Healing The Shame That Binds You
Shame is, indeed, pervasive and profound. It doesn’t fix easily, for it is a condition of our psyche and our soul. But with courage, attention and plain hard work healing is possible. Here are some thoughts for healing your shame:
Let yourself learn, through and through, that your shame is not your fault. Most of your shame-inducing experiences happened to you early in your life–when you were small and the world of parents and other caretakers loomed very large. Your fundamental feelings of insignificance, the “shame” that goes far back in your mind and soul, appeared long before you had any “choices” in the matter. Shame was your natural organismic response to the burdens and demands that were being visited on you by your family. Believing that making you ashamed would motivate you to behave as they wished (The demands of a dysfunctional shame-bound family are irrational and inconsistent, for the family only knows it is unhappy and does not know what would make things better. The child becomes the scapegoat for the family’s incompetency in solving its problems-in-living.), your parents intended you to feel shame about yourself for your “bad” behavior. Sometimes, they even rationalized that shaming you was “for your own good.” However, what actually happened was that they only succeeded in making you feel bad about being yourself, for you did not possess what they were demanding as you had neither the power nor the talent to change yourself in order to enter into their good graces. But, being children, you could not grasp that your parents were the dysfunctional persons in the family; you knew of no one’s failures but those attributed to you by the grown-ups. Your only “guidance” was that which helped you feel awful–shame–about yourself for failing to produce….I repeat, it was not your fault.
Face shame, experience it, incorporate it. As you are your memories, your history, your joys and your talents, you also are your experience of shame. There is no escaping any part of yourself, your shame experiences are in your neurons and your body cells. What you can learn is not to deny or finesse them, but to face them, own them, and incorporate them into yourself. After all, they are only painful memories, not imperious demons. They cannot hurt you again as they did before–though you may believe they can–for you are not vulnerable as you were when you were small. Some things have changed and one of them is the perspective and position you have as adults to confront and not be done-in by the shaming experiences the world offers you.
There is nothing shameful about shame. You have every right to yours. You earned it by surviving in the midst of shaming people. There is a great community of the shamed waiting to dare to trust others enough to be open and vulnerable. Sharing your shame with them will be a way of forming a strong and rejuvenating ties with others. Your sense of shame can be your channel of empathy and pathos to the hearts of others, and…it will help you laugh with the Woody Allen’s, Roger Dangerfield’s and Whoopie Goldberg’s of the world as they help you own the universality of your shame and both cry and lighten-up a bit about it. There is no more powerful bond than that of shared shame transformed into a bond of understanding and mutual support for one another’s healing.
Replace shame with mature guilt. Guilt has often received bad press, and well it should–if, and only if, you are talking about neurotic guilt–guilt that self-flagellates and changes nothing. If you are talking about mature guilt, then guilt is one of the great inventions of nature. For mature guilt lets you know what is unacceptable, and offers you opportunity to do something about it. Shame, on the other hand comes to you as a feeling so deep and so incapable of your getting a grasp on it that it seems there is nothing you can do. To illustrate: John feels shame that he is not the sort of person who can ever excel at his work. Whatever happens, a demotion, a “blowing-out” by his boss, he senses that this is because he is “basically inadequate,” so he hangs his head and lowers his eyes and dampens his energy. Finding the “smarts” and the courage to re-evaluate himself as “guilty” of inertia and poor training, he begins to create and achieve goals that are possible for him. So if he sets certain standards, and then if he doesn’t achieve them, he can rightly feel guilty that he is failing and can increase his efforts to succeed, or redefine his goals. He has moved into consciousness that his worth can be defined by realistic possibilities, not by the un-focused and “hidden” demands of shame-making expectations.
Make new parents. You must learn from experience that you are not unworthy of belonging to the human community and that in order to heal your shame you must create a healthy family for yourself. Think of an occasion when you have stood against those who would make you feel bad about yourself. Think of how you counted on the thought of a friend, or lover, or teacher whose opinion you could depend on to back you in your struggle. It made a difference. It made the crucial difference is keeping you going and anchoring the experience as a positive for you.
You must create a new family. Perhaps this sounds strange, but you are already doing it–clubs, churches, professional societies are efforts; lovers, friends, marriages are efforts; even cliques, cults, and gangs are efforts. The success or failure of your journey to heal your shame will be crucially influenced by your ability to surround yourself with those who think you are lovable, who support you, who back you up in the way you lead your life, who can convey to you that they are for you even when they don’t like your behavior–and toward whom you can healthily reciprocate.
So the work of healing your shame is as profound as are the potentials of your soul. It reaches down into the heart of your concept of yourself and of your belief in the possibilities of life, alone, and in the company of others. It causes you to re-examine in your own mind and heart an idea expressed in the “sentimental” motto of Father Flanagan of Boys Town: “There is no such thing as a bad boy.” Can you make yourself a claimant of this “truth?” If you can, then you are on your way to discovering the freedom of surrendering your self-definition of having been a “bad”, shame-deserving person. Perhaps you have been mistaken, insensitive, unethical, self-critical, scared, negligent, stupid, masochistic, depressed–behaviors and states of mind you can do something about. But never have you been “bad,” never not belonging; always, you have been just an ordinary struggling person and, now with an expanding awareness, joining with others to make your inner and outer life work better, striving to extract from the day its possible satisfactions and nursing a lively curiosity about what’s next.
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