”Guilt is just as powerful, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive. Shame erodes our courage and fuels disengagement”
There’s been times throughout my life where I’ve experienced shame on such an intense level, and I think each and everyone of us can relate to this, too.
Different circumstances ignite varying levels of shame, but at the end of the day, ultimately at the core, the feeling is still the same.
After spending a lot of time focusing on self-inquiry – inner retrospection of my life – it made perfect sense why some of the pain I’d experienced throughout life, and still was experiencing, was related to the feeling of shame. From infancy to adulthood, shame has been a primary feeling I have held tightly on to and punished myself with.
Have I wronged in the past, impacting others? Absolutely. Who hasn’t.
Do I deserve to hold on to the feeling of shame and punish myself relentlessly for making a mistake? Absolutely not.
From doing a lot of self-inquiry, I understand that shame was a primary emotion in me from being a young boy. I carried it around with me everywhere, like two heavy sacks on my back. Even from making innocent mistakes, which I often confessed to, that shameful feeling would rear its ugly head constantly and I felt I was made to feel the emotion as punishment.
We forget how impressionable we are as children, and how what someone says – especially coming from loved ones – sticks with us. We are made to listen and take demands from our loved ones, and this goes from the simplest of instructions like tidying your bedroom, to being made to feel shameful for something we’ve done wrong. We’re like sponges, absorbing everything we see and hear, taking it all in.
So if we’re so impressionable and absorb everything we hear as truth, then what hope do we have if the beliefs we’re forming are emotionally unhealthy?
Most of what we believe about ourselves is conditioned in us from childhood, and this works in everything. If you were shown a healthy amount of love, affection, support, guidance, positivity and beliefs, then there’s a very strong chance you’ve grown up with a very good level of esteem and self-love.
In reality this doesn’t happen though, because our parents and loved ones were not operating from that place themselves in often cases. There’s rarely either/or here. You don’t tend to be either full of high esteem and self-love or quite the opposite – low esteem and hate (although of course some people are as opposite as that); there’s varying levels of esteem and self-love – it’s very different for everyone.
One thing I’ve learnt along my journey is that we shouldn’t blame anyone for how we are. Many blame their parents, and sure, some definitely haven’t treated us with the love, affection and encouragement we need – but anyone can only act according to their level of consciousness at that time. They did what they knew. They didn’t know any different, because if they did then perhaps they would have changed.
And they were also acting based off their conditioned beliefs from their childhood. It’s a domino effect.
Inevitably, shame follows the feeling of guilt, so if you have done something to harm another with intent, the normal cycle is to feel guilt, followed by shame some time afterwards – unless of course you’re psychotic and completely switched off emotionally.
Guilt has this attachment of wrongdoing linked to it. We wish we hadn’t done something, and we also tell ourselves we feel bad for the person it may have impacted. When we look at guilt on a deeper level, there’s no doubt we show remorse to those we may have wronged, but if we really investigate, the feeling of badness we get from guilt is for ourselves.
We wronged someone; we acted inappropriately. We went against our true nature which is love, joy and happiness.
The thing with guilt is that if the feeling arises and we’re aware of it, we can stop it in its tracks and actually use it as a lesson to us. We can take responsibility for messing up and vow to ourselves it won’t happen again and we forgive ourselves, but it often gets past the point of no return and we are met with shame.
Shame takes your self-esteem, attaches a 1,000kg weight to it and drops it in the ocean where it continues to sink lower and lower right to the bottom never being able to survive at the top and float. It rots your self-worth. It is a punisher, and the power it has over us can be disastrous, and for many, very hard to recover from.
The reason most people suffer low self-esteem is linked to shame. Some people suffer low self-esteem with their physical body, or certain features about themselves, and this is shame-related, for example.
So this is why it’s so important to be aware when guilt arises and work with it at that point. If we can recognise before it even reaches the stage of guilt, then this is even better – and it can be done the more inner work we do to ourselves. We can learn to feel the guilt, but stop ourselves and gently ask questions around why we feel this way, where it stems from, and what benefit is there to feeling and carrying this guilt around.
For many (myself included here), shame can also be a blessing. It’s usually a blessing when it’s all you’ve identified with your entire life, so you have suffered tremendously. When we have felt shame for many years – decades usually – it can be the very thing that induces a healing crisis, allowing us to expose and clear the feelings and beliefs we know we have felt, but have not dealt with them properly, thus they have remained suppressed and deeply stored within us.
If you’re on the self-aware/spiritual path, your inner awareness grows and you operate more from the body-mind, and not exclusively from just the mind like you may have always done, which is usually the ego-mind, and partly the reason you have endured so much suffering.
You start tuning into your body more regularly and give it the attention it deserves. You no longer ignore it like you have been doing your whole life. Your awareness listens to it, and because you listen to it – it speaks to you more and more. You develop this intrinsic relationship.
You become no longer shut off from it. You’ve given your mind far too much attention for all these years and have allowed it to distract you and take you away from listening to what your body is telling you, that enough is enough. You understand that the ego-mind doesn’t like pain. It hates facing the feeling of pain and having to work through it, but the body does, so it uses you as its distraction.
People who get forced into an awakening usually experience some kind of suffering – in some cases extreme – which ignites the flame and they ‘wake up’. This is what happened to me. My body and mind was full to the brim of every dark, negative emotion you could possibly think of, but it was the feeling of shame that then brought on despair that kick-started me into waking up.
Your thinking literally changes, and this is why they refer to an awakening as ‘waking up’, because it is just like someone who flicked a light switch on in your mind. You start feeling more positive, aware and in tune with yourself, but this soon comes crashing down and you often enter a healing crisis, which is exactly what happened to me.
Healing can happen in phases, and like anything, the more you have, the more you start understanding what is happening to you. On one particular healing phase I was in extreme despair, and felt overwhelmed with shame, though I hadn’t wronged anyone recently.
Specific situations where I’d wronged someone and felt shame were coming to my consciousness to be released as I’d suppressed them for so long. All the decades worth of shame I’d accrued was wanting to come up and out.
My body was in shock having spasms, quite literally. I was shaking, sweating and felt terrible. I felt the pain I’d caused others, and I felt the pain I’d caused myself. I reassured my inner wounded child that everything was going to be okay and I am finally paying attention to him.
I was at the point of forgiving myself – this is part of the healing process.
Forgiveness is an act of self-love, so it’s this that needs to happen to release shame. That dead weight we carry around isn’t welcome anymore. It can go. You cannot live a harmonious life carrying shame around inside you. It serves no purpose.
Unfortunately, there’s times where a person you may have wronged will want you to feel and live with shame because they think by doing so you’re feeling part of what they are, which acts as a form of payback. They think they feel satisfaction if you show shame to them, but in reality, the satisfaction is temporary and is never enough, and so the bar gets raised further and further with their expectations.
So if this happens, it’s worth remembering that we are in control of our emotions, even if we have been wronged. But, only a self-aware person thinks like this and takes responsibility for what they’re feeling.
If we make mistakes again – which we will as we’re human beings – we instantly learn from it when we reach the guilt stage, if not before ideally. We assess what happened, what we could do differently and we forgive ourselves. Yet, we must not hide behind forgiveness as an excuse to purposefully wrong others.
Let go of your past as it is not who you are. Learn to forgive and love yourself unconditionally. This can be an incredibly uncomfortable process, but a beautiful one too. Shame will start to leave you – perhaps in phases and not all in one go – but freedom will follow. And when you’re operating from a place of freedom without any weight of shame on your back, you start attracting much more positive things into your life.
So, when we feel these moments of shame – sit or lie down with it. Be completely present with it, giving it your undivided attention. Talk to yourself compassionately and know that you aren’t your mistakes. Recite some gentle phrases to yourself like ”I forgive you, I love you” as much as you need to. Reassure that inner wounded child that you are here and you love it. Speak to it. ”I’m here for you, I’m so sorry for ignoring you, I am listening”.
And when you are ready, start digging into your life from infancy to adulthood and go back as the child, teen and adult you were to relive those experiences where you created that shame and held on tight to it. Re-write the experience and realise you can let it go completely with love.
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