The Destructive Power of Shame
I realized something recently, about shame, and how it hinders us.
For most of my life I carried a heavy burden of shame. Operating under a negative core belief about my lack of inherent worthiness, I believed I deserved any suffering I experienced. I believed that there was something deeply wrong with me, that at my core I was loathsomely ugly, unloveable, deformed, and horrifyingly marred beyond repair. I believed I was an aberration, an abomination, reserving all the darkest and most hateful judgements only for myself. My whole life became a struggling effort to repair this deep inherent ugliness. Effectively, my whole life had become one long self-punishment and self-mortification, an attempt to fix all the things that I believed were wrong with me.
My negative core belief about the ugliness of my soul extended to a belief in the ugliness of my body. I believed my body to be ugly, undesirable, too fat. I tortured my body and mind attempting vainly to transform my body into a shape that I believed would gain me merit among people who might love me. This is a common story. Fear guided my life, and the true beauty of my soul was suppressed. I now feel compassion and pity for my former self who suffered in this prison, tormented almost constantly by thoughts of unworthiness, by shame.
From where does this shame stem? Really shame comes from a deep desire, which we all have, to be loved. When we don't receive the proper love we need as children from our caregivers, this kind of shame and trauma (attachment trauma) can result. When we are ignored, abandoned, unseen, unheard, or abused by our caregivers or family members (See Alan Robarge's videos or his wealth of Instagram posts (@alan_robarge_ psychotherapist) to learn more about attachment wounds), attachment trauma results, and has myriad impacts on our lives and the way we relate to ourselves and others. Because our caregivers did not reflect back to us our own inherent beauty and worth, we grow up believing ourselves to be inherently deformed, ugly, and unloveable. In my own case, shame manifested as shame about my very existence--I was ashamed that I, ugly and loathsome creature as I was, was alive at all to blight the face of the earth. This is an unnecessarily harsh and destructive view to have of oneself.
"Innate divinity does not lie apart from our most shameful sins--it lies within them. Underneath everything you are and everything you do is a sweet, innocent being doing its best to cope with the confusing world into which it has wandered. You are a pure, earnest child plunged into a maelstrom with only the most exiguous of threads connecting you back to your mother. Do not judge yourself too harshly, for you have done your best with the knowledge available to you."
(Charles Eisenstein,𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘠𝘰𝘨𝘢 𝘰𝘧 𝘌𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘯𝘨).
According to the 𝘠𝘰𝘨𝘢-𝘚𝘶𝘵𝘳𝘢 of Patanjali, the ultimate cause of all suffering is ignorance (avidya) of our true nature (sutra II.4). My healing pathway of awareness practices, Yoga, meditation, creative expression, self-inquiry, and contemplation has led me out of this darkness and illusion towards the light of my true self. With the help of teachers, including my therapist, my teacher Sri Dharma Mittra, and others, I have come to have a more loving and honest view of myself. I have realized that shame is an unnecessary emotion that, if held onto, eats one alive from the inside out. The healing pathway has helped me to clear away the dirt that clouds my vision to make me believe such hateful and untrue things about my self. I seek to become more and more aware all the time.
What I have discovered more recently about shame occurred to me through my Yoga and movement practices. Recently, I started taking classes with handstand coaches, to learn this skill that I have coveted for many years. I have noticed that I have sometimes gone to Yoga or handstand classes and actually felt ashamed of myself--sometimes deeply ashamed--for not being able to do certain skills, for not being strong enough, for not performing well. I noted this, and how it was affecting me.
In one particular handstand class, I realized that shame hinders our ability to learn. If I am too focused on my shame and feelings of inadequacy, I will be too distracted to give the necessary attention and energy to what I am trying to learn. I won't be fully present with what I am doing, allowing my mind to get in the way of direct experience and wisdom of the body. I will also become so ashamed and fearful of failure that I might not perform as well or try as hard as I would if my heart and mind were not thus fettered. I might even avoid attending these classes altogether if I am ashamed or fearful enough. And so I would do myself a great disservice by denying myself experiences and learning.
This shame and sense of inadequacy is a face of my ego. If I identify with the ego and allow it to guide my life, I will never learn. But if, when I start to hear the voice of the ego arising and telling me these thoughts of shame and fear, I simply notice it, don't react to it, and keep on going about my activity of learning new skills like handstand, I will be acting from a deeper and freer place of wisdom within me. I will be able to let my body and my intuition respond to what is arising in my experience, and I will be more able to absorb and embody the teaching.
We must accept ourselves exactly as we are in this moment in order to learn, and to be free and happy. Sadly, many people live their lives never attempting to do things they really want to do because they are too afraid of being imperfect. But no one is perfect when just beginning a new endeavor. We must bring a childlike curiosity to our lives, doing things out of pure interest and love. Thus, we are able to learn more and to fulfill whatever outer purpose we may be meant to fulfill in this life. We are able to create, to shine, and to be the free version of ourselves that we are meant to be, living fully in the awareness of our own beauty and light.
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