5 things to know about shame that could make a difference in your life:
I believe that shame is an emotion that affects everyone deeply. Even if you don’t personally identify shame as being on your “top hits” list, it might be playing subliminally in stealth mode.
1. It is quite normal to feel shame. It is not anything to feel ashamed about!
And, there's the rub. It is incredibly common to feel as if shame itself is something we have to hide from ourselves and others. To feel ashamed of our shame. It may go something like this… “If I acknowledge that I feel shame, then the very thing I feel ashamed about will be confirmed as the truth about who I am. If I hide this feeling, then others won’t see how deficient I am. Then I won’t have to feel how deficient I am.”
However, feeling this way is a pervasive experience for human beings living in the 21st century, at least at some point in our journey. The irony is that unless you have unsupportive friends and confidants, your admission is more likely to be seen as an inspiring demonstration of courage than as evidence of a flawed or defective character.
2. Shame can be experienced as a positive and helpful emotion when we have a healthy relationship with it.
When we don’t hide our shame about something we have done or not done, then it can be an opportunity for reconciliation with ourselves or another. If we have not lived up to our own reasonable values, it is healthy and useful to feel some shame about that. The purpose is not to punish, but to bring awareness to the fact that we have done something that is out of integrity for us. Then, we can clarify what is important to us and recommit to living in a way that is a demonstration of our values. If you are willing to see shame as a helpful emotion, then admitting to it can be an important step in deepening integrity and forming strong and intimate relationships.
3. There is a difference between feeling ashamed about something we have done and feeling ashamed about who we are.
It is healthy to feel ashamed about something we have done that falls considerably short of what we rightfully expect from ourselves. However, if our expectations for ourselves are unreasonable, then our shame will be imbalanced. If our expectations are too high, we will be living with the tyranny of inner criticism. If they are too low, we will live with the pain of a life lacking adequate meaning and challenge.
On the other hand, when we feel ashamed about who we are, we are no longer experiencing shame as a useful emotion, but rather as a defining truth about the nature of our very essence. Many years ago I labeled this phenomenon the “ego deficiency trance,” to denote that while we can experience and believe that we are deficient, inadequate, not good enough, unloveable, etc., this perception is illusory and not a fundamental truth. Using the label of “deficiency trance,” or “shame” can be a way of noting when it is present in our experience. This provides an opportunity to recognize that it is something we are experiencing, something we are believing, but not what we are.
4. Discovering the origin of shame’s presence can be useful.
If you are experiencing shame or guilt\* and you check for its source, you may find a very specific and appropriate reason for it. In that case, you can feel the shame or remorse or regret, take corrective action if necessary, and come back into alignment with your values and intent. This is assuming that your emotional response to an error in your behavior is balanced. As mentioned above, if our expectations for our behavior are unreasonable and lean to either perfectionism or indulgence, then our feelings of shame (or guilt, remorse, regret) about the situation may be way over the top or utterly absent.
If you are experiencing what I have called the “ego deficiency trance” or “deficiency trance,” or what has also been referred to by many as “toxic shame,” then you are believing on some level that who you are is fundamentally flawed. While I believe that in our culture, this is ubiquitous, I also believe that for most people it is unconscious. The good news when it is conscious is that it is coming to the Light of awareness to be healed, to be liberated.
The origins for this type of shame or guilt applied to our very being, not just to specific actions, has deep roots. Deeper than we can imagine.
One frame we can look to for the roots of this perceived flaw in our being, is through childhood conditioning. If you recognize this as an issue, learning more about how you as a child learned to believe that you were deficient, not good enough, etc., can be very healing. It can help to normalize these feelings so that they can be brought into the Light, and provide a foundation of insight that engenders understanding, empathy and compassion.
If like Neo in the movie “The Matrix,” you choose to take the red pill and follow the white rabbit down the hole into a mind-blowing discovery of what “reality” is and what the “I” of our being really is, the origin of shame can be seen in an even more profound way. When we become aware of the difference between the mysterious and profound nature of our Essence and the survival program often referred to as “ego,” we can look to a spiritual frame to point us to the possible origins of this internal process mistakenly assumed to be “me.” This line of inquiry, like the one in the paragraph above, is worthy of much more consideration than one paragraph of words. Keep that in mind as you read on.
Let us consider for now the possibility that in truth you have never been other than Spirit. You can never truly be separate from your Divine origin. And, in truth, you are always and already whole, complete, and perfect. However, endowed with unlimited power, you have the power to dream into being anything. Right now, you, together with everyone else, are dreaming this dream of duality, limitation, and separation. Together we are dreaming we are separate beings, separate from each other and from heaven and earth. What if we could uncover the first instant of imagining ourselves to be a separate mind, soul, or body? What if from the point of view of the ego this was believed to be a great sin against our Divine Parent? What if we carried forth an unconscious shame or guilt from this original conception of separation? And, what if it was possible to offer this original Shame to the Light of the Source itself, from which no blame or indictment is possible?
I encourage you to meet yourself right where you are in relation to your understanding of shame. And, you may not need to know anything more about its origin.
5. It’s useful to assume that shame has a good intention.
If we assume that our shame has a good intention, we can learn to first look for how it is trying to help us. When we see that it is attempting to help us rather than hurt us, we understand where it came from, and we can allow it to be held in the healing presence of compassion.
Mild shame is easy to understand in this way. The intention may be to let us know that we have done something that is either not in accord with our values, or not in accord with the values of our family or society. It is a feedback mechanism that allows us to make corrections to our behavior.
Toxic shame or the deficiency trance may take a little more contemplation to unpack. But here is one example using the childhood conditioning model: A child is subjected to physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect. The child lacks the intellectual development that would be necessary to recognize that this abuse is a reflection of the parents immaturity, woundedness and inability to provide consistent and loving care. So they internalize the parents’ behavior as a reflection of who they are. And, even if they could realize the parents are at fault and not themselves, it may be easier for the child to live with the false belief that their parents are good, caring and capable rather than a more accurate understanding of harmful parenting behaviors. However, the cost of creating this more comfortable perception of their caregivers is to take on the cause for such treatment to be themselves. “I must be bad in order to be treated like this. It must be my fault, like they say it is.”
When toxic shame is creating difficulties in your life, I recommend getting one to one support with someone qualified to help with this issue. However, for anyone on a path of deepening awareness, understanding the nuances of this topic, both conceptually and experientially, can be invaluable.
* Note: Guilt is sometimes used as an equivalent to shame, and sometimes used as a composite of shame and fear.