There’s a sneaky, pervasive little emotion that shows up secretly bringing us undone when we least expect it.
It’s called shame.
It’s sneaky because it hides, it conceals what we don’t want to be seen.
We might feel it about how we look, who we are, what we do (or don’t do).
Interestingly, distinct from guilt, shame is most active when witnessed. One can carry on doing/being something “bad” for a very long time, largely unaffected. It’s only when they must come out of the darkness and be judged that shame takes them over.
To help you understand this mechanism, let me share a personal example that used to affect me a lot.
I have a large mole on the side of my neck. I can happily go about my day not thinking about it. I don’t even see it when I look in the mirror. But when I see someone looking at it, that’s when I begin to feel it… that heat rising inside of me… the internal voice that drowns out anything that person with the prying eyes might be saying…
“Are they looking at it?”
“Do they think it’s ugly?”
“[insert self-degrading remark here]”
Well, that’s how it used to be. Since doing a lot of deeper work on my core concept of shame (my belief that “I am [(was)] bad”), I don’t feel affected by it when I notice people looking in the direction of my mole.
I share this somewhat surface level example intentionally, because I also want to illustrate to you the “stickiness” of shame.
What I’ve observed in my own life, my coaching practice as well as from what I have read in great books on the topic such as John Bradshaw’s ‘Healing the Shame the Binds Us’, is that everything that we feel shame around seems to cling together, forming one big solid mess inside of us. So when it’s activated for some reason, we can fall deeply into that construct of “I am bad”, and suffer greatly as a result. For me, it wasn’t “I am bad because I have a mole on my neck”. It’s just the mole was an access point to a much bigger pain that resided inside of me. When it was activated, I felt completely out of control.
So where does this shame come from?
We inherit it from family systems. We perceive it based on the way people feel in our presence when we are very young (even when their feelings have nothing to do with us). We learn it through a school system that rewards mainly one way of interacting with the world. We internalise it from all the bullies we confront. And, we take it on from people who are far from qualified to judge us…
Shame is part of the human operating system. Charles Darwin did a great deal of research around it, also exploring the physiology of blushing. There is quite some biological and psychological relevance to it (which is a little too detailed for this email…). The point is, this is not a new idea.
However, I’d assert that its prevalence, especially at a more toxic level, is growing. Perhaps by virtue of the way the modern world operates with all of its standards and ideals that feed our feelings of being “less than”.
Something else that I notice on my travels is that the incidence of narcissism also seems to be on the rise. To me, it makes perfect sense that these two correlate. I wrote about why I believe that the myth of Narcissus (from which narcissism gets its name) is really about a young man trapped by his shame in an article I wrote this week:
I’m going to leave you today with an invitation to be courageous and (re)visit your shame. We heal shame by shining the light on it; loving ourselves, or at least accepting ourselves, in its presence, and allowing others to do the same.
If I had to name just one, I’d say working on healing my shame was the most profound process along my personal development path so far. And even though it’s hard, it’s one I will keep revisiting.
If you think this doesn't apply to you, that perhaps you're "too bad", let me tell you that I’ve heard some pretty wild stories while sitting here in my coach’s seat. But one is yet to convince me that they are truly bad. Some have tried really, really hard! But I still saw their goodness.
And, I saw the raw beauty that emerges when someone finds a way to look beyond their flaws.
With that, I have enough evidence to believe in your goodness. And I want you to believe in it as well.
It might be hard. But it’s worth it.