A Pointless Mess
by Roselyn Kelada-Sedra
I have a singular goal for this piece: to tell the truth about what I know about shame. I don’t like admitting, publicly, that I feel like a pointless mess sometimes. That’s a riff on the definition of shame that I got from sampling the literature and listening to Brené Brown’s talks on shame and vulnerability. Oh, that – vulnerability – is a feeling that I’ve shut down more often than I’ve allowed. And I mean systematically, for years, I shut down my heart when I felt vulnerable. I am now an actor, so the ingrained habit that I have of doing this… is absurd. Just so you know who’s talking, I’m Roselyn. I’m a first-generation daughter of Egyptian immigrants, a youngest child and a 32-year-old woman living alone in Toronto. I love chocolate, cheese and coffee. And I am currently on a caffeine cleanse. And I feel everything more acutely in the absence of my delicious, home-roasted, keep-me-going-and-comfort-me coffee.
I know about shame.
I feel shame when I feel inadequate, like I will never fix what is fundamentally wrong with me, and I will always be a sub-standard human who can’t just get it together. Shame, to be clear, is a deep pain in what feels like the knowledge that I am fundamentally flawed. It’s different from guilt, an unpleasant feeling over something I did.
I know about shame. It happens when I fail. I’m late for a coffee meet-up. I snap at my parents. I drop a cup of steaming hot coffee – that I was desperate to drink. And I puddle into a wash of, “what is wrong with me? Why can’t I do anything right?”
Now, let me tell you more about me. I am a produced playwright, a working actor, and a lawyer at a firm downtown. I pay my bills, love my friends, try to be good to my family and serve my community how I can. Objectively, I am not failing at life.
In shame, I sink into a well of, “I’m never going to be able to fix myself. No matter what I do, I will never be any different than this…” It feels like I stop being who I am in my better moments, a woman with flaws who is working on becoming braver, more truthful, loving out into the world and living with humility. (By the way, I just sneezed crumbs all over my keyboard because my lunch plate is still in front me. It's the mundane failures that sink me sometimes.) In shame, I feel like nothing but a mess of corroded, pussing stuff – this permanently adolescent girl who can’t do something as simple as carry coffee without spilling it. It feels inescapable, suffocating.
Then, all I want to do – to escape – is comfort-eat and Netflix-binge. Then, I feel shame about that. ‘I wasted an entire day, two whole days, four whole days…’ It scares me to think that one day, I might never pull myself out. And there’ll go the rest of my life. Useless, worthless, pointless – a waste of intelligence and potential. Because that’s the thing: I am intelligent, and I feel shame when I fail to be flawless, exceptional, great. At times, it’s paralyzing.
When I come out of the sinkhole, I go into a flurry of productivity to put myself as far from that shame as possible. I do so much, so fast, that I can’t feel shame underneath the adrenaline of that focus. Hence, the coffee.
Working on it
I am working on it. I sink in there less often and for shorter periods of time than I used to, but I still do sometimes. What’s helping me is working on (1) telling the truth, (2) accepting my humanity, and (3) serving others. It’s the middle one that tenses my stomach as I type.
When Emily Dickinson, co-founder of BitchesBeWitches, asked me to write this piece, I got scared. I didn’t want to publicly reveal my mess. What gave me hope for it was this: she said to me (over glorious coffee & breakfast bagels, before the cleanse), “what you’re saying could really free people.” And the shame sinkhole, for me anyway, is rooted in the fear of my life being a waste. Of course, I’m taking a chance to do something that could be useful to people, other women especially – if I tell the truth about it.
Here’s what I know: I don’t have a solve for shame. I’m less afraid than I used to be, but sometimes the shame spiral obliterates my rational thinking. And over something as mundane as being late to meet a friend, I come untethered; it feels like panicked drowning in the belief that I am worthless. There comes a point, after I stop gulping down water in the gasps for breath, that I just give up. I think, ‘isn’t it easier to succumb – than struggle?’
I’m practising living out of different beliefs. Brené Brown wrote:
“The greatest gift of having done this work (the research and the personal work) is that I can recognize shame when it’s happening… I also know that the very best thing to do when this is happening feels totally counterintuitive: Practice courage and reach out! We have to own our story and share it with someone who has earned the right to hear it, someone whom we can count on to respond with compassion. We need courage, compassion, and connection. ASAP. Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it—it can’t survive being shared.”
Living out of new beliefs
I’m looking at what I believe, in my whole self, rather than in my shame sinkhole. I believe that telling the truth is freeing. I believe, because people have shown me over and over, that loving out to the world makes me braver - because I learn that I survive the hurts. And I believe that revealing the things I hate about myself – in other words, allowing myself to be seen – will help others. Or at least me.
Here’s the thing. Even in this hope, I am clinging to old, shaming behaviours. I went to two, trusted friends for input on this piece. They both said, ‘I wish you had compassion for yourself.’ That’s the step out of the sinkhole that I don’t usually take.
Spilling coffee is not a big deal. Sneezing crumbs onto my keyboard is not a big deal. If I can practise humility to realize, I don’t have to be better than all humans ever, then shame is less enticing. The truth is, I can disown reality down there in my sinkhole. If I respond to my failures with compassion for myself, then I have a shot at looking reality in the face and living with grace. That can change the patterns that are inescapable in my sinkhole. I’m working on it.
I cannot do it without help. I have people, who love me and whom I call when I’m sinking. They are people in whom I can see: it’s one flawed soul holding another, and that’s a gift. Here’s what I’m saying: when I can’t see myself with grace, I can still see those I love; and because I’ve “earned the right” to hear them, I know they have messes in them, too. I know these people come from something beautiful and loving and great. If they do, then I do. I can’t see my way to grace for myself except through letting myself be seen and loving from there.
Roselyn Kelada-Sedra is an actor, writer, lawyer in Toronto, ON. You can learn more at Roselyn.ca and Roselyn.ca/Law. You can follow her journey through the Facebook group: Roselyn, Actor & Storyteller @ www.facebook.com/groups/sixandeight.
- I started with Brené Brown “The Power of Vulnerability” TED Talk (June 2010) https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability/transcript. And I kept going from there: Daring Greatly, The Power of Vulnerability, The Gifts of Imperfection… This woman’s research on shame and vulnerability helps me a lot.
- Ruth Buczynski, “Guilt vs. Shame.” Online: National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (2017) http://www.nicabm.com/guilt-vs-shame/. To put it concisely, “Guilt is, I did something bad. Shame is, I am bad.” Brené Brown, The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connection and Courage (Sounds True, 2013)
ODN news, report by Sarah Johnston, “Sinkhole swallows trees whole in Louisiana swamp” online: YouTube (August 24, 2013) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgYItiehtDM
Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. (Center City: Hazelden Publishing, 2010) 9-10.
Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. (Center City: Hazelden Publishing, 2010) 9.