As the world around continues its unstable lurching from one crisis to another, with acts of violence, despair and splitting, I’ve been thinking about the role of the shame in all this.
Anyone watching the Brexit debates in the UK and the fall out from the vote, or the 2016 US Presidential contest will have seen the predominance of people in oppositional camps using shame as a tool to gain power over others, to create discomfort and discord, to unsettle and to hurt.
I’m not here to write about the pros and cons of the arguments or the outcomes. But I do have some strong feelings about how pervasive shaming is in our society as an instrument of division.
Seeing it used so much as a way to try to win arguments and disputes, leaves me wondering about why that is t and how it might be different.
The language of shame
You just need to look at news headlines (the art of public shaming at it’s zenith or nadir, depending on which way you look at it) to see that the language of shaming is everywhere.
Shame is a complex mixture of feeling and thought, with, at the core, an idea that the person being shamed, whether by others or by themselves, is fundamentally unacceptable.
Of course, there can be healthy shame, the shame that tells us certain behaviours are not ok, which centre around our ethics or values or social norms.
But often shame has it’s origin in more toxic messages that you may have internalised: that it’s not ok to be who you are and how you are in the world. Or that it’s not ok for others to be different either.
Shame directed inwards and outwards
The energy of feeling unacceptable tends to go either inwards ‘I hate myself’ or outwards ‘I hate you’ for being who I am / or who you represent that I can’t bear in myself.
In public life, you see this dyamic often acted out around leading figures who take strong stands against something (e.g marital fidelity, religious morality, homosexuality, cruelty) but who are then exposed as doing the thing they take the stand against.
At the heart of this behaviour is not being able to bear painful or difficult feelings, so these get split off and either hidden, and / or shamed or projected out on to others.
A surprising benefit of shame
Shame binds you up and prevents you from really experiencing the overwhelmingness of these feelings of loss, anger, despair.
Bizarrely that can make it quite helpful, for a while at least, as it keeps you safe from what is unbearable. But when it gets dialled up too high so that it keeps you distant from others, or starts being acted out in unwarranted behaviour towards others, then shame has become limiting and undermining.
The antidote to shame
There aren’t any magic formulas or lifelines for getting rid of shame, other than the journey towards greater self-acceptance and self-compassion.
I know, from my own experience, my work as a counsellor and the fantastic work of Brené Brown, that shame withers when exposed and shared with someone trusted.
I also know, that deep down, it is an invitation to love either a part of yourself you can’t bear or to bring compassionate attention to someone else’s unbearable shame.
So that’s my message for this week’s piece. If you feel deep shame or an urge to shame others, ask yourself this question:
What part of me is calling out for love? How can I give it the loving attention it deserves?
If you feel shame for something in your life
And would like a safe space to explore, I offer counselling and psychotherapy in Totnes, Paignton and Newton Abbott to get to the heart of the feelings which shame is masking, to be able to pass through it. Why not get in touch now for a first appointment?
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