This is my first of two pieces on healing shame through compassion and bare awareness.
None of us have had lives that are free from suffering. As Zorba the Greek said, “Trouble? Life is trouble. Only death is nice.” To live is to roll up your sleeves and embrace trouble. So how can we open our hearts to include whatever is before us? Or better yet, how can we transform the world as we transform ourselves? To do this we need to directly face the truth of Jung’s statement, “Perhaps I myself am the enemy who must be loved.” When we begin to accept our lives as they are unfolding, we may begin to see a problem as an opportunity. But first we have to open up to it and face it without a trace of judgment. I wonder if the corona virus gives us just this opportunity!
Many of our “troubles” are due to projections from incidents in the past when we felt ashamed. Maybe you didn’t know the answers when called upon in class or maybe the girl or boy you were attracted to rejected you. Maybe you were teased or bullied for your size, weight, or way of dressing or maybe, like me, you were the last one chosen to be on a team.
If we feel ashamed of something as adults, usually a childhood memory has evoked this, whether we are conscious of this or not. We may be catapulted right back to the rawness we felt then. We may feel off balance, unworthy, or simply want to hide, just as we did then. And this may include bodily discomfort or pain.
Shame damages a person’s image of themselves in ways that no other emotion can, causing you to feel flawed, inferior, worthless, even unlovable.
Maybe you were caught cheating on a test and the teacher called you out in front of the class as happened to me in the eighth grade, or your coach called you a screw-up in front of the whole team, or you wet your pants at a sleep over at a friend’s. In each of these examples, you may have felt helpless and you got down on yourself because you “should have,” in the last case, been able to hold your urine. Shame is a response to helplessness, and the indignity suffered.
We generally believe that we have control over what happens to us. But this is often not the case, especially for kids. We believed when we were at that sleepover that “should have” been able to hold our urine and we feel ashamed that we didn’t.
Often, we build up a wall of shame denial. This wall can include refusing to acknowledge our own mistakes, being hypercritical of others, or dumping on others in some other way. The more we think that we need to be perfect, the more we tend to practice shame denial.
The question then is how can we use meditation practice to heal shame?
The best way to do this is by practicing self-compassion.
We know how much the kindness, support, and encouragement of others helps us whether we are five years old or fifty years old. But how about giving that same encouragement and kindness to our very own selves? And how about doing this as part of our daily meditation?
In my second book I talk about neural plasticity- the brain’s capacity to grow new neurons and make new synaptic connections. This means that it’s possible to pair the old shame memory with new experiences of self-empathy and self-compassion. When we do this, we are re-pairing!
It might be good to first notice the types of things you criticize yourself for: are they related to your body or appearance, your job, your friendships, or something else? How do you intensify this criticism? Maybe by magnifying your mistake, generalizing beyond it to include lots of other things you have done wrong, by repeatedly “should-ing” yourself, or by “all or never” thinking, or maybe a combination of all of these. What kind of language do you use when you put yourself down?
You can change your language to be more supportive and kinder by including self-compassion in your daily meditation practice. I have worked with many people to find compassionate language they might use with their favorite pet or best friend, which they then practice applying to themselves.
You might try the following self-compassion meditation, (which I got from another meditation teacher).
1. Bring to mind a shaming experience from childhood
2. What do you wish someone had said to you right after that experience? What would have been the most helpful and healing for you to hear at that time?
3. Imagine that someone you care very much about, someone you admire, is saying those helpful and healing words to you now. Hear those words in your ears. Take those words into your heart. Notice how those words make you feel.
4. Repeat those words to yourself. Take a deep breath and really take in those words. How does hearing yourself say those words make you feel? What matters is that you let the words in now.
It’s good to do this practice during your daily meditation as well as other times when you are getting down on yourself. Notice when you begin berating yourself for something you have done and take a few minutes to go through the routine above. By practicing this routine over and over again, your critical voice begins to be supplanted by a loving, accepting one. Over the course of my own practice, I have been able to soften my tyrannical, (which is quite profane) by repeating to myself, “nice boy, Tim” when I am getting down on myself. If you do this patiently and persistently using your own words, you may find yourself being as accepting of your own missteps as you would for your best friend or special animal.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher