Shame

Nephew: You reckon we should be like Charlotte and accept our dark emotions instead of ignoring them; that way we can learn how to deal with them.  I can see what you are getting at, but there is one flaw in your argument.

Uncle: Just one?

Nephew: Shame. Some people feel shame daily. It keeps coming back to tell us we are bad people, worthy only of suffering. Do we really want to keep welcoming Shame into our lives? Do we really need to keep listening to its cruel and ignorant message, over and over and over?

Uncle: Ah. . . . Yes. You make a good point.

Nephew: As always.

Uncle: The other dark emotions, like anger, jealousy and contempt are feelings about how we think the world should be; Shame is a feeling about how we should be, and it can say some awful things to us, things we shouldn’t accept from any friend, no matter how well-meaning.

Nephew: Are you saying it’s a friend?!

Uncle: Yes, it’s a friend trying to help us, like the other creatures of the Dark Forest.

Nephew: Trying to help us?! No! How?!

Uncle: I’m not saying it does help us; I’m saying it wants to. The thing is, it’s blind.

Nephew: Blind?

Uncle: Plus, it’s not very bright. Yet it desperately wants to help.

Nephew: But how? How would it think that making us feel like scum is helpful? And why do you say it’s blind?

Uncle: Because often we feel shame unnecessarily. Yes, sometimes our Shame is justified: if we feel ashamed about bullying someone, that shame might prevent us from bullying again. However, sometimes the cruel words or actions of other people may unnecessarily prompt us to feel bad about ourselves, but Shame can’t see that. It is only aware of the violation and it desperately wants to warn us about it. The creature fears disconnection, and it’s urging us to never be in that position again. And it can be relentless.

Nephew: But it’s . . . Oh, I see. It’s blind and can’t see where the problem is. And it’s not very bright. Yeah, I get it. But isn’t that a good reason for us to ignore it?

Uncle: The trouble is, if we ignore Shame when it is standing there with us we may end up believing that someone else is causing our turmoil, and treat them badly. Or, we might take drugs or alcohol to ease our unexplained pain.

Nephew: Oh.

Uncle: Besides, if we ignore it, it will only keep nagging us.

Nephew: Yeah, I got that bit. But when we listen to Shame, our self-esteem plummets! People have died listening to shame. They have suicided.

Uncle: They have killed themselves to stop feeling shame. I’m suggesting we do the opposite: allow ourselves to feel it. And the first step towards feeling it is to acknowledge it. ‘I’m feeling shame.’

Nephew: We label it? Like we do the other dark creatures?

Uncle: Yes.

Nephew: Tell me again: how does labelling an emotion help?

Uncle: It allows the turmoil within us to take shape, and once we recognise the emotion it becomes less scary and easier to cope with – we know we have suffered that emotion before and survived it. Further, when we acknowledge the creature by labelling it, it feels ‘seen’, and so it loosens its grasp on us a little. We still hurt, of course, but we can feel the pain slowly evaporate.

Nephew: And then what?

Uncle: And then we can draw upon our resources to deal with it. We might remind ourselves that the feeling will pass. In the case of Shame, we might remind ourselves that we’re human and destined to make mistakes. Or that the incident was not our fault. Or that torturing ourselves won’t  help. I don’t know; it depends on the reason we are feeling shame.

Nephew: Should we reveal our shame to our friends?

Uncle: Good idea, if they’re friends you can trust. Yes, the more we acknowledge our Shame, the more heard it feels and the less desperate it becomes.

‘And sometimes saying them out loud can make them feel a little silly. I’ve found that true for myself — saying a belief out loud to another person takes away some of its power, maybe shows me how hard I am on myself.’
Leo Babauta, Zen Habits

Nephew: What if all that doesn’t work? You said shame is relentless, and that it can say awful things we shouldn’t accept.

Uncle: That’s right. We can listen to its pain, but when it begins to insult us we have to reject it. We can’t let it vent on us. That’s a step too far.

Nephew: What do we do?

Uncle: Again, label it. Every time it visits, label it.

Nephew: ‘Hello Shame‘?

Uncle: Yep. ‘Hi Shame! Fearing disconnection again? Talk to me about it.’

Nephew: Not out loud, I hope?

Uncle: In your head.

Nephew: It will still come back.

Uncle: It will, because it’s not very bright, and it’s still desperately trying to warn you. Just keep acknowledging it and dealing with it, especially when it gets vicious. By you listening to it, it will come to understand that you are taking it seriously. That in itself is a step towards appeasing it. Over time it will become softer and wiser, and visit you less frequently and less ardently.

Nephew: But it will keep coming?

Uncle: Probably. After all, it’s blind, remember? And not very bright.

Nephew: It’s a friend we could do without.

Uncle: Yes. But not always. Sometimes it can be helpful. For example, do you ever feel ashamed after giving me cheek, and after stealing cheesecake from my fridge?

Nephew: Nuh.

Uncle. Oh.

Nephew: Shame stays in the forest on those occasions.

Uncle: That would be right.

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