Shame: From Shadow to Healing
As the snow melts and mud dries, spring cleaning can reveal areas of our lives or aspects of ourselves we might not have wanted to see, much like we may pick up a board that has been on the ground all winter, and discover slugs underneath it. It is natural and healthy in this time to bring to the light that which has been hidden in the dark. That is why this week I would like to explore an emotion with you that is often left in the shadows: shame.
John Bradshaw, author of the important book Healing the Shame That Binds You, outlines two kinds of shame. Healthy shame provides balanced remorse for things you do, think and say that do not support your highest good or the good of all. It is part of your human nature as it helps you flourish, learn and grow. However, toxic shame holds on to “mine” and binds you to harmful behaviours. It thwarts and undermines your brilliance, joy and fulfilment.
The roots for toxic shame can be traced to your youngest years, when your true self may have been judged as not good enough by your primary caregivers. I deeply believe that people do the best they can at any given moment. There is no need to lay blame. Yet, if your caregivers are identified with feeling not enough, then they inadvertently teach it and pass it on. You may have felt that there was a fundamental lack in your being, that you are inherently flawed. Toxic shame arises as a result of this essential misperception.
Toxic shame is hard to see because it hides in the dark. Yet it is surprisingly common. It shows you how and where you are identified with your shadowy self. It is a fundamental motivator behind pain-driven behaviours to which you may be prone, such as compulsions, co-dependency, addictions and the drive to over or underachieve, which I call “the gotta get it rights”. These compulsions can break down families and friendships and destroy our personal or professional lives. To some extent or another, most people suffer from some degree of shame, hidden in the recesses of their psyches. That is what shame does. It stays where we cannot see it. Yet out of our conscious sight, it wreaks havoc on our lives. Shame undermines the expression of your authentic self and your ability to live your true potential.
You may think you are the only one who does things you want to hide from others and from yourself. But in truth, many people struggle with feelings of personal shame and self-disgust. Because hiding supports shame, it’s important to remember that the more down on yourself you feel, the more you feed shame.
Whether or not you are dealing with toxic or healthy shame, it is not to be “fixed”, but gently revealed. The energy caught in your hidden, severed and disowned places needs to be slowly brought back from the dark and moved into the light. As you learn to witness shame with self-love, kindness and understanding, you integrate these places into who you are. In that place of whole self-acceptance, you naturally release shame.
The misperception that you are fundamentally flawed also needs healing. Not because you are wrong, bad, ugly, awful or damaged, but indeed because all of these are untrue, an illusion perpetuated by your wounded self-perception. It exists because you give it power. You hang on to it. Yet at the same time you fear that it’s the truth, so you hide it away.
As you unearth the broken bits from the darker recesses of your psyche, you eventually see that you are a being of light who casts shadows while on an evolutionary journey back to undivided consciousness. In every moment, no matter what shame binds your perception temporarily, you are loved and supported beyond what you see.
If you feel you suffer from debilitating shame, I would recommend professional help from a skilled therapist who can help create a safe place in which you can allow your feelings of low self-worth to emerge, without judgment. Because shame exists in the severed places that you fear in yourself, just the process of revealing them in a safe environment is powerfully healing. We all need to be seen, just as we are. When you bring your wounded bits to the light and you realize that you will not die, be punished or be annihilated, that in fact you are loved and accepted, you feel more alive and whole than ever before.
If you have an addiction of any kind, the twelve-step program is very potent and transformative. If you have not yet given a meeting a try, then please look up your local AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), NA (Narcotics Anonymous), SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous), OA (Overeaters Anonymous), (WA (Workaholics Anonymous) – as is appropriate to your particular tendency. Children of addicts often develop either subtle or overt addictive tendencies in turn and would benefit from groups like Al-Anon, where meetings are specifically designed for friends and families of addicts, or ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics), which places particular focus on inner child work in the twelve-step process.
If you qualify in one of these groups, love yourself enough to go to a meeting. It take courage (which means to have heart) to step through the feelings of shame and make choices for a healthier life. When you arrive at a meeting, you may feel that you don’t belong, and wish to turn around and leave. This is natural. Many other people there likely feel or have felt the same way. But this is also part of the denial that keeps you acting out and feeding the shame that binds you. The inner voice that whispers “I don’t belong here” or “this is not me” is spoken from those severed places in your psyche that keep you feeling disempowered, broken and doing things you really don’t want to do.
Most of all, be gentle with yourself in this deep and powerful healing process. The pain that caused you to bury the shame deep in the recesses of your psyche was real for you. There is an essential grieving component to healing shame and healing your inner child. This takes time and patience. As most twelve-step groups would say, “easy does it” and “take it one day at a time”.
EXERCISE: UNMASKING SHAME
- Take a few deep breaths and connect with yourself in a loving and compassionate way. Know that you are doing the best you can right now.
- Then when you feel ready, write down a few things you feel ashamed of. List them and notice any feelings associated with them, such as guilt, regret, anger, sadness, hopelessness.
- Notice if this is an opportunity to explore healthy shame for things you now would prefer to have handled with more skill, grace and love. Give yourself permission to feel whatever feelings may arise. There is no need to have it all figured out right now. Just be with what comes.
- Various feelings may be present. Over time, as you continue to witness the shame just as it is, the pain and discomfort will transform into the sweetness of forgiveness for others and yourself. This will happen when you realize that you did the best that you could at that time with what you knew. Now, you know better.
- Remind yourself that this kind of growth is central to the entire process of evolution. You are growing.
- Gently wrap your arms around yourself and give yourself an encouraging and understanding hug for all you have been through and the tender courage required in growth.
Love our world.
We are one Earth family.