What I’m going to discuss is a little bit different from the previous topics that have been brought up in community gatherings and assemblies. At first, I admit I was nervous opening up to my entire community, about a personal, emotional journey and it has taken a lot of work on my part to reach a point where I am comfortable sharing it. But I think it is incredibly important to open this conversation and I hope telling a bit of my story can do that.
As some of you know, I left Hong Kong at the beginning of this school year for medical reasons. When I left, I was very clear with my friends about what I wanted them to share with everyone and how to handle certain questions I thought people may ask. The simple story they were told to tell was that I had a heart condition and was leaving to get treatment for it in America. Although this was true, the main reason I left was because this condition developed from an eating disorder I have battled for two years. During this time, my disorder has weighed heavily on my physical and mental health. However, throughout those two years, I got really good at putting on a facade of happiness and perfection to the point where my parents, and most of my friends, had no idea what I was struggling with. In May, when I finally told my mom and dad, they were shocked and it was incredibly disorienting for the whole family. Then, when summer started, I got a lot better but, when school came around in August, and the stress accompanied with it, I was thrown back into my old, unhealthy patterns. By September I told my parents I needed more help and made, what felt like the impossible decision, to leave Hong Kong and move to the States to get treatment.
Choosing to leave my home, my school, my friends, and everything comfortable and familiar to get help was one of the most terrifying decisions I have ever had to make. By October I started treatment in a facility called The Eating Recovery Center, or ERC, and for the next 3 months I challenged my eating disorder. While in treatment I spent the majority of my time in group and individual therapy sessions and with my remaining windows, I completed class work, college applications, and standardised tests. But, throughout this whole process, the most important thing I did was work on my own self-discovery and growth. I read every book that was recommended to me and each one taught me something important about myself and the world. I focused 2 months on studying Brené Brown and her work, which taught me invaluable lessons in shame, vulnerability, and fear. I also spent about 5 months becoming an expert in eating disorders and anything related to them. I used the time given to me to get underneath my eating disorder and see why it was there and what it was suppose to teach me.
The reason it took me as long as it did to tell my parents about my eating disorder was because of intense shame and embarrassment. I had so many beliefs about how I was supposed to act and be that I put myself in a box and whenever I wavered outside the strict lines I created for myself, I felt like a failure. I didn’t want to share what I was experiencing out of fear that others would change the way they saw me. My shame kept me quiet and locked me away from creating real, authentic, and genuine relationships with people because I only let them see part of me. The part I thought was good enough.
However, before I told my parents, there was this part of me that wanted them, and everyone around me, to figure out what was happening and save me from myself. In my mind, if they did that, it would prove to me that they cared. I wanted so deeply to know that I was loved but I was too terrified to let the people that loved me see my reality. But they never could have “saved me,” I had to reach a point where I wanted to save myself. Although this can be an atrocious feeling and you may just want someone to take your pain away, you have to decide when you’re ready to make a change and let go of what’s holding you back.
When I first started addressing my eating disorder, I struggled with being completely vulnerable and truthful with myself and my experiences because it was uncomfortable looking at what led to the challenges in my life. I so desperately wanted to be fine that it felt easier to ignore the pain and discomfort. Now, I recognise it is so much better, and less painful in the long run, to evaluate our issues as they’re happening instead of trying to avoid them. The more you push them down and pretend they’re not there, the more they’ll appear in your life.
Since I was a child, I have always believed people should reflect on themselves and their actions to understand their thoughts and reactions at a higher level. I was shown that there was always something you could improve upon and change to reach your greatest potential. This was a very valuable lesson that I took to the extreme. Having this belief made me feel like there was something wrong with me when I started doing worse or wasn’t performing at my best. I needed to be strong and when I felt myself slip into what I thought of as weakness, I felt ashamed and guilty. I needed everything to be perfect, even my emotions and the way I processed and understood them. But having these enormous belief systems was limiting. It made sharing my challenges close to impossible because I made being strong and not struggling part of my identity and I didn’t want to let that go.
I know that I, as well as everyone else, has complete control of how I react in any moment. That I get to decide if I view something as negative or positive or even give meaning to it at all. I was taught that no one else can dictate the way you feel or respond to a situation which means I could ultimately decide how I let a situation impact me. But again, with this belief I took it too far and got frustrated with myself when I started feeling disappointment, sadness, or anything “negative” because I didn’t know why I couldn’t control my feelings.
A huge part of Brené Brown’s work is on shame and discussing events or feelings that we perceive as shameful. She does a great job with detailing the difference between shame and embarrassment. Embarrassment is the feeling that you did something bad, while shame is about believing you are bad. The difference may seem slight in the wording but huge when you are experiencing it. Throughout my eating disorder I was trapped in shame and it was one of the reasons it took me so long to get help. I felt like there was something fundamentally wrong with me and I was so ashamed about having problems that I never wanted other people to know about them. I wanted to be viewed as strong and put together, not as some mess with an eating disorder. During my time at ERC, I learned a lot more about my disorder and how, like many mental health issues, it can be traced through genetics and isn’t a choice or the fault of the individual experiencing it. This made it a lot easier to evaluate my issues and move on from them because I no longer felt like I was to blame for struggling. I finally gave myself a reason to be compassionate with my disorder and my own life.
Shame has this remarkable ability to silence people, especially those who struggle with perfectionism. Perfectionism is definitely something I deal with. I conceptually understand that being perfect is impossible but it’s still hard to change your belief system and the way you live your life when it is engrained into who you are, or who you think you’re supposed to be. I think lots of people, especially in our community, struggle with perfectionism. But striving for perfection is so limiting. It limits the way you can experience your life because your fear will keep you from moving outside of your comfort zone. Every aspect of your growth will be gravely impacted because you won’t give yourself permission to learn from your mistakes when you aren’t comfortable enough to have them. But when you finally let yourself mess up, and maybe even feel shameful about it, by sharing your stories with people who have earned the right to hear them, the pain lessens. That shame stops holding the power over us that it once did. By keeping the conversation open, we take our power back and learn that we aren’t alone.
When I look over the last few years at my most shameful moments, I’m heartbroken. I would never want anyone that I love and care about to feel like they couldn’t come to me when they were struggling because they were worried I would see them differently or care about them less. Just because I went through something challenging and imperfect doesn’t change my self-worth or the amount of love I deserve in my life. As Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said: “people are like stained-glass windows, they sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.” I needed to learn how to give the same compassion and empathy I would gladly give others to myself. The more I became in touch with myself and my own journey the more tolerance and compassion I could provide for the people I care about the most; I could begin to understand other people’s struggles because I could understand my own.
Each of us have stories we tell ourselves about our lives and experiences. A lot of the time they’ll be about our self-worth and the way we perceive ourselves and others. But these stories are just that: stories. They aren’t the ultimate truth, they change and adapt and every person who is involved will have a different perspective. When we have damaging stories that impact the way we see ourselves or others, they stick with us and the longer we leave them alone and neglect to investigate, the deeper they integrate themselves in our identities and beliefs. We need to step back and look at these stories and be willing to re-examine them and take another perspective. You must learn that it’s possible, and ok, to change your stories so you can let hurtful beliefs go and write a new ending. An ending where you aren’t destroyed, but that supports you so you can put your best foot forward and be excited about what life has to offer you. I’m not saying this is easy, it takes a lot of practice and time, but it is worth it when you can begin to see yourself and situations differently. Learning to free yourself from your inhibiting beliefs and to not look at life through one lens that is ultimately clouded by our own judgments and filters.
In my experience, I have always wanted to be able to share my moments of shame with someone else because of my great desire to be seen and understood. The type of connections I wanted didn’t come from hiding behind the stories I told myself and by keeping quiet because of my uncertainty, it came from being authentic as well as vulnerable and empathetic to others and myself for our shared human moments. Authenticity is a huge part of living a life I can be proud of. As Brown defines it, “authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.”
Our society puts so much pressure on all of us to show up in certain ways, if that’s being smart, thin, strong, beautiful, unemotional, or overly emotional, it’s been taught to us our entire lives. I hope we can come together and discuss what is actually happening and give voice to our insecurities and shame so we don’t feel trapped by them. We need to find the strength to talk about what is actually happening so we can find peace and build relationships that are based in trust, honesty, and compassion. To build shame resilience we must first acknowledge our shame and find the courage to speak it. I have seen so many people silence themselves because they fear judgment, but please, I urge you to speak up, share your needs and your concerns because I guarantee you are not alone.
Everyone struggles in their lives, everyone feels pain, and everyone has moments of insecurity and shame, because it is part of being human. But those moments don’t have to hurt us as intensely as they do. You are in control of you how you view, interpret, and react to a situation but you aren’t in control of how you feel in an instant or a thought that may pop into your head. You can, however, choose how you relate to a feeling or thought and how you let it affect you. Again, much easier said than done, but it is possible. It’s possible to let those things go and live a life that is more fulfilling and less damaging once you decide you can reflect the true essence of your story.
As all of us continue on in our lives, I challenge everyone to integrate a few behaviours that I believe will help you live a more fulfilling life. One of the most important things is to fight your shame. Do the challenging thing and be vulnerable and voice your stories; be honest about what you’re going through. Ask for support, if that is from a friend, a family member, or just someone you trust. It is a lot easier to hide in your pain than to step into the light and let it be heard. To keep your relationships in a healthy place and out of resentment, anger, or discomfort, I would recommend that if any emotion comes up during an interaction with someone, tell the other person the story you’re telling yourself about an experience you had with them, and listen to their perspective. Bringing up something that was imperfect in a relationship doesn’t have to be confrontative, aggressive, or coming from a place of blame and accusations. There doesn’t need to be a “good guy” or a “bad guy,” it can just be a conversation about your experience and how it made you feel. Don’t let little comments linger and ruminate, share your thoughts even if you think that you’re “over reacting” or making “too big of a deal” out of something, your feelings are always valid and if you don’t express them, they’ll build up and will eventually manifest themselves in your relationship in another way. Something I think all of us need to remind ourselves is that our feelings matters, we are never a burden to the ones that love us, and that we’re never taking up too much space.
I also want to mention that if you have a friend you know who is going through something difficult, or believe that they are, go to them and offer your support. Sometimes people don’t realise others notice them and it adds to their belief that people don’t care. Even if you don’t know what the “right” thing is to say or understand what they’re going through, asking and expressing concern can sometimes be enough.
The profound message I want you to take away, and I hope you will help me spread is that we need to end the stigma that prevents people from seeking help and speaking their truth, which in turn makes individuals go through life alone and oppressed in order to feel secure.
I want to end this speech with a poem written by Brené Brown that was published in her book “Rising Strong.”
Manifesto of the Brave and Brokenhearted
By Brené Brown
There is no greater threat to the critics and cynics and fearmongers
Than those of us who are willing to fall
Because we have learned how to rise
With skinned knees and bruised hearts;
We choose owning our stories of struggle,
Over hiding, over hustling, over pretending.
When we deny our stories, they define us.
When we run from struggle, we are never free.
So we turn toward truth and look it in the eye.
We will not be characters in our stories.
Not villains, not victims, not even heroes.
We are the authors of our lives.
We write our own daring endings.
We craft love from heartbreak,
Compassion from shame,
Grace from disappointment,
Courage from failure.
Showing up is our power.
Story is our way home.
Truth is our song.
We are the brave and brokenhearted.
We are rising strong.
Enjoy your cracks, they are beautiful, real, and they are what all of us look for- your authentic self. Dare to be you, dare to own your story, dare to be imperfect and to love your imperfection because all of us need unique individuals to make this community a supportive one.
I stood staring out at the audience. Silence. Then movement. Then applause.
I had done it.