I want to share something with you that literally just happened to me moments ago. Hopefully you can relate to my experience to help you get through similar situations. So here's what happened...
I was walking down the street laughing with a colleague when all of the sudden I heard "You think that's funny, fatso?" I looked to the man sitting on the sidewalk next to me to find him looking right at me. I was the fatso he was referring to.
I was immediately hit with INTENSE shame. My face turned bright red. I felt my stomach churn. My throat closed. I pretended not to hear it and went on conversing with my colleague, but I was secretly having a panic attack on the inside.
FASTSO? Am I really that fat that strangers need to call me out for it? Is everyone else thinking I'm a disgusting and fat, too? I can't believe I let myself gain all of this weight. I really am out of control....
I let these thoughts swirl around my head for five minutes until I could return to my office and take some time to collect myself. Deep breath in, deep breath out. Repeat. Now that I was calm, I could start to look at the situation.
Talking myself out of this shame spiral really happened in three steps. You can use these three steps for any situation in your life that's causing a shame reaction inside of you.
Step One: Changing Perception
Life is all about perception. Sometimes we get caught up in our own emotions and feelings about our perceptions, that we completely lose sight of reality and get lost in our dramatized version of the situation. So, this homeless man sitting on the street called me a fatso. That's a fact. I can't change that. But, I can change what I make this situation mean to me.
The first thing I question is how is this rude comment actually affecting my life. Is this person a loved one that really hurt my feelings? Is this man's perception of me affecting how many other men are interested in me or how successful I am in my career or how much my family loves me? No. So, it really isn't affecting my life to any degree worth getting upset over.
I also question the actual fatso term itself. Why am I being filled with so much shamed for being called fat right now? What am I making fat mean? Do I think fat means unworthy, unsexy, and unlovable? Do I think fat people are gross and deserve to be made fun of?
Hell no! I am a body positive person. I think that thin, average, and fat people are all beautiful and are all worthy of the same amount of love. The word fat isn't bad because the physical appearance of fat isn't bad. Would I get upset if this man called me a brunette, caucasian, or green-eyed? No. Because those physical attributes are just a part of my appearance and they don't define my self worth.
Step Two: Compassion
Regardless if the comment should be taken as an insult, it was certainly meant as one. And it still hurt... no matter how much rationalization I make around it. Anytime we get our feelings hurt, we are in dire need of some love and affection. Unfortunately, most of us reach to external sources to cope with our pain (another person, alcohol, food, etc.), when we really should be looking inward.
In this moment, I knew I had to step up and be my own best friend. I had to look at myself in the mirror and say "Hey Caty, I'm so sorry that happened to you. I know that really hurt your feelings and got you upset and you didn't deserve that. You are such a beautiful soul and are worth so much more than what that man thinks about your body. Your body is healthy and strong, as is your mind, and you shouldn't have to deal with such mean people."
Step Three: Empathy
The first part of this step is to find someone outside of myself to empathize with my situation. Brene Brown is an extremely well-known author and researcher on shame. Shame is one of the most painful emotions humans experience and her work is all about helping us overcome it as it occurs in our daily life. The most powerful thing she has found to combat shame is empathy. In her words, "Shame cannot coexist with empathy."
So I decided to reach out to my sister. I told her exactly what happened and she immediately responded with the words I needed to hear. "I'm so sorry! What an asshole! You know you're beautiful. Don't let that negativity even enter your head!" When we isolate ourselves with our shame, it only continues to grow and become more painful. As soon as we find someone to empathize with our situation, we instantly feel relief.
The second part of this step is to empathize with the man who called me a fatso in the first place. I see this man almost everyday on the same street holding a sign saying "HIV Positive. Please help me!" begging people for money. Sometimes he yells at people in anger and other times he sits in silence.
I started to think about how bad this man is hurting. He's homeless, he's battling a terrible disease, and most importantly, he's alone. He doesn't feel love, safe, and protected. He's suffering so much that he feels the need to lash his pain onto other people...which is exactly what he did to me. I can no longer feel angry at this man, because I just feel bad for him.
Once I've completed these three steps, I feel safe again. The rush of pain has dissipated and I feel confident in my body and my decision to accept her as she is in this moment. But, it wasn't always this way.
Throughout my childhood I was publicly shamed for my weight and even had comments made to me in my early twenties... but I handled it a very different way than I do now. I would get hit with that same rush of shame, but I would let it build for days, weeks, and months. I would repeat the insult to myself over and over again, like stabbing myself with a knife over and over again because I felt I deserved the pain. I would starve myself with a diet or stuff myself down with food to try and cope with what happened.
I am so grateful to have gotten to a place in my life that I'm so longer as affected by the external views of others. I can't lie and say that it doesn't hurt still, because it does. And I think it always will. But, at the end of the day, I am still okay. I am still whole. I am still love.
Want to know the worse part of all? The same homeless man that called me fatso was the same homeless man I bought a bag of food for and gave $5 to last week.