From Shame to Safety: The Road Less Traveled
Shame is a feeling that we have all experienced. Sometimes it can be a crippling experience, one which so overwhelms our ability to cope with and adjust to life’s challenges that it can literally render us dysfunctional.
I started to think about why is it that when we recognize that we are feeling ashamed in some way that we simply don’t say…”ok, I am feeling shame right now and I want to and I am going to let that feeling go.” This presupposes that we recognize that we are feeling ashamed and that we are not in a deep regressive state where our awareness of our feelings is muted at best and completely obliterated at worst.
What stops us then from just being able to turn off the switch to the corrosive fountain of shame? In order to answer that I think we have to briefly examine what shame does to us, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
On the physical plane the experience of shame may cause a wide variety of reactions such as shutting down or limiting our breathing to short, constricted, chest only breaths. It may also cause us to start sweating or become cold and clammy or the person may find it hard to focus their eyes, they may have a buzzing or ringing in their ears or that they become stiff in their bodies. You can add to this list with your own physical sensations of what shame feels like to you. If we were to compile all of the sensations of shame, I suspect the list would be pretty long and diverse.
Emotionally, shame is the great crippler. People who experience shame often notice that they want to hide and isolate themselves, not revealing to anyone just how small and awful they feel.
Shame will make most people constrict their emotions so that they have less range of emotional expression. They will tend to respond to situations with patterned responses and not feel “emotionally available” to each life situation as it develops. Occasionally, a person who is experiencing shame goes in the other direction and becomes “larger than life” and finds themselves boasting about all of their accomplishments and life achievements. Where do you fall along the spectrum of emotional shame experience?
In the spiritual realm, shame destroys the spirit. There is no greater force in our world today to shrink and mutilate the beauty of our spiritual bodies than shame. Life force evaporates, creative drive shrivels up and the soul becomes a mutated version of its authentic self. I have heard the term used when describing difficult times, “the dark night of the soul” and I think that experiencing deep shame may fit this category. I have also heard people describe themselves as having lost touch with God/Goddess energy and their reason for being on the planet when they are profoundly ashamed.
What then can we do to rid ourselves of this unwelcome usurper of our humanness? I have noticed in my work with people several themes or characteristics which show up time and time again. Firstly, the need to forgive ourselves for something perceived or real that we are deeply ashamed of. This often requires as an initial step that someone, either alive or dead, either an actual person or spiritual being forgive us for those imagined or genuine transgressions. Sometimes hearing the words spoken from a trusted or emotionally safe source, “I forgive you” or “You are forgiven” is an important initial component in unsticking us from the frozen wasteland of shame.
Secondly and perhaps most importantly, we have to acquire or reaquire our belief that we are lovable beings. Shame, in the fullest extent of its potency robs us of the belief that there is anything worthwhile, inherently good or remotely lovable about ourselves. A helpful exercise is to have a trusted person say the phrase “I love you” or “You are so lovable” repeatedly. As you can imagine any of these phrases will often evoke some deep emotional responses from the person receiving them. It is good to remember that we are tapping into the universal field of love that is available to us at all times but is often blocked from our access by the experience of deep shame.
As we start to thaw out from this contracted, isolated experience of shame appropriate physical touch is potentially helpful to integrate this new found sense of self-worth and self-love. I believe that being hugged, stroked, held or whatever the person needs on the physical plane can be critical in imprinting and anchoring a newer, healthier sense of self.
Making room for a new and improved sense of self is a fundamental step in reversing the negative effects of shame. I find it valuable to remember to give ourselves plenty of space, a gentle and appreciative attitude for the exploration that we are doing and significant time alone and with supportive friends to help make the transition to our more integrated selves.
You can learn more about emotional health and dealing with shame through our PEER programs, please contact the office for details.