Monday, December 17, 2012

Loving Embarrassment

This is a post I wrote for my One Hundred Steps to Zero Waste series. The articles are designed to help people learn how to make as little  garbage as possible, so they show my abilities to introduce and cover new topics.

Step Twelve: Learn to Love Embarrassment

Going zero waste can be embarrassing. I wish it wasn't so, but this is the truth. It takes courage to ask for your chow mein in a container you brought from home, to ask the clerk at the store to un-bag all your purchases because you brought your own, and to explain to your Aunt why you really don't want her plastic-wrapped make-up samples. Zero waste just isn't how our society operates. There are a lot of people working hard to change that, but for the time being we often find ourselves in potentially embarrassing situations.

One exercise therapists give their clients with anxiety is called Rational Emotive Imagery, or embarrassment-attacking exercises. These can be quite effective in eliminating shame as a knee-jerk reaction. Picture a time when you were embarrassed. Say the day you had to explain to the check-out girl what a tare is and why you don't use those little plastic produce bags when you buy from bulk bins. Really put yourself in the same mindset you were in at that moment in time. The lady is nice, but anxious for her shift to finish, the customers in line behind you are getting fidgety, and anyone you brought with you on this shopping trip is surely thinking about what a weirdo you are for refusing to make even the tiny amount of garbage a produce bag would have resulted in. Are your hands sweaty, your cheeks flushed, and can you feel a bout of stammering coming on? Good, because this is where your present self can step in and start to amend your view of the situation. Change your emotion from shame to something else, like anger that taring isn't a standard part of super-market training anymore, or frustration that we've built such a hugely unsustainable system, or annoyance that more people aren't waste-free already.

Do you feel better? Certainly no one likes to feel angry or frustrated, but it's a big improvement over feeling embarrassed or ashamed. This annoyance can be channeled into a more productive activity, like speaking with the store manager, writing a well-phrased letter, or finding a better solution to your problem.

When you're guilty and ashamed it's hard to think about anything other than what a bad person you are, and how you need to be better. Those feelings aren't helpful, even if they're what reminds you to bring in your reusable bags. Going waste-free should be a mostly positive experience; something you do out of love and desire to improve (be it yourself, your finances, or the world), not self-loathing and obligation. There will be problems and frustrations along the way, and that's okay. The point with this step is to deal with those bumps in the road, rather than cancel your journey altogether.

When you're frustrated or angry, you're turning your feelings out onto the world.  This does NOT mean you can yell at the cashier, lecture rude bystanders, or push your personal relationships to the brink with your insistence on zero waste. Instead, make a clear complaint to the store, offer the simple explanation of "I don't have a trash can", and surprise your loved ones with a zero waste meal. By being annoyed, we're trying to test the limits of the system so we know where to focus our action; by being ashamed, we're only testing our own limits of endurance and increasing the likelihood that we'll just give up.

So next time you feel yourself becoming sheepish over refusing that free bottle of water or asking the deli to fill a container brought from home, take a moment to focus on turning your feelings from shame to frustration, and then figure out the most positive thing you can do with that frustration. Often, being frustrated means you've found a real-life puzzle to solve. Those can be tricky, but not impossible. And by ditching embarrassment, you've left the problem of other people's judgments right where they belong, in their plastic shopping bags.

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