Our shame. It’s big and pervasive and affects nearly all of us. Let’s cajole it out of the closet and have a look at it. Doing so provokes our experience of shame. This is the first and most significant feature of shame altogether: it wants to stay hidden and private. We isolate and suffer in isolation both because of our internalized shame and for fear of having our shame exposed. Part of us believes its message: we are defective or deficient in some manner. We believe ourselves to be stupid, wrong, immoral, victimized, less than, and unworthy, and we don’t want anyone to know for fear they will validate these beliefs. To make matters worse, we may be guilty of shaming others. We are hurt and hurt others.
To unravel shame, let’s not make it wrong – or right. The five elements are a helpful paradigm for developing a neutral attitude about ‘hot’ emotional experiences. From neutrality, we can explore our emotional experiences more deeply. Shame is a manifestation of imbalanced metal emotion.
To understand shame, we must understand the nature and function of metal energy. Metal energy maintains the purity, integrity, and essence of our fundamental nature, on every level. On the physical level, our lungs and large intestines filter essential ingredients – oxygen and minerals - from the air we breathe and food we eat and deliver them to our blood. On the emotional, mental, and spiritual levels, we filter truth and beauty from ordinary experience to achieve a life of meaning. Metal’s drive is to get it right, to cheat death. Metal’s dilemma is to strive for perfection in an imperfect and finite reality. Metal holds the polarity of the sacred within the profane and ordinary aspects of life. Beauty and grief, signature experiences within metal, express this dilemma.
When we experience balance within metal, we feel inspired, expansive, worthy, respectful, naturally intelligent, and grateful. We manifest virtue and experience awe and humility. Within metal we are humble, because, despite our striving, we know we are not perfect and that perfection itself does not exist.
When our drive to perfection becomes too tight, we become fanatical, arrogant, uncompromising, contriving, dismissive, critical, and/or judgmental. When our drive to perfection is too loose, we become careless, spacey, cynical, and/or insolent. We lose a sense of importance, self-worth, and/or morality and succumb to feeling inferior and grungy. Few of us manifest all these attributes of imbalance, settling into one or another of them. Often, we cycle between these two experiences of too tight and too loose.
We experience shame when we have been judged or judge ourselves for not having met standards of behavior. Healthy shame is when we fall below both our own – and just - standards of appropriate effort and behavior. Healthy shame keeps us humble and motivates us to engage life more fully and honestly. We may strive to make amends for unjust behavior. By doing so, we rekindle our experience of virtue.
Unhealthy shame happens when we are held to and judged from inappropriate and unjust standards of behavior. When we have been unjustly shamed as a child, we internalize these feelings and begin to think of ourselves as less than. We begin to agree with the person/people/set of standards from which we were made wrong. We lose our experience of belonging and being a valued member of our family or social group. We begin to hate ourselves for being who we are, for being human.
How do we rebalance metal energy? We develop an internal sense of what’s too tight and too loose as we strive to ‘get it right’. We see perfection for what it is: a fantasy. Life is messy! Humans make mistakes and create an imperfect world. We make allowances for one another’s imperfections as we work towards a better life together.
How do we recover from experiences of shame? It’s a tall order – and doable. We bring it out of isolation and acknowledge it. We name it and feel it. With courage, we feel the depth of emotional experience buried within our shame: our grief, loneliness, anger, fear, sadness, and heartbreak. We may need the support of a therapist or meditation practice. We confide in friends that don’t shame us as we tell our story, recovering a sense of belonging and being valued. By doing so, we gain an accurate perception of how things were and are for us and come to accept these realities. We fully process the truth of both past and present experiences; in doing so, we develop tremendous wisdom.
I have a client who was sexually abused by her cousin. At one point in her process of recovering her own integrity, she recounted witnessing him being beaten by his father with a belt, and wondered aloud if these experiences had caused him to inflict his pain on her. Her insights reveal the cyclical truth of the origins of shame. Our unfelt and unprocessed shame can catapult us into victimizing and shaming others.
We have the choice to re-calibrate our world to a balanced experience of integrity, by both making amends for our indiscretions and/or letting go of inaccurate ‘less than’ perceptions of who we are and how life is. We may forge a path in life separate from the people and situations that perpetuate our experiences of shame.
With acceptance and perspective, we can let go and forgive, cognizant of and impervious to how people project(ed) their distorted expectations of life upon us. We stop taking their view of reality personally. We learn to do so with kindness and non-aggression, recognizing that our aggression harms us the most and often leads us to shame others. As we reclaim our integrity, we discover that our innate nature has been neither diminished nor distorted through life experience. Amazing!
Years ago, in an interview with the Dalai Lama, I was dumb-founded to hear him talk about his experience of westerners. He’d never before encountered people who hated themselves.
Self-hate is so common in the west, I believe it is nearly universal. The good news is that, with perspective, we can begin to weed this attitude from our internal experience. Holding ourselves and others to a standard of perfection – or worse, perhaps to our very relative and distorted standard of perfection - creates enormous pain. Inversely, when we endure painful situations imagining people will grow and change, when evidence suggests they won’t, also perpetuates pain. Both keep us in a cycle of self-inflicted shame. Our world becomes small.
The truth is, we spend our entire lifetime waking up, growing and coming to know how life is, gaining clarity, and developing wisdom. Reestablishing a relationship with our inherent virtue is always a choice available to us. When we make allowances for one another’s limitations from a place that heeds what is both just and true, we foster a life of wisdom, infused with joy, love, and compassion. Our life becomes richer and bigger.
For further reading, I recommend Brene Brown’s exceptional book: Daring Greatly.