Shame. It’s a feeling in the pit of the stomach, a burning sensation. A rupture in the belly, a spiraling inward, shrinking, feeling inferior at the core. Shame makes us feel that our very identity is under threat of erasure.
At one point or another, shame takes us all hostage and calls the shots. Under extreme shame, we may even feel as if we are not the ones running our lives. Shame is a hostile dictator, suffocating us from any sense of freedom. Without realizing it, we often hire shame as the micro-manager of our lives.
We may feel paralyzed by shame because we live in a shame culture. It’s a force that is very real. Since we are enculturated to locate our self-worth in performance, this sets us up for an extreme sense of shame when we are not able to perform according to the (perceived) expectations of our peers or superiors.
But, we need to realize that we are not primarily performers, we are people. As the Native Americans say, “we are real human beings,” and this is our core identity. We have good days and bad days, good years and bad years. What is often missing and what it means to be a “real human being” is to have a sense of continuity between the ups and downs. A feeling that we are simply the same person regardless of what successes and failures come our way.
But the state of shame is often exacerbated by a lack of intimate and honest friendships. Without this shield of human love, shame can isolate you. It is often hard to find a community of friends that will love you no matter what. We are often judged so harshly by our performance that even our friendships are based on status and prestige. If you have ever lost a job, significant relationship or marriage and witnessed most of your “friend” community drift away from you, then you understand this. But, we have to look at our own choices here. We often become friends with the people we think can get us to the next level in our lives. If we crave authentic friendships, then we need to become willing to examine our own motivations. When we are able to get shame out of the equation, we tend to make better choices.
But swimming out of shame, I’ve found, at least, begins with acceptance, self-acceptance. Because shame will continue to send messages such as “you’re not good enough, worthy enough, smart enough, beautiful enough,” simply, “you’re not enough.” This leads to an inner conflict. The authentic self wants to love, cherish, express joy, compassion and empathy for the self and others. But shame is like a stun gun, sealing us off from access to the authentic self. When we can accept how things are, where we are in our lives, our jobs, our relationships, our bodies, then we can begin the long journey of leaving shame behind. One day, we just say to shame, simply, “I don’t need you anymore.” We break up from our long, sordid, dysfunctional relationship with shame.
Becoming real to yourself, learning to love yourself today, where you are, how you are, this is respect. This is what authentic women and men model in the world for one another. This is what Jesus brought out in all of those who believed, freedom from living in the paralysis of shame and a restoration to living life from the true self. This often restored people to a sense of community as well. The Samaritan woman, the woman caught in adultery, Mary Magdalene and her seven demons, Peter in his constant self-doubt. Jesus even loved Judas, the betrayer himself. Jesus knew the great power of shame, that it belonged to the realm of the shadow, it was a tool of separation from God, from the Divine image of the Creator. With love, Jesus created a bridge to the sacred, the realm of God and gave people the power to walk away from shame. He did this through love.
When our stomachs are burning with shame, it makes it difficult to focus on the heart. In fact, as we receive shame into our bodies, it is so strong and has such a grip on us that we usually over react in anger, binging, compulsive behaviors or isolating. We live life in the extremes, vacillating from anger to feelings of self-doubt, shame keeps us running the spectrum of emotional intoxication, cranking down on the lever of control all the while feeling completely out of control. Insanity. If we are to be done with shame, we need a power greater than ourselves to lift us out.
In the image of Jesus on the cross, we see an open and vulnerable heart, a Spirit that even the cruelest enactment of shame could not kill. Focusing on this image in meditation can often bring us to a ground zero where we can accept ourselves and begin the long journey of walking away from a shame culture, a resurrection, a healing.
Letting go of shame can be scary, because it has often been the driving force of our lives for so long that we have come to rely upon it as our primary motivator. But it is possible to live life from a different center. A Divine love can stabilize us as we become willing to be done with shame.
We find a true identity, a wholeness we never knew before is waiting for us at the core. As the poet Rumi says, “beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field, I’ll meet you there.” In this field, we meet our true selves, beyond the fighting and the wronging and righting, we meet the joy given to us from the beginning of time. We take the hand of our Creator and begin the long journey home.
Don’t let shame take you off your path today. Who you are is enough, find the center of you and begin living life from that center. You can ask God for the courage to break up with shame and help you find a community to sustain and nourish you in the journey.
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