“You are enough!” is the cry of those who claim to be wise in the matters of psychological and spiritual health.
“No, I’m not!” is the response from those of us who have felt the sting of shame.
According to Karla McLaren—whose book The Language of Emotions is a remarkable foray into the tangled web of emotions and what they can mean and how they function— shame and guilt are not the same things, although in colloquial speech we may use them interchangeably.
McLaren says that guilt arises from within as a felt-sense and acknowledgment that we have done something wrong. Maybe we have said something hurtful to someone, maybe we have taken something that was not exactly ours, maybe we have misled someone in order to get what we want—the list is endless, from those rather innocuous misdeeds to outright thievery, murder, adultery and beyond.
Because guilt arises from something actual, there are steps we can take to assuage it. We can ask forgiveness and then, if possible, make amends. What follows is a sense of having paid the price of our misdeeds and then having the slate wiped clean. A feeling of being cleansed of our guilt and feeling free again follows the heavy burden of guilt.
Shame, on the other hand, comes from without—from the opinions of others, from the tenets of a belief system, from the way the collective society views us or those like us. It is like a gray shadow that cloaks us in this sense of “not enough” and prevents us from seeing our own worth, our own beauty. Because it does not arise from something we have actually done but from some vague notion that we should be otherwise, shame is hard to get rid of. How do we ask forgiveness when it seems our very being is lacking somehow? How do we make amends for this vague feeling that we should be otherwise than we are?
My personal care physician heard between the lines of our recent telehealth session to the undercurrent of shame in my report to him about where I am in my cancer journey. He is right: I feel that I should have been able to prevent this cancer from occurring. After all, I have read labels since the 1970’s, noting the presence of sugar in foods which are not really “sweet.” High fructose corn syrup has been my enemy. I have taken vitamins and other supplements in modest and reasonable amounts and been careful of what I eat, choosing organic when I can get it. I do not use tobacco, alcohol, drugs, or even caffeine. I have included movement—walking and doing some dance-based movements to a video—in my daily life as I practice the principles of the Alexander Technique which free us from excess tension and thus free us for ease of movement and ease of being. I have delved deeply into my own psychological make-up and history with a gifted therapist and cleared away blocks to greater vitality and creativity. I have practiced the Presence of God through various spiritual disciplines for the last 20 years. How come I got cancer?
Dr. Dave, as my PCP likes to be called, pointed out that any dialogue with shame is counterproductive. I get that. If shame is something we have “put on” as a result of our interactions with others and with various belief systems, then is it real? Probably not. And if it is not real, then submitting to any inner dialogue with shame is bound to be counterproductive because it legitimizes a chimera. We will never “win through” to freedom from shame. Rather, we have to disempower it by giving it no thought, no energy.
This means constant vigilance because sometimes even self-justification is part of the shame dialogue. For example, I felt I was not expressing shame when I asserted my belief that I had done nothing wrong and therefore could not be held accountable for the cancer’s occurrence. Yet as Dr. Dave pointed out, even that justification implies a belief that I should have done something different, or been somehow “more than” I was able to be. Instead, he helped me to remember that I am not in control of every factor in my life. No one is, and any assertion to the contrary is a delusion.
Okay. . . so I was deluded. Now what?
Now I monitor my thoughts for the shame factor. With my newly honed sense of how it might appear, I can identify the potentially hurtful thoughts and let them go. I can give them no thought-energy, no identification of my Self with them. I can recognize them as the imposters they are and send them on their way.
Admittedly this is a daunting task at the moment. There seem to be so many instances of shame-based thought, now that I can recognize them. And then there is the task of teasing out the threads of real culpability amid the threads of the shame-imposter. But at least I am no longer totally in the thrall of the shame, and the gray cloak that hides me from the light can thin and gradually disappear.
This is devoutly to be wished!