Even though I’ve been sober many years, I find my codependent symptoms still crop up like Whack-a-Moles: I get over one and another shows up. Shame is a particularly pesky mole with big front teeth that keeps popping up no matter how insightfully I whack it.
Brené Brown, a shame researcher, makes this key distinction:
GUILT – says what I did was bad
SHAME – says I, myself, am bad
When I got sober, I carried a lot of guilt – and rightly so! I’d screwed over just about everyone unlucky enough to have let me into their life. But over the next year or ten, I learned to stop engaging in harmful behaviors (at least, those I can perceive) and seek a life rooted in the values of honor and kindness.
So when I say I still experience times when shame seems imbued in my very cells, when the conviction flares that I’m secretly wrong, bad, even evil, I’m not crying out for help. I’m trying to help us both. Because if you, too, were raised by parents who somehow shamed you or are simply prone to self-criticism, then that same undertone of shame reverberates in your bones as well.
Most of the time, we ignore it like some kind of emotional tinnitus, so the feeling doesn’t register. “What, me? shameful? That’s absurd!” But then life happens. We screw up or feel exposed in some way and ~ BOOM!! That accumulation of denied self-condemnation drops on us like a Monty Python 16-ton weight. We’re flattened, aching from a wound that has far less to do with what just happened than scars buried deep in our soul.
For example, years ago I felt so free from shame that I wrote my addiction memoir, trusting that no matter how sick my thoughts and behaviors, even those readers who couldn’t identify would empathize. When my relatives learned of it, the backlash was intense: they dropped dozens of 16-ton weights – all via email, texts, and online reviews, of course. I found myself catapulted back deep into shame for who I was and what I believed, as well as for having had the blind audacity to write about it publicly.
Ever since, I find that whenever some mishap shakes me up, those same shame feelings resurge – even when I’ve done nothing wrong! I swear, I’d qualify for the Shame Olympics if there were such a thing. It’s like some huge, soupy vat of shame is just waiting for me to lose my spiritual balance, spin a double pike and topple back in.
Chronic shame cripples our efforts to live authentically. It hisses that we’re never to question others’ expectations, make waves, or stand out. It’s the voice of fear, not god. To be exactly who we’re created to be, to share our gifts unabashedly with the world – that’s what we’re here for.
Significant to sober alcoholics is the idea that getting buzzed will banish shame – along with guilt. It certainly used to. That’s why first few times I drank felt like flying. I was every bit as good as you – hell, even better! Because that oversized ego I’d stoked to make up for my abysmal self-worth was finally cut free of all those painful, heavy burdens to soar above the world.
Un/fortunately, the highs of addiction gradually diminish until our fix offers no lift at all. My last drinks left me as sodden with self-loathing and shame as ever. Relapse, I know, would bring on not only shame but guilt at having shat on everything sacred to my higher self: integrity, honesty, courage, and faith.
Luckily, shame has several other nemeses. It thrives on secrecy and silence; the deeper we bury it, the more power it gains. Like botulism, shame cannot survive exposure to open air. When we talk about our triggers sincerely with trusted others, shame withers. Meetings and sponsors let that happen. Voicing our secrets takes courage, but when love lets us embrace our foibles (or even sickness) as merely human, a beautiful humility emerges to eclipse shame.
The audacity to be authentic is one of the tools Brené Brown calls for. But having recently undergone yet another bout of shame (triggered by a naïve hope disappointed – with the vat waiting), I stumbled on another approach in the teachings of Pema Chödrön.
About 13 years ago, a sponsee/friend moving away gifted me a 6-cassette Chödrön lecture series entitled “Awakening Compassion” that I always meant to listen to – even after I ditched my cassette player. A few months ago, forced to do boring PT exercises nightly before bed, I tossed Tape #1 into an old boom-box; I’ve been listening for about 15 minutes per night ever since. Pema keeps speaking about “the raw stuff” of life being more important than our mental evaluations of it, and of “the open heart” being like a “sea anemone” that doesn’t retract when disturbed, but rather “softens” to life. Meanwhile, because I’m lying on my yoga mat, my dog Cosmo keeps coming up and dropping his drooly tennis ball on my stomach or maybe my hair, hoping I’ll chuck it across the room for him one more time. I keep aspiring toward Pema’s lofty wisdom and enlightenment, and then – PLOP!! Ew!!
The other night I realized – PLOP!! Ew!! – that Cosmo’s drooly ball and my reaction to it are precisely what Pema means by “the raw stuff” of life. In Cosmo’s place, put any people or conditions that don’t suit me – including unwelcome emotions. Woven through Pema’s words is encouragement to love this life with an open heart, not retracting into slanted stories and shoulds.
Whether I snap at Cosmo or whack at shame (“I shouldn’t feel this!”), I am closing my heart to what is, to life. I don’t have to toss the ball every time, but Cos is almost 12 and before long I’ll lose him. By the same token, I don’t have to buy into the story shame tells, but I can accept my dance with that emotion over the years as part of my human experience, which is likewise finite and precious. In other words, much as I’ve learned to accept and forgive shortcomings in other people, so I can begin to practice the same love and tolerance within myself. Whacking is never our only option.