I have a long, deep relationship with shame. Childhood trauma made shame my close companion; it ruled me for most of my life.
Shame is defined as “the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another.” I find this definition so interesting. Shame is defined as painful. And can be brought on by either one’s own actions or the actions of another.
In my case, the actions were those of my abuser. But the feelings I had, of being deeply flawed, unworthy, and unlovable were a way of being. These deep-seated beliefs were part of my very being, something I constantly carried with me. Shame then, is not so much about doing something wrong or inadequate. It is more of a feeling that “I am wrong.” “I am inadequate.” This is toxic shame. Brene Brown says that guilt is the feeling that you made a mistake, while shame is the feeling that you ARE a mistake. Does this sound familiar to anyone?
The only relief I found was in accomplishment. Perfectionism became a way of life. I felt I had to be perfect to be beyond fault, to be acceptable. So, on top of the weight of shame, I laid the weight of perfectionism. My energy was consumed in figuring out the right thing, instead of living joyfully as myself.
By my late thirties I found myself trapped in an oppressive marriage, not pursuing my career for fear of what it would do to my already shaky marriage, worried about what my choices might do to my children, I allowed shame, and the resultant fear, to paralyze me. I had allowed shame to completely drive a wedge between my authentic self and who I thought I should be. I was fragmented by shame.
I limited my own choices for fear of making a mistake. My desire to be seen as perfect caused me to hide my true self, keeping me from expressing myself. As Christiane Northrup writes in Goddesses Never Age, “shame can get us stuck in every sort of emotion and behavior that can hold us back. Because we’re often afraid of being shamed for not being a “good” person, or for being disloyal, we don’t prioritize our desires and instead focus on pleasing everyone else.” We may even do this, put everyone ahead of ourselves, to the point where we don’t even know what it is we want or need.
So how did I release this burden? Much of the relief I found through a therapy called EMDR, which is a trauma therapy first developed to help veterans suffering from PTSD. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Using eye movements similar to REM sleep, the therapy deals directly with traumatic memories. The eight step process transforms the meaning of painful events on an emotional level. My understanding is that this is not only an emotional transformation but also a physical transformation of the brain. The nervous system itself becomes healthier.
I did EMDR therapy after some intensive talk therapy and after practicing meditation for a few years. My feeling is that the combination of these things lead me to tremendous freedom from the burden of toxic shame I’d carried for years.
Last week I encountered a shame bubble. This wasn’t the “I am in a complete pit” kind of shame I used to suffer. At first, I couldn’t even name the emotion. This was different so from TOXIC shame that I failed to recognize it as shame. I felt restless. The situation was triggered by an unkind comment from someone else. In the aftermath of the comment, I was having a hard time connecting with compassion for her and began telling myself I should be beyond this by now. Whenever I “should” myself I find self-judgment and shame not far behind.
My feelings of shame were so vague, so dull when compared to the tidal wave I used to feel that I didn’t know what was going on. It was confusing to me. Then I spiraled a little. One day I was irritable, the next day I was having sinus problems, the next my whole back was tight and sore. I was like “what is going on?”
Christiane Northrup talks about a direct link between shame and body health: “the more critical and unforgiving we are toward ourselves, the more miserable and sick we’re apt to be. The body has a remarkable ability to manifest shame as illness or physical problems, because the hurt of shame registers in the brain in exactly the same way physical pain does.”
My self-judgment, that I should be past judging others, created a shame response—far milder than the toxic shame I lived with for so many years so that I didn’t recognize it—which created physical discomfort. My lack of compassion for another lead to a lack of compassion for the self. The solution is, of course, a practice of self-compassion. Compassion for my own humanity, for my limited nature, for the fact that I am still learning and growing and will for the rest of my life.
Kindness toward self can lift that shame. A metta, or loving-kindness meditation, practice brings relief.
What are you afraid to change in your life because you think you might be shamed for making a mistake? Is the desire to be seen as perfect keeping you from expressing yourself?
Finally, here is a loving-kindness meditation practice you can do on your own behalf. Traditional metta practice offers meditation first for the self, then for someone we are close to, followed by practice for an acquaintance, and then for our “difficult” person, ending with another round of practice for the self. Petitions for each person are done three times. When dealing with painful issues on behalf of the self, I suggest limiting your loving-kindness practice to the self. Focus only upon yourself, repeating the series three times. Then rest in your quiet heart-space for a bit before ending your practice for the day.
May I be filled with loving-kindness.
May I be healthy and strong.
May I feel calm and at ease.
May I know peace.
© 2015 Janet Tuck