Underneath so many forms of suffering is a pervasive sense of shame, a deeply-rooted sense that there is something wrong with us at the most basic level.
Often when I speak with someone who is struggling, there is an undercurrent of primordial shame which we can feel together, coloring their perception, emotional experience, and relationships with others.
Ordinarily, shame looms outside conscious awareness, but at times comes flooding into consciousness, accompanied by feelings of hopelessness. Despite our attempts to link the despair to some current aspect of our life situation, we are often unable to do so, as it is free-floating and erupting under the surface of things.
To uncover and to begin to illuminate, integrate, and metabolize shame in a way that is skillful, at times we must first confront and work through a variety of other beliefs, emotions, and somatic material, for shame is often hidden and disguised. Buried inside flatness, hopelessness, heartbreak, and rage, we often find core shame, affecting our ability to feel alive, find meaning, and discover joy in relationship with others.
While various therapies tend to specialize in one aspect of shame and seek to intervene at that level alone, shame is multidimensional and must be attended to in a way that is full-spectrum. We must discover in an experiential way how shame manifests in patterns of habitual thinking, painful repetitive emotions, somatic contraction and coagulation, and neurobiologically through dysregulating states of arousal and fight/ flight reactivity.
In this way, shame is not solely a thought, feeling, behavior, or activation of the nervous system, but a unique configuration of all of these, a way of protecting ourselves from an environment that is/ was not safe, incapable of holding and mirroring our unique subjectivity, lacking in empathic attunement, and threatening to our psychic survival.
Shame is not easy to heal as it is so core and underlies so many of our difficult emotions and limiting self-narratives, but it can be worked with. It must be approached slowly, in an embodied way, where we touch into the associated anxiety in very small doses, pushing ourselves just a little, but not outside our window of tolerance. To flood the shame with presence, warmth, space, and perhaps mostly importantly, with a radical sort of kindness.
If you feel called, and it feels safe enough to do so, you can begin to invite in the experience of shame, to meet that lost, frightened, abandoned, unworthy little one who has been carrying this shame for so long. To offer sanctuary for him or her, to listen carefully and with compassion to his or her story, to hold her feelings, to tend to his dysregulating sensations, and to provide a home for the shamed one to rest, from a long, ancient, heartbreaking journey.
My new book – The Path Is Everywhere: Uncovering the Jewels Hidden Within You – is now available
My next event will be a five-day retreat, The Place the Light Enters, with Jeff Foster, April 4-9 at Sunrise Ranch in Loveland, CO.