I can remember leaning over my bathroom counter, the rim of the cold porcelain sink jutting sharply through my heavily-tulled, rhinestone-covered prom dress and into the soft skin beneath my belly button. My metallic silver heels slid backwards on the slick tile. I was working tirelessly for a closer examination of the monster that seemed to be growing by the minute beneath my left eye.
There it was — red, oozing, and tender to the touch. It had rolled in over night like a devastating storm, a cursed surprise that was rocking my 16 year-old world.
And there I was, peering at it helplessly as it leered stubbornly back at me.
It was growing larger by the minute.
Great, I thought.
Sighing, I turned out the bathroom light and headed for the stairs, my heels clanging loudly as I marched — spirit deflated — down each step.
My enthusiasm for that evening’s prom was now also deflated.
In that moment, the fact that an obnoxious visitor had plunked comfortably on my face seemed catastrophic.
I had planned for that prom.
I had prepped for that prom.
I had bought the best dress, had smeared on my best makeup, and had carefully sculpted my hair into the best braid.
I wanted to look perfect, feel perfect, be perfect.
Little did I know, I would spent the night avoiding all cameras and talking to others with the ugly thing carefully angled away, hoping they would see only my unblemished cheek. I moved through the night strategically, hoping to appear poised and beautiful when, in fact, I was embarrassed and ashamed.
Instead of perfect, I was blemished.
Thinking back on this fleeting moment in time, I can see now that the little devil that freeloaded on my face that night wasn’t a defining moment in the grand scheme of who I am. Though 16 year-old Katie would have disagreed, the disgusting blemish was merely an external snafu that said nothing about who I was or am today. It was unfortunate, but present.
Unpleasant, embarrassing, and quite literally painful.
But, it was temporary.
Much to my relief, I awoke the next morning to find that the spot had left and the nightmare was over. Clear and blemish-free, thoughts of my prom problem left my mind just as quickly as the bump had first appeared on my face.
Through it all, I was still just Katie.
Along my journey through my 23 years, I have accumulated an assortment of ugly, angry, screaming blemishes.
But these are a different kind of blemish. They are stronger, deeper, and somehow much more painful than my prom-day visitor.
These are the kind of blemish that we all have.
They appear through a multitude of moments that we’re ashamed of, a plethora of mistakes that are painful to remember, a handful of friendships that we’ve fudged, a few relationships that we’ve broken, and a number of words that we’ve said after one too many beers.
Each day, we carry them with us like weighty baggage tethered to our souls, and when we look in the mirror, we don’t see ourselves but instead see only that unwelcome weight.
This is a different kind of monster — a scarier kind of monster — than a pimple at prom.
This monster is a version of ourselves that we aren’t proud of. A version of ourselves that has been altered and tainted by the mistakes that we managed to make time and time again. A version of ourselves that won’t disappear while we sleep — out of sight and out of mind when we awake tomorrow.
This monster is shame.
It whispers to us that no matter how much we prep or how much we plan, we will not look perfect, feel perfect, or be perfect. It paralyzes us, telling us that we should keep our lives carefully angled away from others, hoping they will see only the unblemished versions of ourselves. It strangles confidence and peace, prevents growth and understanding, and hinders friendship and connection.
As a result, we move through each day strategically, hoping to appear poised and beautiful when, in fact, we are embarrassed and ashamed.
But this is a dangerous way to live. An unfair way to live. A crippling way to live.
And I believe there’s a different way.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”Brene Brown
The tragedy of this story is not that eleventh-grade prom didn’t go quite as planned. Instead, the tragedy is that I have spent years unable to view my mistakes as analogous to my prom-day blemish when, in fact, they are.
Unfortunate, but present.
Unpleasant, embarrassing, and quite literally painful.
I am not claiming that there are no real-world consequences for the mistakes that we make. But we must begin to view our mistakes as fleeting and unfortunate rather than all-defining.
When we start seeing our mistakes as things we did rather than as who we are, we are able to move beyond them — from a place of shame to a place of freedom.
But this requires the vulnerability that Brené Brown is talking about — vulnerability with ourselves and vulnerability with others.
The truth is, the mistakes that we’ve made do not alter or taint us. Instead, they unite us through a shared story of imperfection.
We will never be perfect, but we will also never be the sum of our past mistakes.
And when we understand this, we will be more forgiving, more understanding, and more willing to help our fellow sinner up rather than piling more shame on her back because we understand that she — like us — is not defined by her sin, but rather is still good.
I want to lean over my bathroom counter, the rim of the cold porcelain sink jutting sharply into the soft skin beneath my belly button, and just see Katie.
Not Katie who said the wrong thing.
Not Katie who got angry too quickly.
Not Katie who gained too much weight.
Not Katie who messed up at work.
Not Katie who failed as a friend.
And heaven-forbid, not tulle and rhinestone-covered Katie.
My hope for this year is that we will look in the mirror and see our true selves. That we will see that despite all the mistakes, we are still valuable. Still worthy. Still good.
And when we allow that for ourselves, we can experience confidence and peace, growth and understanding, friendship and connection because we understand that we are, in fact . . .