I actually used to believe that I don’t suffer from shame.
I thought it was one of those unfortunate emotional experiences that other people have, different from my own, not necessarily worse, but certainly not better.
I was wrong.
I suffer from shame.
It’s just not daily. It’s not always there. And it’s only when I DO something. It wakes up like a demon beast when a particular thing happens – when I’ve misstepped in some interactional way, when I’ve been too much of something. Too big. In relationship with another. It’s always a new example of the same old thing.
It’s getting old.
Yet, clearly, it’s still there and it keeps showing up for healing. For the light.
It seems we all have that one, nasty, tenacious, obnoxiously dogged, ugly behavior that sneaks up on us and expresses itself repeatedly, without warning (or so we think), much to our horror, weariness, and yes, if we have the consciousness of it, shame.
shame: a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.
(This article is not addressing the definition of the verb to shame. That is when someone else shames you. It is a relevant and important addition to this discussion, but not within the scope of this particular writing. It is also not delving into the deep waters of the shame people carry when they have been abused, have had their personal boundaries crossed in their formative years, or beyond. That is a tremendously important topic with much material available that offers the opportunity to study and receive support when needed. Here, I am addressing our own internal shame response – what we do to ourselves – when a reaction occurs inside our system to something we actually have done that was a misstep, whether or not anyone else has inflicted any shaming upon us.)
Let’s discuss the term wrong.
Shame can cause us intense discomfort when we actually have done something – a behavior that can at least be called a misstep – or when we just think we have acted inappropriately, but, in fact, we are hallucinating or just being way too damn hard on ourselves.
Consciousness of having executed inappropriate behavior.
Consciousness of having crossed a boundary.
Consciousness of having created a disconnect, damage to a bond.
Consciousness immediately after the moment of unconsciousness.
It hurts. It can really feel unbearable. The worst.
Tears us up inside. Makes us withdraw from others, the world. Loses sleep for us, over-beats our hearts, burdens our tender insides with gastrointestinal distress.
Yet, in all this awful stuff, there is something in there that is beautiful, that is exquisitely vulnerable and made of the very stuff of profound growth and healing.
Shame is a flashing warning light that we need to repair something. It is a wound that needs tending to – quickly – for our well-being, survival, for strengthening ourselves and our bonds with others.
We have, deep inside us, on a cellular level, a radar for detecting energy that is out of alignment. This can take many forms. Evolutionarily, it has. But the core mechanism remains the same, and reacts for the same basic purpose.
Think about it. We are wired for survival. Survival may mean not getting killed by that saber-toothed tiger running toward us with bared fangs. That’s pretty clear. These days, with no ferocious, wild animal coming at us, we have other threats to our survival, including incidents and elements that our deep-seated, rooted instincts perceive as threats, such as social disconnects.
Think about it some more. A perceived or actual break in a social tie (a relationship) – a misstep taken in relation to someone who is a trusted ally – is certainly a threat to one’s survival, defining survival as social, financial, emotional, political, not so much physical, though, it can happen. A few hundred thousand years ago, it may have meant you got kicked out of the cave, and will die imminently from above-mentioned saber-toothed tiger or starvation – in other words, from lack of protection from the group.
These days, a misstep still certainly can mean loss of an ally, or, if not a complete loss, possible damage to a trusted bond in one’s network, which is still our mode of survival. Connection.
So, it makes sense that when we do something “foolish,” or “wrong” – that’s out of alignment with right action, right intention, and all the other rights of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path – we feel shame. Not because we deserve it, or we’re bad, but because the shame is a strongly-felt reaction letting us know we need to repair something.
When it comes to doing the repair to the disconnect in the relationship, that is where the communication tools that I teach to my clients and use every day of my life come in quite handy. Basic, reliable, seemingly-simple-yet-profound-and-life-changing communication formats and guidelines.
Summoning up the courage to invite others into healing interactions with you is a most powerful activity for us humans. These are conversations in which you calmly and non-defensively own your misstep, validate the other’s feelings and expressions, and then openly ask for forgiveness and repair. I work with a thorough validation and forgiveness process that offers an effective repair for events and incidents that include missteps and shame.
The other person(s) will either forgive you – co-create repair with you – or not. If you follow solid guidelines, you can walk away from the encounter with your head held high, knowing/trusting/feeling that you did the best you could and that you respect and honor the way you handled it. That you are innocent and allowed to grow. You may have some difficult decisions to make afterward, but it will be with a cleaned up side of the street – yours.
This writing has been a mostly freely-associated musing on the meaning and purpose of shame, which has been front and center of my mind lately, due to a recent misstep. As I read it over, I think it has some tooth and traction to it. It makes sense, and it helps me. I sincerely hope it has contributed to your healing and growth journey.