You Are Not Your Shame
Shame is one of the greatest obstacles on the journey towards healing and wholeness. It’s a darkness that blocks us from sharing our light with the world. Shame blinds us from recognizing our basic goodness. Unable to see out of the darkness, we’re left paralyzed, and the many other people who could benefit from the love, compassion, and wisdom we have to offer ultimately suffer as well.
I’ve noticed the truth of this directly within my own experience, as well as from my observations of clients and of people that I love.
However, let’s make an important distinction between Healthy Shame vs. Unhealthy Shame.
Healthy Shame compels us to pause, to reflect on our actions, and to bring our actions into alignment with our deepest intentions and highest values. This should and must include apologizing to those whom we have harmed and to ask for forgiveness. It also leaves space for asking for forgiveness for the harm that we have caused to ourselves.
However, once we have done everything that we can to make amends for the past, we have to learn to let go. We have to realize that the only choice that we really have is to make the most of the present. The past is past; the future doesn’t exist. There’s only here and now. What we think, say, and do, in this moment will condition the thoughts, speech, and behavior that will arise in future moments.
Unhealthy Shame is the shame that still lingers, even after we’ve done everything that we can to make amends. We’re now changing our behavior, acting from a place of right intention, refraining from harming others and ourselves…and yet our minds are still swept away by excessive rumination, circling around and around in guilt and judgment.
In the first instance, Healthy Shame, shame can actually serve a skillful purpose; in the second case, Unhealthy Shame, shame no longer serves a useful function. In fact, it becomes harmful. Unhealthy shame keeps us trapped in limiting beliefs: that we’re uniquely bad, unworthy of acceptance, forgiveness, and love. Ultimately, this harms ourselves and others.
Unhealthy Shame is deeply rooted in delusion. It’s a result of not clearly seeing the truth of interdependence and the law of karma: how everything arises out of a particular set of causes and conditions. Everything arises and passes away due to a specific set of causes and conditions. This includes us: we are a product of our circumstances.
If you believe in the concept of free will, at what age do you think human beings have free will? Certainly not at 12 years old? How about the legal age of 18? But the human brain doesn’t even fully form until the age of 25. Think about all of the things that happened to us by the time we were 25, or even by 18.
We don’t pick our genes. We don’t pick the parents and family that we’re born into. We don’t choose the neighborhood we grow up in. You’re even born with a certain disposition or personality. You didn’t pick that either. To what extent do you even “pick” your friends at a young age vs the otherwise unexplainable qualities that attract young children to one another? You don’t choose all of the different ways in which life wounds you, even traumatizes you, along the way, especially as a young child. Then we bring these patterns into our unconscious and act out our needs and desires as adults.
Without understanding our self and the way that karma is created, we then blame ourselves and are unable to forgive ourselves for the way we harm others or ourselves. Trapped in shame, we hide certain pieces of our heart deeper insides of ourselves. Not knowing how to fully receive love, we are unable to share love fully with others, which would feed the virtuous cycle of love for which all of us yearn.
Unhealthy Shame is unable to view our present circumstances within the larger context that shaped us. Crucially, it’s unable to see the ways in which we are connected with others, that our struggles are shared with others, part of the larger fabric of the human story.
In my teens and twenties, I did more than my fair share of drugs and alcohol. In fact, it’s really more accurate to say that I struggled with substance abuse, particularly alcohol.
At 29, I moved to Thailand and within a few months discovered yoga and meditation, and got sober. In the months and years that followed, I had layers of shame to work through. I felt shame over hurtful things that I had said or stupid things that I had done. I felt regret over the way that I had behaved, particularly the lack of maturity that I was able to bring to a relationship I had with a woman that I was dating in my late twenties. She was a very special woman and I loved her.
But all of the alcohol that I was drinking not only impaired my judgment, it clouded my heart. It kept me stunted emotionally and stuck in patterns of self centeredness. I couldn’t really love her the way that she deserved because I was too in love with myself, or in love with an idea of who I thought I was, which was identified with very self centered patterns of thinking and acting. I wasn’t the mature partner that she deserved because I didn’t have the maturity to offer to her.
To be forgiven by someone that you’ve wronged can feel immensely healing, like a weight has been lifted off of your shoulders. But we can’t count on or expect others to forgive us. The people we have harmed don’t owe us forgiveness (but if they can find the wisdom and compassion to forgive, it will be far more healing for them). The best you can do is to offer your heartfelt apology without attachment to the outcome. Perhaps, depending on the situation, other reparations are also appropriate. However, ultimately, you have to learn to love and forgive yourself.
As I looked back on my relationship to substance abuse, I began to reflect on some of the reasons why I formed the relationship to alcohol and drugs that I did. Alcoholism runs in my family. Genetically, I have it on both sides of my family. I was also diagnosed with ADHD from a young age. People with ADHD are far more inclined to substance abuse because of their propensity for thrill seeking behavior and impulsivity.
In terms of environment, I grew up in a culture in which alcohol abuse was an endemic part of the school culture at my high school and in the larger community. Drugs were also widely available and people had the resources to buy them.
All of these variables–genetic and environmental–came together to help shape me into someone who was drawn to use and abuse these substances. Does this excuse any of my behavior? Does it exempt me from owing an apology for any wrongs that I have done under the influence of alcohol or drugs? Absolutely not.
I have attempted to reach out and apologize to people whom I have wronged in the past, whether under the influence of drugs and alcohol or otherwise. If you’re reading this post and you feel that I have caused harm to you in the past, from the bottom of my heart, I ask for your forgiveness. If you feel in any way that it would be healing to have a dialogue about what happened, I encourage you to reach out to me personally. I would welcome the opportunity to speak with you.
While these circumstances in no way excuse my actions, they do explain the causes that lead to them. It allows me to understand the forces that shaped me from a larger perspective. From this perspective of Wisdom, Compassion can arise. Understanding how all of us are shaped by causes and conditions beyond our control, how we only harm one another out of our own confusion, ignorance and pain, how all of our destinies are connected with one another, compassion arises. So does forgiveness and the love that heals us all.
Here is the important thing for us to understand: it’s not our fault, but we are responsible.
We do not pick our karma, our conditioning: our genes, our parents, the circumstances into which we were raised, the traumas that happened to us along the way. All of these causes and conditions shape our unconscious which translates into our actions, which harm others and ourselves. As adults, we’re then acting out our own unconscious patterning from our formative years, trying to satisfy basic needs and desires for love, intimacy and security, but the strategies we chose often end up hurting others and ourselves because we’re unconscious of our deeper needs and more skillful ways to satisfy them.
Though this is the case, we are responsible for our behavior, and for trying to become the best version of ourselves that we can be, not only for ourselves but for everyone we will ever meet. Once life reveals to us the ways in which we’re stuck, in which our actions are harming others and ourselves…in other words when life comes crashing down, then we have to answer that call. That moment of hitting rock bottom: it feels like the end of your world as you know it. And it is. But it’s the birth of a new opportunity.
The question is: are you going to make the most of it? It’s really painful for me to see people stuck in their patterns and they clearly want to make a change and yet when it comes down to it, they’re just not ready to make the leap. That’s why it truly is grace when life forces our hand.
When we’ve hit rock bottom we’ve got nowhere else to go but up.
This is how suffering leads us to grace. This is how our desire to heal leads us back to the Love that never dies.
There are many reasons why meditation can be such a powerful tool for working with shame: for training our attention to stay in the present and not get swept away by destructive thoughts and emotions, to investigate challenging emotions and work with them in an embodied and compassionate way; to cultivate essential qualities of the heart, such as loving kindness, compassion and equanimity to work with the mental turbulence that shame brings.
Off the meditation cushion, you can also use mindfulness to notice Unhealthy Shame when it arises and start naming it for what it is. With mindfulness, you can notice what happens when these memories, images or thoughts arise and simply note Unhealthy Shame. You can practice the above meditation or meditations on cultivating loving kindness or compassion.
In my experience, when we’re encountering a compulsive memory that keeps coming up again and again that’s usually a sign that this is something that we need to work through in therapy.
What really gets us into trouble is when the ego identifies with shame and clings to it for weeks, months, years. Instead of feeling Healthy Shame, or Wise Remorse, for things we have done in the past and using that feeling to correct course and let go, our ego clings to the past and believes that it is inherently shameful. This is Unhealthy Shame, when we’re trapped inside of this belief: “I’m bad, I’m less than, I’m unworthy…of forgiveness, of love.”
While you might be ashamed of things that you have done in the past, you are not your shame.
If you’re still clinging to old limited beliefs about how you’re uniquely bad or unworthy of forgiveness and love, perhaps now is finally the time to let go of them. We’re very attached to many things, especially to our suffering. This is because the mind is used to clinging to experiences, even painful ones, in an attempt to establish some sense of solid ground, of security.
Perhaps you finally schedule the call with a therapist that you know you’ve been needing to do for years. Maybe you start addressing past trauma and the way that it’s holding you back in your relationships, in your personal and professional goals.
Perhaps you finally reach out to the people from the past and say to them “I am sorry that out of my own ignorance, pain and confusion I harmed you. From the bottom of my heart I apologize and I ask for your forgiveness.” You ask forgiveness from yourself for harming yourself.
Maybe you finally start practicing meditation consistently.
But, above all, you start listening to your shame. Mindfulness can notice the aversion that arises along with the shame and in that recognition there’s a space that opens. With courage you turn towards this feeling and you stare shame in the face. You listen to the shame with gentleness, curiosity and compassion.
“Shame, what do you have to teach me?”
It’s amazing how if we can notice the resistance to the shame there’s a softening and the energy behind the shame begins to dissipate. The shame runs out of things to say, or we realize it’s just the same old re runs over and over again.
“Thank you Shame. I’ve listened to everything you’ve had to share. It sounds like you have nothing left to teach me.” Then you let it go over and over again and come back to just this breath, this moment here and now.
With time and practice, through meditation, you gradually polish the mirror of consciousness, of your heart-mind. Then, at some point that you can’t predict or control but to which you can only surrender into, something cracks, and that thing that you’ve mistaken your entire life to be who “you” are, your ego: it shatters into a million pieces.
And there’s nothing left but Love.
You come face to face with your true nature: just Loving Awareness recognizing itself. You come to know who you are beyond the ego that was wounded and needs to heal; Loving Awareness was never broken and doesn’t need to be fixed. At long last, you discover the love that brings you home, back to the source of everything, back to the love that never dies.