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Lashing Out Hurts You the Most
Stop injuring yourself in a misguided attempt to stand up for yourself. When you consistently get your own back, you don't go on the attack.
Moon, Sea, Mist (1955) by Helen Lundeberg
(Welcome, New York Times readers! I’ve been writing this advice column for 11 years now. Hop on board, we have a good time around here! I also write essays, humor, and prose here.)
I used to lash out. I’d write long emails explaining how someone had wronged me. I’d pick up the phone and when words became tense, I’d defend my position, then shift to a counterattack. In my twenties, my closest friendships were best summed up by the scene in “Girls” where Marnie calls Hannah a “big ugly wound” and Hannah replies, “No, you’re the wound!”
Lashing out is a side effect of shame. You can’t figure out how to get what you need because you’re too clouded by shame to examine your real needs. You can’t state your needs out loud because you feel like you don’t deserve that much, and also you’ve spent your whole life pretending you don’t have needs at all. You can’t respect the needs of the people around you because you suffer under the illusion that you’re serving their needs around the clock. You feel this way because you don’t give yourself anything you really need. You feel this way because you don’t know what you need or want.
When you’re ruled by shame, needing things means you’re helpless, so you try not to have needs at all. Wanting things means you’re useless, a drain on others, so you power down your deepest desires. Your shame tricks you into thinking you don’t need as much as you do, because you refuse to go to that scared, helpless place where you feel small and weak. Your shame pretends that you’re much stronger when you stay above your desires and your confusion and your fear, when you pretend that you need nothing and no one, that no one is good enough for you. Your shame convinces you to numb your hunger for connection and your big emotions so they never get the best of you again.
When you’re ruled by shame, emotions and needs are your enemies. Anything you can do to mute or ignore or distract from your own desires, you’ll do. Desire makes you weak. Wanting makes you vulnerable and dependent. Stating your needs out loud inevitably leads to abandonment and despair.
Every day, without even knowing it, you resolve to avoid stating your needs out loud.
This is where lashing out comes from: You are a giant wound covered in bandages, but you refuse to clean your wounds or air them out because then other people can see them. A person ruled by shame is like a cartoon mummy: No one can see them clearly. They’re all wrapped up and protected. They can’t see anyone else. They can’t feel anything.
Mummies stumble sightless and numb through the world, thinking that they’re protected, thinking that they’ll never have any reason to hurt anyone. But even when mummies are quiet, they’re hurtful and they’re depressed, because they’re not really there. They can’t be. They’re too protected and hidden to be seen or heard, to connect and love, to forgive themselves for their many wounds.
If you stumble around blindly, ruled by your shame, unable to communicate, playing along and hiding, eventually life becomes unbearable. No one understands you. Everything is confusing. You don’t have a voice. So eventually, you pick up the biggest, blunted weapon you can find and start swinging.
I’ve written a lot about shame and forgiveness lately, but the more I write about it, the more I realize that most people aren’t aware of how fundamental, inescapable, and anxiety-inducing shame can be on a daily basis. And many people don’t realize how dramatically better they’ll feel, once they start to unravel the bandages from their eyes and look at the world around them without fear and show themselves without apology.
The process of noticing shame and addressing it and forgiving yourself is so powerful that it can make you feel a little better in the moment, in an instant, every day. It’s like one of those annoying physical therapy exercises with a big red rubber band that you’re supposed to do to fix your shoulder, but you absolutely cannot stand to revisit JUST HOW BAD your shoulder feels several times a day, so you don’t do it. As a result, your shoulder feels worse and worse, and now you feel guilty about that pain on top of everything else.
But once you pull out the stupid rubber band and start doing the exercises, whew, you feel so much better! And the more you do them, the better you feel. When you stop and forgive yourself during the day, several times a day, and really try to FEEL it, it’s like you’re cutting off a little of your mummy bandages and throwing them away. You start to feel in your bones that it’s okay to be human. You start to forgive others for being human. You don’t feel as angry or sad. You can admit that you’ve made mistakes, and fallen short, and you have wounds – lots of them. But you can also see other people’s wounds, and suddenly you don’t want to accuse them of being injured like that’s some kind of a curse. You want to help them heal instead.
I wouldn’t repeat the same messages about forgiveness and shame over and over if these realizations hadn’t been so fundamental to my happiness. I scraped by for years on good luck and an extremely patient husband, but my fortunate circumstances couldn’t protect me from my unrelenting humiliation at being THIS person, a complicated, moody, dismissive, people-pleasing jumble of nerves and shame and huge emotions. I was like Frankenstein’s monster, savage and greedy and scared and craving love, but all wrapped up in bandages so I stumbled around and swung my big blunt weapons and then went into hiding and watched other people and envied them, wishing I could be a regular human being like them, but not knowing how.
The one way I found to crawl out of that shame was by noticing how irrational it always was -- how it sprung up in response to being misunderstood by complete strangers, for example, or how it would stick around long after a stray, careless comment from a friend landed badly with me. As I monitored my shame more closely, I started to realize that I was operating under a giant stack of faulty assumptions about how other people saw me. Subconsciously, I believed that people saw me as a little weak and pathetic, no matter what I was doing. I experienced myself as unimportant, a joke, a little desperate. I didn’t realize this before. I just thought I was moody and life was difficult and people were callous. I didn’t recognize how absent I was from most social interactions, how performative I was just to please people, how anxious I was when it didn’t seem to be working, how distracted by shame I was in everything I did.
The strange thing about shame is that you don’t have any idea how easy and relaxing life can feel until you start to scrape it out of your life. You don’t have to feel embarrassing or withdrawn, hypersensitive or apathetic. You can state your needs and desires out loud and whether or not another person wants to help you with any of that, it still feels good to be seen and heard, and to see and hear yourself for a change.
Feeling invisible and powerless isn’t just an inconvenient drag. It’s dangerous. When you walk around feeling small and helpless, you tend to bulldoze other people without knowing it. You assume that they don’t respect you (the same way you disrespect yourself) or that they don’t think of you as significant or they don’t like you that much. So you bring a giant pile of weapons to a tea party and then wonder why people react like you’re some kind of a ghoul or war lord. You think you’re just making your point, trying to be heard, but you’re swinging a battle axe around, smashing everyone’s tea cups.
Shame turns your tea cup into a battle axe. Shame turns your very normal human mistakes into giant wounds. Shame makes you respond to a cry for love with your own cry for love, which is what Hannah and Marnie are doing in that scene from “Girls.” They’re attacking each other but in their attacks, you can hear what they’re really saying: BUT YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO LOVE ME!
Shame is your body giving you the same message: But you were supposed to love me!
When you hear a good friend or family member tell you that someone was supposed to love them and they failed and it’s wrong and something needs to be done about it, something needs to be said, that cruel person needs to pay for their big mistake, their callousness, their unseeing, ignorant, unjust, numb, heartless, cruel ways? They’re talking about themselves, too. They’re letting you know that they’re cruel to themselves, every day, without knowing it. They’re talking through several layers of bandages. They’re saying they can’t see or feel anymore, because the risks are too great. They’re furious but they’re refusing to unwind the bandages and let the world in. They want to stay protected from the world. They’re worried that if they show themselves, and show up, and admit how bad they feel, they’ll bleed out all over the place, and no one will stick around to stop the bleeding.
When you aren’t ruled by shame, it’s easy to say to someone like that, “I will love you.”
But you also might have to say, “Just so you know, I have to take my kid to soccer practice today.” (STRONG BOUNDARIES AND SAYING NO A LOT ARE BOTH CRUCIAL WHEN YOU’RE DEALING WITH A MUMMY. Giving a mummy everything will turn you back into a mummy. You’ll both be the wound again. You don’t want that, trust me!).
But before you get off the phone, you also might want to say: “I want you to try to forgive yourself for feeling so sad about this. Forgive yourself for feeling vulnerable. These are normal things to feel. You haven’t messed everything up. You have so much life and so much happiness ahead of you. You’re doing fine!”
I have a friend who once got told by a psychic that she was a fairy. When she told me this, I thought it was completely ridiculous and hilarious but honestly, it also seemed a little true: She is sometimes an anxious person, sure, but she’s also so light and joyful and fairy-like at her core. She really knows how to celebrate people’s quirks and oddities, to show them how these things made them special. She’s very buoyant and tuned in to the world — when she feels safe and not beating herself up, which is a challenge for her.
So when shame is clouding HER vision I often tell her, as I get off the phone:
“REMEMBER, YOU’RE A FAIRY!”
And honestly, we’re all fairies who are ashamed and confused enough to believe that we’re mummies. We can float above the ground but we believe that our lot in life is to trudge around, swinging a heavy club we can barely lift off the ground.
So forgive yourself for feeling angry and sad, forgive yourself for your frustration and your addiction to distractions and longing and obsessive thoughts, forgive yourself for doing less with this day than you expected, forgive yourself for not understanding your own power. Forgive yourself and notice that you aren’t helpless, you aren’t invisible, you don’t have to stomp your feet and yell in order to be heard. But you do have to hear yourself, first and foremost. You have to listen to yourself. You have to respect your own needs and desires.
Forgive yourself and you will forgive everyone around you, in time, for having their own big flaws and making their own big mistakes. Forgive yourself and honesty will come easily, because you won’t be ashamed of your own needs. Forgive yourself and make some space for desire in your life, recognizing that wanting and needing and feeling everything don’t make you weaker and needier. Desire and love and wanting, even when they’re not perfectly satisfied, make you stronger and more vibrant and more generous.
When you have a strong urge to lash out, try to forgive yourself instead. Forgive yourself for caring much more than you want to, and loving much more than you can stand. These are beautiful traits, FAIRY TRAITS. How can you be a fairy if you blame yourself for everything that makes you magical?
Savor your magic instead. Love your giant heart. Forgive yourself, and float above the ground. Forgive yourself, and spread that magic around like you were born to do.
Thanks for reading Ask Polly! I’m thankful for your support and thrilled to still be doing this weird job. Here’s Ask Molly (written by Polly’s evil twin), on the joys of shamelessness, on the shame of surrendering to love, on the delights of feeding your garbage monster. And here’s another Ask Polly on encouraging your parents, children, friends, and spouses to trust themselves and respect their big desires. Don’t forget to laugh at what a garbage monster you are. Relish this sad and terrible and sublime day.