May 26, 2023

No Shame? All Gain.


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I was sitting in a fire circle recently, thinking things through and meditating on (my) life.

One of the ideas that popped into my orbit was, “What if there was no shame?” I mean really no, none, zero shame? What if I thought all my “flaws” were just fine. That whatever I was going through, looked like, or things I did were completely fine and welcome to talk about and reveal to anyone and everyone I know?

I felt a bit of nervousness, and simultaneously, I had sensations, thoughts, and feelings of complete freedom.

What if I or you felt confident and excited to share all of who we are, no matter what? What if we truly opted out of good, bad, right, wrong thinking and into a deep sense of care and curiosity about ourselves and each other? I was astounded at how compelling this idea was and still is for me.

What would my life be like? How would it be different? I tried to believe that it wouldn’t be that much different, yet something a bit deeper inside is saying (screaming, actually) that my life would be very different. Wildly different!

I shared these thoughts with my partner the next morning. He referred to a book (that he purchased yet had not read), Entitled Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic by James Gilligan (written in 1997!).

Here’s the blurb:

“Drawing on firsthand experience as a prison psychiatrist, his own family history, and literature, Gilligan unveils the motives of men who commit horrifying crimes, men who will not only kill others but destroy themselves rather than suffer a loss of self-respect. With devastating clarity, Gilligan traces the role that shame plays in the etiology of murder and explains why our present penal system only exacerbates it. Brilliantly argued, harrowing in its portraits of the walking dead.”

We immediately opened the book and began reading more. Clearly, I tapped into something bigger than I imagined, yet wasn’t surprised about.

Without taking the deep dive into the depressing story of our predominantly punitive culture as a whole, I’ll focus on just how much it impacts our relationships.

In our relationships, shame leads to a huge loss of quality of connection—because we are not able or willing to reveal ourselves, our vulnerabilities, or judgments we have about ourselves. Instead, we hide.

How many things do you hold back? How many times a day do you think to yourself, “I better not share this with this person or in that situation?” This habit might be something you are aware of in the moment, or ultimately many times, remain unseen. Meaning we aren’t even aware that we do it, let alone consider the outcome of doing it. This loss can be devastating, especially with so many of us longing for deep connection and to be seen.

When it comes to conflict and feeling shame about what we said or did, we are moved to finding fault with someone else’s actions, and begin to argue about how they have wronged us in some way—basically defending ourselves rather than reveal what we are thinking about ourselves.

They in return (having the same trap of not revealing their own pain, shame story, embarrassment, not worthy-ness) throw the fault right back onto the other person’s shoulders. This back and forth can go on for hours, days, and truthfully even years. Couples will break up rather than consider the way they contribute to the experience they don’t want to have—the discomfort of thinking they have done something wrong.

Another way shame plays out is by hiding different things from different people, or different groups of people. As I write this, I am thinking of the different things I hold close or choose not to reveal because I have shame, and one group might agree with me that what I am doing is wrong in some way, while another group might not. I live in the city, so to my friends here, I am an earthy, crunchy type. What I talk about here is different from when I visit my partner at the ecovillage. I’m the urban person, not quite connected with the earth. What I tend to talk about (reveal about myself) is quite different than here at home.

Although, with age I do it less and less. It has gotten easier over the years to just let all the labels go and just “be me.” Still not always, and certainly not about everything.

I remember when I first came across the work of Nonviolent Communication and I heard Marshall Rosenberg say on a CD recording, “You never have and never will do anything wrong!” As part of my cynical nature, I called bullsh*t. Until I went to my first 10-day learning event, when I had that very experience. I saw it play out over and over during the time there. It changed my life. It was possible. And, delightful.

What if we began to find ways to give this shame burden up sooner so that our lives will be more enjoyable for so much longer?

Please note that I am distinguishing not telling someone something because of shame and not telling someone something because I am clear about the needs being met by that choice.

One outcome of this query is that I intend that in my daily interactions I will be more and more mindful of communicating with others in ways that their confidence in who they are is increased—meaning they feel accepted and appreciated for who they are. That they aren’t worried about what I might say back, that they look forward to hearing it. And that my reflections and responses to them will pull on that rather than support the idea that they are “less than” in any kind of way, or need to be concerned with their value.

Additionally, I will be mindful of how I hide parts of who I am, what is happening in my life, and when I apologize in some way for the being that I am. I will look for those who I think will be easier to share these with and do so. Possibly even push the edges of this idea and share with those who I am more afraid to share with.

At very least, I will consider the needs met by sharing and not sharing and find more choice and freedom.


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