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On Shame and Sharing

By Fiona Robertson.  

“The shame of being me was a frequent visitor during my dark night…It felt shameful to have all these feelings. The shame was difficult to feel, not least because it felt endemic to my whole being. Every cell of my body, every memory, felt shaped by humiliation. It had misshapen my whole being.”

The Dark Night of the Soul, page 81.

Several weeks ago, shame visited me again. Even though I am now usually able to meet emotion with minimal judgement, the density and intensity of it were stunning. Bodily feelings and vivid memories flooded in. As I looked and felt, I wrote:

The shame feels so deep. I am utterly mortified. Being this – me – is so utterly mortifying. I see everything through this lens. I’m mortified by everything; my body, my life, the house. Every inch of me, every memory. I’ve lived from this place of utter mortification. I am mortified at how my life turned out. So much of what I have or am is mortifying. My whole life has been built around this. I don’t know if there’s any disentangling from it. (I suspect we would almost rather kill ourselves than feel this.)

How do I get unmortified? How do I recover a shred of dignity?

By abiding and persisting. By sitting upright, breathing, and still being here.

I sat upright, music on, and kept breathing as the waves of mortification came and went.

So far, so familiar. I have tapped into this well of shame many times, a little deeper each time. Then came something I had not been conscious of until the moment it appeared: self-mortification. I began to see all the ways I mortify myself. Having been brought up a non-conformist protestant, I was only dimly aware of the role of self-mortification in Christianity, but when I read a little, I saw that I had unintentionally practised self-mortification in a variety of ways. The dictionary definition resonated strongly:

To mortify: to make death. To subdue by abstinence or self-discipline; to humiliate, to chagrin, to wound.

This is what has made me ill. I see all the patterns are self-mortification.  Now I feel like I can be here until it all comes home. I see images of my twenty-eight-year-old self, blown apart by traumatic events. I needed to become who I am now to be able to go back to her. Even with all the inner work I’ve done, I couldn’t get back to her until now. It’s a little shocking it’s taken this long. I have a sense of all the fragments coming together.

There is so much pain and shame in telling our truth. Yet it is in telling our truth that the pain and shame can finally be met. Shame (or mortification or humiliation) hides, believing itself to be guilty of heinous crimes or wrongdoing. When we are in the midst of it, we are convinced that what we are or what we have done is beyond redemption, as I have described. In reality, the sentence we have passed on ourselves rarely bears any relation to the supposed crime. At some point in our past, we were shamed or humiliated, made to feel bad for being ourselves or for some aspect of our being. Such shaming, coming as it does from outside ourselves, leaves us trying to cope with what has been imposed or projected onto our young selves without recourse to support. We develop a skewed and imbalanced view of ourselves and our imperfections. We believe there is something fundamentally wrong with us, and that we have no choice but to cover it up as best we can. Shame is convinced that we are on our own with our wounding, that it is inconceivable we could tell anyone else what is within us. Feeling shame evokes further shame. Trying to avoid or distract from shame sometimes involves activities or compulsions that bring about even more shame. And shame thinks the world sees it as it sees itself; it cannot imagine we could be seen from any other perspective.

Shame is a kind of death. Crippled by humiliation, utterly mortified (from the Latin mortificationem, meaning killing or putting to death), we die inside. How can we really live if we are unable to be ourselves? How can we survive when shame implies our complete isolation? Particularly if we were shamed as very young children, shame strikes at the very heart of our being, making it virtually impossible to be our true selves. We have a sense of how shame curtails our aliveness, but it feels as if feeling the shame would kill us. Indeed, people die of shame, either taking their own lives or via addictions or some form of self-neglect.

As I sat in my shame, I looked around the room. Everything was mortifying except for a set of headphones. I clung to them and sobbed. But it was in finding this one object – which for some unknowable reason was not tainted with shame – that it began to feel okay to sit and breathe and be with the feelings and images. The presence and touch of the headphones allowed a small aperture, a space through which the possibility of not-mortifying could emerge.

Shame believes that if we tell our truth, we will be rejected, ridiculed, hated, killed, or shamed further. We need to take it slowly and gently, allowing shame to feel its way towards safety, to find something or someone that will hold it as it comes fully into consciousness. Indeed, it is of paramount importance that we tell our truths in places of safety and equality. Places where our truths will be heard, honoured and respected. Places where our shame will be witnessed with love and understanding. The antidote to shame is sharing, telling the truth to ourselves or each other. When we listen to each other’s woundedness, when we hear each other’s stories of messing up, ending up in destructive patterns, not being perfect; when we hear the truth of each other’s lives, our shame begins to realise it is not alone and isolated. Our shame realises it can tell its truth and survive. Our shame realises it is deeply human, one amongst many. We can share our shame, and live again.

To read more about Fiona Robertson, click here.

Making Peace with Peacemaking

By Lisa Meuser.

Hi, I’m Lisa and I’m a recovering peacemaker.

There’s not a 12 step program exclusively for peacemakers, but you can be sure that at every 12 step meeting, in every recovery program, peacemakers and recovering peacemakers will be present. And while being addicted to peacemaking may not have the same stigma or even consequences as being addicted to drugs, sex or gambling, there’s definitely a cost.

If you’re unfamiliar with peacemakers, here are some traits:

Excuse-making for others
Justifying others’ actions
Saying things are “no big deal” or “ok”
Going along with things that don’t feel right
Strategically avoiding conflict

In short, when I respond with this kind of thinking – “Let’s not make problems/make waves…” – I’m in classic peacemaking mode (can also be seen as peacekeeping).

I’ve spent years engaging in these kinds of behaviors, not because I was consciously trying to be a peacemaker. These kinds of behaviors came about innocently when I was quite young. I would do anything to try and earn the love of my caregivers, because my survival literally depended on it. In addition, I learned some of these traits directly from them. To explain it another way, I learned behaviors/associations/interpretations while I was young to try to guarantee my survival, and unknowingly repeated these behaviors so frequently over the years that they became part of my neural pathways, regardless of whether or not they were actually useful or necessary. That’s how addiction and habitual behavior work.

For what it’s worth, neural pathways are neutral in the sense that they don’t care if the behaviors set within them are positive or negative, are healthy or unhealthy, or bring happiness or suffering. A neural pathway is like a groove that gets set, like a groove in a record, because X activity is repeated over and over. It’s simply a mechanism of the brain and it’s all contextual. For example: neural pathways are often incredibly useful, as evidenced by how easy and natural it is for most of us to drive a car. Sometimes we might even totally zone out while driving, and still safely get where we’re going. Neural pathways allow us to do a lot of activities without much conscious thought, which is fine when the behaviors are helping us thrive, but not so fine when the behaviors are unhealthy or even dangerous to our well-being.

This all may sound like we’re slaves to our neural pathways. The good news is that we’re not! Because neural pathways (as well as beliefs and behaviors) are ever-changing and malleable, we’re never truly prisoners. We only need to have mindfulness for change to happen, which means that once we discover the beliefs and the behaviors- once we become aware of them- they are now in our consciousness. And once we are conscious of something, we have choice, which means they no longer control us. Hooray!

Coming back to my own peacemaking addiction- I spent years engaging in these kinds of behaviors without being aware or conscious of what I was doing, and always at the expense of my own integrity. Whenever I compromise my integrity, I basically disappear myself. It’s as if I subconsciously decide that I don’t matter, am not valuable, and lack worth. And I then submit to “other,” because “I” no longer exist. To live this way is to truly put oneself at the mercy of others, which is to say that one’s lovability, worth, importance, safety, and okay-ness are in the hands of someone else. It’s a bitch of a way to live- always clamoring for love and affection from others, myself an empty vessel.

I’ve got more good news, though! Just like any addiction or habitual behavior, or even anxiety and depression,  the way of the peacemaker doesn’t have to be set in stone. Simply by becoming mindful of my patterning and being willing to experience what lies beneath, I allowed my “automatic pilot” behaviors to shift. This was a very powerful discovery for me, and has brought about huge change in my life.

I’ve been on the path of recovering from this peacemaker patterning in a mindful and beautiful way for a while now. There is an amazing difference in my life, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still occasionally get caught in its seductive and often opaque traps. The wonderful thing about becoming aware of one’s patterning is that the trap can get spotted quickly and, instead of getting caught, something new gets to be revealed and danced with- which breaks the patterning apart even more.

I got an opportunity to further release some of this patterning around the time of my last birthday. A call came in from my brother and mom, and they left me a voicemail singing happy birthday to me. Sweet, right? Well, except that they called to wish me a happy birthday on the wrong date. Um, yeah. I felt the sweetness…along with something else that was not-so-sweet.

It was an innocent mistake. I quickly acknowledged that, and then laughed and made light of it for a few minutes, reminding myself of how loving they were in the recording- until I noticed that this was that old peacemaking pattern, and I was about to sink into the trap. I paused and acknowledged that there was something here begging to be felt and honored, and that it was important to not cover it up with my usual “oh it’s all good” mentality.

Then I became torn for another reason- I was supposed to run a training call in 20 minutes, and meet with my co-leader in 5 minutes. I could feel that old pattern really wanting to kick in- “You don’t have time to feel this, just let it go. It’s no big deal.”

Here’s the thing about integrity, though. It’s like a muscle- when you start to use it, it gets bigger. It takes up more space, and can become quite powerful. My own integrity was no longer allowing me to bypass what I was experiencing. I messaged my co-worker: “I’ve got something going on and I need to feel it. It feels important.” Because of the type of work we do, she fully supported me and told me to take as long as I needed. (I love my job!)

Little did I know that I had set a crucial tone by saying what I did: “It feels important.” My caregivers had a history of making me feel unimportant, which translated to years of me making myself and my experiences unimportant. It was no accident that I chose those words. My experiences were important, and it was important that I honor them. Even if it meant I’d be late for the training. Whew.

When I stopped pretending it was all okay and instead felt inward, I became honest with myself (hello again, integrity!): that early birthday call from my family had actually anchored me to some childhood experiences I’d already been intimately wading through that week – and it did not feel okay. With those childhood hurts already fresh on the surface of my attention, I opted to forgo the addictive patterning path of the peacemaker, and instead honored what was really coming to the surface for me.

First I allowed myself to experience the pang in my heart and feel the expression of grief. “OUCH,” my heart seemed to say, “My birthday’s not today. It’s tomorrow. The day of my birth is tomorrow.” It felt a bit silly on some superficial level, but deep down I knew this wasn’t about the early birthday call. Grief from so many moments of feeling dismissed, unseen, and unimportant started to flow out of and through my body. I cried and shook as I laid on my bed. My breathing was fully engaging the top part of my chest in heaves, which was a new experience for me. I felt excited about this, as I had been consciously exploring the upper part of my chest/lungs earlier that week. I could feel my system expanding outward as it released the old and allowed the birth of the new. What I was experiencing seemed like deep layers of my internal basement getting cleaned out, and as a result was a wider range of spaciousness than I’d ever experienced. I was accessing new strengths, new stability.

Years of making myself invisible, pretending in order to please, trying so hard to be good, and pushing my true feelings down over and over and over again…they were all releasing, and I was giving them importance and space to be exactly as they were. Let me repeat that, because this is extremely important: I was giving them importance and space to be. Integrity. Internal resourcing. Self love.

The grief had her way with me, and eventually the dance started to move into dangerous territory for a peacemaker/peacekeeper: into anger. Anger was shut down quickly in my household. Hopelessness and depression would go unnoticed, but anger was squashed. I could feel the evolution as my system felt safe enough to go into this taboo realm.

What had been grief over being abandoned and dismissed by my caregivers gave way to rage. I grabbed a towel and let my body release this rage exactly as it wanted- I screamed into the towel and felt my body release and tighten and release and tighten … and release. My somatic system was engaging in deeply repressed expressions that were finally free and safe to reveal themselves. My body shook some more, releasing years of repressed sensations. My mind offered up a panorama of events from my childhood where I felt unimportant. Memories of my last relationship popped up, which mirrored similar dynamics. I stayed with all the memories and felt the energies that arose with them, and I let those energies express themselves through tears and yells as various sensations rippled through my body.

My attention tenderly stayed with the thoughts, the imagery, and the energies that were cascading through my experience. The floodgates were open and my hands were off the wheel. Stories and content that felt true were allowed to be named. Emotions were safe to be felt and expressed. Sensations were fully allowed to exist in their own right.

Eventually something shifted, and the stories magically faded. I was left feeling the aliveness of my somatic system without judgment, fear, or resistance. I curiously brought back up the mental panorama of images that had so clearly been referencing and proving my lack of importance, only to discover that they no longer had any meaning. In fact, nowhere in my experience did I feel unimportant or unseen. The stories of unimportance, abandonment, dismissal, and rejection had fallen away, as had the grief and anger. At that point I was able to look back upon the call from my mother and brother and feel nothing but sweetness without any pretending.

Taking this time for myself was really important. It took about 30 minutes from start to finish, and I was 15 minutes late to the training call, but it was totally worth it. Happy early birthday to me!

When I consciously become intimate with my patterning, I have the choice to shift behaviors and move into new ones…and experience life in a very different way. Neural pathways literally change each time I deviate from old behaviors, and this has a profound impact on my life as I release the old ‘stuff,’ and make space for new and enlivening experiences and relationships that align with the integrity of who I am now, rather than the small un-resourceful child I once was.

It’s not always easy. I have to be willing to feel my authentic feelings, whatever they may be. I have to be willing to not rush past, to not pretend. I have to be willing to make my experiences and feelings important, as they are happening for me. I have to be willing to make *me* important. And that is death to a peacemaker/keeper. Hooray! When I make myself important, when I honor what’s true for me, when I am honest and in integrity with myself, the role of the peacemaker automatically starts to crumble- she just cannot exist anymore when there is mindfulness- the pretending stops.

When we’re aware that we have an addictive/behavioral pattern, we can bring the light of consciousness toward that pattern, toward the reaction that we have, and really study it. Nothing is a life sentence- everything is up for exploration and discovery and mindful meditation.

We are all capable of journeying into our patterned reactions, because all human beings have the ability to be aware of their experiences. All it requires is slowing down, practicing mindfulness, and having a readiness and willingness to notice, feel, and explore. Here are 5 steps to get you started!

 

  1. Notice the common reactive state. We often have quite a few of these. Notice yours. It might look like this: “Oh! I’m doing that peacemaker thing right now.”   Noticing it means that you’re onto it- it’s in the spotlight now.
  1. Acknowledge it. A common response to being in a reactive state is to resist it. What we resist persists. So just acknowledge it. It might look like this: “Hi peacemaker. I see that you’re here. I may not like that you’re here, but you are, and I can acknowledge that you’re here.” This continues to bring it out into the light.
  1. See its innocence. We didn’t decide one day to install reactive beliefs and behaviors into our neural pathways. They were innocently created when we were young, doing the best we could under the circumstances, with parents who were doing the best they knew how. It might look like this: “Hi, peacekeeper. I see you, I notice you. I still may not like you, but I get that you’re just a part of my neurology. It’s not because I’m bad, or I did anything wrong. You’ve just kinda been built into my system.” This continues to diffuse one’s vigilance or resistance that might come with the reactive state.
  1. Feel it- engage directly with it. Do not act from it. Feel into it. This is a huge step, because the way we change neural pathways is by doing things differently. Steps 1-3 are already starting the new neural pathway process, but this step is really laying the groundwork. Instead of unconsciously continuing engagement with the behavior or belief, we’re now meeting it as it is. This is true compassion, and this is true love. We all know how compassion and love can transform. This might look like taking time to pause what you’re doing, and being with whatever it is that you’re experiencing- as I did with my reaction to my birthday call.
  1. Be patient with yourself and get support as needed. Changing our neural pathways, changing our reactions, changing our beliefs and behaviors is no easy job. For many of us it has taken decades for them to develop to where they are now. So it will also take some time to unwind them. We often need help. Be kind with yourself.

 

Being consciously aware of our habitual behaviors allows us to meet parts of ourselves that have been running the show from behind the curtain. In this way we can become friendly with ourselves rather than being critical. It can also bring spaciousness into our lives and relationships, in that we no longer blindly react, but can respond consciously to stressful situations. Part of being human is to have neural pathways. Make friends with them, know that you play a role in their existence, and explore them to discover yourself.

I recently heard someone say, “There isn’t an eraser that can erase the past.” Maybe that’s true and maybe it’s not. I do know that, with the right tools, I can change my present experience of the past. I know that when I honor what is alive in me, and don’t push it aside, I live a different kind of Now. When I honor myself, when I love myself, I experience a life of greater width and depth, a life that feels kind, loving, and precious. I experience a life where stories of being unimportant, not good enough, unlovable, and unsafe cannot loom over me. I am no longer at the mercy of others, desperate to please, or continuously trying to get approval. Instead, I experience inherent love and worth, from an internal resource that has no limit to its capacity. It seems to me that that might be what real peace feels like, and it’s a far better kind of peace to make. Every opportunity to shift into this experience is a blessing. A gift. So… Happy birthday to me, indeed.