How secrets crushed and how Wild Woman help me break free
For years, nay decades, my secrets buried me in shame. I had so much to be ashamed about: my failure to marry, have children and a family of my own, my failure to harness my knowledge and build a safe life, my failure to hold onto friends, my expulsion from my tribe. They added up to the same thing: my inability to be loved. I’m unlovable, my psyche cried. Oh, the shame.
The more unloved I felt, the more I hid, the heavier the shame grew until I became a shadow of myself. But I love, I screamed, silently, hoping, praying, dreaming someone kind would hear me. No one heard me. No one was listening. I felt like “they” wanted me small, broken, hidden away. I was right. Or half-right. There was one person listening, and it turned out that was enough.
But before I realized who was listening, I berated myself for my flaws, directing my anger and frustration inwards, using me as my own punch-bag. I’m a strong person. My blows were hard: you’re a loser, a coward, a nobody. You’re a failure. You’re unlovable. I said these damning words to myself over and over until my heart wilted and withered like a fallen leaf.
I fell into darkness, lived there for years, without friends, without a smile, without a drop of compassion. I became weak. My body rebelled against me. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, couldn’t break free. I became isolated. I isolated myself, a sort of flimsy insulation from my own self-hate. At the time, I didn’t know it was this solitude that would become my biggest strength.
SCARS OF THE PSYCHE
“There are oceans of tears women have never cried, for they have been trained to carry mother’s and father’s secrets, men’s secrets, society’s secrets, and their own secrets, to the grave,” writes Clarissa Pinkola Estés Ph.D in her infamous book, Women Who Run With the Wolves. Sometimes women carry so many secrets, it’s hard to discern where the whispers end and the woman begins.
Estés goes on to explain how the shame of these secrets stems from the violation of societal or cultural mores, inherited notions that shape our thinking unconsciously from birth. However, as Carl Jung pointed out, the keeping of secrets cuts us off from the very unconscious we need to commune with in order to act in our best interest. In short, secrets hijack gut instinct.
When this happens, the woman’s story turns from one of adventure to tragedy. Rather than overcoming adversity, she wallows, hides and wishes to “die without dying.” I know this feeling. All women do. The secret shame feels the same but has many sources according to Estés: “betrayal; forbidden love; unsanctioned curiosity; desperate acts; forced acts; unrequited love; jealousy and rejection…” You get the idea. You know what she’s talking about.
She says the most “enduring” shames are the ones that can’t be grieved, in particular, “the loss of a child through death or relinquishment being one of the most, if not the most, enduring.” I can attest to this. Abortion is one of my scars, maybe the deepest, certainly the one that evokes the greatest sense of loss in me, as well as the experience that changed me in the most profound ways, leading to years of cognitive dissonance.
AVOID PAIN AVOID LIFE
Estés calls it, “The Dead Zone,” that place a woman ends up in when she allows shame to cut her off from her gut instinct and Wild Woman wisdom. At this point, the woman is carrying two burdens: the secret and the shame that secret gives birth to. Which cuts her off from the people who could show her love and compassion and understanding, the things she most needs.
This is when tragedy really kicks in, as a woman scrambles to find comfort, and typically, goes looking in all the wrong places, falling prey to jealous friends, exploitative employers and abusive lovers. Usually, a woman behaves this way in order to avoid expulsion from her tribe, “for fear of loss of love, loss of regard, loss of basic subsistence.” Yet, this is exactly what happens to her anyway.
“Shameful secrets cause a person to become haunted,” writes Estés. “She cannot sleep, for a shaming secret is like a cruel barbed wire that catches her across the gut as she tries to run free.” I tried to run free. At the age of 28, I abandoned my native Ireland, heading to the south of Spain – believing the sunshine could burn off my shame. I was wrong.
Instead, I went on barrage of self-destruction so intense, it’s a wonder I didn’t lose my life. I befriended criminals, engaged in smear campaigns, confided in addicts, drank to the brink of reason, and ended up in jail on more than one occasion. I collapsed at the age of 31, landing in hospital with gut pain so bad I had to be sedated for ten days. When the attending doctor discharged me he said they found nothing wrong with me. “Nothing.”
THE WILD WOMAN WITHIN
Estés tells a story called, “The Woman With Hair of Gold” about a man who tries to exploit a woman with long gold hair by selling one of her locks. When he fails to make any money, he returns to her home, murders and buries the woman. But her long hair grows up through the earth, and shepherds make flutes from it that sing of the woman’s plight, leading to the murderer’s arrest.
The moral of the story is that secrets don’t stay secret forever. They erupt, demanding to be heard. Estés insists there’s nothing the Wild Woman can’t forgive. “Nothing.” On top, she “digs things up, throws them up into the air, chases them around. She does not bury and forget.” This is why women never lose their wild instinct. It’s always there, waiting for its moment to sing.
Estés explains that there is a way to heal, to reconnect to the wild instinct and the first step is to find a trusted listener. This listener is rarely in the place you expect, and is rarely family or friends. In fact, they can’t listen because if they do, they’ll be forced to confront their own grief, and nobody wants to do that willingly. It takes an experience so intense there’s no other option.
My first listener was myself. Learning to turn my negative self-talk into a supportive friend was my first taste of compassion, and it was enough. I learned to cry and I learned to hold myself while I cried. That softened the walls around me, and directed me on new paths. I closed my eyes and listened to the Wild Woman within me, really listen. I talked to her. I spilled my guts. I started to heal.
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What secrets are you guarding? Write them down. Look at them. Who do the secrets belong to? You? Or someone you’re protecting?
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