Before I hit “Publish” — almost every single time — I have a moment of wondering who the hell I think I am. I think this while editing, too. And sometimes even when I walk into a coffee shop. When I’m standing next to woman I am taller than, there are damning whispers that tell me I am so full of shit for wearing ankle booties with fucking tassels on them. Tassels, Morgan?! GO AWAY.
Most of us know at least the occasional shame of simply existing — of taking up space, of speaking loudly enough that someone turns their head to listen. I’ve heard it said that shame is the most toxic emotion because unlike guilt, which we feel in response to something we’ve done, shame causes us to feel bad about who we are.
I am fascinated with how shame plays out in our lives, particularly when we are seeking creative expression. So many of the women I work with label their oppressive inhibitor as fear, but the energetic roots are so much deeper. Fear presents itself in anticipation of discomfort (to put it simply), but shame turns the lights out on our natural resilience, even in the face of fear.
Between the ages of twenty and twenty-two, I had a lovely boyfriend. He was kind, and good to me, and I loved him as deeply as I could at that supple young age, which was quite a bit. Before him, I’d been in a horrible, abusive relationship, and so when he made me a balloon animal bear hugging a heart the afternoon he was our waiter at a restaurant my mother and I frequented, I fell in fast love.
Eventually, though, I began to feel the tug of the world outside the relationship. I knew I was too young to know anything about life-long commitment, but he had loved me into believing I was worthy of goodness in a man, and I feared I would lose the safety of this knowing if I left the relationship.
In the subtext of the story, I was also afraid that leaving a man who was so utterly devoted to me meant I was a monster. Without even knowing it, I was ashamed of my needs — and that they did not match his. I fumbled a bit and made some messes along the way, but I did eventually leave the relationship.
It was the first time I had to practice taking better care of myself than even someone who was taking really good care of me.
Months later, I was sitting with a friend on her bedroom floor. She was hurting being in a relationship that wasn’t so good for her, but finding it impossible to leave what it had given her: a sense of belonging, and of being wanted. She asked me, bottom lip trembling and eyes red, “How do you do it? How do you leave when you want to stay?”
“Have you ever run hurdles?” I asked her. “Like in track?”
“So at first, the hurdles are pretty low. I think they start this way so you don’t trip and knock your teeth out, but still: jumping over those little guys mid-run is really awkward. Your body doesn’t understand. You have to go from doing something really natural that you’ve been doing all your life — running — to suddenly turning yourself into a fucking gazelle, which is very unnatural — and then run again. And before you even really have a chance to get your stride back, there’s another hurdle, and you have to be a gazelle again.
“So you have to go slow. You can’t run full-force. You have to just sort of… trot. Jog a little, jump the hurdle, jog, jump the hurdle. And little by little, your body starts to understand, and your mind starts to trust your body, and you develop this muscle memory of what it feels like to clear the hurdles — and what form you have to take so you don’t trip and knock your teeth out — at fast and faster speeds.
“It’s like that,” I told her. “The first decision to leave is the hardest. You have to learn to trust yourself, and that the possibility of tripping and falling — or hurting even though you know you’re doing the right thing — is worth it. It’s like building a muscle, and maybe you have to start slow, but you definitely have to start.”
Cultivating creative courage is like running hurdles.
Or leaving a relationship, or even beginning one. Whenever we have to push through a shell, it takes a little badassery, and — hardest of all — we have to practice forgiving the shame that asks us who the hell we think we are and why on Earth anyone cares what we have to say / what we’ve made / why we chose the tassel-y boots which make you even taller.
You don’t have to make anyone fall in love with you; that’s not what creative life is about. It’s not about proving we deserve to take up space or breath the air. It’s not about seeking significance or recognition. It’s not even about being the best — or even good! — at what we do. It’s about honoring who we are and what we know. It’s about healing the generational, societal and psychological maelstrom that tells us we don’t deserve to have a voice or make a wave.
It’s about training our bodies and hearts to clear the hurdles that have been set before us (especially if we are the ones who have put them in place) and building a new kind of muscle memory; one that reminds us that we are incredibly resilient and flexible, that we can absolutely — and should — leave anything that is too small for us. Especially if it is the confines of the limitations we have put upon ourselves.