Making friends with shame.
By Tasha Raella Chemel.
I want to say a few words about my relationship with Shame.
If we befriend Shame, and we enter into a healing relationship with someone whose hurt is on a similar frequency to our own, we might be able to help that person by giving him or her a glimpse of how we are able to be spacious and kind — instead of judgmental or demanding — towards ourselves.
Of course, such healing relationships need to be entered into with extreme caution, and the healer must be skilled at recognizing when boundaries are becoming too thin, and his or her feelings are getting mixed up with that of the client’s.
Warning: Shame is a subtle magnet, who works in sneaky ways. Sometimes, when we seek advice from others about how to process Shame, even healers or therapists, the conversation itself can become shaming, without us realizing it.
Over the years, people have developed a plethora of ways to hide from Shame. This hiding often involves exiling or shutting off parts of the mind/body and losing touch with those parts, or developing addictions.
When we ask for advice from people who are shut down in this way, common responses are often statements such as “Get over it. Stop being a victim. You need to change your attitude.”
When someone says these things to me, I tend to feel even more shut down, more ashamed. “What’s wrong with me?” I ask myself. “Why haven’t I moved past this already? Why aren’t I strong enough? Why can’t I process these feelings better/faster? Yes, I’ve been shamed, but I can’t spend my whole life being victimized by my past.”
This intention, to not be victimized by the past, is a good one, but something we often forget, in our rapid-fire culture, is that Shame gets really, really mad/sad/frustrated if it is shoved into a corner.
At least for me, Shame wants to be felt and heard and known and breathed into, and simply telling it to slink off somewhere until I am ready to work through it, at the appropriate time and in the appropriate place (i.e. not at work/school/family gatherings), is often an invitation for it to become even noisier.
Shame does not like “appropriate.” It has been hearing that word all its life, and it is pissed off that it is ever only allowed to show itself during a tiny sliver of the day.
Ironically, unless we can realize what is happening in the moment, the fresh onslaught of shame we sometimes receive when seeking comfort or validation can actually lead us to feel more drained, and less equipped to alter our relationship with Shame, if we desire to. Instead, suffocating under its weight, we are more likely to resort to old patterns.
A particularly salient pattern for me is the belief that I deserve to be punished, put down, or put in my place, which leads me to initiate conversations with people who are likely to do just that, because those feelings are familiar, and any familiarity can feel reassuring when my life seems like it is sliding out of control.
It is difficult for me to put an end to these conversations because I tell myself that I should be able to suck it up and handle them. How am I ever going to succeed in my life if I cannot hear other people’s opinions and graciously accept feedback?
But there is a difference between Shame and feedback. Unacknowledged Shame makes me want to curl up into a ball and sit in a dark closet; feedback might feel a bit like a new yoga pose: slightly uncomfortable at first, but gradually becoming more manageable, and then maybe, just maybe, that ineffable sense of expansiveness and wonder will wash over me.
Plus, if I am being shamed, I am often enveloped by claustrophobia and panic.
I cannot escape; I cannot run, I cannot sink into child’s pose, I cannot ask myself if what the person is saying to me has any relevance to me and is worth listening to, because Shame’s coldness has soaked through to my core, and I cannot stop shivering, and the parts of myself that I have access to are pre-verbal and not capable of well-thought-out dialog.
In these situations, I find that breathing sometimes helps, but ending the conversation, or even temporarily pulling away from that person, is a sign of self-love, not weakness.
Despite my Shame’s tendency to seek out more of itself, I know that it does not want to lie around on the couch, moping all day, either. Maybe it can have moments where it wants just that, especially when other people are telling it to disappear. But what my Shame really wants is to melt or soften, or to be folded into a nice warm poem.
Its imprint on my soul will always remain, but when it has been well-loved and nurtured, and its lines are not quite so harsh, Shame can actually be an effective teacher, who can work alongside Empathy and Compassion.
All of these teachers can help us recognize suffering, and can guide us to challenge people who are using power to dismiss or marginalize others, as we ourselves have been marginalized.
Tasha Raella Chemel is an artist and writer who is currently student-teaching at a Big Picture school. When she isn’t at the pottery studio, she enjoys reading critical theory, seeking out the perfect chai latte, and overanalyzing pop culture. She lives in Winooski, Vermont. You can contact Tasha via email or Facebook.