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Mindful : October 2017
more extreme, one thing is certain: It’s hard to face. And when shame hits, the impulse is to escape—physically, mentally, or emotion- ally. Tuning out, deflecting blame, pretending to shrug it off while burying the shame deep inside, or turning to some other means to defuse uncomfortable emotions are just some of the ways we attempt to dodge shame. And these things work, in the short term. They offer immediate relief from the hot, sick- ening sensation of self-loathing overwhelming us in the moment. But in the long run, rely- ing on avoidance tactics to deal with difficult feelings only means that we don’t learn what we can tolerate, come through, or manage in healthier ways. The truth is, you can’t completely avoid shame. It arises unexpectedly and unpredictably over the normal course of living a human life. You will say something thoughtless, act impul- sively, or just mess up, as we all do. When confronted with my mindless remark, I could have left, abandoning the workshop hoping to quiet the internal cacophony of shame, embarrassment, and guilt I felt. But I would have also been out of a job, destroyed my reputation, and likely lost some friends. Instead, I chose to be with these overwhelm- ing emotions in order to take the next steps, which in this case meant taking action to make amends. As Greenberg says, with shame “we have to feel it to heal it.” Bringing your atten- tion to the softer feelings of sadness and need that accompany shame may allow for it to be brought into the light. Turning toward difficulty and accepting who we are, warts and all, are essential aspects of mindfulness. But it is not simply turning toward difficulty in a benign way. When we are sick with shame we need to bring compassion to ourselves. And this may be the ultimate antidote to this most difficult of emotions. When we can view our shame with curiosity and kindness instead of self-blame, its power is lessened. Compassion, it turns out, is a key factor in disrupting rumination, the spiral of negative thoughts associated with recurrent depression. We can say that the same holds true for shame. The truth is that the human experience is messy and rich; the ecstatic, joyful, sad, and, yes, even shameful events have their place. And if shame is “the swampland of the soul,” as it’s been called, I would have to agree with Brené Brown, who encourages us to “walk in and find your way around.” ● need to set us back on track. Indeed, the reac- tions associated with shame are so aversive that it’s a profound relief when they leave. Once I was able to get my bearings through the heat and confusion of my shame, I stam- mered a heartfelt apolog y to the young woman standing before me. It helped; I felt a bit of space open up. But I realized that I wasn’t done: No matter how awkward it would be, I needed to acknowledge what I had said and apologize to the entire group. Thankfully, they received this with good grace. In the end, shame revealed to me a need to be even more mindful about how my words and actions impact others and reflect my core values. It was an unexpected—and painful—support to my life’s work and practice. The lengths of shame The shame I felt during that training is the kind of “normal” shame all of us feel at one time or another. We blunder, flub, and barrel our way into situations that we dearly wish we could reverse. And, best-case scenario, the experience is instructive, as it was for me. But what about more extreme experiences of shame? The ones that feel out of our control, such as when kids are repeatedly bullied at school or face denigration and abuse at home? Psychological studies have shown that when people are reg ularly shamed and sent messages that they’re “no good,” they come to see them- selves as deeply flawed and unlovable. They internalize the shame, and may even doubt their right to exist. As psychologist and creator of Emotion-Focused Therapy Les Greenberg says, “If you’re treated like garbage, you come to believe you’re garbage.” It’s not surprising that people with a strong and fixed shame identity often suffer from depression or anxiety. Chronic shame can also lead to eating disorders, addiction, self-denigration, and even self-harm. Eventually those living under the perpetual cloud of shame shut down, isolate, or lash out in anger. This makes interacting with others difficult and can keep healthy relationships, just the thing that can help heal the wounds of shame, at bay. Being with it Whatever the extent that shame plays in our lives, from a “normal” incident to something PHOTOGRAPHBYJESSICAROBYN/MILLENNIUMIMAGES,UK 56 mindful October 2017 emotions