Sussing Out Shame

This isn’t really Act III, but rather an aside. A bonus. A trundle of thoughts, if you will, that try to get at the issues I addressed in the previous Letting Myself Off the Hook acts.

Ah, for shame.

It’s an elusive concept, something I really don’t understand. I do know that I often feel shame when I don’t know things. What things?

Gosh, anything I think I should know. Or that I think others think I should know.

Things I think I should know a lot about.

  • current events/news
  • politics
  • American history
  • world history
  • classical music
  • types of flowers
  • dog breeds
  • kinds of foods
  • cooking techniques
  • geography
  • religion
  • very popular things

It’s interesting because some things I’m okay with not knowing, because I don’t expect myself to know them (partly because I don’t think others expect me to know much about them). 

Things I am okay not knowing much about.

  • cars
  • computers
  • household repairs
  • music genres (except classical)
  • science
  • math
  • different cultures
  • taxes

This is actually a great exercise in confronting my discomfort about not knowing stuff. When I elevate each subject to a bullet, it brings to the fore just how arbitrary the items I think I should (or in turn, that I don’t expect myself to) know are.

Where did I get these topics? What is their unique origin story? For surely they must all have one.

I can tell one of these stories.

The oh my god I can’t believe I don’t know this I must be so uncouth and uneducated-current events topic originates from an experience in high school. My super smart friend – who believed I was also super smart and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t in the Gifted & Talented program with her (yet another source of shame) – had us compile a montage of stories of the year for the school newspaper (which we both wrote for).  As she listed off each major global news event (and they were major because I looked them up, full of shame, later), I either expressed ignorance about the event or it was clear I wasn’t familiar with what had been happening in the world all year.

I don’t remember all the details, and I certainly don’t remember my friend’s saying anything directly to me about the not knowing, but I do recall

turning red and feeling tremendous shame at not knowing these things.

I berated myself and for a long time afterward, I vowed to read the newspaper diligently every day, so that I would know about things if someone asked. Not because I was genuinely interested in current events, but because I had learned that I was expected to know certain things, especially given how smart people thought I was.

That was a lesson that has stuck with me and influenced my behavior. I do realize much of my fear of being exposed as ignorant is self-made and self-perpetuated; however, as I’ve mentioned before, I know people who have a tendency of boasting about knowing things, and scolding others for not knowing. I’ve experienced it, and I’ve seen it. And I’m not just saying that because I’m highly sensitive. I know this happens.

So in the spirit of letting myself off the hook, what next?

Well, the first step, which I’ve taken, is acknowledging the lists of things I think I should know or that I’m okay with not knowing. If possible, it would probably help to figure out where each comes from. Their origin stories may reveal the reasons behind my knowledge-shame. I won’t spend years tracking each of them down, though. I’m a firm believer in accepting the state of mind I am in now, and not always trying to thoroughly resolve past hurts. So at some point, I’ll move forward and…

…and what? What do I do with these lists? When a topic comes up about which I feel I should be well-versed (especially in a social group), what do I do?

Fake it until I make it?

Conjure up a different personae to issue a public diatribe?

Take a moment to reason with myself, thinking about what I do know, and let the rest fall away, including other people’s stuff around knowledge (because I can’t be the only one with knowledge issues)?

I don’t know!

Success and Shame: Letting Myself Off the Hook, Act II

Not long ago, I talked about shame, specifically around socially expected knowledge. I have long felt a sense of shame or embarassment at the possibility (or reality) of not knowing certain information, especially knowledge linked to cultural expectations. For example, the type of knowledge that leads to appreciating classical music or knowing which fork to use if you’re a member of a certain social class.

Ah, the classic dichotomy: upper versus lower class.

The Pretty Woman syndrome.

These social class issues are often connected to formal education. Someone educated at a university is often* viewed as part of a certain social class, versus someone who never obtained a college education. If that education occurred at an elite institution or the person went on to graduate school, the expectations re: knowledge and social class are even more rigid and specific.

*One of my limitations here is a tendency to overgeneralize; while I acknowledge there are nuances to these rigid views, I want also to point out that there exist social expectations that influence behavior. Nota bene: I have already pointed out that I am acutely sensitive to this issue, which may throw into question my ability to objectively study this issue. Luckily for me, there’s no such thing as objective.  But I know not all audiences espouse this belief, which is why I feel such unease with factual knowledge – I know it’s expected, but another part of me believes it’s bunk.


Many people would agree that a person with a Ph.D. conjures up a certain set of images. A Ph.D. is often equated with Professor, academic, scholar. Somewhat elite, old, stodgy, stuffy. Expert. Absent-minded. Nerdy. Elbow patches.

I can’t help but wonder how many of these adjectives are my own, rather than belong to this elusive “many people.”

Imposter syndrome. Again.

I have a Ph.D. It was a long road, and I worked very hard. A part of me is tremendously proud to be part of this elite group.

Yet I am also ashamed at my degree.

I am overwhelmed by the attention I sometimes get. And scared sh*tless that I’ll be found out to not have the knowledge I’m expected to have. Feeling pre-emptive shame at the possibility of being exposed as not knowing things. Especially because now people think I should possess certain knowledge because I have a Ph.D. I have ratcheted up my social capital such that I am more visible, respected, and better regarded because I have this degree. Expectations are now higher for me, the person with a doctorate. I am the doctor, after all.

“So, what’s your dissertation about?”

In social groups, I wither at the thought that I’ll be asked to dissertate on some topic simply because I have a higher degree. That I’ll be encouraged to tell everyone about my dissertation.

This terrifies me.

I accomplished the Ph.D. for myself, for my own edification, not so that I could be legitimized to go on a diatribe about an obscure topic. The last thing I want to do is share my knowledge, particularly concrete or factual knowledge (personal or emotional knowledge, such as what I learned while completing my degree, is another story altogether. I’d willingly “lecture” about the emotional aspects of graduate education – clearly a topic of a future post). I am really uncomfortable sharing specific, factual knowledge.

Maybe because I’m afraid I don’t have any.

I’d rather keep to myself, share my ideas (especially academic ideas) with my close friends. Sure, I write and research, and I have been published. I want to continue to be published, in fact. So I’m not interested in completely hiding. Yet, especially when asked to recount factual information,

I have this paralyzing fear I’ll be found out to be completely incompetent, uncultured, and not terribly smart.

It all comes down to money. And social class.

It occurred to me while discussing financial matters recently that there is a correllary between the embarassment I feel around my “lower class,” poor  upbringing and the shame I experience related to knowledge expectations, my current social class, and higher education.

I feel an Act III coming on.


Checking In: Notes to Self

I vowed recently to re-read and observe my Notes to Self more. I wanted a more smooth week, with less stress. I figured that I would benefit from regular reminders of what works for me and as a result have an easier week.

And go figure, it was easier. I made sure to plan meals out, and to account for when the plan fell apart, which it totally did. But that’s okay; I was able to make a good, healthy-ish decision without a melt down.

That’s a very good thing for everyone in my house.

I have also been getting more sleep, which has made a difference in my mood as well. Optimistic thoughts permeate my mind. Whoa. How did that happen? Is it a fluke, or am I really doing something right with respect to honoring my self-principles?

Maybe I should refer to my Notes to Self as Self Principles or something. However, they’re flexible guidelines that will likely change over time, so I don’t want to be too rigid.

I’m grateful all my strategies paired together have been working. Here’s a reminder of what they were the past week:

  • Get sufficient sleep. I went to bed a tad early a couple of nights this week.
  • Limit overly social activities. I ducked out of a social event at work when I’d had enough. Ahhh.
  • Journal regularly to check in with yourself. I have journaled almost every day, exploring sticky issues as they come up.
  • Plan meals, and plan for meal plans to fall apart. This worked well. I made sure to breathe and relax when plans did not work out. Knowing I would be taken care of (by me or my partner) made all the difference.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. I’ve been keeping one for almost a month now. I try to make sure it’s not rote but rather an honest representation of what I’m consciously happy about. It’s not always serious: One day I wrote that I was grateful for my good hair.
  • Stay present. This one is kind of elusive, but I’ve found that breathing makes a tremendous difference. I try not to think ahead and fret about what must be done, or what’s not done yet. Just appreciate the moment. It’s beyond a cliche, but when I can be mindful about my present circumstances, it appears to make a difference, especially long-term; it has a cumulative effect.
  • Spend time outside. The weather is perfect now, dry and warm. So I’ve been sitting outside more, just reflecting quietly, with appreciation for all the growth around me (especially in our garden).

Letting Myself Off the Hook, Act I


Something I already know just occurred to me again. I love it when that happens (although technically this should be in my Notes to Self since I keep forgetting about it).

It’s the calmest, most comforting thought I could ever have.

I can let myself off the hook.

Sweet. I can relax. I don’t have to be everything. I don’t have to know everything. It’s okay. I’m good just as I am.

Remember this.

Most of the time, I forget all this. I often feel insecure and embarassed because I’m not up on certain things. This could be anything: politics, local news, academic theorists, musicians, pop culture references, math, gardening, dog breeds. Really any topic that someone else covers that I don’t already know.  I have no idea why I demand of myself unilateral knowledge of all possible topics.

I guess it’s because I don’t want to appear stupid. Stoopid. I don’t want people to think I don’t know things, because dammit, I do.

It could be that this all goes back to that pesky Imposter Syndrome – meaning I’ll be found out that I’m really a fraud, that I don’t really know what I’m doing, that I’m not actually smart, but just lucked out with a Ph.D. It just happened, and had nothing to do with me, since I’m clearly not as bright as people think.

Or fear of being embarassed since I should know certain things if I am as “cultured” as someone with a Ph.D. so typically is. What does it mean if I do not know certain information? Certain socially accepted information?

Feminist Sandra Harding calls this information “socially legitimated knowledge.” Knowledge I am expected to possess based on my social class, cultural standing, educational purchase, sexuality, and gender. Women are supposed to be well versed and comfortable in the domestic sphere. Men are great with cars and home repair. A straight woman who lives in a townhouse in Northern Virginia is likely to have a certain type of job and drive a certain car.

Gah, I can see how the more elaborate I make these scenarios, the more likely they are to break down. They can’t sustain the stereotype. Which should be evidence enough to me that much of my expectations around what types of knowledges I should possess are constructed.


Sure, these expectations have been reinforced throughout my life by various people who are surprised that I didn’t possess certain types of knowledges. For example, a smart high school friend who is shocked I didn’t know about a recent global political event. A college friend who said he couldn’t believe I didn’t know about that literary theory, since I should already have learned it. These observations are often followed by head-shaking and the admonishment, “I can’t believe you didn’t know that!” The implication is that only a dumb person would miss that. Since you’re educated, you should know this stuff!

Should, should, should. Why are there social expectations around knowledge?

Perhaps more important, why do I have such a rigid sense of what I should know? Sure, there have been external influences, such as those mentioned above, but I really must admit that most of my embarassment around knowing stuff (or not knowing, to be more precise) is internal.

Freedom from shame.

I believe that at the core of my insecurity over alleged lack of knowledge is a deep shame.

Tara Brach explores shame in her Buddhist-inspired book (which I have on CD) Radical Self-Acceptance. She suggests that many of us are walking around every day holding a painful feeling of shame, shame of not being enough. That we’re not rich enough, don’t know enough, aren’t charitable enough. You name it, we’re just not cutting it.

This is such a touchy topic that I believe is at the core of much of my anxiety. I suspect this will have to play out in several acts.

Trying Too Hard

I don’t yet fully believe there is such a thing — for me — as trying too hard.

Yet I’m going to go out on a limb and declare that my tendency to try too hard, to overachieve, to worry every problem to the bone, is probably not doing me any favors.

Don’t tell me how to be.

For whatever reason, I just remember my childhood’s being riddled with:

“Just chill out, would you, Dawnrey?”

When I was younger, my ostensibly relaxed friends often told me to “chill out.” They’d be all like, “just chill, Dawnrey. Relax, would you?” It would drive me crazy because it felt dismissive. That my opinion, my worries, my ideas didn’t matter. That I was blowing things out of proportion yet again. Even that maybe I was freaking everyone out because I was proposing things they hadn’t thought of or didn’t think mattered (but maybe worried did). I would be all, “don’t tell me how to be.”

How to be.

I really hate to admit that even if the delivery wasn’t always sensitive, the message was something I’d do well to heed.

The message, really, was:

“Relax. It’s okay. We got this. It’s going to be fine.  No need to fret or be so serious.”

I would like to remember this message, especially now, when I’m in the throes of trying to establish a career. Whatever that means. And live a happy, satisfied life.

I’ve come through a number of significant life transitions in the past 6 months, transitions that have altered my life’s direction. That have reminded me that my path is not what I imagined a few years ago.

Trying too hard.

What I’m realizing is that these life shifts have caused me to feel more anxious, which for me often results in overachieving. I work harder to excel at whatever I’m doing, whether it’s cleaning the house, doing academic work, excelling at work, or being the best dog mom. Whatever I do, I often feel I have to do perfectly.

I often feel I have to give 100% of myself. I have been attempting this recently, and I’m drained. I’m working too hard, trying too hard to achieve. What I’m really trying to do is overcompensate just in case I can’t manage everything in my life.

I’m overachieving out of fear of underachieving.

And of course because I cannot keep up stellar performance in every area of my life, I often feel overwhelmed and fearful. I’ve been embarassed by these feelings because I feel like I should be able to handle this.

What I’m realizing is I can handle this, my lovely life with my partner, my pets, my job, my home, my creative pursuits. I can totally handle that kind of responsibility and joy.

What I cannot handle – and what I shouldn’t have to handle – is my unending rigor in every pursuit. It’s unsustainable. That pressure. It’s just too much.

“Relax, Dawnrey.”

Where to cut back, or shift the effort.

So now the question is, how much effort do I choose expend in what areas of my life? Will this happen organically?

Guess what? I don’t plan on trying too hard to find out. In fact, I am going to aim for doing a half-assed job.

Checking In: Thinking in the Present

My efforts at thinking in the present this past week were spotty, at best. It was a good reminder to do it more often, but it’s bleeping hard! Countless times I did reign myself in from overthinking issues, making future assumptions, and just generally hanging out in “what if” land. I know enough that it is useful to keep this up, so that’s what I’m going to do.

Notes to Self

I have a page on this site called “Notes to Self.” Inspired by my favorite blogger, I decided to create a list of often-overlooked things I know about myself that help make my life easier.  I wanted to record them somewhere so that I could update them as necessary, and revisit their wisdom, which is frequently forgotten.

One note that I plan on adding to this list is routine. Consistency is everything to me. I need to know roughly where I plan on being throughout the day; what I’ll be working on; what my goals are; when I’ll be working out, and for how long; and for the love of god what I will be eating, and when.

The snafus I experienced this week serve as a good example of why it’s important for me to remember my Notes to Self.

Week of Disjoint

This week, I felt just slightly off. The weather turned colder, with a harsh wind that made me want to stay inside and eat comfort food. So I have been eating with abandon, which makes me feel even more lethargic. I skipped out on my workout regimen due to feeling out of sorts. I tried to let myself be okay with that, since I was listening to what my body needed when I made the decision to stretch rather than do 35 minutes of intense cardio.

But enough else was out of whack this week that I started to feel bad about myself and thus not communicating well with my partner (or myself). I ate weird, ill-conceived dinners of unbalanced left-overs. I ate mindlessly at work, scarfing down crackers until I felt all overcarbed.

My goal is not rigidity, mind you, but rather a balanced week of meeting personal goals, fueling my body well (with daily treats built in, of course, like dark chocolate!), and moving my body around.

I do try to factor in flexibility, but I’ve found my day goes far smoother when I have a rough rigid reasonable plan for what I want to accomplish. And yes, I realize some of this planning ahead flies in the face of my whole Thinking in the Present goal.

Yet I believe that the immediate future planning I do provides the structure I require to feel safe, and to accomplish my life goals. It’s a way to guide myself, so that when I am exercising, or eating, or working on a project, I can be more focused and present because I know what to expect.

Up Next

My next personal challenge:

Week of Following Notes to Self.

Based on what happened this past week when I disregarded what makes for a smoothly running Dawnrey, I think it’s time to revisit those Notes to Self. I’ll make an effort to keep them in mind, particularly with respect to routine. Specifically:

  • I’ll plan do-able meals with my partner this weekend, with a focus on healthy snacks and lunches for work.
  • I’ll spell out my workout goals and check in with myself if my body’s being cranky. I’ll then come up with an alternative plan that I can live with (rather than beat myself up about).
  • I’ll journal so I can process what I think and record how I am doing with this practice – which incorporates my previous 2 personal challenges: Stroking my Ego and Thinking in the Present

The Briefing: It’s(me)!

My ongoing self-work of being good to myself and staying in the present (I think they’re related, since future catastrophizing often results in self-disparaging thoughts for some reason) became an important self-care tool recently at work.

I have been assigned the task of Subject Matter Expert (a phrase that is so important around here, it’s got its own acronym: SME). So I’m the SME for a new product that is being launched.

My job was to brief my team in front of the head boss about the product, focusing specifically on action items for which we’re responsible. I created a nice handout for the group and proceeded to summarize the launch meeting I had previously attended. I was frequently interrupted by other people’s needs/demands/random questions. I have in the past witnessed the head bosses’ tendency to obsess over small details that aren’t as relevant when addressing the broader picture, which is what the goal of my briefing was.

When I got the nitpicky questions, a couple of times, I didn’t have the answer. There isn’t a ton of material on this new product, and I’m still learning it.

Not knowing. This is when I start freaking out.

Excellent Fodder for Ego Stroking.

I noticed that when I didn’t know the answer, I started to beat myself up over not knowing things. Over not conducting the briefing with more command and poise. I feared everyone was looking at me thinking, ‘how did this girl get *this* gig?’ ‘How can she not even know the product? – *she’s* supposed to be our SME? Boy are we in trouble!’



Stop. Stop.

Let’s Look at the Facts.

Okay, so what is true here (that is, what would outside observers agree is factual)? That I distributed a well-written, concise handout to the team. That I introduced the product and made several excellent points and observations. I covered all the relevant bases for this meeting. I answered a couple of questions about specific details. I stayed present, focused, and articulate.

Other facts include that I was interrupted frequently with questions better addressed with a smaller group. That I didn’t have all the answers. No one did. It’s too new.

So what’s coming up for me here is feeling like I should have done this perfectly and known all the answers.

Dah Dah Dah! Dawnrey’s  Ego Stroking Team to the Rescue!

This is where ego stroking needs to swoop in and be of service. It will serve me well to focus on what I did right, on how competent I am, on how much I have learned since starting this job, on my eagerness to take initiative and understand the product.  I am choosing to believe that I am viewed as competent, articulate.

That is because I am electing to believe I see myself this way. Fake it until you make it.

And I know, I know that I am competent and a strong communicator. Sure, I’m not a big fan of briefing people about something I’m just learning. That’s always been the case. I’m sensitive about that. And I’m working through it. Part of the challenge for me is that I need time to absorb information, need time to assimilate it before I’m ready to share it. Some people can learning something and are inexplicably and instantly conversant in it. That’s not how my learning process works.

What I am fantastic at is researching, being thorough, and writing. I’ll be bold and brazen in my writing. Not so much verbally. Quite simply, I express myself very well through writing. Which is why my job is a Curriculum Writer, not a public speaker.

That said, I realize that verbal presentations are important in the workplace. And I know from experience, from evidence, that I can be a persuasive and articulate public speaker when I need to be.  At this quiet, small briefing, the job got done. Sure, I didn’t meet my unreasonable standards of perfection. But I completed the task competently and with care. And I learned more about the types of information/questions that this group needs during briefings. That is important information as well.

So I choose to let go of any feelings of incompetency and fears of what my coworkers think of me.* I know I did the job acceptably well and that I will continue to be called on to take the lead on projects because of who I am, not of who I fear I am.

*Although I must admit later I was happy to know people were impressed by the handouts, the fancy paper I used, and that this was viewed as going above and beyond what was expected.

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