The shame of ‘totally fine’
I’d be surprised if anyone was really ok right now
One of the downsides of writing a candid memoir of your twenties is that people you know read it. But in the spirit of confronting things head-on, I interviewed my mother about what it was like to read my memoir in a newsletter titled: ‘It’s a bit shocking in places’. In the interview, I asked my mum what it was like for her when my boyfriend Richard died by suicide when I was twenty years old. I was living at home at the time, as it was the university summer holidays and I was curious to hear her perspective on it. She said:
‘You seemed in control, but then you slept in my bed and in the middle of the night were flailing and saying ‘I can’t cope with this.’
Then you stopped sleeping in my bed one day and told me: ‘I have to do this on my own.’
I can’t stop thinking about younger me saying, ‘I have to do this on my own.’ I don’t remember saying that, but I certainly remember feeling that I had to handle my grief alone. That belief, led to a decade long journey of isolation, fueled by the shame I felt because of Richard’s death by suicide. My book tracks that journey and my book ends with the line: ‘As long as there is love in our lives, none of us walk alone.’ It takes me ten years to learn that I can’t do anything in life without other people.
The cure for shame is to speak it out loud and since I started to write my shame, I’ve been healed of both my shame and the isolation that my decade of silence gave me.
I believe so strongly in the power of talking about our shame, that I launched a podcast, called Totally Fine with Tiffany Philippou, in which I interview guests about their stories of life-altering experiences and times that they pretended to be ‘totally fine’. I’m hearing so many parallels with my own experience, no matter what my guests have faced. I’ve interviewed guests about job loss, HIV, ADHD, grief, social infertility and grooming and what unites all these experiences is that it was feelings of shame that drove them to pretend to be ok and shut themselves off from others.
Pretending to be fine is an isolating experience and we feel so much more connected when we speak our shame out loud and admit that we’re not ok. ‘I’m fine’ (when we’re not) is something we do on a daily basis and on the podcast, we end by asking our guests about another time they’ve done that and what I’m learning is that even in those seemingly small ways that we pretend to be ok, it’s often actually about something much, much bigger.
I’m trying to not constantly pretend to be fine and it’s so hard. I still hear myself saying ‘oh it’s not that big of a deal, at least…’ when I’m troubled by something. I also try my best to be honest with others about not being ok and yes, they do sometimes respond in a way that minimises my experience. However, I’m determined to not let that put me off. It’s important that we keep going and stop pretending.
We need to practice being honest with ourselves and others until it becomes a habit. Especially because admitting to oneself the reality of your feelings increases your own capacity for empathy for others. Unfortunately, there will be some who don’t have the capacity to empathise with you, but we can talk to someone else and give people second chances and explain why something is important to us.
We’re living in challenging times and I’d be surprised if anyone was really ok right now. People’s capacity, including our own, is limited and we certainly don’t have the energy to keep up any pretences. The cure for shame and isolation is to talk and connect with others about the truth of our experiences. It’s so simple, yet so hard and all we can do is try our best. We don’t have to face hard stuff by ourselves, we don’t have to pretend to be totally fine, and as long as there is love in our lives, none of us walk alone.
Liked this? Why not try: Writing a memoir isn’t like therapy