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That Sounds Punitive… Recognizing Shame, Blame, and Guilt…

By Melanie Balint Gray.  

I’ve heard myself say, “That sounds punitive.” numerous times over several months. Didn’t used to say that. I began wondering what was going on inside, that ended up in this string of words tumbling out of my mouth, over and over.

Each time I said it, I was responding to some statement made in my presence regarding how I or others ought to conduct ourselves. (Hint: It seemed there was a “should” embedded in the statement that I was hearing.) For instance, I heard someone say, “The ONLY SANE way to deal with blah, blah, blah is to blah, blah, blah.” Immediately the words, “That sounds punitive.” rolled off my tongue.

I thought it did – sound punitive. And I thought that the punishment, the shaming, blaming, and guilting originated outside of me. Until I slowed down and checked the whole scene out a little more thoroughly.

Upon closer examination of a replay of recent similar scenes – the ones I deemed as guilt/blame/shame-inducing – the more it became clear that I was FEELING punished. Yes, it sounded punitive, but that was only because something in my body (in addition to hearing) responded to the spoken words “The ONLY WAY…” and the intonation of the speaker. My body interpreted this phrase as a directive, or as a should, especially a should that I believed I was failing to live up to. There was a sinking feeling in the chest and a sense of wanting to withdraw into a corner.

While to another listener the words, “The ONLY WAY…” might’ve merely sounded like an opinion of someone, that was not the case for me. I felt personally punished by their critical comment and so their words spoken to me sounded like punishing words. There was no way in that moment that those words could sound kind or of no consequence to me.

Would it sound punitive if it didn’t feel punitive?

This reaction has been around most of my life and usually has had far less to do with (OR, get this, maybe NOTHING to do with) what the other person said, than it has had to do with long-standing, tangled-up shame, blame, and guilt.

Granted, there were some moments early on in my life when the initial combination of experiences – a cross look from a parent, words like, “Shame on you”, followed by being given a dose of the silent treatment – triggered my body to recoil (that familiar desire to shrink into a corner). The word shame became fused with seeing a particular facial expression on someone, being turned away from by way of the silent treatment, and a shriveling up feeling in my body.

At some point, these were assumed to fit together, belong together; accepted as how it is.
And it was how it was for me. Until I opened myself to the possibility that maybe how it was isn’t how it needs to continue to be.

So, now I keep repeating that phrase, “That sounds punitive.” to myself every so often, as if to check if my body still harbors this feeling of shame. Sometimes it does, other times it’s quiet. Sometimes, the sensation feels like it’s fused with the word shame for a brief moment, and then the body and the word let go of one another so that what’s left is unlabeled bodily energy. It’s as if the relationship between the word shame and the shrinking feeling in my body is changing – the word and the sensation are learning that they can go their separate ways…

And I’m again left with the question: would it sound punitive if it didn’t feel punitive. I’ll just keep watching, I suppose.

Awareness of this unconscious, instantaneous reaction is freeing me up. There are times when something truly does feel and sound punitive, like a smack on the hand with a wooden spoon or a rebuke. And now I’m more able to discern when it’s worth speaking up to another regarding what they’ve said or when it’s more about me and some old ingrained pattern of mine. The two feel totally different. The former reaction, the one that is not entangled with past hurts and wounds, comes from a place of clarity, confidence, or sturdiness of sorts – even if it’s uncomfortable to speak up. The latter, the reaction that is mired in old, energetic entanglements is doomed before it gets started; locked into a well-worn cycle of reactivity. One feels very personal while the other is far less so.

I wonder if the next time “That sounds punitive” arises, I will be speaking from my contracted position of “the shameful me” or from the more expanded position of the one who senses that something is just plain unjust and wants to speak up about it?

To read more about Melanie Balint Gray, click here.

Broken Hallelujah

By Colm Burgoyne.  

A tight, controlling anger, with a secretive, yet rapidly responsive mind in defence of its vulnerability, is the thread that my inner looking has been directing me towards much of the day.

I take my time, as I know from experience that rushing inquiry leaves me open to bypassing the more subtle signposts attempting to direct my path into the deeper chambers of discovery.

As I dive deeper, the words come, “I’m not doing it right mum” – a core deficiency of mine – uncovering an agonising pain of loneliness which reaches right back to the loss of my mother many years ago. This recognition, accompanied by a subtle astonishment, comes mixed with a verbalised really? The body responds with yes really, the floods of tears and tightness releasing within my gut being the affirmation of that. The firmly sealed flesh of my heart area starts to loosen a little, as my awareness begins to expand towards other parts of the body that feel tethered to the contraction in the heart, like the bottom of my spine and the muscles in my head. I feel and I notice as images appear from the root of my spine. My awareness however, begins to shift again to a shame attached to the heart area and after giving it a little time to be acknowledged, I ask “is there anything the shame is asking of me?” The word intimacy whispers instinctively. Not intimacy from something external, but an intuitive sense of an intimate togetherness with myself.

Many times in the past, I have made an enemy of shame, innocently misdiagnosing it as something to be kept locked away from prying eyes, not recognising the wisdom underneath. With inquiry, I get to see both sides of shame’s coin. On one level it has served as a protection in a loving way against any perceived harm. Yet, if I turn the coin over, I see how rapidly the freedom of my expression can become enslaved by shame, if I would continue to turn away from facing it. In seeing this, my brokenness turns out to be a signpost that, when followed with enough gentle investigation and patience, a soft Hallelujah appears.

To read more about Colm Burgoyne, click here.

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.


By Colm Burgoyne.

Shame is splitting me open – in a loving, beautiful, sometimes sad and painful way. It’s been here, hiding under my skin, most of my life.  I say loving and beautiful because compassion and self care arises when it is met as it is. And sad because of the sadness that surfaces when I recognise it has been a suppressed part of my being for so long.

As a child, I was shamed unintentionally and unknowingly by my parents and society. My body, my intellectual progress in school, and my sexual expression as a teenager were all shamed, with layer upon layer of it developing as I grew. Eventually I began shaming myself from within. Hiding this shame from the world around me – especially from women – became a priority. Resentment towards women developed; I blamed them for what was being masked within me. I relentlessly attempted to keep this top secret deficiency story from the prying eyes of people, especially women. As exhausting as this was, exposure was not an option. As I see it now, this pattern went on for many years.

Why, after so long, is this shame only beginning to come into awareness so unavoidably now? The death of someone I loved dearly, the Living Inquiries, the falling away of spiritual bypassing and a shit-load of radical honesty have all played their part. With radical honesty, I get to turn around and gently meet my humanness – and all the sticky stuff that comes with it – head on. This has not been easy. Much resistance has come, both in the body and in the subtle tendency to self manipulate. In saying that, I also see the resistance as an innocent attempt to protect my humanness from feeling the rawness of the shame, grief, sorrow, hurt and anger.

If all of this means that I am not on your enlightenment list, please take me off it. What a burden that also is, and a relief to be rid of it.