The Gifts of Shame

Book cover of The Language of EmotionsIn previous posts about Tiger Woods, I followed the thread on an article about his anger, but then realized that what he’s dealing with is actually shame.

So I blogged away and didn’t realize that my take on shame is unique, to say the least! So let me fill in some information on shame so we’re all on the same page.

First, I take guilt out of the shame equation, because it’s a weasel word in relation to shame. Shame, which is often thrown at us or pressed onto us by others, can be so overwhelming that we’ll take a detour and say, “I feel guilty” rather than naming the emotion and saying “I feel ashamed of myself.” But here’s the problem with that: guilt isn’t an emotion; it’s a legal fact. Either you’ve done something wrong and you’re guilty, or you’re innocent and not guilty. Emotions don’t enter into it.

What you feel when you’ve done something wrong is shame: the rush of heat, the clenching feeling that stops you from talking or acting … it can be miserably uncomfortable.  So no wonder we weasel around it and avoid it and refuse to listen to it.

But that’s a mistake, because shame, which is anger at yourself, is the primary emotion that makes you honorable and capable of being a worthy relationship partner, colleague, and mensch. Shame is certainly an emotion that can overwhelm you, but when you can get into a healthy empathic relationship to it, it can be your best friend. Shame can make you very sensitive socially, so that you’ll be able to stop yourself (gently and appropriately) before you say or do something wrong. Healthy and appropriate shame will also help you make amends if you realize that you’ve hurt someone, stuck your foot in your mouth, or broken a social rule.

The trick with shame is to name it as itself, welcome it in its authentic, internally-driven form, and reduce the amount of toxic, externally-enforced shame that clogs up your system. I created the five empathic skills to help with this task, and the skill called Burning Contracts is great for removing toxic shame from our psyche so that your healthy shame can have some peace and quiet (and room to do its important work)! I’ll post about Burning Contracts this week.

For today, let’s welcome our authentic shame with open arms and learn about the gifts it brings us!

The Gifts of Shame: Restoring Integrity
Integrity ~ Atonement ~ Self-respect ~ The capacity to amend your behavior

Shame is a form of anger that arises when your boundaries have been broken from the inside – by something you’ve done wrong, or have been convinced is wrong. While anger is the honorable sentry that faces outward and protects your boundaries from external damage, shame is the sentry that faces inward and protects your internal boundaries (and the boundaries of others) from your own incorrect or ill-conceived behaviors.

Shame is a vital and irreplaceable emotion that helps you mature into a conscious and well-regulated person. With shame’s assistance, you’ll be able to honorably monitor your emotions, your thoughts, your desires, and your behavior. However, if you don’t have conscious access to your own authentic shame, you won’t understand yourself, you’ll be haunted by improper behaviors and compulsions, you may explode with the toxic shame that torments you, and you’ll be unable to stand upright at the center of your psyche.

The questions for shame are: Who (or what) has been hurt? and What must be made right? These questions help you stand upright and use shame honorably; you won’t be painfully shame-filled or guilt-ridden; instead, you’ll have a compassionate sense of ethics, the courage to judge and supervise your own conduct, and the strength to amend your behaviors without inflating or deflating your ego unnecessarily. When you successfully navigate through your authentic shame, you’ll feel proud of yourself, and you’ll move naturally into happiness and contentment.

When shame arises in response to your own authentic and addressable flaws or missteps, it flows appropriately (and often a step or two in front of your behavior). If you welcome your appropriate shame, you’ll stop yourself before you do something foolish, before you say the wrong thing, or before you enter into unhealthy behaviors or relationships.

Authentic and appropriate shame will help you turn away from your own maliciousness, charlatanism, and thievery – even when no one’s looking. It will keep you punctual, polite, and upstanding, and it will lead you gently but firmly away from the path of temptation. Authentic shame will stand at your inner boundary and monitor everything going out of your soul and everything occurring within it. With its honorable assistance, you’ll become a conscientious and well-moderated asset to yourself and our world. As a result, you’ll experience authentic self-respect – which will lead you time and time again to true contentment and happiness. Hah! I’ll bet you’ve never heard that before. Shame is good?

Most of us were not taught to welcome or work with our authentic shame and remorse (which all of us feel naturally, especially when we’ve hurt someone); instead, most of us were taught about shame by being shamed. Authority figures such as parents, teachers, peers, and the media often attempt to teach and control us by applying shame from the outside, instead of trusting our natural ability to moderate our own behavior.

As a result, many of us can’t identify our own shame, which is actually sensible, momentary, and empowering: Your hand goes out for a cookie, you realize you don’t need it, and you walk away. That’s authentic, free-flowing shame working properly. Afterward, you feel strong and aware, and you simply live by a moral code. You floss because you like clean teeth, you avoid drugs, adultery, and crime because they’re uninteresting, and you treat people well because it feels right. That’s what your free-flowing shame feels like.

The first task in working with shame is to welcome it with open arms. When your shame arises in the presence of others (it usually appears first as an internal pull in the gut, a flush of heat, a momentary speechlessness, or a sense of internal caution), it’s important to listen to your shame. If your shame stops you before you say or do something shameful, you can thank it and make your necessary preemptive corrections.

If you don’t know why your shame has come forward, you can ask yourself or the people around you if you’ve done something incorrect (Who – or what – has been hurt?), and apologize or make amends if necessary (What must be made right?). If you can openly welcome your shame, it will recede naturally (and swiftly) once it has helped you make your correcting actions. Then, your contentment and happiness will arise naturally, and you’ll move forward as a smarter, stronger, and more honorable person. Go you!

Yes, shame can be a toxic and incapacitating emotion. It’s a rapids-level emotion for many of us, but when an emotion is powerful, it doesn’t necessarily have to be dangerous. As natural empaths, we humans were built to be able to deal with emotions and the social world. We just kind of forgot.

When you’re dealing with shame or any other supposedly “toxic” or “negative” emotion, remember that emotions and empathy are your first language. Yes, your emotions can sound like gibberish, but they each have a very specific function and a very important message to give you.

As our friend Rumi says:

Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

3 Responses

  1. maggie
    | Reply

    How refreshing !
    Now I get it , in relation to shame.
    I always found the feeling so overwhelming, I couldn’t step back and find anything useful in it.
    Hey I like your work, I can learn something here .
    Thank you Karla

  2. Leda
    | Reply

    How is shame different than embarrassment. I remember feeling shame at an event when I didn’t know how to respond to someone’s comments… but no one was hurt but my ego perhaps, and what I wanted to make right was put boundaries with that person, like in anger. My question is what was I feeling? Embarrassment?, Anger? or Shame? Thanks!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Leda,

      I place embarrassment in the area of shame — and not being able to respond is a classic shame move. Sometimes shame stops you because you’re about to say something unwise, and sometimes it stops you because there’s not a clear way to set a boundary at that moment. At other times, you may feel shame because you couldn’t think of something quickly enough. It’s a very active emotion!

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