How I Healed Life-Long Shame

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[TRIGGER WARNING: This article discusses Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA).]

Shame and I go way back. I’m thinking, probably since the age of three. I didn’t have imaginary friends as a kid but I did have shame as an invisible companion from the start. Shame is a tough thing to pin down because it is a feeling that you have without ever putting a word to it. And for me, it was hard to spot because I built a coping mechanism that looked exactly opposite to shame – pride and rigid stoicism.

Another word for shame is worthlessness. To carry deep shame is to carry an unyielding sense of worthlessness. What makes shame so poisonous is that it is an attack on your sense of self by planting the thought ‘I am bad’. It’s not like guilt where you would think ‘I did something bad’. No, shame becomes your definition of yourself. The two most powerful words in the world are “I Am.” It’s a complete idea within itself and what you put after those two words defines you.

When shame is your life-long companion then whatever you do on the outside doesn’t matter; not status, money, prestige, beauty, or sex-appeal make a difference when underneath all that is the internal, subconscious reality that says, ‘I’m bad. I’m worthless.’

It is a massive and opaque wall that no good thing can penetrate when deep-seated lack of worth is present. And when that’s your foundation, like I said since the age of three, then that will shape your life in ways you could not foretell.

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How Abuse Sets the Stage for Feeling Worthless

My earliest memory is a happy one of being on an airplane with my grandmother traveling from California to South Carolina to visit our family. I remember the shish-kababs we ate and being taken to the cockpit by one of the flight attendants (they were stewardesses back then) and being introduced to the pilots. One of them gave me that golden pin with the wings on it.

But on that trip, while visiting my great-grandmother I did something that angered my grandmother. I don’t remember what I did but whatever it was resulted in a whipping. It’s the south and switches were a handy tool of discipline, as you could strip one from the nearest tree. Like I said, I don’t remember what I did wrong but to my mind there is nothing on this earth that a three-year old could do that would merit being whipped with a switch.

Her fury left an indelible mark on my psyche and am implacable dislike of her on a deep level for the rest of my childhood. That is the first time I can recall being made to feel bad about myself and I can remember the quake of terror within my three-year old body.

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When I was four years old my mother sent me and my brother to visit my father in New York. My parents divorced before I was even one-year old. Or I should say that my mother left my father before I was one. By the time I was eighteen months old she was moving us three kids and herself to California and getting as far away from him as she could.

Our visit with him went fine for the most part. He had a new woman in his life who was always kind to us. But things went south fast when the day came that we were supposed to go home to our mom and he put my brother on a plane but not me.

The events that followed amounted to abduction. He told my mother that she would never see me again, and during that time he sexually abused me. I can remember at the time it happened it was like an out of body experience and I was seeing it all take place from somewhere above and to the left of my body. There was no one there to protect me and no one there to soothe me afterwards. I remember crying for my mother.

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Me, age 5.

The way I’ve come to understand how that impacted me is that when a parent abuses their child it causes cognitive-dissonance in the subconscious of the child. As children we come to understand that our parents are the people who take care of us and protect us. So when they not only fail in protecting us but are the perpetrators of violence against us, our psyches can’t compute that. We’re too small to say but it’s like our psyche’s go ‘WTF! This isn’t how this is supposed to go! You’re supposed to love and protect me. What’s going on here?!’

And when abuse shows up where love and protection should be most children – myself included – take that to mean that they did something wrong to deserve the abuse. That’s the only thing that makes sense to a kid. Because to a child’s mind the equation is simple: you’re my parent, you supposed to love and protect me. If you don’t love and protect me then I must have done something wrong.

That sets the stage for shame. The deeper interpretation a child draws from being abused is that they are worthless. If my parent could treat me like that then I don’t matter to them and if I don’t matter to them then I don’t matter at all. Feeling like I don’t matter is like feeling I shouldn’t even exist. That’s the core of feeling worthless: I shouldn’t even exist.

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How Being Shamed as a Child Harmed me

There were two pivotal moments that happened during childhood that helped to settle shame deeper into my bones. The first one had to do with an incident where I was caught “playing doctor” with the boy who lived downstairs. We must have been around the ages of five and six. His mother found us and she reported it to my mom who, in turn, shamed and mocked me and then threatened to send me back to my father. That was her custom, whenever I was “bad” she would threaten to send me back to my father.

Mind you, at this point she has no idea what had happened to me. I didn’t tell her of the abuse until I was in my thirties and processing it in therapy. And to her credit she did apologize at some point for threatening to send me away, acknowledging that she was doing what had been done to her as a child: discipline through threat and coercion.

But, my god, the terror that would seize me whenever she threatened to send me back to my father. It sent me into a silent panic. One of the ways that shame can show up is in self-injurious behavior, like cutting, burning, and even suicide. By age eight I had attempted suicide several times. One time I remember I tried to overdose by taking a lot of children’s Aspirin. It just put me to sleep for long time.

Many years ago a woman made the news because she was being charged with killing her child. She claimed that the child committed suicide and no one believed her. People just could not be convinced that a child would try to kill themselves. But some children, children who feel unloved, unwanted, abused, and neglected do try to commit suicide. I did and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

The second incident happened in the fourth grade. I had an unstable childhood and was in a different school almost every year. So when I transferred to another new school three months into the new school year, I had a lot of catching up to do and I was struggling. Around that time I found out that I needed glasses. After getting glasses I was sitting in class and the teacher was giving a lesson in True/False statements.

She read the statement: All people who wear glasses are smart. I kid you not, every kid in that classroom turned toward me and said unanimously, “False.” I could have died. After that, my confidence went down the toilet. I remember purposefully failing Spelling Bee’s just to get out of doing them because I felt so inadequate.

Being shamed as a child has two components – there’s what happened and then there’s the meaning you give to what happened. When I internalized those situations and interpreted them to mean that I was bad and flawed that’s when I trapped shame inside.

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Me, age 40.

Adulthood: Feeling Worthless on the Inside While Looking Fierce on the Outside

Feeling worthless was not something that I was actively conscious of. It’s not like I woke up each day thinking, ‘God, I’m worthless.’ It was deeper in my subconscious than that and because of that it had the power to shape my behavior in ways that I didn’t realize. There were times when I wouldn’t speak up for myself in situations where I knew I was right. But that underlying sense of worthlessness gave me the belief that my thoughts and opinions didn’t matter much even if they were right.

That belief system fueled a deluge of negative self-talk that went unchecked for far too long. It’s been so long now that I won the battle over negative self-talk that I can’t remember the types of things I said to myself. I just know they amounted to ‘You suck’ said in a variety of different ways.

My self-esteem was so low back then that when I was nineteen and started getting attention from men I took that attention to mean that I was worth something. So that by the age of twenty-two I had created an image for myself based on sexiness. Being desirable became my super power. I concentrated all my energy into my looks and drew satisfaction from knowing that all my friends were “hot”.

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But on the inside I was numb. Completely numb. On one painfully bleak evening, when I just couldn’t stand the numbness any more (I was probably twenty-one), I decided on a whim to go to Hollywood and get my tongue pierced. Can you imagine? Just to feel something? I consider this part of the shame-induced self-injurious behavior carried over from childhood.

Another thing about shame is that it has a posture. You see it best in a dog that has disappointed its owner. They drop their head and shoulders and look down and away. People do the same thing when we feel ashamed. Our shoulders droop and we avoid eye contact.

One of reasons it was hard to spot shame for me was because I cultivated a posture that was opposite the norm. I was extremely rigid, keeping my shoulders back and my head high. Some would read my posture as proud, even arrogant. But what I came to learn in my graduate studies was that my posture was my defense mechanism against the helplessness of my abused child-self. I created an outer shell that said, ‘Don’t fuck with me.’ When I walked down the street everything about how I moved screamed, ‘Back off!’

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How Oprah, Hypnotherapy, and Self-Love Helped me put Down my Shame

Getting over my feelings of worthlessness took some time and was a process. It began with taking a honest look at myself and seeing how shame had made me dislike myself. One of the things I disliked about myself was the emphasis I had put on my looks and seeking approval and acceptance from being wanted. I had gone from zero sense of self to having a self-image based on externals. I had grown to hate the attention I got from men and wished for invisibility.

I decided it was high time to start building my self-esteem based on something real, something that could not be removed with time (like one’s looks) and could not be taken from me, like a job or status. And I thought about what sorts of things gave me confidence when I was a little girl. It was the things I accomplished like my creative pursuits.

When I was growing up anything I did that had to do with writing or creativity garnered high marks. And I enjoyed those things above any other course of study. So I decided to create a new “Self” based on my passions, pursuits, and talents. It was also around that time that I found my life’s purpose in helping other survivors of childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault heal from their trauma. I became a support group facilitator and counselor to survivors.

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Around the same time, I caught a segment of the Oprah Winfrey Show in which she was talking to a woman about loving ourselves. The woman described a practice that I found lovely and nourishing. She called it a Self-blessing. I don’t remember her exact words but the practice she described entailed blessing yourself each day by putting your hands on a part of your body and saying something like, “I bless my eyes for they give me sight and the ability to see truth.”

For me, one of the things about being a survivor of sexual violence, you know, unlike your house or car being broken into, your body is broken into. Your body becomes the crime scene. And after living for years not respecting my body and not having appropriate boundaries for my body, this practice of self-blessing felt like a divine thing, something that would restore a feeling of sacredness and value to my body.

I started doing the practice every morning in the shower. I would start at the top of my head and work down to my feet blessing each part, spending deliberate time blessing my pelvic area that had held the emotional trauma of the abuse for all those years. Some mornings I would cry as I moved through the practice because I had spent so much of my life hating my body. Eventually, though, by doing this regularly I developed deep love and appreciation for myself.

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As much as I was helping the women in our support groups work through their healing process, they were also helping me by sharing their stories, particularly their journey through shame. I remember one woman who made us all burst out laughing when she admitted how for so long she hated her body but then concluded, “It took me a long time to love my tits. And now I REALLY love my tits!” It was a great moment in the circle.

Another thing that helped me was learning to reframe the things that happened to me as a child. I learned this during a training I attended to be certified in a process called Rapid Trauma Resolution (RTR). It’s a powerful hypnotherapy tool for working with anxiety, depression, and PTSD (Post-traumatic stress syndrome).

I was skeptical about it so I volunteered for one of the demos. It was about six of us counselors, social workers, and psychologists sitting with the trainer in a circle. He asked me what I wanted to work on. Immediately the memory of my mother shaming me over playing with the boy downstairs popped in my head. I told the group the story and the trainer began the process.

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When they say Rapid Trauma Resolution they mean it. The steps involved in the hypnotherapy took a matter of minutes. He had me remember the incident fully before he began and I could feel the shame sitting in my chest. After the process he asked me to remember the incident again and when I did laughter broke free from my throat. Laughter and this feeling of lightness and joy. The shame was gone!

In its place was this new thought, ‘Of course you did that as a child! You were a child! You were curious!’ The group supported me through the process by reframing the situation and normalizing my behavior as “children’s exploratory play” – it’s what little kids do. And it was wrong for my mother to shame me for something as natural to children as exploring each other. I felt restored. And I was amazed that something so quick and easy as RTR could zap away the shame of that memory so completely.

I was able to reframe the shaming that happened in the classroom at age nine much the same way when I noticed how it was impacting me in graduate school. By that time I was in my thirties and my confidence had been so eroded by shame that for a while any time that I wanted to ask a question or make a comment my heart would start to race, tears would well in my eyes, and my voice would quiver when I spoke. But thank God I spoke! I’m grateful that I didn’t let the shame completely stop me; although I was taken aback by the physical manifestation of shame in those moments.

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Reframing my childhood challenges in school meant acknowledging the extreme hardship of changing schools on a near yearly basis. Having to make friends all over again, learn the new “playground politics”, the new teacher’s expectations, and new curriculum were hard. Never feeling rooted anywhere was hardest. So of course I struggled in school sometimes to catch up. That didn’t mean I wasn’t smart.

By the time I completed my graduate program in which I studied Somatic Psychology, the study of the mind-body connection with a specialization in trauma, I had learned so much about how we hold shame in our bodies and ways to work it out. One of the tools I used to move shame out of my body was dance. For years I took various forms of dance from Afro-Haitian to Flamenco and each style of dance taught me a new way to feel my body, use my body, and feel competent in my body.

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Undoing shame has been a process of unearthing long-held beliefs about my self-worth, cultivating a sense of self based on my competencies and talents, fostering self-love and appreciation, and reframing the things that happened to me in my childhood. It hasn’t been easy and it certainly wasn’t quick, apart from that RTR session. But it has been some of the most important self-growth work I’ve done.

I shudder to think where I would be if had not taken on the task of recovering from shame. I know that I would not have the relationship I now have because shame would have kept me feeling unworthy of love. And I know that I would not have had the courage to follow my dream of becoming a writer because I still would have carried the belief that everything inside me was worthless and that I had nothing of value to offer to the world.

That’s the thing with shame – it robs you of your chance to live. To fully live. With shame we only survive. Without shame we can thrive.

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Me, today. 🙂

When you’re ready to dive into the work of Healing Trauma with someone who knows it, and can expertly and compassionately guide you through the process, I’m here for you.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO IT ALONE.

Contact me today! tamara@tamarajefferies.com or call me at 843-603-5930. I’m here for you!

On Being Black and Doing Business in the South

Recently I considered buying ad space in a local magazine to promote my business. There were different factors to consider, but the factor that made me stop considering buying the ad caused me pause.

I had the thought there is a possibility that by making myself more visible I might catch the attention and become a target of hate-filled white people in the area. (If you are not a person of color, this is a threat that will never cross your mind.)

And that caused me pause because it’s 2021 and I, an independent Black female business owner, should not have to worry about such things.

But I do.

The events in Georgia’s capital in recent days have brought this truth to vivid life right before our eyes.

I am reminded of one of my cousins (now deceased. May he rest in peace) who was a business owner in the city where he lived. At some point his business was doing very well. Too well for some people. A handful of hate-filled white men visited my cousin’s business and threatened his life because they believed his business was cutting into theirs. This was in South Carolina in the 1990s.

This is what people don’t understand about the ways in which racism and white privilege are entangled. White privilege and racism give some white people the idea that they have the right to threaten other people’s lives, livelihoods, and liberty whenever and however they like because they perceive they are being inconvenienced in some way.

What’s happening in Georgia right now is a handful of hate-filled white people who are angry and scared of losing power. So they are changing the laws to suit their preferences and in doing so are disregarding, undermining, and upending the core principles of our democracy.

Those men who threatened my cousin’s life did so out of anger and fear of losing their little slice of the pie, but most importantly, not wanting any slice of that pie going to a black man.

The indignities and injustices inflicted on people of color by a small group of hate-filled white people cause my heart to ache as tears well and fall from my eyes.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

So I pray. In these times of tumult, I pray. I pray for justice, compassion, and love to prevail.

Dear God,

May Justice,

Compassion,

And Love

Prevail.

Amen

“Why Does Everyone Think I’m So Intense?”

I often hear my clients say, “I overwhelm people. Sometimes I freak people out because I’m so intense. People can’t handle me.” Can you relate? I can. In my 20s, I felt that most people didn’t understand me or fully know me because they didn’t get my intensity. My exuberance overwhelmed them. And what I had hoped would be met with equal or greater intensity was often met with befuddlement or disengagement.

Which left me feeling very much alone, indeed. What I didn’t know then was the source of my intensity. And what I was so naively unaware of was that most people aren’t that intense. As I work with my holistic counseling clients now, and they express concerns like the ones above, I like to help them uncover where that intensity comes from and what needs it’s filling. If this is something you’ve struggled with, read on, as we explore some reasons why we can come off as SO INTENSE.

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Photo by Alex Green from Pexels

Why Some People Are So Intense

When we feel intensely about someone or something, it can come across a few ways. Like exuberant speech, where you’re talking a mile a minute, and you’re animated, or excited. Or it can come through in body language that takes up a lot of space with wide gestures, standing or sitting close, or leaning toward another.

In and of themselves, these displays are not an issue. But when this seems like the main way one expresses themselves, the impression can be off-putting—looming, crowding, or even intrusive.

The sad thing is that those impressions are seldom, if ever, the intention of the speaker. A person who comes across like this is often totally oblivious that they are being perceived in this way. To them, they are expressing themselves in a way that feels normal. And they are often confused by people’s reactions to their behavior. Under the surface, there are a couple of things playing out for both the speaker and the listener.

For the speaker, this kind of intensity can come from a deep need for connection. There may be a core wound of neglect or abuse that unconsciously manifests as intense displays of emotion. The intense person may experience these feelings of longing for connection at a near unconscious level, and when they come out in these intense displays, the person will often consider themselves passionate—they’re just passionate! About everything!

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Photo by Alex Green from Pexels

Passion is much more palatable than neediness

It’s easier to live with yourself, it’s easier to look yourself in the mirror if you think of yourself as a deeply passionate person rather than a deeply needy person. But true passion is born from a place of creativity, eros, and inspiration, not from a place of need. So when we feel that our intensity scares people, the uncomfortable truth is that sometimes we’re right about that.

It does scare some people. And that in itself can be a source of shame that lies over the deeper shame that caused the neediness in the first place. The lack of love and care a child of neglect or abuse experiences can leave profound scars. All too often, children will blame themselves for being abused or neglected. They will think that they did something wrong or were “bad” and thus were deserving of the treatment.

The void neglect and abuse create is oftentimes filled by neediness and shame. Which can turn into a nasty cycle of feeling a need then feeling shame for feeling the need. We seek to fulfill the need for connection through intense displays of emotion. And when that need goes unanswered, we feel shame all over again for sharing our feelings.

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Photo by Alex Green from Pexels

It can become a vicious pattern

Now, here’s the thing that may be happening inside the intense person at the moment they are overwhelming someone with their feelings: that deep wound left by neglect or abuse is seeking to be healed. It’s seeking contact, seeking connection, love, and safety.

For many, that deep wound is seeking a sense of home and comfort. But how that comes across in one’s words or behaviors is like this…

Imagine two people standing facing one another. One person has their arms at their side and is standing straight, looking at the other. The other person has their arms extended toward the other, reaching with all their energy, they lean deeply toward the other person, the eyes are open wider than usual, the mouth is slightly open as if to speak, everything about this person is extending toward the other.

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Photo by Alex Green from Pexels

When Feelings Become Overwhelming

That is essentially what is happening when one person overwhelms another with their feelings. It’s as though everything in that person is screaming “Please love me!”. Because, in actuality, that is precisely what’s happening when the intense person expresses their feelings, and the listener, rather than being drawn in and attracted, is repulsed and pushed back. The feelings come across as too great because they are coming from a great need that is the result of a deep wound.

When the listener hears this or feels these emotions coming toward them, their nervous system senses that as overwhelm, or intrusion, and their natural response is to step back. Suddenly something occurs in the mind of the listener that asks, “Why is this person so intense? This doesn’t feel right,” and they withdraw. Ever notice how some relationships, romantic or platonic, seem to quietly dissolve without a word? Sometimes it’s just as simple as one person being pushed away by another person’s intensity.

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Photo by Alex Green from Pexels

What if You’re Too Much for People?

Feeling like you’re too much is an interesting issue because the question becomes, “Too much for whom?”. You could be totally fine but be surrounded by repressed or closed-minded people who want you to conform to their standards of behavior. Or you could, like our passionate friend is the last example, be expressing your emotions in such a way that pushes people away from you rather than drawing them near.

Communication is always about connection. We’re all trying to connect in some way to another person. So if we find that our style of communicating our feelings or thoughts is having the opposite response of what we’re looking for, then we have to look at ourselves and ask some self-reflective questions:

  • How do I express myself?
  • What is my intention when I express myself?
  • Is it for connection?
  • Or is it to understand or to be understood?
  • Is it to get attention?
  • Is it to fulfill a need?

Your intentions shape how you express yourself, and the need for attention or the desire to fulfill a need will come across as “too much” one way or another.

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Photo by Alex Green from Pexels

First Things First

So the first step is to gauge your situation: are you 1) Surrounded by closed-minded or repressed people seeking your conformity? Or are you 2) Communicating your thoughts and feelings in a way that pushes people away rather than drawing them closer?

After that step, you’ll want to take a good look at the people around you, or take a good look at yourself and explore different ways of expressing yourself.

People Who Love You Will Accept All Of You

Sometimes the things we go through are so terrible that we don’t even want to face them. It’s just too painful. So we seal those things away and try not to go there. Ever.

But the longer we do that, the more difficult it gets to ignore these skeletons in our closets. The problem is made worse when we have people in our lives whom we love and care about but are scared out of our minds to share these darker things about ourselves. This can lead to feeling like you’re living a double life—the one your friends know and the one you hide.

But here’s the thing—if a person truly loves you and cares about you, they’d much rather know all of you than not. And if they truly love you for who you are (and not what you mean to them or what you can do for them) then they will accept you and your history without judgment or reproach. In fact, when confided in, truly loving and caring people respond with sympathy and compassion to the things that hurt us most.

Can You See Me?

Everyone wants to be fully seen and known. When we feel like there are parts of our lives that are just too intense or upsetting or scary to share, it can leave us feeling all alone in the world.

The best thing you can do for yourself and your wellbeing is to surround yourself with people who truly love you as you are, who understand not everyone had a perfect life, and some of us carry deep wounds and harrowing stories but are still absolutely worthy of love and support, regardless. And even if it’s just one person you find who can show your heart that kind of care, that is enough.

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Photo by Alex Green from Pexels

How Being Intense Has Helped You

Here’s the thing, you’re intensely passionate nature is an adaptation to your environment and circumstance. It helped you navigate through this world somehow. So, how has your intensity served you?

Perhaps, it helped you feel in times when you felt mostly numb. Maybe it gave you an outlet and an escape from a home that was void of love, tenderness, or care. Or it helped push people away to keep you from getting hurt again.

As with all coping skills and adaptations that once served us but no longer, it’s helpful to look at these aspects of ourselves as friends who visited us in a time of great need, and now that the time of need has passed, we can thank them, say goodbye, and release them.

In their absence, we can develop new ways of being that more accurately reflect who we are now, that build on our strengths, and that help us achieve the one thing we’re all after—to be known.

Carolina Winds

Each morning

I open my front door

To greet the new day

And am met by

The Carolina Winds.

The air here is heady—

Rich with the elements,

Copper, Iron, and Soul.

It is unlike anything

I have ever known.

I am undone by it,

Yet hemmed up by it

All at once.

Inhaling the morning air,

I draw gold filaments

Into my lungs.

My heart

is instantly comforted;

Everything Alive

Relaxes

In that moment.

The wind meets me,

Spirals around me,

Seeps into me,

And in so doing,

Somehow,

Unbidden,

Coaxes roots from my body

That sink into the damp earth.

This… intimacy,

It levels me and

Sublimates me

All at once.

That is the paradox

That thrills me—

That the Carolina Winds

Both

Ground me

And

Elevate me.

The Carolinas—

Home to

All

My Ancestors

On this Continent.

It is their breath

In the wind,

It is their blood

In the land,

It is their Spirit

In everything I see.

This is what makes this place

Home to me.

It is their breath

In the winds.

Those Carolina Winds.

©2021 Tamara Jefferies

There is something in the air here. And when I breathe in the morning air something happens to me that I have never experienced before. I wanted to put it in poetic terms because the experience feels poetic. I was a little nervous about it because it’s been a long time since I’ve written a poem.

I think I captured it. I’m just amazed every morning by how smelling the air and feeling the wind makes me feel. There is something so beautiful, delicious, and… addictive to it. Can you imagine? Feeling such elation at the scent of the air it becomes addictive?  I await each morning with excitement and joy in my heart.

I have a feeling my final words could be, “Just let me smell the air”.

During These Turbulent Times, Here’s How We Talk About Race in Our Interracial Relationship

Tips for turning an uncomfortable conversation about race into an opportunity for growth.
MAPODILE/GETTY IMAGES

The ironic thing about being in an interracial relationship is how rarely race comes up. When my partner and I fell in love, I wasn’t falling in love with a white man, and he wasn’t falling in love with a Black woman. It was just a man and a woman falling in love.

And unlike the groundbreaking show Mixed-ish, portraying a married interracial couple raising three biracial children, not every disagreement that comes up between us is a “learning moment” on cultural sensitivity or ways to fight racism. Discord for us is like most couples: differences of opinion, being triggered by something the other did or said, old emotional wounds, adjusting to 24/7 quarantine togetherness, or just being desperately hungry.

Race so seldom plays a role in our day-to-day lives. However, following the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the knee of Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, and the subsequent protests, the whole issue of race became amplified as we grappled with these issues and complex feelings.

Coming from different cultural backgrounds and different ideologies can be a cause for some tense conversations around the targeting of Black people, police violence, and systemic racism.

Here are some things we do to take the heat out of talking about race.

To love, accept, and validate

Years ago we listed things we felt were important in keeping our relationship strong. Those things have become our communication vows: to love and accept each other and to validate one another’s emotional experiences. So rather than rush in to fix a problem, we try our best to listen first, ask questions second.

Without that kind of understanding in place, tough conversations would be almost impossible, particularly those touching on subjects as potentially volatile as race, police violence, and social justice.

The astonishing thing is that by now, these “vows” have become the invisible backdrop behind our talks, so we can fall into a place of listening with acceptance without thinking about it. This comes in handy when one of us voices frustration and the other is just able to take it in without needing to do anything about it.

If this doesn’t come easily for you (and it didn’t for us for a while) you can start with these 7 ways to be more accepting of your partner.

Actively listen

These conversations usually happen when we’re hanging out in our front yard or sitting together on the couch and the subject turns to the following: “So, how are you doing with all this stuff in the news?”

During those times, when we delve into tougher feelings, we aim for being a better listener by staying in the moment. This means putting down the book or the phone, blocking out the distractions of neighbors walking by, and fully giving our attention to the other. Here’s how couples can become better listeners and strengthen their relationships.

Listen to understand the other’s point of view

It can be challenging when we disagree on something we feel strongly about. The way we try to improve our communication at those times is to take a step back and start asking questions to better understand the other person’s point of view. It doesn’t mean that we’ll end up agreeing, but it lessens confusion and defensiveness when we can understand why the other thinks the way they do.

So, as we discuss our reactions to Floyd’s killing and the protests, we may ask the other, “How did you come to think that or feel that way?” And it’s not uncommon that it’s the first time we’ve had to think about how we formed some ideas on a specific issue.

My background of living in predominately Black neighborhoods until my teens and then predominately non-Black neighborhoods thereafter shaped my feelings on how Black people are treated. Similarly, his upbringing of being raised in a predominately Polish neighborhood in an area where different ethnicities kept to themselves, shaped his feelings on how people from different ethnic or cultural backgrounds treated each other.

We both grew up in segregated environments and were exposed to ideas and beliefs about other races that reflected our environments. Some of those ideas we abandoned if they didn’t fit our concept of the world and some we’ve kept.

To hear the other’s perspective, self-reflect on, and challenge ideologies we hold helps us refine our thoughts and see a wider picture of the world.

While it would be a tall order for him to feel what I’ve experienced as a Black woman or for me to feel what he’s experienced as a white man regarding racism, we can show empathy by striving to understand the context within which certain beliefs and opinions were formed.

Don’t worry about being politically correct

Whereas we want to be cognizant of each other’s feelings, playing nice by being politically correct doesn’t work. For one thing, that’s not our style. More importantly, though, being politically correct has no place in a frank discussion about race within our relationship.

We call it as we see it because of our core belief that our relationship is a safe place to be real.

So, when we’re talking about things we’re seeing on the news, there are things that are just unequivocal: These are images of white cops killing Black men or these are images of Black people looting businesses downtown. We don’t dance around the issue.

MAPODILE/GETTY IMAGES

Keep the dialogue flowing even if we hit a sore spot

To say that talking about race doesn’t press some sensitive buttons would be a lie. The worst thing to do, though, is to clam up and stop talking (or stonewall) because we’ve become upset. That can lead to passive-aggression and resentment. Or the opposite: speaking out of anger and saying things you should never say to your spouse or partner.

What we do instead is keep talking until both have stated their point of view and if we can’t come to an agreement, let it go and move on.

What I’ve seen happen in our conversations is that when we hit upon a provocative issue like where to draw the line between social reform and community responsibility (or if such a delineation is even useful), after a couple of turns in sharing our thoughts and hearing the other person out, we’ll eventually get to, “Yeah, I see what you’re saying.”

Be all right with opposing opinions

We have to be all right with the other person having a different opinion because we’ll never agree on everything 100 percent. Since we base opinions on feelings or ideologies and not facts, they can be contentious if we hold on to them firmly.

Knowing that we try to be clear by saying: “This is just my feeling; I’m not saying it’s a fact or that it’s even right. It’s just how I feel.”

When it comes to discussing things like social justice, we both have opinions on what should be done to address the issues, the points that should take priority, and who should shoulder responsibility for what.

And since we are not part of a governing body, but a couple having a conversation on their couch, it’s just better to allow for the fact that we see some things differently.

Build on common ground

Because discussions about race and social justice can be fraught with tension, we’re sensitive to jump on things we agree on. We take some fire out of the conversation and reestablish our connection by taking a moment to acknowledge the points where we overlap and say, “You’re right about that, or I agree with what you just said.” Those moments feel more affirming than the moments of asserting our individual point of view.

An easy point for us to agree on is that the protests are good for raising awareness, propelling social reform, and showing global solidarity against racial injustice; while looting is untenable and deplorable, detracts from the movement, and gives those who already hate people of color evidence to prop up their hatred.

Come from a place of mutual respect

We can easily reduce differences of opinion on race within a group of acquaintances by saying, “s/he just doesn’t get it” and writing the person off. Within a couple, though, where you have history and know this person intimately, you also know the following: 1.) They have a genuine interest in doing the right thing and 2.) Dismissal would be disrespectful and damaging to the connection.

One of the signs that your relationship is solid as a rock, is your mutual respect of each other. One way we show that is in the value we place on our connection and the steps we take to keep that connection strong.

Mind you, these conversations don’t go perfectly every time. We’re human and sometimes we don’t get the words right. However, we know that we’re coming from a place of wanting to understand, to be understood, and to gain a wider perspective.

These could be some of the hardest conversations interracial couples have and as we move through this moment in history together, it’s important to remember that we’re on the same team.

On the macro-level, as we hold conversations across cultures in the United States, the same holds true: We’re on the same team.

Next, read how to support the Black Lives Matter movement and become anti-racist.

For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.

[Article first published on Reader’s Digest.]

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Tamara Jefferies MA is a freelance wellness writer and holistic counselor/coach based in Long Beach, CA. She has worked in the wellness field since 2005 and holds a Master’s in Somatic Psychology from John F. Kennedy University, several certifications in the specialization of trauma and trauma resolution, and is a certified yoga teacher and holistic practitioner offering transformational counseling to women.

Writing on topics that help women heal, grow, and live fulfilled and happy lives is her passion as is writing for wellness businesses, publications, and brands. She is a regular contributing writer to the wellness brand, The Candidly, and a Brand Ambassador to ADORAtherapy.

Contact her at info@growandthrivewellness.com for all your wellness writing or counseling needs.

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