it may sound like a dubious wish: I do wish this experience on everyone, and hope that if you have not yet been there, you will be soon. I believe that the destination is absolutely worth the journey.

Do you have your own 'dark passenger'? Please consider sharing your experiences below .

Katie Mead