Rethinking Shame

Shame is a powerful emotion and, as as a result, has the ability to overwhelm us.  When we're triggered in this way we tend to fall back into our reactive habits of defending or attacking- versions on the basic human themes of craving and aversion.  When this emotional reactivity is in full play- we start getting feedback loops within the thinking which compound the initial emotions.  

For example I made a mistake at work a while ago. I was in a rush and didn't specify that the castings on a necklace were hollowed out. I got a sample in that was better suited for bicep curls than wearing around your neck.

It was a careless error- and I felt frustrated that I hadn't been more thorough.  Just to be clear- that is not shame. That is plain old disappointment.  

The shame and feedback loops started with the feelings of judgement and vulnerability. "Ugh, my boss is going to flip out!" and "I've been doing this too long to make a mistake like this"  Your conditioning will cause your own variation on this theme-  so feel free to substitute your own story line. 

If, in this scenario, I had gone into defend mode I could have blamed others for the mistake. "It's common sense. The vendor should know better." or "when my workload is manageable I have the time to spend on details like this”.  If the situation was really threatening you start to see how people can straight out lie- “I did not draw it that way!”.  

Attack mode is often directed at our self.  “I’m such a screw up!” or “what is wrong with me?” It can also be turned on others. “that vendor is so useless. I don’t know why we keep working with them." 

In response to the physical and mental tension created by the stress of the situation, feedback loops start to happen. Fear steps in and tells us “you can NEVER make that mistake again” then logic might come to our defense and say “but they don’t ever give me enough time to do my job”.  Perhaps anger pops up in relation to that- “they just keep setting me up to fail!”  Or we see how we’re trying to deflect the blame on another person and then we feel like a horrible person for doing that.  

If we don't intercede, the thoughts keep double binding as each member of our mental committee chimes in.  The ones that are in our corner- and the ones who tell us that we’re a failure and are going to lose everything we’ve ever worked for or loved; compounding upon each other making the initial situation seem more dire, more urgent, more justified. There is more and more “I, Me or Mine” that needs to be defended and as a result it becomes harder and harder to step out of the emotional spiral that is occurring.

If in this process we can pause and see that we are taking something as universal as making a mistake to be ours alone the momentum behind the thinking will slow.  We'll begin to see the unreasonable expectation that even though it is completely human to make mistakes- we aren’t going to.  We aren’t “the person” who makes mistakes.  

When we feel shame- we are identifying as the person who lied, blamed, who messed up. There is a sense of finality and permanence in this judgement.  While it’s true that we all develop some really stupid strategies to deal with life, and that many of these strategies can be irritating if not downright hurtful to ourselves and others, these actions aren’t a final indicator of who we are.  Although they often feel hard wired in us- change is always possible.  When we don’t personalize or identify with shame it can be used skillfully.  In fact, shame can actually be a powerful motivator when we use it strategically. Using it skillfully means we have shame for the action-not the actor.  

When we do something that goes against our principles or is unkind- bring awareness to that. Clearly seeing the harm the action does to ourselves, others, and the world can have a dramatic effect on how we choose to live in the future.  

With practice we realize how often we’re blinded by these cycles of craving and aversion. Seeing how this is compounded by the dance we do with the same cycles present in the people around us can, over time, begin the process of unraveling.  Softening into the truth of the present moment, we can stop waging war with what is and set about cultivating the conditions for something better to arise.