It seems to me that in our society, shame is rampant. Shame is practically running the show! We feel ashamed when we do something wrong, we tell ourselves that we’re stupid or useless or that we’ll never learn, we try to shame our children away from being bad and scare them into being good. We think we’re doing this for our own good and for the good of our children, because we believe that shame is an effective teacher that keeps us on the right track. Without shame, we think, our bad behaviour and stupid mistakes would know no limits.
But what if these are lies that shame is telling us in order to keep on running the show? What if shame is not actually a good teacher at all, but in fact stops us from truly learning from our experiences?
When we’re gripped by shame, we feel constricted, clenched, small, incapable, and unworthy. Are we able to learn when we feel like that? I don’t think so. True learning happens when we’re open, expansive, and flexible.
Interestingly, shame can be our doorway to openness if we make a practice of opening up when we feel shame, instead of constricting.
It’s hard to open up when we feel shame, because when we’re open, we feel things, and shame does not feel good. We don’t want to feel it. But, opening to shame is a simple and effective way of not being constricted by it.
How can we open to shame? Well, when we feel the shame arising within us, we can notice it, and say, “Aha! Shame is here.” We can be gentle with ourselves, and say, “This is hard for me.” We can turn our attention onto the shame, and notice what it is doing (“It’s grabbing my heart”), what it is saying (“It’s telling me I’m stupid”), what it looks like (“It’s stooped and cringing”), and what it feels like in our body (“It burns, it presses”).
We can notice all these things about shame, as if shame were a guest in our home. We can say to it, “I see and feel you here, Shame. I know you. You’ve been coming and going within me for a long time.” We can sit with it and feel it. We can experience the discomfort. We can say to ourselves, “This is painful.” We can give ourselves a hug, like we would do for a suffering friend. And we can sit with the discomfort. We can have compassion for ourselves as we experience the pain of it.
We can watch shame arrive, we can watch it grow, we can watch it diminish, we can watch it pass. And when it comes back, we can do it all again.
When we do this, our relationship with shame changes. We realize that shame is a guest, and we are the house. We don’t get confused into thinking that shame IS us. We can hear what shame is saying, but we don’t have to believe it. We know who we are, and who shame is. We realize that when shame visits, we don’t have to let it run the show. We have options. We can remember who we are. We can treat shame with the respect it deserves as our guest, and we can treat ourselves with respect even when shame is visiting.
It’s not easy to open up to shame – but it’s easier than carrying on with shame running the show.
I’m a counsellor. Are you having trouble in your relationship with shame? Let’s work on it! Contact me and we can do sessions in my Victoria BC office, or over Skype.