There was a time when the energy of shame had grown out of control on our earth. So much so that people became unable to hear each other or speak with each other without polarising into immense projections of blame and attack. Like a virus, shame had steadily seeded itself through the hearts
of systems of governance who then bestowed it downwards to communities, families and
individuals. Shame grew and grew, becoming an invasive virulent force far beyond its
evolutionary role of assuring the protection, survival and furtherance of certain species.
Instead it morphed itself into a personal and collective tyrant lording over everything that it
had deemed weak and unacceptable...
The spiralling journey of shame
I'd tentatively like to talk about shame with as much kindness, honesty and clarity as possible.
Tentatively because shame has an underbelly of sensitivity, a delicate soft spot of reactivity.
Kindly because shame's nature is to be unkind to itself and its host.
Honestly because shame grows when held tight in secrecy, and finds it much harder to thrive under the light of truth.
And clearly because shame's nature can often be cloudy, insidious and evasive, and lucidity can help to discern what will support things to settle and clear.
I have been wanting to write this blog for a couple of months, and over the last three weeks have been creating it. Each time I have sat down to write I have hit walls of shame, some of which have been really productive, others which have felt really constricting.
Shame has been something that has shut me down a lot in life, I received a lot of very shaming attention as a young person and have had significant parts of my experience made explicitly wrong such as my feelings, my needs and then my sexuality.
Brene Brown describes times of being lost in shame as 'shame storms' and I've recently encountered shame storms to an extent that I’ve not experienced for a long time. Times where there has been little else in my awareness apart from a bombardment of internal voices calling out my wrongness. In moments like these there is an acute experience of an impasse ~ a feeling of impossibility from whichever way I look, and within this impossibility an inherent call to surrender to something other.
Last week I had a heated conversation with a friend which left me feeling a bit discombobulated and confused. The next day they send me an email suggesting a particular self help book, and the message landed on top the of existing discomfort that I was still processing from our exchange.
Through my shame filters what I heard was 'I wasn't doing enough work on myself’'.... Something in me clenched and then momentarily froze before being flooded with defensive thoughts as old fight survival patterns activated and poured their angry stories through my mind.
It was a really strong reaction.......
Some part of me recognised that the blaming narrative I was caught up in was a reaction and steadied myself enough to leave a message for my friend, shakily explaining how I felt, and what their message had touched upon.
They responded quickly and truthfully that they were a bit shocked by my message and that there had been no intention to shame me with their suggestion.
At this point I could see that my reality was very different to theirs and that it was really important to allow both of these realities to coexist.
He didn't intend to shame me,
I felt ashamed.
In remembering that these stories of 'not being enough' and 'getting it wrong' were rooted in experiences much further back than this moment, it became possible to notice how shame had lifted me out of my body and away from connection with my surroundings, the present moment and any larger sense of myself.
Simply put, I had become the shame.
In pausing and starting to bring some attention back towards myself and my environment, the overwhelming density of ‘just shame’ started to dissolve and subtler layers of experience started to reveal themselves:
Rage that wanted to blame and overpower.
Tenderness that needed to be allowed, received and valued.
A heart that was longing for courageous and sensitive vulnerability.
Slowly, slowly the curtailing shame stories started to move slightly more into the background creating a little bit more space in my system. There was still a lot of charge present so I reached out to a couple of close friends who's willingness to validate my experience without judgement made a huge difference in settling my nervous system down further.
Through their support a much more grounded and open perspective returned; I was able to think through what had happened, reflect on it, and make contact with some compassion for what had been triggered in me.
How shame works
One of the things that encourages me to be honest and brave about facing and feeling shame is my understanding that is has two faces.
Healthy shame and toxic shame.
Healthy shame calls us to become awake to the ways we are living from false positions of superiority or dangerous disconnect.
Like a moral compass, this kind of shame can guide us and support changes in our behaviour to be more open hearted, less prejudiced and more challenging of discrimination or oppression. It we ignore or deny healthy shame we risk staying segregated, closed-hearted and disconnected..
Toxic shame refers to excruciating ideas and feelings of worthlessness, beliefs of being innately flawed, and is passed between people consciously and unconsciously as a way to reinforce power dynamics in families, communities, cultures and systems.
Internalised toxic shaming messages often attack our very being, pathologising the way we naturally are, and replaces unique aspects of ourselves with beliefs of wrongness, behaviours of awkwardness and defended feelings of inadequacy.
It can cause us to compartmentalise, keeping parts of ourselves private, hidden and alone, or conversely it can drive us to overcompensate, proving that we are indeed ‘more than enough.’
For many of us, the process of internalising toxic messages and saying them to ourselves becomes a perverse way of creating safety. When we look a bit closer, it is clear that the internal critical voice grew out of necessity to protect parts of us from public humiliation and punishment, to ensure that we remained included, and to keep these parts of us that were prone to attack and rejection out of sight from anyone who might act that out.
Paradoxically, we won't be able to heed the call of our healthy shame, unless we are willing to bump up against, and face the toxicity of the shaming messages that we have ingested.
And unless we listen and respond to our healthy shame, we will continue to perpetuate unconscious power dynamics, abuse our privilege and remain ignorant about how to respond to what really matters.
So in terms of conscious evolution, turning towards shame can both be the rub and where the rubber meets the road.
Starting to turn towards shame:
Shame by nature is insidious and like it has been for me recently, can be all consuming. It feeds on itself through a belt and braces storyline that it is shameful to be ashamed, which requires a persistent and strong resolve to extrapolate ourselves from it just to be able to name it..
When embarking on shame work, it can be supportive to realise that the world that we live in is inherently shaming. We have evaluative education and medical systems that compare and assess to predetermined standards that do not reflect the majority; Our mainstream media in the West is predictated on messages of ‘you are not quite enough’ and hardwired to sustain addiction to consumerism and habits of trying to be more. And our familial and societal cultures espouse falsehoods like ‘women should not be angry, men should not cry, there are only two genders, black people are threatening etc’ that all of us to varying degrees will have internalised. These damning and dangerous messages and constructions need to be rooted out and, healthy shame can alert us and give us the motivation to start doing the work to actively challenge them.
Remembering that all of us have been shaped by this, and that our parents lived through these systems as did their parents, can support the very difficult work of waking up to and loosening shame scripts.
Recognising that shame is a strategy rather than a truth is another important insight. Even though shame can act and feels like the truth in our belief system, is it possible to see it as a messenger, an alarm bell alerting us to something that has not felt safe to be fully present and that is calling for our attention? In reframing our experience, might something be able to start relaxing and softening around this primitive pattern of survival stress?
If we can open to a perspective of shame having a protective function, it might become more possible to notice when we are being triggered into shame sooner than we have been before. Overtime we might be able to name it to ourselves with a degree of acceptance, a quality that will support a de-escalation of stress chemicals, and the creation of space around experiences of self disgust or flagellation.
When more spaciousness appears around moments of shame, it is a sign that we have started to loosen from the grip of our reptilian brain and that something of our more recently evolved frontal cortex part of the brain is engaged once more. This gives us the capacity for curiosity, compassion and reasoning. From this place in us we are more able to self talk in ways of kindness, care and gentleness, to even bring in affectionate humour if that supports a further relaxing.
As we come closer to ourselves we can start to notice the ways in which shame is expressing itself through our bodies, and can make some different choices, experiment with softening our jaw, dropping our shoulders and turning our attention towards something in our environment that we associate with calmness and safety, a pet, a favourite plant or a trusted friend or partner.
Tara Brach describes a four step process for responding to shame in her practice of RAIN:
R ~ recognise that a trigger has happened (Aaah, I am caught in shame....)
A ~ allow the experience to be what and how it is (Pause, soften, notice, accept a little more deeply)
I ~ Inquire into some of the specifics (What are my thoughts, feelings, sensations, beliefs)
N~ Nurture with self compassion (soothing self talk, cuddle with a pet, reach out to a friend)
For many of us there will be times when the shame storms are simply too overwhelming to process alone. This is not a sign of weakness, it is more a sign of the scale of what you have been asked to carry in your being. Having a therapist or really good friend walk alongside you as you do this work can be incredibly supportive to the process of disentangling from shame's glue.
Reconnecting with parts of ourselves that have been buried under shame.
Reuniting with parts of us that have been buried under the sticky protectiveness of shame can be akin to finding long lost loves as it is often our most precious parts that have gone underground such as our sensitivity or our power. In peeling back identities of wrongness or badness there is an opportunity to get to know these aspects of ourselves afresh, seeing them through new eyes and confirming them as rightful parts of our wholeness. This process of reintegrating parts that have been buried may be an ongoing slow and tender journey of creating new pathways of inner trust and patience. For me, I continue to come into an ever deepening relationship with all that has been shamed, recognising subtle and not so subtle ways in which I unconsciously maintain messages of not enoughness, behaviours of trying to be more, and patterns of trying to control relationships and outcomes. It is an ongoing journey to turn towards myself with evermore kindness and self acceptance, and in a world where the dominant narrative over eons has been 'you are not enough' it constitutes some of the most radical personal and collective work that I have been called to do.
Concurrently as shame grew out of control, something else started to seed within our earth.
A brightly coloured mycelium network who's porous and powerful thread of roots started to slowly but systematically uproot the self appointed lord shame.
A tangible quality of shifting reality descended upon the earth and for a time, the function of pointing out and correcting things deemed as mistakes was no longer enabled by earths centre. A gentler recognition arose that more support was needed in times of pressure and stress, individuals stopped trying to elevate themselves, and instead turned towards each other, asking for and offering help. And help was given and received in ways that were soothing, patient and kind. A little later mis-takes were once again enabled, but this time around were seen as exactly that, innocent and blameless wrong turns, and a simple path of rectification was imagined, one that just required listening, trusting and an honouring of the truer deeper nature of all of life.
The people's eyes twinkled in the knowing that the very things that had previously been deemed by shame as threats to survival such as vulnerability and tenderness were now the very same things that humanity had needed to turn towards and embrace the most.....
Thank you very much for reading this blog ~ please feel free to pass it along or share with anyone whom it might serve.
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