Dissolving the spell of shame, blame and reactivity
that keeps us scared, small and stuck in the war zone
A few months ago, I sent out this post before it was ready. As it flowed into subscribers mailboxes, I found myself returning to change it, over and over. I changed the contents. I changed the title. Many times. When I realized what was going on - Oh, I’m ashamed of it - I laughed out loud.
Shame is such a a trickster.
It’s (almost) hilarious how hard it is to write about shame. No one wants to feel shame - and in order to write about it, I must feel it. And once feelings of shame are online, so are shame’s partner - avoidance.
No one wants to read about shame either - so, again, avoidance on your end. In fact, in order to write about shame at all, I must allow for the fact that most people will probably skip this post.
Yet shame keeps coming back for me (and for you) and for Brene Brown, who has made her career researching this nasty and apparently necessary emotion. That’s because shame is one of the most important subjects there is. It’s at the foundation of virtually all emotional suffering - and by extension, all emotional healing. Shame is the wall of fire through which we must pass in order to access the change that we want.
What do we want? Joy. Ease. We want to feel quiet inside. Content and open and engaged with the world around us. Why is it so hard? Because we are conditioned to expect that when we let our joy shine free, we will be shamed.
Shame is the gatekeeper of joy.
I wrote this post because two days ago, at the pizzeria, the man behind the counter was rude to me in front of my daughter. I felt a surge of rage - and heat filled my head and then, I found myself in full-on defense. I spotted the exit doors. Secured my daughter’s safety. Firmed up my legs and as I turned to face the enemy…. wait.
It was a soft quiet voice. Wait. This is not your enemy.
Of course… I exhaled. Of course. I take a breath. My body calms and I soften. Hours later, after we’d returned home and my daughter had gone out, leaving me to my own thoughts: I considered: Why had I reacted so strongly to that pizza man?
And then, yesterday, on a Zoom call, a member of my beloved dream circle suggested that we all might be over-analyzing the dreams we share and I felt as if I was being personally blamed. I sat there on the Zoom call, tears streaking down my cheeks, and I thought: Where is this feeling coming from? We ALL over-analyze. Why am I feeling like it’s about me? What the hell?!
I had no name for the feelings surging through me. I had only this primal moving wave of heat and desperation - it has no name. It’s pure feeling and that feeling is, primarily, grief. I am suddenly broken when a moment earlier I was whole. I am suddenly separate, set outside and isolated when just a moment earlier, I was in the circle. Now, ripped from the protection and fullness of love and shame tells me that, somehow, it’s my fault.
Later on that Zoom call, when I expressed my confusion, my co-dreamers helped me name the feelings.
“That sounds like shame,” Carol said.
”Oh,” I said. “It certainly does.”
When I realized it was Shame that had disabled me, again, I was shocked. It can’t be! I thought. I have nothing to be ashamed of. Yet once again, shame had come for me.
As a person who helps other people understand the flows and movements of their own interior spaces, I know that a recurrence is often an invitation. Recurring dreams, repeating behavior patterns, repeated encounters with the same person, the same idea, the same symbol. I know that when something (or someone) keeps returning and asking for my attention it wants to give me something - and often, that gift is a healing. I also know that these, often painful gifts only arrive when I am ready to meet them and to open them.
So, since Shame seems to be visiting me more and more lately, I’ve decided to turn to meet Shame. I am ready.
Shame and its best friends, envy and perfectionism, are the mean girls of the emotional spectrum. They started visiting me early - my first memory of shame is from fourth grade, when Mrs. Lawver stood me beside my desk for an hour because I forgot my number two pencil.
My next (and worst) shame memory is from sixth grade, when Drucie invited every child in the class to her birthday party but me. My mother thought she’d done it accidentally. “Go ask her,” she urged. I did, and, over by the chain link fence, Drucie assured me the exclusion was not an oversight.
“I don’t like you,” she said, compounding the shame of exclusion with the shame of a vague and phantom unlikeability which has haunted me ever since. In this way, Shame has been visiting me - in high school, in college, and at every stage of my adult life.
If I had to trace the origins of my own shame (at this stage of self-study) I’d have to point to my father, who had a sharp and rude way of shutting down my mother, my sisters and me when we were speaking. “What are you now, an expert?” he’d taunt one of us (usually me) for getting “too big for our britches.”
I’d also have to point to my mother, who was socially awkward and had trouble speaking clearly, often stuttering her way through a story, and flaring with outrage if you tried to help her.
I’d have to point to my own nature. I was a bright, sensitive child, with no tolerance for criticism. Even the slightest intimation that I’d made a mistake, especially a mistake witnessed by others, could shatter me for days. When shattered, I’d hide in the coat closet, sitting on the snow boots and hiking shoes until I was able to trust myself not to cry - and able to trust the people outside that closet to leave me in peace.
After pointing to those three shame sources, though, I wonder. I don’t really know the origins of shame in me and lately, I find myself more and more curious.
So, I’m doing what I do when curiosity rises: I’m studying. I’m reading about Shame—theoretically, in books. I’m watching videos about shame, and I’m observing Shame, in my own feelings and behavior, my own embodied (and disembodied) responses.
I have tried to heal shame. Tried to ignore it. Tried to kill it. Nothing has changed. So, I turn now to meet it. I open my hands and I invite shame, and whatever gifts it has for me, into conversation.
At this juncture, I have to say that Shame and I are not friends but I am willing to (finally) see and (almost) accept that we are (uneasy) companions on the journey of becoming real.
The following is what I know, so far, about shame.
Shame is a terrorist.
It destabilizes the nervous system, makes us doubt our own instincts, and replaces deep knowing with raw, reactive emotion. Shame triggers the most primal in us, shutting down our access to deep knowing and to intuition.
Shaming others, by humiliation, isolation, shunning and blaming, is a weapon.
Wielded by parents, then teachers, then bosses and then, by authoritarian leaders, shame breaks our wildness and forces us into the straitjacket of a culture of conformity, silence and unrealized potential.
Shame is a response to an external or internal gatekeeper.
Internally, shame seems to run with envy and perfectionism. Outwardly, it seems to manifest as posturing, masking, striving for power and self-betrayal.
At this point in my study, I believe that the ‘false self’ is built by the shame team and so is our celebrity-obsessed culture. Shame and Blame, Fame and our obsession with making a Name, simmer together in the thick, sticky soup of personal and cultural identity.
Shame is an internal response to Blame.
Blame may come from inside or outside of us. From inside, Blame comes as as self-recrimination. I shouldn’t have done that. From outside, Blame turns a spotlight on an error or omission and, essentially, rubs our nose in it. Blame says, “You shouldn’t have done that.”
Blame is a foundational part of cancel culture which attacks, without consent or concern for the well-being of the blamed. Cancelling doesn’t just say, “What you did was wrong.” It says, “YOU are wrong. YOU are inherently bad, wicked, evil, broken.” It erases you from the wholeness. “Get out of the tent!”
As such, Cancelling is shaming weaponized. It’s a modern form of shunning, ratcheted up by the laser precision of social media, aimed at a target, cancelling entraps its victim in a prison of attention. It’s a form of social torture and ‘othering’. It removes the cancelled from inclusion in humanity. This is attention without blessing.
In response to blame, whether it comes from inside or outside, Shame takes over.
It commands: Hide now! Disappear! It dims our light, silences our voice and sends us to the coat closet. This is the first clue to what shame really is: an ally, determined to keep us safe. Weirdly, it does this by separating us from others.
Shame is a primitive defense system that wraps us in armor and drags us to safety. Something is ‘out there’ waiting to hurt me. I need to escape it. Hide.
This hyper-vigilance is, perhaps, another clue to Shame’s true identity. For even as Shame is dragging us to a foxhole, it has a very specific intention. If we slow things down and look again: What does Shame know what we don’t? What is it really protecting us from?
Our culture of Shame and Blame, Fame and Name, is a vampire, feeding on our attention, which it drinks as energy. When we are the victim of Blame/Shame (as someone being ‘cancelled’ can tell you) we are a prey animal, stalked, torn to shreds. We are labeled (named) as wicked, evil, worthless, sub-human. As such, we are disposable. We don’t matter at all.
Which leads me to another clue: Shame and Blame, Fame and Name culture is afraid of us - if we reclaim our power for our own purposes, it dies. Without us, it has no authority, and no power at all.
But I am talking about two things at once here:
Personal Shame and our culture of Shame. There’s a big difference.
There was the magazine editor who shamed me for leaving my briefcase (containing work files) at the foot of a pay phone. She didn’t know that both of my parents were dying. That I was beyond exhausted. That I’d set the bag on the ground as I made the heartbreaking phone call to order my father moved from hospital to nursing home. She didn’t know - and she didn’t care. Shame is dehumanizing. All that mattered were the files in the briefcase that could have been lost. (No matter that copies of the files were in my desk. No matter that the angels had literally delivered the lost briefcase to my office (via police officer). Shame said: You are bad. After that, I was never allowed to remove files from the office again, making it twice as complicated and stressful to do my job.
There was the 21-year old shithead who invited me to spend the day on a friend’s yacht. When he came to pick me up, he snarled, “I told you to dress nicely!” Shame is demeaning, reducing a 19-year-old girl to an object to be displayed for the pleasure of young men. That I still got in his car, and that I spent the day trying to please him, tells us much about the nature of shame and how it controls us. Shame said: You are worthless. After that, I was unable to feel comfortable with the people on the boat. All I could think about was my outfit.
There was the elementary school principal who made me count out one thousand pennies when I lost a ten dollar bill. Shame said: You are irresponsible.
The ballet teacher who told me, in front of a room of little ballerinas, “You have deformed feet (I don’t). You’ll never be a dancer!” Shame said: You are deformed.
For my husband, shame felt like ‘wanting to hide under the bleachers’ when he stumbled and fell during a high school track meet. It felt like “complete humiliation” when the girl he liked in college, ignored his greeting as she walked by.
For me, shame feels like a sudden, nauseating STOP EVERYTHING. I can think of nothing else. I can’t focus, can’t work, can’t laugh. All I can do is obsess. I shouldn’t have done that, said that, written that. Something is out there, something that I made, and it could hurt me. For me, Shame is followed by floods of regret, emotional eating and bodily symptoms: pressure in the head, neck or jaw pain, exhaustion.
I remember being shamed by my dad when he contracted shingles at the nursing home and I tried to explain that shingles preys on people in stressful situations.
“What are you now, a doctor?” he snapped, his voice razor sharp. I felt sliced to the bone as my body shook with recognition. Had he always talked to me this way? At the same time, I felt the enlivened realization: I was seeing something, learning something. A clue!
Shame feels like betrayal when things we depended on (a father’s love, a friend’s goodwill, a teacher or colleague’s support) are no longer there for us. Shame becomes self-betrayal as we barter parts of ourselves to fit in, to avoid exile, to be safe.
“Shame is everywhere,” Brene Brown says in her second, and to me, even better, TED Talk: Listening to Shame.
I had no idea the feelings I was experiencing were shame until I encountered Brene Brown’s work. Even then, I kept ‘forgetting’ but shame returned to remind me. As I said earlier, shame was inviting me to conversation.
Shame was outside of me - in the walls, which seemed to close in when I got too big or too loud. It was in the floor, which slanted sideways when I got too smart. It was in the ceiling when I rose too high.
Shame was also inside of me - in my voice, which wobbled when I let wisdom speak through me. In my refusal to even try out for drama club. I’m doing it to myself. I realized. What am I now, an actor?
As my Soul Caller work grew, pressing to be shared with a wider audience, I kept pulling back - putting off launch dates, cancelling programs. I felt uncomfortable - but vaguely so. Not ready - but unclear about what ‘ready’ might look like.
As the work surged through me, asking to be shared, I felt waves of pressure, an upward rising heat (shame) when I was trying to articulate an idea, or describe one of the images that filled my dreams. Preparation helped me feel more at ease. Working from a script helped me worry less about getting it wrong.
The only thing that fully relieved the pressure was speaking the work. The only way to speak the work was to risk the rising feelings (shame) each time I emerged into view.
So, what was the shame about? At the time, I didn’t know. Looking back, I can see hints. First hint: I felt like a freak - talking with angels, channeling. But I’ve always felt like an outsider. I’d spent my whole life distancing myself from my weird family: a father with cerebral palsy, a shy artist mother, who didn’t dress or act like the mothers of my friends. I didn’t want anyone to know how strange my family was. I wanted to look perfect so I could be popular. (Self-betrayal in exchange for Fame/Name/Identity.)
Though I desperately wanted praise and attention for my work, whenever I called attention to myself, shame bloomed. I tried to center the work and keep myself out of the spot light. I worked audio only, avoiding video. I wrote my teachings rather than speaking them. Perhaps my books would explain things so I wouldn’t have to.
As the pressure to get my unexpressed ideas out there - as a book, a workshop, a set of videos - increased, the pressure in my body became stronger. Eventually, it concentrated, becoming pain: a fiery hot lava flowed up my spine when I was publicly explaining my work. Electricity spiked through my nervous system. My whole body shook. Stabs of sharp pain at the back of my heart. Heat filled my head.
It didn’t happen all the time. Mostly when I was introducing my work to a new audience. But it happened enough that I was afraid of it. You’ve been warned, Shame told me, painfully.
It happened at a conference. It happened on a Zoom call. Once, it happened when I was reading a poem at a party. It was unpredictable. It was devastatingly painful.
I consulted specialists - neurologist, cardiologist, psychiatrist. I visited a chiropractor and spoke with my yoga teacher about spontaneous Kundalini experience. I’d read about TMJ, about the vagus nerve. What was this pain?
I kept searching. Kept studying. Then, I had a dream.
I dreamed that I had a second skeleton made of fire. The second skeleton was draining the energy of my ‘real’ skeleton. In the dream, the fire skeleton was undetectable and I did not know it was there, until a giant hand (my own) reached in through the top of my head and pulled it out. I woke up, stunned.
My dream gave me an embodied image of how our shame lives inside of our own consciousness, feeding off our vital energy - the same energy we need to power our creativity and aliveness; an image that helped me to visualize and begin to understand how shame works to control us.
With this image, my relationship to shame began to change.
The fire skeleton is an embodied dream image that showed me a deep, mystical truth. Your imagery for shame and your experience of the feelings associated with it, will be different.
In my clients’ stories, Shame has manifested as a prison, as a stone wall. It’s shown up as an island surrounded by huge, unscalable boulders, a room without windows or doors, as thick oppressive fog that closes around one like a straight jacket.
Even though we know these images are not real, when we are trying to move through them they often intensify, infused with the energy of fear. Then, these vividly imagined, embodied (often unconscious images) actually hold us back.
In my client sessions, we work with such images at their own level - in the imaginal. There we examine the image, asking: what does this have to teach me? We bring our imaginal tools to melt prison bars, break up concrete, and take down our walls, stone by stone. Changing our experience of shame at the level of the image, we reduce its influence.
When we change the image, the image changes the world. This isn’t magic. It’s acknowledgment of the power psychological images have over our ordinary, everyday lives.
After the fire skeleton dream, I saw how shame lived inside of me like an uninvited guest. I began to sense that my own mind had created the fire skeleton as a way to protect me. To warn me away from the risk of humiliation. To warn me when my power was being compromised (like when that 21-year-old jerk criticized my outfit). To alert me that my energy was leaking to things that don’t matter to me (like being recognized by people of influence or cultivating followers on Instagram).
Shame warns me when I’m being sucked into the “what you think of me, what I think of you” games of the power-drinking, energy draining culture of Shame and Blame, Fame and Name.
The antidote to shame
At first, observing my clients bravely facing shame and fear, I thought that the antidote to shame, and the sword to defeat the fire skeleton, must be courage - but it’s not. Not quite. Though it does takes courage to encounter shame so we can emerge as whole human beings, courage is not the antidote. It’s the result.
The antidote to shame, according to Brene Brown, is wholeheartedness. My work also pointed to this truth. I know wholeheartedness as Perfect Love: the unswervingly fierce love that refuses to abandon or to condemn, no matter what.
There’s a key word here: refusal. The refusal to be compromised. The refusal to self-abandon. The refusal to sell off parts of the soul just to fit in. In order to make that kind of refusal, we need to turn that kind of love, that wholehearted-ness, toward ourself, no matter what we’ve done or haven’t done. We also need to turn whole-hearted love toward others and toward the culture, which, even as we are blessing it, is actively trying to compromise our wildness, our creativity and our freedom.
Wholeheartedness (and Perfect Love) is forgiveness squared. It blesses everything and everyone as good, without exception. That kind of love can only come from truth, from an open-eyed realism about the nature of our world, from awareness of the power and potential of the human soul and from the steady, daily practice of that realism, that awareness, in real life.
What would it mean to turn, wholeheartedly, toward my work?
What would it mean to turn that kind of love toward Shame?
What if, instead of arguing with the fire skeleton inside of me, I danced with it?
What if, when the heat of creative fire rises in me, I don’t try to slow it down -what if I let the fire have me?
The practice of embodied awareness. Listening to feeling. Letting the fire move.
Shame arrives first as a wound to Perfect Love, when we are cut down in the midst of a surge of self-expression. Shame is a response of bewilderment, of confusion - and then, of pain.
We were bursting with joy when suddenly, we were silenced. We were bursting to share some bright truth when we were humiliated. We were dancing through the living room when we were stopped cold by a harsh word, a slap, a shout. Shame is what happens when Love is flowing and condemnation steps in to silence, to shut down, to cancel mid-flow, mid-song, mid-dance, mid-declaration.
After that comes the vow: I will never ever let that happen again. And in steps the gatekeeper, Shame, to keep us safe.
Shame is an inner warrior, its sole purpose: keep you safe. The problem is that Shame was born in childhood, when the best way to keep you safe was to hide you. So, much of Shame’s work is done to keep your voice down, your head lowered, your feet squarely behind the line.
Shame believes its job is to keep your power invisible. In this way, shame is the gatekeeper of your power. It’s pure power, turned inward to keep you silent, invisible, compliant.
On the other end of the spectrum of self-love, there is Wholeheartedness. Love (and outcome) surrendered. Love willing to be carried away. Love curious, engaged and eager to experience everything and everyone that we encounter.
Wholeheartedness is the willingness to get it wrong. To make mistakes. To stand on the stage and hear the most humiliating question there is: Who do you think you are? (In other words, what gives you the right to claim so much real estate? To be this big, this loud, this smart, this beautiful, this wild. Who are you to hold this much joy, this much creativity, this much light?
Bring all of that down to one essential-oil and you have the most terrifying question Shame faces: Who are you to hold power?
Or in my case, What are you now, a doctor? A professor? An author? What are you now, a healer? A channel? A wisdom keeper? I thank Shame (and my dad) for that question. It led me here. I get it now.
When we stop trying to fit in ‘out there’ and turn, instead, toward what is already ‘in here’, we encounter shame as an ally and a guide. We become quiet inside, we rekindle our connection to the native intelligence of our own body. We trust our own instincts and intuition.
We sense into the wholeness that is beyond our culture’s stories of how to be. A wholeness with its own order and laws. We move out of the culture of Shame and Blame, Fame and Name, into the real world. The oceanic world of love that is deep enough, wide enough, and wild enough to hold everything.
The world of a Love that will never, ever cancel you.
You already know how to make this shift. Refusal of the illusion that you are not worthy, not loveable, and not powerful combined with the wide open wholeheartedness to refuse to condemn anyone else to that prison.
In the real world, nothing is outside of blessing. There is no good or bad, noone to blame, nothing to be ashamed of. Everything is simply itself.
We flicker in and out of the real world all the time. To access the real world deliberately - consciously - bless your inner gatekeeper and offer her a hug, thanking her. She has worked so hard for so long to keep you safe. Invite her to join you as you cross out of the illusion that you could ever get it right (or wrong) and step into the real world.
You will find it everywhere, where it’s always been - running parallel to the false world. The easiest way to get there: close your eyes. The other easy way: walk in nature.
Walk in a forest, for more than an hour. No cell phone. No camera. Just you and the trees. Walk by the ocean or the lake. Find a sound and follow it to its source. If you see a bird or a fish or another person, avoid naming or classifying it. Listen for its energy. Listen for its pulsation, vibration, and frequency. What can you learn about the real world without words? With only the colors and textures, the leaf crunch, twig snap, hoot-chirp-trill that is here with you.
Connect with the real world breath by breath. Step by step. Day by day. Connect with it through nature. Do it the way a surfer learns to stand on the board. Get in the water. Climb onto the board. Fall. Get on again.
Shift your weight from one foot to the other. Stay curious. Feel for stability in your own feet, in the polished surface of the board. Become automatically, effortlessly receptive.
Sense the optimal balance point, using only the center of our own body and the soles of our feet as our compass. This helps us shed the ‘compass’ the culture gave us as we re-attune to the compass with which we were born.
This is how to connect with the parallel world of love and blessing (and intuition and dreams and imaginative play): through practice. Getting on the surfboard, falling, getting back on.
As you learn to trust your sense of balance and alignment, you’ll use these instinctual measures to gauge your progress and to measure your success. You won’t need to be popular, to be invited to Drucie’s party; you won’t sell off any more parts of your soul.
This trust in yourself and your own instincts, combined with renewed connection to and trust in the world of nature, will give you access to the oceanic wholeness of love that supports and keeps us all afloat.
You will come to love making mistakes. You will welcome the shame-inducing questions. You will surf all of it with equanimity. You will trust your own surfboard, the soles of your own feet and the heat wave within.
You will know:
I am supported and held in blessing.
This helps me survive the embarrassment of looking and feeling awkward.
You will know:
I don’t have to be perfect and yet, weirdly, when I release having to be perfect, I discover that I am and always was, already that.
You will know:
I am part of an everything that is always evolving and changing. This means that I, too, am in flux, always in motion, always new.
You will know:
Everything is speaking a story of mistakes and learning from mistakes. This is natural, it’s evolutionary.
You will know:
The song of mistakes and learning from mistakes. The flow of endless opening and closing, of falling off the surfboard and getting on again.
I learned all of this (so far) from my dance with shame.
Thank you for this insightful, honest writing. It has inspired me to write my shame story as I believe it will be very helpful and healing