Public Shedding: Do it, don’t do it!

Mar 20 2022

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Me in my 20's Shedding on stage / Photographer Matthew Smith

Trigger Warning: Non-explicit content referring to miscarriage, grief, heartbreak and self-harm. Swearing.

Hello. I am Holly and I am a Public Shedder. “Shedding” is a term I got from Amy Turn Sharp (I've posted her writing below), for me Shedding means letting go of a reality that used to define me, it can be a painful process, full of grief and vulnerability. Usually considered a highly private activity, I have shed in public, on purpose, many times as a performer, public speaker and writer. I have also helped other artists to shed in my capacity as a facilitator of self-exploratory workshops and a director of comic autobiographical theatre.

This blog charts my Public Shedding journey, from novice, impulsive, not-very-aware-of-why-I-was-doing-it Shedder to professional Shedder and holder of fellow Sheddies. There are guest spots from writers Amy Turn Sharp and Jeff Foster and a couple of cameos from a friend on facebook and my Clinical Supervisor. Plus two useful lists (who doesn’t love a list?): Why Have I Been Shedding In Public? and Questions To Ask Yourself Before you Shed In Public. Enjoy!

Don’t Ask Audiences To Hold Your Vulnerability

I began sharing stories of my mental health journey on the stage, way before it was cool. Back in my early 20’s, I didn’t really understand why I felt the urge to spill my guts on stage or how to do it in a responsible way, but my stories of living with suicidal depression kept bursting out of me. I remember looking out at my audience and seeing a sea of frightened eyes, beseeching “What do you want us to do about it?” 

I can remember feeling cross with audiences for not giving me what I needed (not that I knew what that was). To compensate, my comedy characters grew bigger and harder and more demanding. The pinnacle was F*ckknuckle, the front-woman of the punk-klezma-dub-pop-party-show-band F*ckknucle and the B*stards. As F*ckknuckle, I would scream Britney Spears songs at audiences through a megaphone, in a strange foreign accent, dressed entirely in red, with hair backcombed, smudged black eye makeup and scarlet lipstick smeared across my face.

Audiences loved F*ckknuckle, her unpredictable edginess set everyone off balance, like a night at the funfair. The shows often had a cathartic quality, and when everyone had gone home, I’d lie on the ground, shaking, empty and desperate. In those fragile after-show moments, my Inner Critic would swoop in to try to protect me, using the only tools he had at his disposal; criticism and shame. My Critic would pick up my megaphone and yell right into my face about how terrible I’d been, to prevent me from ever doing it again. In these vulnerable moments, I was easy prey, my Critic would encourage me to self-harm and I’d just go along with it. 

Discovering The Compassionate Witness

In my mid-late twenties, I checked myself into therapy and finally found the audience I’d been searching for! I found a compassionate witness who would receive me and my stories with unconditional positive regard. It took some time to learn to trust this process, but being seen and heard with compassion and acceptance gradually helped me begin to change my relationship with my stories and myself. 

Around the same time, I also started exploring meditation. As a big fan of extremes, in the breaks between clown tours, I would pack myself off on week-long silent meditation retreats in the countryside. There, I received support to begin to cultivate my own inner compassionate witness. Again, this took a few years to settle into; initially I spent a lot of time dancing in the fields and performing controversial stand-up for the local sheep, but eventually I learned to sit still and listen to all the voices in my head from a place of steadiness and curiosity.

Therapy and meditation helped me understand how I was attempting to use my audiences to aid my shedding and alerted me to the dangers that come with that dynamic. I wasn’t taking care of my own vulnerability, I didn’t know how to, so I was effectively asking audiences to hold it for me. If they didn’t want to, or didn’t understand how to, I would get angry with them and punish them, then I would feel bad and punish myself. 

All these insights led me to study an MA in dramatherapy in my early 30’s, where I learned to embrace my vulnerability and to become a compassionate witness to others. This training formed the foundation of all the work I’ve done since.

How To Care for a Shedding Human

The other day, I came across this beautiful piece of writing, attributed to Amy Turn Sharp. It made me think about the role of the compassionate witness in the healing process:

“Humans shed regularly throughout their life to enable growth. Shedding usually takes as long as it fucking takes. Although this is a completely natural process, there are certain steps that you can take to care for a shedding human. Make sure you foster a hospitable environment for the human by adding extra love and compassion. Remind human that any discomfort is normal and will lessen soon after change. If you notice any complications, such as fear and self sabotage, stand up for the human. Do not ignore human. Encourage and stand beside of human. Hold a sign. Light a candle. Cause a ruckus. Drag them into any sunlight available. Sing to them. Bring them unnecessary cookies. Hold their hand. Whisper good things in their ears. Kiss them a little. Tell them the story of your shedding. The beautiful and exquisitely painful ways you’ve changed too. Repeat forever.” - ATS

What I love about this piece of writing is the focus on love as a series of simple actions that help create the conditions for healing to occur. Nowhere in this passage does it say: “Fix it, make it better, or tell them to stop feeling their feelings,” which is how many of us are conditioned to respond to people in crisis. It also doesn’t say, “Do a show about it right now!” which used to be my answer to everything.

Shedding Is Private

I posted Amy Turn Sharp’s text on facebook with the comment; “Thanks to everyone who has cared for this shedding human in the last 8 months (and all the other times I've shed in the past).” The post got a lot of likes and comments from friends who resonated with it and one comment from a friend who didn’t:

“Shedding is private, hibernative, nuanced. It needs time for reflection (very crude term, apologies), adjustment.”

This comment triggered me into writing this blog. I felt cross, shut down, like I’d been told off for all the Public Shedding I’ve been doing for the last 8 months since my partner left. Of course, there’s a part of me that agrees with my friend, which is why I got triggered. My Inner Critic has a smidge of the uptight English about him, he believes it’s not the done thing to air your grief and heartbreak in public. Yet the writer / thinker / explorer / communicator in me has other ideas.

Process Your Shit Before You Share

I have always written. I’ve got stacks of unlined journals and several old crisp boxes full of miscellaneous fragments of ideas gathering dust in my attic. Writing helps me to understand myself, it’s a place I go to empty my head and organise my thoughts. 

I’ve only been putting my writing into the public realm for the last 6 years via my blog, before that I’d’ve sooner eaten it than had anyone look at it (I actually did once eat an A Level English exam to avoid the teacher seeing my imperfect words). 

Up until very recently, I had a rule that I would not share anything in public that hasn’t been processed and resolved elsewhere. I didn’t want audiences / readers to feel responsible for me and I wanted to feel solid enough to be able to receive their feedback objectively.

As an autobiographical theatre director / dramatherapist, I’ve noticed that it can be hard for artists to play with material that hasn’t been processed. If artists are still living in their trauma, they tend to hold their stories tightly, which doesn’t make for especially playful theatre. It’s part of my role to help artists process their material to the point where there is enough space between them and their stories to be able to play with them. Only then can the stories be shaped for audiences. 

For the last 8 months, I’ve been breaking all my own rules, exposing the raw and unfathomable grief of losing babies, presenting my broken heart for inspection and describing how it feels to be watching the good ship Motherhood set sail forever. None of that is resolved or processed and I’ve put it out there on purpose. It’s been a heck of a process and something I’ve given a lot of thought to and had a lot of support with. 

Why Have I Been Shedding In Public?

  • It's part of my healing process to find words / give voice to my experience.
  • I want to be seen as I am.
  • Heartbreak and grief are the main things that are going on in my life right now, there’s not much else I can write about! I had already committed to writing two blogs a month a few years ago, so this is what you’re getting to read about!
  • I have been learning so much and been impacted so deeply, I want to share my discoveries with anyone else who is experiencing grief and heartbreak. I want to offer myself as a companion in the darkness. 
  • I have received stacks of feedback letting know that my Public Shedding normalises their experiences. This touches me and motivates me to keep going.
  • I have A LOT of support in place to be able to Publicly Shed safely. I have amazing friends, colleagues, mentors and supervisors and steady meditation, movement and writing practices. This all helps me feel anchored and resourced outside of the writer / reader relationship. I don’t need anything from my readers.
  • I have received a lot of love on social media and via the mailing list from people who resonate with my stories. This comes as a bonus, rather than a life-line, on top of all the support I’m surrounded by.
  • I'm all about busting the stigmas around mental health, miscarriage and grief. I want to live in a world where people don't have to hide away when they feel shit. There’s healing to be found in connection and I want to offer my stories as a way of breaking the silence, to encourage people to tell their own stories in ways that they feel safe to.
  • I've known too many people who've ended their own lives and too many others (including me) who've tried. I want to contribute towards creating a culture where people can say, "help!" and be met with compassion and kindness.
  • I want to walk my talk - I hold space for other people to Shed, so it feels important that I bring my authenticity into the arena too.
  • It feels especially important as a clown / clown teacher to let people see the dark in me as well as the light. I like to challenge people’s assumptions and illustrate multiplicity (I believe we are all made up of many parts). It makes me happy for you to know that clowns have shit days / weeks / months / years.

What’s The Worst That Could Happen?

I have had a few wobbly moments, where I’ve felt exposed and feared people’s judgement for revealing so much of my soft underbelly. I’ve ridden a few shame spirals right down into catastrophic despair, thinking, “Everyone’s going to read this and think I’m insane and I’ll never work again, I’ll end up starving alone in the gutter.” 

When I took that to my supervisor, he asked me why I don’t just take the blogs down? He speculated whether it might be better to keep my work and life separate and consider writing for specific websites for people who have experienced miscarriage or grief.

I appreciated his thinking and it feels powerful to remember I can take the blogs down whenever I want to, but I explained that it feels important to walk my talk, and tell my story on my own platform.

He said, “But you’re not doing the same thing that you ask your students to do. In your workshops, you provide a safe and boundaried space for people to tell their stories and be heard with compassion. What you’re doing is putting your story in the public realm where it can be read by absolutely anyone. It’s not the same thing at all.”

He was right, of course. In publishing my story on my blog and sharing on social media / my newsletters, I am opening myself up for criticism which could be incredibly painful / damaging to receive whilst I’m living with such a high level of grief. But it’s what I’ve been actively choosing to do.

You Don’t Have To Share Your Vulnerability

Shortly after that conversation with my supervisor, the great oracle of Facebook led me to these pearls of wisdom by Jeff Foster:

“You don’t have to “open up” to anyone you don’t feel like opening up to.
You don't have to be emotionally “vulnerable” now, or ever.
You don't have to offer your vulnerability to strangers on the street, to people you have just met, to friends, to family members, on social media, or in order to seem open or spiritual or “raw and real and authentic”.
You never, ever have to share what you do not feel ready or willing to share.
Let's not make being vulnerable into a new dogma, or a new religion, or another 'should'.
You are allowed to have strong, protective boundaries around your vulnerability. You are allowed to protect your precious, fragile, sensitive heart, your deepest, most private and secret feelings and longings and thoughts and fears, until you are ready or willing or feel safe enough to share them.
You are allowed to keep your vulnerability from those you do not feel safe with, those who do not want your precious heart or cannot handle it, those who have proven untrustworthy and those who judge or shame you for not "opening up" on their schedule or in the way they demand.
Your boundaries around your vulnerability do not make you weak, or afraid, or unevolved.
Sometimes saying NO to sharing your vulnerability with someone is an act of tremendous courage (just as sometimes sharing your vulnerability is an act of tremendous courage).
You get to choose who to be vulnerable and fragile and open with, and when, and why, and how, and you get to choose how much of yourself you reveal, in every moment. You get to draw these lines and redraw them. You get to share more, if you feel like it, or change your mind, or share less, or share nothing personal or intimate at all.
Others are allowed to be disappointed or frustrated or angry or sad, and they are allowed to want more vulnerability from you.
And still, you do not have to share an ounce more than you feel comfortable sharing. This is your right and your power.
Your vulnerability is a sacred gift, and you give it only when you are ready and willing to give it, and not a moment before.
And that, my friends, is a *truly* courageous vulnerability.”
- Jeff Foster

I love this explicit permission to not share our vulnerability and to make ourselves safe when we need to. I wish I'd read this back in the early days when I was getting destroyed by dominant male clown teachers who demanded that I show my vulnerability or they'd send me off the stage.

I’ve often talked about pine cones during the parts of my workshops where we’re exploring vulnerability. Pinecones open to expose their seeds when the conditions are right and close back up when they need to protect their precious bounty. I like to remind people that we can be pinecones too and choose when to open and close. 

Queen of Vulnerability, Brene Brown writes about the importance of reciprocity in sharing vulnerability. She suggests that if the person you're sharing your vulnerability with is not sharing their vulnerability with you, it might not be a safe place for your vulnerability. How does that translate to sharing vulnerability with audiences through your art? 

It’s a helluva risk to put your vulnerability into the public realm. Not everyone’s going to get it. Not everyone’s going to like it. Some people are going to want to fix it. Some people are going to want to squash it. Some people won’t be able to forget it. Are you strong enough to deal with people’s reactions? Only you can gauge whether it’s worth the risk. 

Questions to ask Yourself Before you Shed In Public

1.) Ask yourself: Am I asking the audience to hold my vulnerability? If the answer is yes, go and get some therapy / seek out some compassionate witnessing in the private realm first.

2.) Ask yourself: what are the potential benefits of sharing this for me and the audience? What are the potential risks for me and the audience? 

3.) Ask yourself: have I got enough support in place to help me deal with the vulnerability-hangover / potential unsolicited criticism / advice?

4.) Call in your internal focus group to help you decide whether it’s a good idea to shed in public or not. Invite your Vulnerability, your Inner Critic, your Inner Compassion and your Inner Artist to dialogue on the page (or out loud) until you get clear about it.

It’s worth noting that my internal focus group held me back from sharing anything about my miscarriages for the first two years. I wrote pages and pages that are still sitting here on this laptop. The first mega edgy blog that my internal focus group agreed to share was: How To Talk To Someone Who’s Lost A Baby. I now realise this was their attempt to make it safe for me to share more.

5.) Call in trusted friends and collaborators to look over your work before you put it out in public. Notice how it feels in you, for the work to be seen by your selected audience - take that data seriously, if it feels yuck, don’t share more widely yet. Ask for feedback from your chosen few about how they felt and listen carefully to what they say.

6.) Choose your platform wisely. Context is important! Think about how you want people to meet your work. Does the context support you? Does it support their experience of receiving you?

7.) If your work has edgy content, put trigger warnings on it and add links to places where people can get support for their own issues. This way, people can decide whether to engage with potentially emotional material and find organisations and resources to support them if they do get triggered.

8.) Decide how you want to receive feedback. Ask specific questions; what would be useful for you to know?

You may notice that I don’t have a comments section on my blog. For me, it doesn’t feel useful to receive unsolicited, anonymous feedback on my personal writing. It takes so much for me to put this writing out there, it feels kinder to protect myself from unskilful knee jerk comments. If I want feedback on particular blogs, I’ll ask for people to email me.

Thanks for reading this blog. I hope it was helpful to you. 

I have some availability as a compassionate witness via my Creative Consultancies online and in-person off you'd like support unpicking your own shedding conundrums.

If you want to read about my grief and heartbreak, fill your boots.

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