Embracing self-expression…and rejecting shame

Weeds Tattoo

My first major display of self expression…a tattoo.

“It’s known, not “know-en”, he commented. “ There is no extra syllable…” I felt the familiar tug of shame. I’m a 44-year old writer; certainly, I should know how to pronounce words as simple as known, flown, shown, and others. The commenting continued to the point that I was consciously trying to correct myself before he caught the mispronunciation. “Where the hell did this come from?” I asked myself.

Another moment of embarrassment provided a lead. During a CrossFit workout, my attempts at jumping rope were humorous at best. I was embarrassed and soon I wanted to quit rather than let anyone know I lacked this basic childhood skill. Later I explained to my boyfriend that I have struggled with these things since entering the U.S. school system in the fourth grade after living on a boat in the South Pacific for nearly five years. Persistent teasing amplified a preexisting drive for perfection, rooted in my home life. Together they were toxic to my self-esteem and suppressed self-expression. In the decades since, I’ve hardly spoken of my years spent living on a boat in the South Pacific, Caribbean and South America. I dress simply, paint the walls beige, avoid drawing attention to myself, and hide that I can’t play ball…or jump rope.

I can still see the schoolroom walls and hear the taunts….

“What is petrol?”

“Haha…you don’t know what a nickel is?”

“How can you not know how to play dodge ball?”

“It’s just a fire drill, why are you freaking out?”

“Ya right, you lived on a boat…liar!”

“Why do you talk so funny?”

That last memory gave me a clue. A quick Google search yielded the following:

As in Australian English, some New Zealanders pronounce past participles such as grown, thrown and mown with two syllables, the latter containing a schwa /-oʊ.ən/ not found in other accents. By contrast, groan, throne and moan are all unaffected, meaning these word pairs can be distinguished by ear.”

What had been judged as mispronunciations were actually the last vestiges of a childhood accent developed when I attended school in New Zealand.

This made me think about the complicated tapestry that makes up my “self.” Something as simple as an accent led to the judgment that I was in some way ignorant of proper English pronunciation, when the truth is that I simply have a different speech pattern thanks to years of travel. My first response was embarrassment, and a desire to squash it from my speech. Then it hit me, my accent is evidence of a beautiful and rich childhood. To feel ashamed and eliminate the last bit of my accent is to shrink rather than be proud of who I am, just as not jumping rope is caving to my fear of embarrassment. Therefore, I resolved to keep the accent and learn to jump rope in public. Who knows whom I’ll inspire? My unique history gave me challenges to overcome and differences to own, but now I see that I can be proud of both.

Now I’m on a tangent of thought… In what other ways am I suppressing my self-expression? What do I like? What colors would I wear if I didn’t care what people thought? How would I decorate? What new ventures would I try? What book would I write? The answers excite me.

Ask yourself, the same questions. Are there events in your life that led to a lack of self-expression or shame? Do you fear what people may think if they knew the real you? Make a list of things you would do if you weren’t afraid. Just acknowledging them is the first step. Now sit with the list, perhaps meditate or ponder it on a hike, and think about your limiting fears. Where do those fears originate from in your life? Now you have the real “to do” list. Face fears so that you can enjoy yourself more.

You’re not alone. I’m walking the same path. In addition, I’ll bet many other readers are as well.

This week I bought, and wore, a brightly colored Nepalese hoodie. One baby step toward self-expression. What will your first step be? Please share.

Here are two insightful Ted Talks on Shame and Vulnerability by Brené Brown. Take time to watch them and think about how they might apply to your life.

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