By Janet Earley
Until recently, I firmly believed that I was an animal-friendly, trying-to-tread-lightly-on-the-Earth type of middle-aged woman. This was my mask. Then one day the Great Mouse Melt Down happened.
A little background. My mother is deathly allergic to fur, so I grew up in an animal-free household. We tried turtles and fish, but were never very successful at keeping them long term. I grew up in New York City in the 1980s, so I have vivid memories of rats in the subway and rustling among the garbage on the street in the early mornings, not to mention the awful New York Daily News headlines about babies being bitten in their cribs at night by rats. I developed a strong, visceral and emotional reaction to all rodents—rats, mice and even squirrels. Then I moved to Colorado.
My first encounter with the country version of a mouse was surprising. I was living in Old Snowmass as an intern on a sustainable farm. One of my tasks was to feed the chickens. One morning I opened the grain bin and was surprised by a cute, little mouse looking up at me. It had never occurred to me that a mouse could be cute. I immediately decided that not all mice were evil and scooped her out of the bin to let her live out her life on the farm.
The farm was also host to dozens of enterprising ground squirrels that summer. They were a problem because they ate many of the seedlings as fast as we could plant them. In retaliation, we started a ground squirrel relocation project. We would live trap three or four squirrels and drive them up to the base of Snowmass Mountain and release them—no doubt burning up a great deal of fossil fuel in the process. Looking back, I guess that wasn’t very sustainable, but we felt better about it than the alternative.
The relocation project ended when I forgot to check the live trap and one of the squirrels died. That was the first tear I ever shed for a rodent. I hated the feeling of shame that washed over me. I was convinced it died because I was a lazy person.
Why, you ask, would I jump to that conclusion so quickly? That brings me to the difference between shame and guilt.
Dr. Brenè Brown is a researcher and author who has made it her life’s work to understand and explain the power of shame. In her book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), she illustrates the difference between shame and guilt. She notes that shame causes us to think, “I am bad,” while guilt makes us think, “I did something bad.”
The distinction between these two emotions is important. I felt so bad when the ground squirrel died because I instantly felt shame and thought, “I am a bad person.” I did not feel guilt and think, “I made a mistake. I slept late and didn’t check the live trap.”
The feeling of shame is toxic and all encompassing. It hijacks our rational brain so that our survival brain immediately kicks in. That part of our brain only has three choices: fight, flight or freeze. I am most inclined to either freeze or fight in the face of a shame train.
After finding the deceased ground squirrel, I froze and had a full-on pity party for myself and the little guy. In an attempt to prevent that icky feeling from ever returning, the relocation project was suspended and the ground squirrels got a pardon for the rest of the summer. (And they got more than their fair share of seedlings.)
Fast-forward almost thirty years. We had a mouse in our house this summer. I know because there were little droppings on the counter and in the drawers in the kitchen. It was disgusting.
We have lived in our house on Missouri Heights for nearly 25 years and have had two mice—that’s it. Outside we have the whole order of rodents: chipmunks, little squirrels, medium squirrels, big squirrels, mice and the very worst of the bunch, pack rats. But they are outside, where they belong. I have accepted their presence and have even shared my garden with them.
The first mouse got in to the house through a little hole left after a house-remodeling project. The cat alerted me to its presence and the good, old-fashioned snap trap took care of that one.
This most recent mouse came in through the screen door and set up shop in our kitchen. This clever mouse eluded the previously reliable snap trap. I concluded that we needed new and more traps. After visiting multiple stores, I discovered that there was a mouse explosion in the valley. The snap traps were all sold out. We would have to wait for the next supply truck to make it over the passes to complete our mouse eradication mission.
While waiting for the resupply, life went on, albeit with a chunk of each morning spent cleaning up after our resident mouse. However, after a particularly spectacular day, the Great Mouse Melt Down happened. We had just returned from a beautiful late-summer hike to a pristine alpine lake. We were soaking in our neighbor’s hot tub with cool adult beverages and reflecting on how great our life is. Great, I think, except for those mouse turds in our kitchen.
Then I fell apart. I felt like I had been hit by a train full of ripe, pungent shame. The thoughts running through my head were terrible and, as my partner pointed out, completely out of proportion to the situation.
Applying the multi-step shame resiliency process developed by Dr. Brown, I dragged myself off the shame train.
The first step is to recognize the feeling of shame, which for me is a full-body experience. I couldn’t miss it.
The second step is to identify the belief that caused the shame response. I was hit by the shame train because of my belief from the 1980s that babies were bitten by rats because their mothers are terrible and don’t care. Rodents in your home equal bad housekeeping and bad parenting, and generally mean that you are a lazy sloth.
The third step is to try another belief or, as Dr. Brown calls it, lens. I thought about how rats live in places that are overcrowded and not taken care of, like apartment buildings owned by money-hungry landlords.
The last step is to apply that new lens to your own circumstance. I told myself that I am not a money-hungry landlord, that I am a clean person and not a good-for-nothing lazy human. With this lens, I could see that my response was out of proportion to that one poor mouse. That icky feeling of shame dissolved. I succeeded in bossing back that big, bad shame train with all these rational thoughts—once I’d had a big cry.
So that mask of being a devoted animal and nature lover was removed. I recognized the limits to my ecologically inclined, animal-loving heart: No rodents can share space with me, period.
Shame cuts through all our efforts to hide behind a mask. It can hijack you anywhere: while you’re simply minding your business being a parent, wife, sister or friend, or even in the hot tub after a beautiful hike.
Its voice is immediately recognizable because it is virulent and has toxic judgements about you. It usually starts with, “You are so … fill in the blank: stupid, ugly, fat, lazy, ridiculous, gross.” It sounds 100 percent true until you can look through a different lens and argue against it with your loving, rational voice. Sometimes that voice is your own, but sometimes you need a loved one to tell you that those thoughts are not true.
We’re never out of the range of the shame train, but we can step off with practice, awareness and kind words to ourselves. I have helped many individuals and taught groups about shame, and I still was hit by the train. But I am now happily adjusting to life without the “I have to love all living things” mask—and loving my mouse-free house.
Janet Earley is a licensed clinical social worker with a private psychotherapy practice in Glenwood Springs, CO. She loves cooking, swimming, biking and sometimes running. She has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley for almost 30 years with her partner and a series of dogs with varying percentages of Labrador retriever in them. She used to be a gardener until succumbing to the demands of full-time rodent control. She is now a proud customer of a community supported agriculture business. She can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org