Shame is a painful and confusing emotion that can haunt us and put us on the never-ending treadmill of “not being good enough”. It is a kind of master key to our emotions, allowing some to be seen and expressed while confining others to the painful, festering basement of our heart. The deep pain of shame and the way it leads us to bury and hide our feelings make it one of the most difficult emotions to embrace and to express. Nearly all of us struggle with shame to some degree, and it is already a gift to recognise for ourselves that shame is a feeling we all have in common and which takes courage and a trust in the heart’s intelligence to heal.
The central message of shame is “I am bad”—I am bad because I was not valued by her or by him; I am bad because I am not successful or because I failed; I am bad because I felt upset or angry while others seemed calm. This shame reaction brings up a lot of pain, making it hard to be with or to look at. We don’t want to experience this pain, so we push it away and hide it somewhere that we hope no one else, or even ourselves, will see it. But as soon as we are in a similar situation, we are likely to start feeling the shame shutting us down again.
Each of us has a different strategy for covering up our shame—some simply pretend it isn’t there, others distract themselves as soon as it arrives, and some become boastful or proud in an attempt to counter their “badness” by proving how good they are.
The strategies I learnt to use are a mixture of perfectionism—achieving highly and making sure I am as “right” as I can be in my behaviour—and simply hiding “shameful” parts of myself from others. I am still on the journey of learning how to care for shame, but I would like to share with you how the three foundations of heart-based living—mindfulness, heart intelligence, and listening spaces—have helped me with shame.
Our shame reactions can be deeply ingrained in our ways of acting and seeing the world, and to understand them better, we need to be able to see them as they are happening. Mindfulness of the body can be a powerful way of exploring difficult emotions, including shame. When we feel ourselves becoming ashamed, we can ask: Where do I feel this in my body? What are the sensations I am feeling exactly—a sensation of heat or rigidity in the face, a tension in the belly, a general sense of numbness or dissociation from my body? As I watch them, do these sensations stay the same or change over time? Mindfulness of the body can become a safe way of holding and exploring the intense experience of shame. The curiosity and clarity that we bring to exploring our bodily sensations are already a kind of massage that helps to ease the shame and means we can be less caught in shame the next time we experience it.
If we are susceptible to shame, it can be powerful to take moments in our daily life to express gratitude to ourselves for the good we have done, and to remind ourselves of the good we see in ourselves. These practices cultivate our heart’s intelligence and its innate qualities of warmth and kindness, allowing us to maintain our happiness and making us more resilient to shame. However, to find a deeper peace with shame, we also need to take time to listen to what it is we are really asking for when we feel that way. One of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves when we feel ashamed is the simple dignity of allowing that feeling. When we just sit with the feeling of shame, touching the wound of “badness” or “wrongness” without closing our heart to it, we are able to restore our inherent human dignity. We give our shame what it is so desperately longing for, which is to be included and welcomed back into our heart.
Shame is a deeply social emotion, so finding a space in which we feel safe enough to express our shame honestly can be incredibly helpful. Finding a therapist or a regular, lovingly-held sharing group can provide this support. It’s important not to underestimate the time it can take to get comfortable enough with others to open up, and it is a normal part of the process that this takes time. The heart has its own intelligence and rhythm, and we begin to heal when we are able to respect that. We’re not looking to “confess our sins” to others in an attempt to purge ourselves of our shame, but touching in to the much more tender and beautiful intention to share and express the pain in a way that honours it and restores our inherent dignity.
The gifts of shame
Shame is a difficult and painful emotion that we all experience at times. As part of the human experience, it deserves to be met with care and patience. Gradually, perhaps with the help of the heart-based practices shared above and with supportive friends, we can begin to welcome the shame into our heart. We embrace it tenderly so that our inherent human dignity can shine through. By having the courage to care for shame, we discover our dignity and our capacity to live more wholeheartedly as messy, imperfect, and lovable human beings. These are its gifts to us.