Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: I'm a shambles - and that's fine

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Perfectionism may be what’s keeping society divided.
You could freak out about your son's Skylanders stickers on the wall - but who really cares?
You could freak out about your son's Skylanders stickers on the wall - but who really cares?

So far this year I have read a chick lit book where someone gets Jean Cocteau, Jacques Cousteau and Jean Michel Jarre mixed up. "Don't even think of bringing the Cocteau Twins into this, I couldn't cope."

You should see the books in my Recommended for you section on Amazon; they're some next-level shit. (Dental Floss for the Mind! Thug Kitchen! Potatoes not Prozac!) I need some escapism. My daughter said something was unicorn-tastic. It did not stop raining all day. My son, who is 7, said I was a Doof-Lord because I asked him to take his Skylanders stickers off the wall in the living room.

The hinge fell off the cupboard in the kitchen and I don't know how to fix it. We have run out of salt. Despite the rain, the house needs to be waterblasted.

I am a disgrace. Even though I know none of these things really matters.

We went to Kaikohe, one of the poorest places in New Zealand, and a man went to the counter in front of me at The Warehouse and asked if he could put two bags of Pineapple Lumps on layby. The biggest sign in the main street was for a suicide hotline. In Kaitaia a man was murdered at a wedding reception. We saw a picture of the crime scene with a port-a-loo in the garden for wedding revellers. Such practicality and innocent hopefulness seemed more poignant to me than the picture of the victim, who was young.

At the same time on my Facebook feed there were friends celebrating New Year's wearing floaty white shirts and drinking champagne perched on giant gold inflatable swans and taking helicopters. I am not meaning this to be an eat-the-rich sneer, but sometimes it occurs to me that there is more going on behind the frequently mentioned economic gap between the rich and the poor. It is not merely that some people have lots of money, some people have none. The weird disconnect between worlds of haves and have-nots seems to relate to something deeper, about how we create our identities and decide who we are.

My latest slap-forehead theory after reading a lot of books is that the disparity has to do with our different ways of dealing with toxic shame. A bit of healthy shame is natural; it's our acknowledgement we are human beings and keeps us truthful and humble. Toxic shame on the other hand refers to a gut-level, often paralysing feeling of unworthiness.

According to John Bradshaw (who invented the concept of the inner child) people who grow up with toxic shame tend to polarise into two groups; they either try to be more than human (shame-less) as a way to compensate, or they collapse and become less than human (shame-ful). You know the people who try to be more-than-human; they lead an idealised life: powerful, controlling, driven, judgmental, self-righteous, super-achieving. They act like their hinges don't ever fall off. The people who cope with their toxic shame by concluding they are less-than-human are degraded, see themselves as failures, feel out- of-control, underachievers and inferior. Neither of these are healthy ways to live. The dominant thinking in shame-less families is perfectionism and blame; in shame-ful families, chaos, inconsistency and incompletion. In shame-ful families problems can go on for generations without resolution. I'm not sure that government policy helps much in this regard. Bradshaw mentions a third type: corrupt families. These families have failed to develop a conscience often because they have no sense of (healthy) shame at all.

The bit that I've been wondering about is whether the polarity between the shame-less and the shame-ful is self-sustaining in some way. In personal relationships one of the most difficult dynamics to change is when one person overfunctions and the other underfunctions. In this situation the more the overfunctioner (OF) performs and achieves, the more the underfunctioner (UF) gives up. Do the most powerful among us unconsciously create the underclass as our Jungian shadow? And if so, what is the answer? Perhaps those of us who are engaged in trying to be more-than-human could give that up, for a start.

Bradshaw advocates reclaiming the concept of "soulfulness" , as a method of redemption, a way to convey depth and value. He believes in the power of imagination, sort of like the song in the Rocky Horror Picture Show: if we dream it we can be it.

Nice idea, but change does seem to demand all of us relinquishing the old rigid all-or-nothing thinking. I'm neither superwoman, nor a disgrace. I'm aware this sounds the mouldly old middle path, re-gifted for Christmas, but maybe old Hegel had a point. Sometimes we are confused but it is okay to ask for help, sometimes we lose our temper or act impatiently, sometimes we struggle but we work at learning and growing. You don't have to be one thing or the other. I have left the Skylander stickers on the wall. Who really cares? The kitchen cupboard seems to work without the hinge, for now. Maybe I will hire a water blaster. In the rain. Or maybe I will just read more woo-woo books.

- NZ Herald

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