why the words you use to define the last year matter.

reindeer jack

As each year comes to a close, it’s so nice to reflect on the year and lessons I’ve learned. However, my reflections of the last year went a little differently than usual.

I’ve been thinking about the words I want to use to describe the last year. There are a few words I’ve observed in my own life, news, social media, and from friends and family that I keep coming back to. I haven’t been able to get them out of my head. Fear, Hurt, and Shame. The more I take in the world around me, the more those three words resonate.

Fear

Fear alone seems to have become a part of a lot of people’s daily lives. It stems from politics, health concerns, natural disasters, finances, anxiety, safety, freedoms, the rising number of sexual harassment cases, shootings, hate rallies. It doesn’t end there. We may fear not being accepted for who we are, what will happen next, or being looked down on. We may fear we’re not good enough, smart enough, fast enough, trendy enough, beautiful enough. Perhaps we fear someone we love and care about doesn’t trust us. We may fear people we love won’t be in our lives anymore or for very much longer.

Misunderstanding leads to fear, and out of this comes fear of the unknown. When intentions, actions, or words are misunderstood and misinterpreted, we tend to begin our lock-down process. We as humans are designed to protect our physical state first and foremost, and then worry about everything else.

When we don’t know who we can trust, it’s easy to guard ourselves against the worst possible outcome. Fear causes us to build walls. I can see those walls everywhere. A lot of people are protecting themselves, never allowing a break in their strong veneers because of fear.

Hurt

Hurt. If there’s ever a word that is reverberating off every bad thing that’s happened this year, this would be it. I heard someone say something that has interested me for awhile, although now (of course) I can’t remember exactly who said it. They said, “Hurt people hurt people.” At first, the idea of that statement didn’t really mean anything to me. The profundity of it took a little while to seep in and show itself to me. Then I realized, “YES, THAT IS BEYOND TRUE!”

I can’t even begin to rehash the number of arguments, heated discussions, and distressing hardships I’ve experienced myself or witnessed that ultimately derive from hurt in someone’s life–whether past or present. There are countless stories from the news or social media or friends and family that reach into spaces where people are deeply hurting. It seems this pain can become a vicious cycle of feeling hurt and then causing hurt to others.

Many of the developing stories from the year that truly struck me are the amount of sexual harassment cases that have flooded the news. It takes my breath away for so many reasons. The amount of pain felt by the women and men who’ve been sexually harassed is overwhelming. To be someone in a position of affluence, power, influence, and/or even charm, and use it to cheapen another person’s worth… To coerce someone into feeling, for whatever reason, they had no other choice but to be targeted. All I can see is hurt. From both sides. The person of power who feels like they are above common decency or entitled to something sexual because of how hard they worked to get to where they are? That person is hurting. The person who’s been put in that lose-lose position and then expected to keep quiet? That person is hurting.

What made these people of power feel like they didn’t have to consider what their position meant to someone not of the same caliber? Why is it difficult for these people to realize that, if they abuse their power to get something from someone else who doesn’t feel empowered to say no, they are flat out wrong? They are causing damage with or without care for the other person’s well-being. They are whittling down the confidence held by these women and men who were being targeted. Why is it that we only tend to see the pain that someone caused and not want to discover the root of this pain? It doesn’t fix anything to shame the perpetrators into finally admitting their actions were wrong and kicking them off their Clydesdales. What are the root causes of these thoughts, actions, and words?

Whenever someone causes me hurt, I do my best to remember that they must be hurting, in some way, as well. And while this never makes what the other person has done okay, it makes me understand the human condition. We’re all flawed, each one of us with our own hurts, insecurities, and patchy values. We’re all working with what we have. It’s not up to me to make what someone else did about me. It’s ultimately about them and the pains they haven’t dealt with. It is up to me, however, to create boundaries for those who continually cause me hurt.

Shame

The best example of shame I can think of is from any sexual harassment case, so I have to bring it up again. Can you imagine the shame that both sides feel in a sexual harassment case? The one who was harassed feels shame because they weren’t able to say no, didn’t want to say no, or might feel like they let this happen to them. The one who was the harasser feels shame because they are now fully aware that taking advantage of someone else, especially in a sexual way, was deeply wrong. And now their shame is easily found on the internet. Now, both parties feel their shame, but it’s exponentially worse as they are exposed to the world, open to words of criticism and judgment from others.

“No one is superior to another, certainly not because of how ‘good’ one person is compared to another. We’re all people. And we’re all navigating.”

I ask you, though, to put yourself in their positions–the harasser and harassed. You might say you’d never be in either position. Well, then, think of whatever would bring you the most shame, especially if it were splattered all over the internet for public consumption. Think of what deep sadness you’d feel. Think of the amount of hurt you’d feel. Think of the fear you’d have for your future and what people would now think of you. Think of what it would be like. “May you find yourselves the bulls-eye of an easy target. May you be publicly flogged for all of your bad choices. And may your noses be rubbed in all of your mistakes.” That’s from the movie, Runaway Bride, from ages ago. The source doesn’t matter to me as much as what is said. This says that we all have messed up! No one is superior to another, certainly not because of how “good” one person is compared to another. We’re all people. And we’re all navigating.

Why the words we use to define this last year matter

It matters what words we use to the define and describe the year that’s nearly behind us.

It might seem like I’m focusing on the worst parts of the year. I don’t think so. I think it’s important to name those bad things that have happened and see them for what they are. Name the fear you felt, the hurt you felt, the shame you felt. And feel them. It’s so easy to shut down once we feel something that doesn’t feel good like gratitude or hope, joy or love, kindness or compassion.

This next quote helped me understand the idea that we tend to shy away from hard feelings. “It’s amazing how in our culture we don’t understand how to [be with our feelings.] We are so intellectual. We feel a big feeling and then think, ‘Something’s wrong with me.’ Actually, we are feeling machines who happen to think. What we need to learn to do, collectively, is how to observe our emotions without reacting to them. There’s so much intelligence in those emotions if we don’t shut them off and give priority to our intellect. We want the two working together.” Traci Ruble, a therapist and speaker who founded the Sidewalk Talk Listening Project, said that. I learned about her from one of my favorite podcasts, Good Life Project by Jonathan Fields. You can listen to Traci’s episode here, on Apple’s podcast app, or itunes.

How profound is that idea? That we must observe our emotions, but not react to them? We can become emotionally intelligent, identifying those hard feelings and not allow them to sway us. We can see our fear, yet not shut down and decide we shouldn’t trust anyone. We can witness our hurt and learn from it. We can be with our shame and grow as we overcome it.

I digress. This is why the words we choose to define our last year matter. We live our lives in two ways–our experiencing self and our remembering self. We have experienced hard things like fear, hurt, and shame. But if we allow ourselves to remember the last year with words that feel negative and heavy, then we are doing a disservice to our personal growth and well-being. If we allow that darkness to overtake our future days, it’s so much harder to move forward when we feel like we’re stuck in such heavy emotion. These are important feelings to have, recognize, and feel. But if we don’t attach hope to them, we lose the lessons we can learn from them, along with the benefits we can ultimately reap one day.

Here’s my thought. If we allow ourselves to remember our tough experiences as challenges or opportunities for personal growth or as hard lessons, then I think we’re allowing ourselves grace and room to breathe. If you had a bad year, think of those events as rough patches and challenges. If you are no longer speaking to someone you care about, think of this as a lesson in love and loss, and truly loving yourself. If things cascaded out of control this year, I think this gives you every reason to hope for the next year.

For me, it helps knowing there’s something deeper within a bad experience. There are important feelings I have that I need to recognize and let myself feel. When I allow myself to view things this way, it’s as if that bad thing feels a little better. It allows me to attach hope to that bad thing. I think the difference is in knowing how to separate feelings instead of lumping them all together as one big, rough year. Don’t deny yourself the levity you deserve by realizing everything has an ebb and flow. Always. Hope is the one activity you can do now, when thinking about the future, that is productive. It allows us to see the light in the future, gather up any light we can from our past, and keep moving towards the light we see.

“Hope is the one activity you can do now, when thinking about the future, that is productive.”

Give yourself permission to look at your hardships with grace for yourself. They are a chance to learn something and apply it to your days ahead. And if nothing else, they are allowing you to give yourself the chance to hope for good things to come your way. Because, my fellow dears, you all deserve everything lovely. I wish that for all of you, always. Grace yourself with that chance, as well, by not defining your year a “bad” or “awful” or anything else negative. Define this past year as full of challenges that helped you encounter your truer self. Apply it to next year and see what personal growth you’re capable of. If you can’t detach the label of “bad” etc. from the last year, then I encourage you to not beat yourself up about it. Be careful of the bad things you say to yourself because, chances are, you’ll end up believing them. You’ve seen how unproductive being hard on yourself has been, so why not try loving yourself?

For me, this is what this year has brought me: awareness that everyone struggles and the grace to know people can change and are inherently good. We need to stop defining people and boxing people and qualities into categories of good and bad, right and wrong. Good people are capable of bad things and bad people are capable of good things. We are not the mistakes we make and we are not the good deeds we do. But thank goodness we get to learn from all of it. The possibilities are endless. We get to learn from all the times we’re brought to our knees, the times we are filled with joy beyond compare, and everything in between.

Happy new year and much love!

2 thoughts on “why the words you use to define the last year matter.

  1. Dear Shauna,

    You are an incredibly talented writer. In addition to raising sweet baby Jack, you should seriously consider writing a book. I promise I will buy the first copy. Happy New Year to you and your awesome family. ❤️

    • Thank you, Steve! You always know how to make me blush! I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a book one day. We’ll see—who knows what the future will bring. Hope you and the family are well! ❤️

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