Have you ever done something to lose face with your peers? Your superiors? Maybe your family or friends? I think it’s almost a rite of passage to do so when you’re growing up; it’s part of learning acceptable social behavior and developing your sense of right and wrong, your basic values.
But that certainly doesn’t make it any easier when it happens. If you’re like me, it was accompanied by feeling physically ill because it was likely something done unintentionally or without fully understanding the consequences. Maybe you divulged something that you hadn’t realized was meant to remain a secret and you were suddenly the person who couldn’t be trusted. Or maybe a friend’s mom came across your CD with an explicit content parental advisory when you were a teen, and now you were the friend who would lead them down the wrong path. Perhaps you had simply laughed at something you hadn’t realized had a derogatory secondary meaning and you were immediately perceived as prejudiced in some way.
Losing Face: losing the respect of others; having your reputation or rapport damaged
I never thought there would be a time in my life where I would think of “losing face” as something positive or something anyone should take pride in doing. And yet, here I am, feeling some measure of pride as I type these words that I am actively in the process of losing face.
A new concept of Face
In the fall, I read Beads by Rachael Brooks (you can read my in-depth reaction to her book here). For those unfamiliar, Beads is Rachael’s memoir about her violent rape in the back of a taxi and putting herself (and her life) back together in the wake of that trauma. She is unflinchingly honest about that experience, including the coping mechanisms she clung to along the way. One of those mechanisms was something she termed “Face.”
“[…] I mastered an alter ego, which I appropriately named ‘Face.’ Face was amazing. Everything was back to normal in my face world. […] It seemed easier to put Face on than to divulge […] As with anything you do over and over, Face became second nature, almost easy for me to conceal my truths. […] I was hiding behind Face. I was living in this shell of my former self, trying desperately to get back to that person, but she did not exist anymore. I felt lost. I longed for control, consistency, familiarity, and protection from the dangers of the world. The truth of the matter was I had none of those […] Regardless of how good Face was, and it was superb, it was completely external. Face became an ironclad barrier to my inside world. Suppression felt like the best coping mechanism […]”Rachael Brooks, Beads
Do you recognize yourself when you read her words? I certainly did. In fact, I felt like she’d written them about me.
I’d never given it a name before, but I’ve had my own version of Face since my earliest memories, instinctively putting on the exterior I felt was expected of me, that I knew made others more comfortable. It was simply easier than risking rejection—or abuse—as a result of exposing what was underneath: my “truths.”
I knew before I read Beads that much of me was (and had been since I was very young) hidden behind my exterior that convincingly projected: put together, successful, well-adjusted, happy, outgoing. For many years of my life, I hadn’t been conscious of what was happening—at least not the extent to which it was occurring. I was aware there was a disconnect between how I was around people and what everyone thought of me, and how I felt deep inside and when I was alone, though I didn’t understand the why or how to bridge that gap. As an adult and new mom, I realized I had a lot of unresolved issues rooted in my early childhood that came out in unexpected and—at that point—uncontrollable ways. Knowing I had to make a change, I began my journey to address and heal from my childhood trauma in order to ensure I don’t perpetuate the cycle with my own children. The deeper I delved, the more I began to understand the link between my expertly projected exterior and the deeply contrasting personality and emotions underneath.
Even so, reading Rachael’s words was a turning point for me. Giving what was happening a name—Face—made it easier to separate it from my true self underneath. I could attribute different characteristics or behaviors to me or to Face, taking that crucial step to dismantling it. But at some point before that, I’d had to make the decision to move forward.
The first steps are the scariest
A few years ago, I had a rude awakening that made my choice clear: I needed to start the process of uncovering the “me” underneath the image I’d projected for so long. I could either continue the way things were and guarantee that at least some of my trauma would be passed unintentionally to my children, or I could start digging through the years of lies I told myself about being “fine” until I could confront the beast I’d locked away with no intention of ever facing: my childhood trauma and abuse. One of my first attempts to rip away the layers of denial and suppression was a post to my personal social media account. I’d found that it was easier to revert and deny when I kept everything to myself; sharing a piece of my story on a public forum would mean I couldn’t go back to pretending. I revealed so very little of my history in that post, but I was completely terrified, shaking as my finger hovered over the “post” button and then throwing up after I’d pressed it.
“Since I started seeing the hashtags in my newsfeed with increasing frequency, I have had an urge to share but felt ashamed and been afraid of what those who don’t know might think about me at the same time I feel such admiration and support for those who have been sharing their stories. I realize that I am so tired of feeling afraid, ashamed, disgusted with myself, like I’m partially to blame.
From being molested twice before I was eight years old to having my boyfriend’s brother threaten me if I didn’t have sex with him when I was 13 to having a friend’s father tell me to take my shirt off and show everyone my boobs, and more. I refuse to feel shame any longer.”October 2017
But I’d done it! I felt an enormous amount of regret initially, but after a few days, I was proud of myself. I felt like some of the weight I’d carried for so long I thought it was just part of me had simply faded away.
After that experience, I continued to seek out and read as much as I could of people telling their stories of trauma and abuse, sexual and otherwise. Each story gave me a little more courage and determination to part with the shame that felt so much a part of who I was. In a way that perhaps only other survivors will understand, I was able to find comfort in the stories of others—not because anyone else had been abused, but because I wasn’t alone.
But I also began to feel a new type of shame—the kind that comes from being dishonest.
I felt I may as well have lied in my #MeToo post. Had I? No, I hadn’t. But I’d barely scratched the surface of what happened to me, and I felt that my inability to divulge any more meant I was both a fraud and a failure; that rather than brave, I was really a coward. And this deep shame settled in for the long haul.
A few months later, I made the decision to start writing again and dove into drafting my first series. Over the next year or so, I developed the story of Annie, Rob, and Lucas (the main characters in Finding Annie and my Life Imperfect series), who are working to heal, find love, and overcome traumatic childhoods. Along the way, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I wanted to structure my author website and what kinds of topics I would address and found myself engaged in an internal tug of war. I didn’t want to muddy the waters between professional and personal, but the personal is the driving influence behind the professional for me—they really can’t be separated. So, I made a decision early on that would ensure I could never really try to sever the connection between the two: I wrote my consent post about when I was raped as a teenager.
After that post went live, I was sick with anxiety over how it would be received, how people would respond.
Would I lose the supporters I’d gained?
How would my family feel about me being so open about what happened to me?
Would my daughters grow up one day and be ashamed of what I’d written?
What if the people involved in that event discovered my post?
In my mind, my entire reputation as not only an author, but as a person—a friend, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, an employee—was at risk because of my decision to bare part of my past. I was in danger of losing face with everyone in my life and opening myself up to retaliation.
But there was also this tiny little flame inside that raged in opposition to my guilt for something that had been done to me against my will. That tiny little flame is why I made the post live and why I never took it down.
So, what actually happened? I received overwhelming sympathy and support from everyone who read it. I received comments and emails from people—complete strangers—about how much my post moved them, or how it helped them. There were women who were inspired to share their stories openly, to face their own intense fear about doing so. Still others thanked me for opening their eyes.
And it’s still one of my most popular posts.
The experience with my consent post strengthened my resolve to be open, to lose my fear of blending personal and professional with my writing career. It gave me a kind of courage I’d never had before to continue facing my past and sharing it with the world.
To keep chipping away at my Face.
The vulnerability that comes with exposure is truly terrifying, but there’s so much to be gained. An exhilarating lightness of spirit when you realize the worst you can imagine to happen… doesn’t. An intoxicating courage born of self-pride for facing your fear of exposure and refusing to back down. A realization that you are stronger than you ever believed.
But I think the greatest gift is connection. True, authentic connection with other people.
A while back, I was “chatting” over messenger with a fellow author, Olivia Castetter, who’s become a friend since we first stumbled across each other on social media. We were talking about some difficult topics (we both have abuse in our pasts) and she made a comment that if we ever met in person, she’d have her husband make us some fudge, a reference to Beads.
In her book, Rachael shares how her mom made her homemade fudge, how that brought her comfort during her years-long battle with the aftermath of her rape. And whenever something happened to send Rachael spinning or set her back or trigger a torrent of painful emotions, her mom would “put on the fudge.”
As I typed out my agreement, smiling at the reference and flattered by the comment, I started thinking about all the connections I’d made as a result of my determination to expose my past. The women—and even men—with some aspect of shared experience. The people who hadn’t experienced the types of abuse I talk about but were compassionate and supportive anyway.
I thought about the people I’d met since I’d decided to become an author, people who’d progressed well past “writing acquaintance” and into friend territory. People who’d been there for me in ways I never could have predicted and certainly never expected. The deep, authentic relationships I’ve developed with people I’d never have come across if I hadn’t embarked on this journey.
People like Rachael and Olivia. People like Melissa and Rebekah. And others. Suddenly, I realized that I wasn’t just losing Face, but I was also finding my people of the fudge.
If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend Beads for everyone; I can’t think of a group of people who wouldn’t garner something profound from her heartfelt, candid and inspiring memoir. You can learn more about Rachael, her life, and her work to improve the challenges faced by sexual assault survivors on her website.
Want to know more about the other amazing women I mentioned in this post? Click on their names below.
Katherine Turner is an award-winning author, editor, and a life-long reader and writer. She grew up in foster care from the age of eight and is passionate about improving the world through literature, empathy, and understanding. In addition to writing books, Katherine blogs about mental health, trauma, and ways we can be more compassionate as a society on her website www.kturnerwrites.com. Sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date and get a free copy of her book moments of extraordinary courage.