24th April 2019 |Phil FLANAGAN

A Life Without Shame

I wanted to explore with you how shame is the feeling that accompanies the thought that one has either done something bad or that one is intrinsically bad.

Today I felt ashamed; historically it’s a familiar feeling. I knew it would pass yet it’s never easy when shame raises its head. “Why couldn’t I just have been like everyone else?” These familiar thoughts screamed in my head as I faced what had triggered my shame. Then suddenly, my mind took me back to junior school, the sports field at lunchtime in early summer. There was much to be ashamed of back then. I’m not sure which came first, the feelings of shame or the feeling of being different and not fitting in. I’m sure it was not helped by my mother’s appearance for which I was ridiculed on a regular basis. Other mothers wore tights or stockings, mine wore white knee length socks. “Why’s your mum wearing white virgin socks” would be the battle cry from other children to shame and humiliate me. As I write this now it seems so petty, compared to what so many have to endure in our world today. Yet back then, the pain of the shame and embarrassment was all but physical and still I feel that memory today. Shame is an exceptionally powerful force and in the extreme can push a person to take the ultimate step to suicide. So I’m grateful that however bad the shaming got, from others or my own internal critic, I found ways to hide or keep out of the firing line as much as I could. Avoiding shame and fear at every corner became one of my greatest challenges as a child, yet unfortunately, like most things we try to avoid, it inadvertently followed me wherever I went.

I now endeavour to embrace all that I am, even the parts for which I may have previously felt shame. Most people form coping mechanisms to deal with aspects of themselves for which they have no acceptance. While these mechanisms may help with the symptoms, they can hamper integration and healing, in the same way that painkillers deal with symptoms yet can be detrimental in the long term. Many people don’t even realise that a particular behavior they engage in is actually a coping mechanism, a reaction to something held deep within. Healing is the place of balance. When one lives united, no longer suffering through internal battles we are void of conflict. Understandably this is the aspiration; to gently flow like the tides, not fixed and rigid, accepting and embracing all that we are. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t have to “let it go” or as I used to hear all too often “get off it”. All we need is to express the feeling until it no longer needs further expression. Once the pressure of unexpressed feeling has been released through healthy expression we take a giant step along the path to healing.

Shame and guilt seem like close relatives, yet for me, guilt is the feeling of having done something which is wrong, whereas shame is the feeling that I am bad and wrong. I would say that over the years my feelings of shame have decreased, yet today showed me there is more, however little, still to release. So rather than push it into the shadows I invite it into the light and offer it here as a sign post to assist others to loosen the grip that shame has on their life.

Feelings of shame are either self generated or taken on from someone or some authority with power and influence over us. Much of this is put in place when we are young children. Apart from those who were directly told they were bad and subsequently believed it, many concluded that they must be wrong or bad in order to make sense of situations that they didn’t have the developmental capability to understand. For the most part, to young children parents are perfect, they cannot do anything wrong. So when something untoward happens like being beaten, abandoned or left, the child has to frame their reality to keep intact their unwavering belief in the perfection of their parents. This is achieved by making it all their own fault and as a result cultivate an underlying sense that they are inherently bad in one way or another.

“I must be BAD that’s’ why mother beat me”

“I must be to blame for Daddy leaving, I am not good enough for him to stay”

Shame affects us both mentally and emotionally and can also be detrimental to our physical health and wellbeing, potentially fatal. Without love, compassion, understanding and forgiveness for self we can never be free of shame.

So, how do we start to heal the wounds of shame?

It’s easier for us to deal with shame inflicted on ourselves by others than shame inflicted on self. We can only be shamed by someone who is in a place of power in our life, some one we revere. Once we have found a way to remove them from such a position they no longer can shame us. Neutralising shame inflicted on oneself is slightly trickier to navigate. The good news is that there are keys to unlocking the Shackles of Shame. Find some compassion for yourself. It’s easy to look back from our present vantage point and berate oneself, proclaiming that I could have or should have done it better or different. Unless we can guarantee that our decision had deliberate intent to harm, we can only conclude that we did the best with what we had available at that time. Maybe its time to entertain the idea that we could forgive ourselves for not being perfect.  Think about spending some time cultivating a kinder attitude to yourself so you can move forward with a more wholesome loving relationship with self and others. If you took what you are feeling ashamed of in isolation, as if it was unique, the first time it had ever happened, you might find it easier to find some love, compassion and forgiveness for what you had got yourself into. If someone you loved and adored had done the same thing that you are feeling so ashamed of, I wonder how you would judge them? Many of us are quick to forgive those we love yet even quicker to condemn ourselves…

Without self-love, everything and everyone else we love has something fundamentally missing…