I was six years old the first time I learned I was “no fun.”
It was Thanksgiving, and while my grandma, mom, and
aunts were dutifully preparing our feast of boiled potatoes,
boiled corn, and roasted turkey, the men chatted and the
children played amongst themselves. My uncle was making
fun of me and chased me into the family room while
pinching my ass. It hurt. I didn’t like it. I apparently forgot
to smile and laugh it off like I’d done a million times before.
I remember him being at eye level, scrunching his face into
a mock pout, narrowing his eyes, and saying, “Oh… you’re
A video exists of me at Christmastime 1987. I’m just over
two years old, and as one of the earliest grandchildren, I’m
showered with love, affection, and toys. In the video, I’m
playing with some of my new stash. I bang on the keys of
my tiny xylophonic piano, scream-singing, “I love you!” I
pour make-believe water from one child-sized plastic pot
into another and direct that same uncle to make corn. “No!
Coffee!” I say. “Wait! Those are the green beans!”
It’s cute. I’m cute. The whole thing is so sweet and innocent
it makes you want to gouge your eyes out. It could have, and should have, stayed a sweet little memory of play and
joy and youthful innocence.
But it didn’t. Because year after year, every Christmas,
from the age of two until I was bringing partners home to
meet my family in my twenties, the video was played. We
would pack a dozen adults and a dozen children into a room
that could comfortably fit six. Together we’d watch me pound
the keys and pour the coffee and tell my uncle what to do.
They’d laugh, and they’d mock me, and they’d laugh some
more. They’d throw their heads back and cackle ‘til they cried
as I curled into my mother’s lap, wanting to die.
I’d cry, and they’d see me crying, and they’d tell me it
was just a joke as they ejected the tape, put it in the rewinder,
and plopped it back into the VCR to watch all over again.
Eventually, Grandma would holler in from the kitchen,
“Leave her alone,” or, “Dinner’s ready!” and I would slink
into my seat at the kids’ table, sleeves soaked through with
snot and tears.
As children, we are wonderfully observant, astute little
humans. We begin responding to the people around us before
we are even born. A study showed twin fetuses interact and
even reach for and comfort each other while in the womb
(Weaver 2011). We naturally yearn for and seek out social
interaction from our earliest moments. We are completely
dependent on the adults in our lives to provide for our most
basic needs and will do whatever it takes to be seen, noticed,
taken care of, and taken seriously (Miller 1979).
When we don’t get what we need—whether it’s food, attention, loving connection, or otherwise—we have an impossible
choice to make (Eisenstein 2013). We can either assume the
people we rely on for every aspect of survival are unable to
meet our needs and, unable to strike out on our own, fall into despair, or we can assume it’s all our fault and change
ourselves in response to the people we rely on.
We make the tough, unconscious decision that the adults
in our lives are good, caring people who didn’t mean to hurt
us, determine we caused the negative reaction from others,
and act accordingly. For many of us, this results in a special
sensitivity to the needs of others as we turn to people pleasing
in order to win favor with the caretakers in our lives (Miller
1979). We all do our best to fit into whatever scenario we
happen to be born into. We try to be who our caretakers need
and want us to be and do what we have to do to get what we
need from them.
From the people around us, we learn how to navigate
the world we are born into. We learn who we are and how
to belong or, alternatively, how to earn love and acceptance
each time our caretakers praise and punish us. We internalize
what we learn as truth, accepting as fact what we are told:
the sky is blue; you’re being too sensitive; you’re asking for it.
The messages we learn about ourselves and how to be in
the world become our playbook. Unquestioned and unexamined,
they remain the rulebooks we live by for life. We
do what we need to do to fit in, gain love and acceptance, get
and keep a job, and get and keep a partner. When dissonance
arises, as it inevitably does when the way we are feels at odds
with who we are told we should be, we assume that is our
fault too, feel shame for being different, conform as best we
can, and carry on.
Because of course we do. What’s the alternative?
To survive, my young mind learned I was wrong to protest
injustices. I internalized that I was no fun. When I then
stopped participating during family gatherings, I was called
out for being too quiet and shy. It wasn’t until my therapist issued me the insurance codes “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” and “Social Anxiety” in my
thirties that I had something other than “shy” and “quiet”
to call myself.
“Yes, you’re too shy and far too sensitive,” the diagnoses
seemed to agree, “but it’s okay. It’s not your fault! Your brain
just doesn’t work right. We can fix you!”
My therapist explained that everyone experiences nervousness
or anxiety at some point in their lives, but that
mine was pervasive and interfering with daily life. Most of us
experience anxiety in response to specific events like public
speaking, which also motivates us to prepare and practice.
The millions of adults with anxiety disorders in the United
States, on the other hand, display excessive worry about any
number of issues for months.
And I was displaying an excessive amount of worry.
For years, I carried around my diagnoses as a badge of
explanation. I used them to make sense of why I’d never been
comfortable in any group setting and why I needed to be
nearly black-out drunk to be the bubbly, social person I knew
I could be. I read every Buzzfeed and Psychology Today article
I could find and forwarded my partners listicles to help them
understand me and support me in social situations. I read
books on the prevalence of autism in adults and wondered
if that could explain my awkwardness, too.
The news felt like a jolt of awakening—a positive revelation
on my journey toward self-understanding. My diagnoses
woke me up from the shame of being a painfully shy person
and helped me to understand what I simply didn’t have words
for before. It was, in fact, because I had a faulty brain.
I called it, “I’d rather be at home reading.” My family called
it “shy.” My therapist called it “debilitating social anxiety.” Without the
expertise my therapist offered, I would have
continued to feel the shame of feeling like an outsider everywhere
I went, with no explanation why. My therapist helped
me understand that it wasn’t a personality flaw, per se, my
brain just didn’t work the way normal people’s brains did. It
wasn’t my fault, but the problem was still me.
As we grow and evolve, we move from taking our cues
about ourselves and the world around us from our parents
and begin to take them from the other trusted folks in our
lives—our friends, teachers, and trusted professionals, like
my therapist. We rely on others to be our mirrors and reflect
back to us who they see. As they do, we develop new theories
about how and why things are the way they are and add to
our ever more complex self-concept.
Over time, this becomes a complicated web of other people’s
opinions floating around in our brains—often to the
point where we hear their voices in our heads and mistake
them for our own, subverting how we would otherwise feel.
The first expensive winter coat I ever purchased was a
luxurious, down-filled black coat that went to my knees. It
didn’t just zip up the front, it had Michael Kors emblazoned
buttons adorning a lapel that closed across my torso for extra
protection from blistering winter winds. When I popped
the hood up over my head, faux fur hung just over my eyes.
It fit perfectly, flattered my frame, and kept me warm, cozy,
and dry in the brutal winters in Pittsburgh and DC. At sixty
dollars, it was the most money I’d ever spent on a single item
For a while, I felt like a fool wearing it. It felt too fancy for
me. What would my family think of the stupid faux fur? Who
did I think I was anyway? Eventually, I got used to it simply
by wearing it enough. The coat made me feel like a queen. In reality, I
could make it through the snow-filled streets of
campus feeling toasty and warm, and that was enough for
me. I wore it through most of my classes—a fully acceptable
Over the years, I wore that jacket so much—it was the
only winter jacket I owned—friends and colleagues joked I
slept in it. They weren’t far off.
After a while, she began to age. Her hair grayed and frayed.
Her shiny black exterior dulled and her insides came apart at
the seams. I paid to have her stitched and fixed and prettied
up so I could have more time with her.
One crisp fall day, twelve years into our relationship, I
caught a gust of wind and shivered. I went to zip her up, but
the zipper wouldn’t budge. I sucked in and contorted my
body and pulled the zipper up over my hips to try again.
No avail: it wasn’t zipping. I made a mental note to lose ten
pounds, crossed my arms for warmth, and picked up the
pace to generate some heat. Heat and calorie burn! Double
win, ya dumb bitch! Maybe let’s skip dinner tonight, shall we?
I spent that entire winter cold. I doubled up my bottoms,
layering leggings and jeans, and tripled up my tops, layering
knits, scarves, and hoodies under a coat that would not
close. Each time I added the final layer, I condemned myself,
shaming myself and reminding myself I’m not simply fat,
I’m fat and lazy and poor. It wasn’t just that the jacket didn’t
fit, it was also that I wasn’t prioritizing going to the gym,
getting a new coat, or eating better. It was that even if I did,
it wouldn’t matter because I was a shy, anxious, failure of a
human, and no coat could cover that up. And even if I could
find a coat big enough for my bloated body, it would be ugly
and shapeless like me and far too expensive for my failing
entrepreneurial self anyway. My wardrobe malfunction symbolized
everything that was wrong in my world.
I spent whatever energy I had convincing myself it wasn’t
so bad: Seattle’s winters were more temperate than those in
my hometown of Pittsburgh or DC, where I’d spent many
years. I’d probably lose weight over the summer and fit into it
next year. And hey! If I’ve got enough fat for the coat not to fit,
it’s surely enough to keep me warm! I downplayed my misery
and shoved off my shivers and found excuses to stay inside.
I hung on to that coat two years too long. I refused to
admit I’d outgrown her, despite every ounce of evidence
proving it time and time again. I’ve always been a believer
in potential, and I reasoned I could totally make her work.
I’m resilient, damn it! Determined! Stubborn.
Over time, my beloved coat has come to serve as a metaphor
in my coaching practice for all the things we put up
with, all the things we tolerate and make excuses for that we
know we’ve outgrown, even if we’re not yet willing to admit it.
Just like I kept my coat even though it no longer fit, I kept
going to Grandma’s year after year, holiday after holiday. I
tried so hard to be a good daughter, sister, niece, cousin, and
granddaughter, smiling and laughing along and hugging every
adult around the dinner table, even when my body recoiled
and even after I realized years of freezing and fawning had
left me numb and empty in these situations.
In my coaching practice, I’ve come to recognize a familiar
pattern: It’s not until we let ourselves feel how small a coat,
person, relationship, job, or situation feels that we will also
allow ourselves to fully feel and accept the deep pull to make
a change. Until then, we find reasons to explain these things
away, to rationalize how they didn’t mean it like that, or it’s
not really so bad. We dismiss our own complaints as being too sensitive, or reading too much into something, or not
worth it. We ask ourselves to be far, far too resilient.
When we stop making excuses for ourselves and others
and quit criticizing ourselves for the discomfort we’re feeling,
we get to feel and truly recognize what our bodies and brains
have been telling us all along: “This shit ain’t right.”
In my experience, when we allow ourselves to embrace,
embody, and fully feel just how bad something is—whatever
we’re rationalizing—we can move from shaming ourselves
about our own discomfort into asking questions. Once we
build the awareness we’re dismissing ourselves, we can remove
the self-judgment and censure long enough to make the situation
neutral, determine what that discomfort is trying to
tell us, and decide what to do about it.
In April of 2015, two years before I began my official foray
into the self-help world, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu traveled
to Dharamsala, India, for the occasion of His Holiness,
the Dalai Lama’s eightieth birthday. The two men—each
sacred, spiritual leaders—gathered together to celebrate their
friendship, reflect on their long, joyful, and challenging lives,
and to answer a question that would become the foundation
for their book, The Book of Joy (Dalai Lama and Tutu 2016).
As I listened to the men banter back and forth via audiobook,
I was struck by the way the two carried on. They
reminded me of eight-year-olds with the hard-earned wisdom
of eighty-year-olds. They reflected on the great challenges and
difficulties of their lives in prison and in exile with reverence
and an unmistakable lightness—a peace and acceptance.
Every word landed like a prayer on my ears. But what’s
most fascinating is the lesson that stuck with me. It wasn’t
how to find joy in the hardest of times or to believe in the
good of humanity in the face of oppression, though they talked about
that, too. What stuck with me was their gentle,
insistent teasing. The two verbally poked and prodded and
giggled like schoolboys. It was just so damn clear how much
love there was between them and how beautifully it played
out as playfulness and joy.
“You know, there are cameras on us,” the Dalai Lama
smiled and said. “Try to act like a holy man” (Dalai Lama
and Tutu 2016).
I was most struck by what felt like an offhand comment
by the Dalai Lama about their playfulness. “To tease someone
is a sign of intimacy and friendship,” he said, “to know that
there is a reservoir of affection from which we all drink as
funny and flawed humans.”
I replayed the idea over and over in my mind—a reservoir
of affection. That’s what felt wholesome about their playfulness.
There was a preestablished measure of mutual love
and respect. It was not simply understood but also explicitly
announced and concretely demonstrated. There was love,
compassion, and caring between the two men, which enabled
the playful jabbing and lighthearted teasing.
It’s exactly what was missing from my lifetime of teasing.
It was never mutual, which meant it never felt playful.
There was no world in which I felt it would be safe or appropriate
for me to respond in kind—to go around pinching my
uncles’ asses or to play embarrassing videos of them during
the holidays. It simply wasn’t an option without ridicule,
reprimand, or judgment, so for me, it wasn’t an option.
Teasing is only teasing when it’s conducted similarly
to the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu’s—in a lighthearted,
playful way, reciprocal in nature, wherein both partners
give and take and do so in an attempt to make both parties
laugh with no intention to harm. When a line is accidentally crossed,
or one party objects or becomes upset, the behavior
immediately stops and reparations are made (Coloroso 2003).
When the teasing is one-sided, it becomes taunting.
The person being laughed at feels demeaned, embarrassed,
and ridiculed. The behavior is often delivered with sarcasm,
eye rolls, and directions to “lighten up, it’s just a joke.” The
unwillingness to stop and make amends is an indication of
the seriousness and one-sidedness rather than lighthearted,
When any kind of power dynamic comes into play, such
as physical size difference, control over one’s career or sense of
belonging, or when the offender refuses to stop the behavior
despite having clear indications of the harm being caused
such as crying or verbal objections—it’s bullying. Bullying
doesn’t come from a reservoir of love—it comes from the
satisfaction of having the power to harm someone else.
Only after listening to the playful jabs between the two
holy men and being curious and angry and confused did I
realize at the ripe old age of thirty-five that what I’d experienced
every Christmas was my annual family bullying.
This realization was a wake-up call for me and enabled
me to get curious about all the other ways bullying and power
dynamics showed up in family affairs. I remembered the aunt
who was “teased” for being the baby, the youngest of seven
children. The sister whose name was “teasingly” followed by
a pig call. One niece who was made fun of for being a “ditz”
and another a “snob.” Quickly and easily, dozens of memories
of men bullying women under the guise of joking flooded
my system. I could not think of one instance of a woman
attempting this in return.
In situations of bullying, the victim, feeling powerless,
does what their coping mechanisms allow them to do. They often
experience extreme stress that leads to a lack of interest
in school, family, and friends, as well as a reluctance to be
in public and groups for fear of bullies in other spaces. Victims
suffer from stress illnesses, depression, loneliness, low
self-esteem, and anxiety (Coloroso 2003).
Suddenly, it made sense why I might be silent and chronically,
debilitatingly anxious. I lived in a family with a culture
of bullying. It was the air I breathed. It was the water I swam
in. It was the life I went to sleep in and woke up to every day.
I called it “normal.”
All of us live and work in cultures of bullying. We call
While bullies and assholes come in all shapes and sizes,
more often than not, we expect them to look like the bullies
we see in movies, Regina Georges or Draco Malfoys, ruthless
in their scrutiny. The reality is, they also come in the form
of grandparents, aunts, uncles, mothers- and fathers-in-law,
cousins, parents, teachers, bosses, neighbors, friends, partners,
and more. And whether we experience taunting, bullying,
harassment, or straight-up oppression, we, especially
us women, tend to look for reasons the offending behavior
But like my family’s justification that “It was just a joke,
Sharon,” we explain away the pain while still experiencing
the very real shame of public humiliation.
“It must be my fault,” we’re primed and then encouraged to
think. “I shouldn’t have been so foolish. If I weren’t so dumb/
quiet/ambitious/lazy/kind, I could’ve avoided this treatment/
Before we have the skills and awareness to fully recognize
the harm we do to ourselves and each other in this line of thinking,
we function from a sort of unconscious sleep
state. We do what we have to do and find ways to survive in
whatever culture we’re born into, whether that’s a penthouse
on Madison Avenue or a farmhouse outside of Madison,
Wisconsin. We conform, consciously and unconsciously,
changing ourselves to fit in.
In our efforts to feel better and fit in better, many of us
turn to supports like self-help. Sometimes, they are helpful.
Often, they reinforce the idea that the crappy way we’re feeling
is justified, that the treatment we received was justified, and
give us their personal strategy for dealing with it in the future.
“Yes, of course you’re feeling that way,” self-help books
seem to say. “And yes, it is your fault. But we can help you.”
“Yes, obviously men are going to be dicks sometimes.
That’s just boys being boys! Here’s what you can do to avoid
their wrath while trying to get ahead in the male-dominated
“Yes. You are absolutely too fat. Let’s get you some willpower,
“Yes, I can see you’re stressed. Let’s get you some meditation
techniques to help you temporarily forget how stressed
you are so you can get back to work.”
“Yes! Your lack of confidence is holding you back! Here’s
how I got my confidence back while juggling my full-time
modeling career, and you can, too!”
Books like this keep us asleep to the real injustices and
travesties being perpetrated. Instead, they offer us more and
more ways to, as Brené Brown would say, “hustle for our
worthiness” (2012). Eventually, we again get that nudge, that
inkling in our gut that says, “Something’s not right here.”
We finish our twelfth fad diet, gain all the weight back, yet
again, and finally realize our degrees and work ethics and the fact we’ve
not yet killed our bosses, children, or spouses are
more than enough evidence to prove we’ve got willpower in
spades. Maybe the fact these strategies haven’t been working
isn’t actually (all) our fault.
Or we attend our sixteenth webinar on confidence and
imposter syndrome, dutifully list out all of our accomplishments,
recite our affirmations in the most powerful of power
poses, only for Jim or John or Chad to cut us off midsentence
yet again, and finally think, “Maybe this lack of confidence
thing isn’t (all) my fault to begin with.”
And maybe, we take a look at our social anxiety, years of
fear and hypervigilance and silence, and think… yeah, no…
maybe it’s just not my fault at all.
So, whose fault is it?