My S. F. D.: Claiming Power Over My “Face Down in the Arena” Moment

“Rather than running from our SFDs, we dig into them knowing they can unlock the fears and doubts that get in the way of our wholeheartedness. We know that rumbling is going to be tough, but we head straight into it because we know running is harder. We wade into the brackish delta with open hearts and minds because we’ve come to learn that the wisdom in the stories of our falls makes us braver” (255).

-- Brené Brown, Rising Strong

In her books Rising Strong (2015) and Daring Greatly (2012), Brené Brown argues that shining light on the rumbling gremlins that feast on our feelings of shame and unworthiness forces them out of hiding and into the light. As she argues, much like the 1984 film Gremlins, shame can only survive if it remains in hiding. By narrating our stories and making ourselves vulnerable, we have the power to release shame and the belief that our “face down in the arena” moments define us. On the back cover of Rising Strong and at the beginning of Chapter 3, “Owning Our Stories,” Brown writes, “The irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories to appear more whole or more acceptable, but our wholeness-- even our wholeheartedness-- actually depends on the integration of all of our experiences, including the falls” (43). One of the ways in which Brown suggests we do this is through Anne Lamott’s idea of the “shitty first draft.”

This is my S.F.D. of my “face down in the arena” moment. This is my story of how my trauma came to be and how I am reclaiming power and cultivating shame resilience from my S.F.D.

The week after my dissertation defense, I had another conference to attend at Yale, the African Literature Association Conference. This is a conference that I had attended in the past (April 2016), but I was not at all excited about presenting my paper despite my enthusiasm for the initial idea. Typically, I develop a powerpoint presentation to go along with the paper, but crunched for time, I decided to forego this. I had been playing with the paper for a while and the theoretical framework was loosely developed. It was rushed and didn’t feel organic in a variety of ways, as so many conference presentations seem to go. Despite these issues, I still felt confident in the delivery of the paper. I was the first to present with only two presenters. I had all the time in the world to present the essay, and the panel chair (ironically) mentioned before my presentation to “speak slowly” and take as much time as necessary.

As is typical of most presentations, I began the paper with a general overview of the idea and how the idea was connected to various texts. Then, I began reading it aloud. Three lines in and my heart started to race. I lost my breathe, physically lost my breath. I eventually paused, and said to the small audience, “I can’t breathe,” with my hands behind my head. I stopped. In a room full of strangers. A newly minted PhD just lost his breath while presenting a paper at a major conference in his field. The “shame storm” (as Brown calls it) could not have been more intense and unpredictable. What’s more, I continued reading the paper and had to stop three more times before I could get to the end of the essay, each time losing my breath, my heart racing. Each time I lost my breath during the 20-minute presentation, I could notice that the other presenter would look over at me as if to say, “What is wrong with you?” At the beginning of my paper, my brain registered “danger,” which triggered my anxiety attack and activated my fight or flight response.

What events might have triggered this anxiety attack, both before it and after it? I think it’s necessary to start with a timeline, or a “map” of possibly related events.

  • Grandfather’s death (January 2015)

  • Father-in-law re-diagonosed with cancer (July 2015)

  • Continued work on dissertation and fieldwork (August 2015-December 2015)

  • Pulse Nightclub shooting

  • Began summer teaching (June 2016)

  • Father-in-law’s death (June 2016)

  • Uncle’s diagnosis with cancer (July 2016)

  • Moved back home (August 2016)

  • Began new job adjuncting (August 2016)

  • Turned 30 (September 2016)

  • Began submitting applications for full-time positions (October 2016)

  • Accepted several conferences during Fall 2016 (detailed below)

  • Finished dissertation manuscript (November 2016)

  • Submitted second application for full-time position (December 2016)

  • Got married (December 2016)

  • Moved again (December 2016)

  • Conferences, conferences, conferences

    • Feb. 2017

    • March 2017 (3 of them)

    • April 2017

    • June 2017

  • Uncle’s death (February 2017)

  • Landed first job interview (March 2017)

  • Submitted more applications (March 2017)

  • Notified of not being hired (April 2017)

  • Husband’s grandmother’s death (April 2017)

  • Landed second job interview (April 2017)

  • Finalized dissertation manuscript (April 2017)

  • Secured defense date (May 2017)

  • Notified of being hired for new job (May 2017)

  • Defended dissertation (June 2017)

  • Graduated with PhD (June 2017)

  • Attended conference (June 2017) *face down moment*

  • 1-year anniversary of father-in-law’s death (June 2017)

  • Started summer teaching (July 2017)

  • Began new full-time position (August 2017)

  • Turned 31 (September 2017)

  • Attended two conferences (November 2017)

  • Went back on the market (November 2017)

  • Notified of publication (November 2017)

  • Attended third conference (January 2018)

  • Attended fourth conference (March 2018)

  • Notified of publication acceptance (March 2018)

  • Submitted more applications (January-May 2018)

  • Ended first year full-time teaching (May 2018)

  • Offered new position (June 2018)

  • Accepted new position (July 2018)

  • Began new position/second year with full-time teaching (August 2018)

  • Turned 32 (September 2018)

This timeline documents what I think to be some of the relevant events that led to the trauma and the events that manifested after the trauma. The timeline therefore functions as a map, one that allows me to connect events that seemed to be previously disconnected. Mapping the events is helpful for integrating and telling my story. As Reif Larsen puts it in Brown’s work, “A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning, it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected” (39, emphases added). Brown echoes Larsen’s sentiments: “I love maps not because they dictate the route or tell me when or how to travel, but simply because they mark the way points I will eventually visit. Knowing that these places exist and that they are well traveled even if they are unexplored by me, is powerful” (39). Later, she shares that mapping the “rising strong process” is incredibly important because “[this] process teaches us how to own our stories of falling down, screwing up, and facing hurt so we can integrate those stories into our lives and write daring new endings.” For those unfamiliar with Brown’s work, the rising strong process can be adequately summed up as a three-prong process:

  1. The Reckoning: recognition and curiosity about the situation

  2. The Rumble: revisit, challenge, and reality-check the narratives that define the feelings of shame and inadequacy

  3. The Revolution: transform our thoughts and beliefs about the narratives that we allow to define us.

Most important in this process is indeed owning our stories: “Owning our stories and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do...We own our stories so we don’t spend our lives being defined by them or denying them. And while the journey is long and difficult at times, it is the path to living a more wholehearted life” (41). Owning our stories and writing our own endings facilitates the integration of our stories: “Integrating is the engine that moves us through the reckoning, the rumble, and the revolution, and the goal of each of these processes is to make ourselves whole” (Rising Strong 41). Owning our stories also sheds light on shame and “cuts it off at the knees,” as Brown puts it in The Power of Vulnerability. Owning our stories and sharing it with others is an important step in shedding light on shame because it functions as a key part in integrating our experiences.

Although the timeline above is helpful for understanding the relevant events, a more specific example would be a month prior to this traumatic moment when I received my teaching schedule at my new full-time teaching position. The schedule would include six (6) hours of non-stop teaching. In fact, I requested the schedule because I would be commuting 3-hours round-trip. Driving to campus more than two days a week was not a feasible option. Essentially, I had to cram a week’s worth of work into two (very full) days with office hours and teaching. For the first time in my life, I questioned my mental and physical endurance and whether or not I would be able to endure a six-hour block of teaching. Although I have been an avid runner for many years, marched summer drum corps, and taught group fitness classes for almost seven years, I had significant doubts about my physical and mental endurance. This seed of negativity and self-doubt was planted, and the gremlins have been having a field day ever since, using my shame and feelings of inadequacy and failure as nourishment.

The moments leading up to the event and the moments after the event have been riddled with substantial feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and inadequacy. But the gremlins did not stop at the conference presentation. The gremlins have manifested several times in the classroom. While teaching, I have physically lost my breath during the middle of a lesson or while reading aloud an assignment sheet. These moments typically come when feelings of self-doubt,  inadequacy, and attachment to outcomes were the strongest. Moreover, because it was my first full-time teaching position, these feelings were surging through my body each and every day. To recover my breath, I pose open-ended questions to students or call on a student to continue reading aloud the assignment sheet. The posed question allows me to (literally) catch my breath. Once I feel confident and comfortable in my reading of the assignment sheet, only then will I take over the reading of the assignment prompt.

Beginning the process of recovery from my trauma has not come easy. At first, I thought it was a one-time incident. But when I entered the classroom in July 2017 and was experiencing the same symptoms, I knew it was not a one-time event. Rather than share my story, I hid it. My “face down in the arena” moment resulted in severe “stage fright” and anxiety, which led to a racing mind, feelings of inadequacy, and shame. I felt like I had failed, and failure (along with laziness, money, body image, and gender expression) is a “shame trigger” for me. Writing my story is a way of breaking my silence about the shame and feelings of inadequacy I developed from these moments, but perhaps most importantly, as I mentioned above, shedding light on my trauma “cuts [feelings of shame, failure, and laziness] off at the knees.” For the first time, I felt like an imposter, something I never really struggled with as a graduate student. Sure, I had feelings of self-doubt, but they were temporary. These new feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt were strong and maintained power over my sense of self-worth.  

So, what exactly changed? And how did those changes facilitate these emotions of distress? For one, the environmental factors of academic culture changed my response to these issues. The further along we go in our academic training, the more that we perceive to be at stake for our professional lives. Although I have been teaching several years, I somehow allowed my “face down in the arena” moment to define my personal and professional life. I suffer from extreme perfectionism, and as Brown reminds us, perfectionism is a manifestation of shame: “Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval” (Daring Greatly). Sharing my story is a process of recovery from the trauma and shedding light on the event diminishes the gremlins that wish to dismantle my confidence. These feelings are not unique; I would venture to guess that most people have had similar experiences. But, what is important to consider are the ways in which environmental factors such as academic culture have played a role in shaping this anxiety. What is more, the feelings I experienced were symptoms of trauma as Brown argues in The Power of Vulnerability. The months leading up to my dissertation defense and the failure of not being hired for a position were significant contributions because I had attached so much value and high expectations to these events.

Why were these events so significant? For starters, I am not used to major disappoint. Growing up, I was a ‘do gooder,’ which led to numerous scholastic achievements and extracurricular accolades. Much of this ‘do gooder’ attitude has a lot to do with growing up quite differently than the average white male in the rural South; unconsciously, I knew being queer meant I had to be ‘better than’ in order to do something with my life. Although I am quite used to receiving rejection emails for an article, conference presentation, or job application, I am not used to a rejection phone call from a potential employer. In Rising Strong, Brown writes, “Often stories of falling are threaded with sadness, frustration, or anger, describing something that, for some reason, just didn’t turn out the way we hoped it would. We need to examine our story for phrases like, ‘I had my heart set on it,’ or ‘I counted on this happening,’ or ‘I just thought…’ If expressions like these show up, we might be struggling with disappointment. Here is what you need to know about disappointment: Disappointment is unmet expectations, and the more significant the expectations, the more significant the disappointment” (139, author’s emphases). Not being hired somehow gave me the impression that “my best” was not good enough. I had to continue to “hustle for worthiness” as Brown puts it by submitting more job applications and to continue going to conferences while also pursuing publications and finishing my dissertation manuscript.

The feeling that “my best” was not good enough also signaled to me that I had failed and that I would not be good enough to secure a full-time position. Disappointment is not my strong suit and the numbness I experienced that day and the weeks following cannot be adequately summed up here. I should also confess that I was incredibly resentful and filled with anger at the thought of not landing my first job offer. I thought, “How could they not hire me with my teaching record?!” In Rising Strong, Brown shares, “As Anne Lamott said, ‘Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.’ We have the tendency to visualize an entire scenario or conversation or outcome, and when things don’t go the way we’d imagined, disappointment can become resentment. This often happens when our expectations are based on outcomes we can’t control, like what other people think, what they feel, or how they’re going to react” (140). My attachment to my high expectations were clearly being met with bouts of anger and resentment. In this market though, the pool of applicants is filled to the brim with exceptional candidates who have stellar teaching and scholarship records. My novice experience with the job market even on a regional level led me to believe I had this job in the bag. Even though I thought I was prepared for disappointment, my confidence was completely shattered. In Rising Strong, Brown argues that we do not prepare for disappointment, and I strongly agree with this given my own personal experience with disappointment.

Rather than evaluate the situation and the events that lead to my trauma, I continued to hustle for my worthiness. This included saying “yes” to every professional opportunity that manifested in my inbox. This also entailed pleasing my superiors, attending four conferences without institutional support, publishing two articles, breaking syllabi policies to accommodate students over and over again, serving on departmental committees, and mentoring two graduate students. In my personal life, the opposite was true. I often said “no” to social outings and felt guilty for not wanting to participate. To be honest, my anxiety was so high my first year of teaching full-time that I only wanted to stay home and nurse my emotions by disengagement from social events. Indeed, I was over-performing at work to combat my anxiety, which, as Brown argues, is one of the responses to anxiety (the other being under-performing).

These feelings of anxiety, guilt, and shame were locked deep inside and it wasn’t until the end of that academic year that I started to voice my fears and anxieties on a regular basis. After listening to Ru Paul’s What’s the Tee podcast, specifically episode 145 with Christina Applegate, I had a strong realization that my attachment to the outcomes of situations was incredibly unhealthy and the major source of my anxiety. Voicing these fears and anxieties have moved the process of recovery along, and there is a substantial body of research by James Pennebaker that validates the importance of sharing our stories as a process of recovery. I also started to establish goals for myself, ones that I felt would be empowering and realistic. Since January 2018, I started journaling as a way of processing my emotions and trauma. At this time, I had learned to make peace with my discontent in my professional life. Making peace with a situation that cannot be controlled (as if to think we have control over such situations to begin with) was the moment of reckoning with the trauma.

It wasn’t until several months later though that I would rumble with my story. The literature on mindfulness and Buddhism (Thich Nhat Hanh in particular) facilitated this early process. While reading Buddhist philosophy on mindfulness, I also joined the Faculty Fellows program at my current institution for the 2018-2019 academic year and have been participating in the teaching mentoring program. My faculty mentor has been quite impactful in helping me along the way to envisioning the long-view of my career, which I had completely lost in the months leading to my dissertation defense and my first year teaching full-time. Sharing my fears and anxieties with her have allowed me to see that my experience is quite common and that most (if not all) of us are experiencing similar symptoms.  

Additionally, part of this program was to join the Faculty Book Group. The Faculty Book Group would be a profound step in this recovery process. This year’s selection was The Slow Professor, a book that has affirmed my feelings of disempowerment. This book, in conjunction with conversations with my faculty mentor, has also allowed me to take the long-view of my career. Many of the topics discussed in The Slow Professor are very much applicable to my own life, as I have felt incredibly rushed since obtaining my PhD. Although the ticking clock has silenced, it occasionally makes a guest appearance (with the gremlins of course), which I understand to be a check-in to test my resolve. This usually occurs at the beginning of the semester, the middle of the semester, and the end of the semester (and, as I’m writing this, the end of semester gremlins are quite rambunctious). It was The Slow Professor that drew me to Brown’s work (the authors reference The Gifts of Imperfection in the conclusion of The Slow Professor). Since then, I have devoured four of Brown’s books (via Audible), and I’m currently on my fifth, Dare to Lead.  

All together, conversations with my faculty mentor, The Slow Professor, and Brown’s entire oeuvre have taught me that feelings of shame, inadequacy, unworthiness, and anxiety are normal experiences that manifest from dominant cultural discourses. Brown, in particular, makes the argument in several of her texts that anxiety is a product of groups, not individuals. In other words, anxiety in individuals largely manifests because of our inability to conform to social and cultural discourses that glorify unrealistic norms and expectations. In order to overcome these feelings of inadequacy, we have to own our “face down in the arena” moments. To own these moments, we have to find what our “shame triggers” are in order to overcome them. For me, my shame triggers are weakness, laziness, body image, and gender expression. In order to reclaim power over these moments, I have learned that we have to make ourselves vulnerable. In Daring Greatly, Brown argues that vulnerability is often portrayed as weakness. But vulnerability is an act of courage and bravery: “For most of us, being an ‘easy mark’ has come to mean ‘being a chump or a sucker or a pushover-- shaming identities that are associated with weakness and a lack of street smarts.” These identities though are signs of “courage and compassion.” Making ourselves vulnerable to the people we love and trust is effective “because shame can’t survive being spoken. It thrives on secrecy, silence, and judgment. If we can share our experience of shame with someone who responds with empathy, shame can’t survive” (195). Adding, “we share our stories-- even our SFDs-- to get clear on what we’re feeling and what triggered those feelings, allowing us to build a deeper more meaningful connection with both ourselves and our trusted friends” (195-196, emphases added).

Rising Strong, Cultivating Shame Resilience, and Establishing Boundaries

“Wholeheartedness requires being conscious of the litany of expectations that hum along below the surface so we can reality-check our thinking. This process can lead to stronger and deeper relationships and connections” (Rising Strong 142).

Since that day in June 2017, my anxiety has gotten much better due to my strong desire and curiosity to “get clear.” Indeed, rather than run away from these feelings, I began to get curious about the problems and symptoms I was experiencing. This curiosity though was not a straightforward path. In fact, recovery (of any sort) is never linear. My first thought was “maybe it will go away.” But, a year and a half later, it has not gone away. Instead, I came to the realization that avoiding this issue will not work. By nature, I have to communicate my feelings whether it be with friends, my parents, or my husband. Because of this, I became curious: what led to the moment? What had changed? And how have I changed? These questions became the guiding questions for my process of discovery and understanding. My anxiety has gotten much better also due to my re-prioritization of both personal and professional arenas. At home, I no longer am sometimes successful with not stressing over an unemptied dishwasher; I actually try to go as many days as possible without unloading it (and as I’m typing this, the top drawer of the dishwasher is clean and quite full…)! At work, I no longer sometimes try not to stress out over duties that fall beyond the scope of my classroom and my students. While those things are important for my professional livelihood, they do not define my self-worth and I refuse to allow anyone power to shame me into doing more. For these reasons, I have begun to build a much stronger shame-resilience.

So, what have I learned from this experience? First, I have learned greater compassion and empathy for my students and those who combat mental and emotional issues everyday. In the bigger scheme of things, my trauma is not the result of state violence, war, sexual assault, or another incident. But, as Brown makes clear in her work, shame (by itself) can produce trauma and the symptoms associated with trauma. Another thing I have learned is that my trauma manifested as a result of “hustling for worthiness.” I am gradually learning that the lines on my CV do not measure my self-worth regardless of the messages academic culture likes to disseminate about worthiness and value. I am enough despite my temporary position. Third, I have learned to let go of so many things that are beyond my control, especially expectations and my attachment to outcomes. This practice though is much harder on some days than others (like at the end of the semester when I’m anticipating student evaluations). But this is a practice, one that requires a great amount of time, energy, and attention if I want it to work.

In addition to letting go of expectations and outcomes, I am well on my way to learning how to pace myself. Pacing is incredibly important given the nature of academic labor, an unpredictable teaching schedule, and my constant need for perfectionism and control. This includes breathing through transitions and maintaining sacred ground. Fifth, I have learned how important it is to practice self-compassion. When the gremlins come out to play (which they do on a frequent basis), I replace negative thoughts with thoughts of self-affirmation. As Ru Paul puts it, “If they’re not paying my bills, pay them no mind.” The gremlins are not, in fact, paying my bills, so this advice functions as a sound practice.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I have learned to say “no” to things that do not bring fulfillment to my life and work. This includes maintaining boundaries in my professional life and not overperforming. While dominant cultural discourses glorify “yes” and busyness, I am seeking “no” as a form of empowerment and self-preservation. “No” is not a sign of rudeness or ungratefulness; “no” is also not a sign of weakness or laziness. Instead, “no” is a sign of assertiveness and resistance to dominant cultural norms, which requires self-compassion while maintaining firm boundaries between ourselves and what others expect of us. “No” is therefore empowering and should be harnessed as a mode of resistance for sustaining livelihoods that go against the grain of expectations and outcomes, especially those outcomes and expectations that hold high productivity as a status symbol. “No” also allows us to not play into the emotional labor of rescuing students in times of distress, such as a bad grade on an assignment or a missed assignment. In a later blog post, I will discuss the goals I established for myself last year and perform a self-inventory, including the extent to which I have learned to let go of expectations and outcomes.