Everyone spirals. Embrace the suck.

I have had versions of this post in my drafts folder for over a week. I deleted it. I reposted it. Deleted it again.

Why? Why?

I care what you think, even though I pretend that I don’t. I am afraid that what I write here will be held against me later. Our profession preaches that “people are watching you” and “be careful what you say on social media.” We say this while also talking out the other side of our mouths, preaching about authenticity.

I got on this morning to post. I deleted it again. And then the universe sent me messages.

Mentally strong people don’t give away their power. Take responsibility for how you think, feel, and behave. #mentallystrong #mentalhealth

And then this from Momastery:

I’ve been writing directly from my heart less often than I used to. I think I just started putting weird pressure on myself. This place has gotten so big, and over time I convinced myself that everything I wrote needed to be shiny and shareable and big and amazing (emphasis mine). So I started writing essays instead of love letters. Meh. That’s not what we need all the time is it? We just need to show up for each other. Tired, full, broken, sparkling heart to tired, full, broken, sparkling heart.  (emphasis mine.) I am not here to prove myself, I’m here to serve you. Biggest difference in the world. Proving ourselves is full of angst and fear and striving and exhaustion. Showing up is just: Hi. Here I am. There you are. This is what I have to offer you today. Nothing more, nothing less (emphasis mine). I want to work from a place of service, not ego. Shift, shift, shift. Better. Truer.

Showing up > Showing Off.

So anyway, here I am. I’m going to write directly to you once a week. Nothing fancy. Just: Here I Am. Also sometimes I won’t. No problem.

This is what I want to say today. It will make some people upset. I’m sorry about that, but I’ve thought about it for a week and I still think it’s important to say. If it helpful for you, keep it. If not—please reject it and hold onto whatever understanding brings you comfort.

So I am taking a deep breath and hitting publish. I am using my power and sharing it, instead of giving it away. This post is not shiny. “Look, passion!” It’s broken. It’s real.

What I have to offer is this: Applying for jobs and being rejected is hard. It’s okay if you spiral. I was rejected from yet another position in my “profession.” I was humiliated. I was embarrassed. I cried. (In private of course.) Then I cried at home. I screamed. I threw some stuff (that was really fun, actually). I went deep into the shame spiral. Deep. Because despite what we do for students, we do not do for ourselves…I blamed myself and felt shame for being rejected. This is what it looked like:

I suck. This sucks. You all suck. This profession sucks. I played by the rules. I did everything right. It still doesn’t matter. Why did I get this PhD? What a waste. I am trapped here. I hate this.

I tortured myself for spiraling, which of course only leads to more spiraling. Why do I go to the darkness first? Why aren’t I a person who brushes off disappointment and instantly rallies?

Psst, Monica. Psst. Hey! You are a person who brushes off disappointment and you do rally. It’s only been 8 days since you were crushed. That’s really not that long. I’d say eight days is a rally.

Talking to the important people in my life- my husband, my mentor, my therapist, and God- brought me back to reality and pulled me out of the shame spiral. Doing those things helped me remember this: Everyone spirals. Read that again. Everyone spirals.

Resilience is a continuum. Resilient people rally because they are smart enough to know when they need help and they reach out for it.

Resilient people rally because they “embrace the suck” rather than denying it. In short, “Embracing the suck” means acknowledging the situation that you are in to reduce it’s length and it’s power over you. For more on “embracing the suck,” read here and listen here.

I finally finished this post because I reminded myself that lying about the suck dishonors my experience and my victory over the struggle. I pulled myself out of the depressive shame spiral. I willed myself out of it. And I had help. That victory will give me strength to face the next one. Because there will be a next one. There always is.

We learn more from heartbreak and mistakes than we do from success. So let’s be more committed to sharing them. This profession will break your heart at some point. How could it not? We’re humans in a human enterprise. Humans make mistakes. We hurt each other. We hurt ourselves. Life isn’t fair. Other people get picked. You get rejected from grad school. Your friend throws you under the bus. It happens. Let’s be honest about it and let others share their own sucks. It’s a disservice to them and our profession to not let them.

Life isn’t fair. The best we can hope for is justice.

Justice, wine, and chocolate.

Shame, Fitting-in and Belonging in Student Affairs

On Tuesday I attended a mini-conference on my campus. One of the break-out sessions I chose was on shame resilience; based on Brene Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability. The presenter did an excellent job of breaking down Brown’s research into smaller, more manageable pieces and then relating them to behaviors that are evidenced in the academy. I took copious notes. Then, yesterday I watched both of Brown’s TED talks and took more notes. It wasn’t until I attended the shame session and watched the TED talks that something clicked.

My heart is racing as I write this and my body is getting hot inside- my physiological reaction to vulnerability… But here it is….

I have been working to fit-in when I should have been striving to find places where I belong.

I have followed the appropriate career trajectories, attended the best graduate schools, earned a terminal degree, presented at conferences. I blog and tweet, blah blah blah. And, I am still spinning my wheels. I still feel as if I don’t belong here.

Shame is about: fear, blame, and disconnection

Empathy is about: courage, compassion, and connection

Shame is fitting in. Empathy is belonging.

As a strong, direct, honest, feminist, I have been shamed almost my entire career. And, many many times by other women. I have been called direct, abrasive, aggressive, sarcastic, etc., etc. I have been called these things by people who do not know me, have never worked with me, or seen me work with others.

“You’re so negative.” Not my behavior or presentation, or my style, but me personally, my character. Me. Brown says that shame is personal while guilt is behavioral. Shame- “I am bad. I am negative. I am aggressive.” Guilt- “I did something negative. I said something negative.”

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is a lie. Words matter. Words are powerful. Who says them to us and when and why and how matters. It all matters. Those who know me well know that I have been struggling with my professional identity for some time. I can’t reconcile others’ perceptions/feedback of me with how I see myself, with who I believe that I am at my core.

Have I done or said negative things? Sure. Am I sometimes aggressive? Of course. I am human. I make mistakes. I am a learner who is still learning. I also do these things because I care. Because I am loyal and focused and driven and I want my students and our organizations to be better. My doing these sometimes negative things doesn’t make me negative or not enough. It makes my behavior not good enough (maybe).

Feedback is supposed to be about behavior, attitude, skills, performance. Not about someone’s core, their identity. Every one is important and special and valuable and they can still be all of those things even in the face of mistakes or poor performance. Feedback should employ a little guilt, but never shame. I think in the past people have shamed me when they were trying to make me feel guilty.

I have been shamed and I should not have been. We can do better. I can do better. I saw and felt it happening and I let it continue. I have seen it happen to colleagues and friends. I have witnessed it and said nothing. And, I know that in the academy we shame students.

To the students, fellow staff, parents or any others whom I may have shamed, I am sorry. To all of those who have shamed me, I forgive you.

I believe that shaming is related to student affairs “burn-out.” I’ve always thought of burn-out as running on empty, fumes. You cannot give to others what you do not have within yourself first. Perhaps we burn-out because we shame each other into thinking that who we are is not enough.

I wonder what our profession would look like if we all took a long, hard, look at ourselves and acknowledged the times when we have shamed and been shamed. What would happen if we all committed to doing better?

I will keep searching until I find where I belong. And I will be bringing all of me.


This year our older son will make his First Reconciliation (Penance, Confession). This sacrament involves an examination of your conscience and then a confession of your sins to a priest. My husband and I went to the parent meeting this morning. The very scattered, but in the end very wise, Religious Education Director asked us to go around in a circle (shudder, shudder) and share our experiences with this sacrament. I am a “cradle Catholic,” meaning born and raised. I went to Catholic grade school, high school, and even college. I cannot remember the last time I went to Confession.

As we went around the circle sharing our experiences, a common and very sad theme emerged. Few of us in that room had a positive experience with Reconciliation and only one parent continued to go regularly. Many of the people in the room were in my age cohort and our early, formative experiences of church and sacrament were focused on shame, guilt, and fear. One woman shared that her first Confession was so awful that she is still getting over it. Oy.

Almost all of my early experiences in church were focused on things that I had done wrong (shame). I had chosen to sin (guilt). I had made God angry with my bad choices (talk about fear! Yikes!). At my grade school, we had to carry a discipline folder at all times. It had one piece of paper in it and one piece only. The color of that paper changed every quarter. If you committed some sort of infraction, you were given a check on your discipline sheet. Ten checks equaled a major, which equaled a detention. Not having your folder was check-worthy. What the what? The focus, as I remember it, was punitive. The focus was on doing wrong, not on striving to do better.

Somehow I managed to never get a detention. Although in sixth grade, I dropped the F bomb at recess, which should have been an automatic major, but the teacher took mercy on me and instead, reamed into me in the hallway so all my peers could hear. That was uplifting and life-giving.

My #oneword2014 is risk. I am taking a big personal risk here and for the first time publicly calling out the church. You failed us. You failed an entire generation of young people who are now trying to raise our children in the same faith that failed us. You taught us to live in fear. You taught us that we were beings who needed fixing, not gifts that could be polished or refined or shone for a greater, higher purpose.

I made my first confession in second grade. Everyone did. It was just the hoop that you went through. The only things I remember from that day are: one of my classmates bawling his eyes out because he was so nervous and me making up some story about not eating my vegetables and disobeying my parents. I have no idea what I wore, how long it lasted, or how many times I have gone to Confession since then. Clearly a formative experience that stuck.

In my time to share, I stated that I could not remember the last time I went to confession. Yet, I feel deeply connected to the Eucharist and we attend Mass regularly as a family. Both of these are true. I love going to church and I love going to our church in particular. It feeds me, literally and spiritually. I love the music, the sense of community, the diversity.

I started the meeting with a chip on my shoulder, thinking that L would jump through this Reconciliation hoop too and then that would probably be the end of it. I don’t go to Confession. I don’t need to because I confess my sins before I go to Communion. I pray for forgiveness and strength, daily. Isn’t that a confession of sorts? As the meeting progressed, the Religious Ed Director shared her own experiences with the sacrament. She joined the church as an adult and said, “I feel very fortunate that my own formation was so positive.” She then shared a new analogy for the sacrament. She encouraged us to think about it like you would a relationship with a personal trainer. You don’t go and get beat up because you ate a doughnut or didn’t work out. You go to make improvements, to get better, more fit. Confession is not a program about what you did wrong. It’s about a clean slate so you can be the best version of yourself.

Whoa! What a refreshing and life-giving idea! Talk about a complete paradigm shift from the lessons I learned as second grader in 198…. What a wonderful way to think about this sacrament. She then encouraged us to think about going to Confession regularly (whatever that looks like for you personally). If we go, then our children will go. If you only do something once, “it won’t stick” she said. And, they will value it even less because there was no purpose or meaning behind it.

Gut check.

I grew up in a household where one parent’s motto was “Do as I say, not as I do.” I often feel that this was the motto of the church in which I was raised as well. This is hypocritical at best and the first violation of good parenting. Children will see everything you do and remember very little of what you say. Yet, when I acted in a way that was consistent with what I observed, I was shamed and made to feel less than. I do not want that for my own children. If I am going to require that they invest time in the sacraments, then I must as well. Do as I do, not as I say.

So, in keeping with my #oneword2014, I will be going to Confession. Soon.