Shame: the belief not that you have done something bad, but that you are bad. The belief that you are somehow genetically defective, unworthy, deficient of and utterly lacking of that badge that seemingly everyone else was lucky enough to earn—the one called “normality.”
Ironically, it’s the ubiquity of shame that stands out more than its rarity.
So many of us are plagued by shame every time we glance at the overwhelming to-do list, we pass a cute stranger on the street, we discover a new wrinkle on our beloved booty or we realize, holy crap, I’m such-and-such age, and still don’t have the white house/picket fence/happily married/two-and-a-half dogs lifestyle.
In working with clients, as well as in my own life, I find that at the root of so much shame is often an ancient question, one stemming back to the olden days of babyhood.
Much simpler than the mental spreadsheets we conjure up to compare our qualities from A-Z with the Jones’ down the street, our ancient questions often sound like:
Am I good enough?
Do you like me?
Do you love me?
Is something wrong with me?
Did I do it alright?
These are questions we may have asked internally as young children, and whose blanks we often filled in with our own negative answers in our best attempts to make sense of the world, particularly when our caretakers were not, let’s just say, operating at their ideal capacity.
In our adult lives, these ancient questions are re-stimulated every time we make a mistake, or a co-worker looks at us the wrong way, or a promising lover takes too long to return a phone call.
We may tell ourselves that such-and-such situation is further proof of our not-enoughness, and that we are doomed to a life of isolation.
Shame is a habit, and healing shame is ultimately a spiritual practice.
The following four steps can help when our friend Shame rears her Medusa-like head:
1) See if you can identify the age-old question behind the feelings. “Am I good enough?” “Are you going to leave?” “Am I okay?” etc. Rather than indulge the answers from your mind, let yourself ask the question from your body.
2) Notice the innocence of these questions in your body, and how they are not the product of a mature adult rational mind, but of a small child just needing a reminder that s/he is loved.
3) Try out “I don’t know.” That is to say, rather than fill in the blanks quickly either with “No, you suck,” or “Yes, you’re awesome,” notice the “I don’t know” hanging out in the ether. Notice what happens when you let your body simply not know, and let your mind not have the answer. Often times, a willingness to be clueless itself brings about a state of relaxation, calm, and softening of the desperation around the question.
4) Let yourself become a servant of the unknown, and a lover of the vulnerability of our humanity, in which we don’t have the answers, and the life-long research project is to get to find out, “What’s true?” In servant mode, we step out of and stop identifying with the question, and we access our innate desire to serve and love this life—even when our age-old insecurities are triggered.
And so we ask, “How can I serve this ancient heartache? How can I serve this desire for wholeness and to belong?”
This is where the gold lies.
In loving the question itself, the vulnerability of the research project, the age-old human desire for connection and love and belonging that underlies so many of our deepest questions. And, ultimately, in falling in love with the beauty of that desire itself.
When we become a servant of the question, paradoxically, that is when we become whole.
We answer the question with our choice to love.
We answer the question with our own wide-open-hearted capacity to ask, and to sit with not knowing.
Healing shame is so much more than a mental or psychological project. It’s ultimately a spiritual path, one that invites us into our fullest capacity to hold not just ourselves, but all of humanity, with all of our flavors of ancient questions, aching for answers—with mercy and compassion.
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Editor: Emily Bartran