3 Ways We Armor Up to Avoid Shame - and How It Impacts Recovery
“Shame… is this web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we’re supposed to be. And it’s a straight jacket.” - Brenè Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, author of Daring Greatly and Rising Strong
The amazing research of Dr. Brenè Brown has been helpful in clarifying exactly what happens when I (or anyone else) experiences shame.
Shame is that feeling of not being enough or of being terrified of being truly seen.
When shame sets in, it’s our nature to want to shut it down, to protect ourselves, and, in my case, do everything humanly possible to appear as if we are … wait for it ... … fine.
In order to be “fine,” I did what any human being does when shame is too big and the world seems too complex: I numbed out.
Through my relationship with food and, eventually, with exercise, I found a way to shield myself from the world (at least, for a window of time). I did what Brené Brown calls “armoring up.” And there are many ways that we all put on armor — as we try to protect ourselves from shame, vulnerability and emotional exposure.
The 3 types of armor we use to protect ourselves
This is the feeling that we get when something is going well, and we, in a flash, begin dress-rehearsing tragedy in our heads. I remember feeling so uncomfortable when something good was happening, that I would feel physically uncomfortable. I would begin fidgeting, get flushed, and try to push it away. And in my mind, I’d start planning for how it would eventually go bad. When it got so intense, I’d use food and exercise as a way to escape it.
Perfectionism is the 20-ton shield we carry around, constantly polishing and adding more bling to. As Dr. Brown has said, it’s more like a process addiction: the more you do it, the more you feel compelled to do it. When you cross some sort of finish line, you can never celebrate. Because there’s always more. It’s a never-ending hustle for your worth. My eating disorder had a love affair with perfectionism – and I think they still pine for each other and write love letters from afar. Because there was never enough food to numb out with, or food to deny, or calories to burn off. Never.
Here’s the big, universal one. Just “fill in the blank” and you’ll find your go-to numbing agent. Go ahead, fill in the blank: "Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I find myself __________." For me, it was bingeing, restricting, exercising, calorie counting, measuring, analyzing, denying. But it’s also been cleaning, over-planning, people-pleasing, workaholism, hair-styling, getting sucked into a marathon showing of Breaking Bad (admittedly, a phenomenal show, but I’m pretty sure Walter White isn’t going to show up with a solution to my problem of poor self-care). Basically, numbing was doing anything else instead of having to sit with myself and the things that were rattling my fear, sadness or anger.
If I’m honest with myself, although I have a bachelor’s degree in Government and Journalism and a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Counseling, I think I minored in armoring up. I could teach an advanced course in it. But the truth is that armoring up is not sustainable — it only works for brief moments in time. I know. I did everything humanly possible to make it a full-time, lucrative job. Every second I spent putting on and polishing my armor was another second spent alone, disengaged from my life.
Recognizing the armor was the first step in healing, but the hardest part of all was challenging myself to put it down and try something else, which was terrifying. And it required me to be honest with myself, with those around me, and to own my story. Was it hard? Yes. Did I want to quit? Absolutely. So why did I keep going? Because every moment I was able to connect through honesty and vulnerability made my heart come alive. It made me laugh. Made me cry. Made me smile. Gave me hope.
If you are reading this blog and thinking “that sounds great, but it could never work for me,” I hear you. I know you. I was you. And I’m going to say the hard thing to you: it’s possible to put the armor down, take a deep breath, be honest and speak your truth.
Jennifer Lombardi, MFT, CEDS, is a Certified Daring Way™ Facilitator-Candidate and Recovery Ambassador for Eating Recovery Center.