Shame can make us strangers to ourselves

Like a self-replicating virus, shame can jump from person to person

You can almost always find someone else’s shaming at the kernel of your own belief that there’s something wrong with you…It’s not like you can get rid of shame, but it’s like foreign object that landed in your system. ‘I have to carry it around, but I don’t have to think it’s me.’

A. J. Bond

I just had a session with shame educator A. J. Bond, and realized: “Holy shit, shame has been a major player in my life.”

I came to the session with a seemingly small example: feeling bad about throwing away some old chicken soup.

A. J. told me about how shame works:

  • A person learns that situation X is shameful. This learning comes from either directly from another human, or from society. In my chicken soup example, my grandma learned that wasting food was bad because she grew up during WWII, during a time of tremendous food scarcity.
  • Person 1 transfers the shame to person 2. In my chicken soup example, my grandma modeled not wasting food. My mom told me a story of seeing my grandma eat all the breadcrumbs one time after she sliced bread.
  • Person 2 passes on the shame to Person 3. When I was growing up, my mom modeled not wasting food, and I internalized this lesson. Which brings me to feeling bad about throwing away chicken soup.

Not all shame is unhealthy; often, shame gets us to behave in prosocial ways, following the ten commandments and all that. However, shame can also disconnect us from ourselves.

I brought up an example to A.J. about feeling shame about being a “bad friend” because I didn’t them back immediately. A.J. asked me: “What do you think is an appropriate amount of time to text a friend back?”

I scratched my head, and eventually said: “12-24 hours…if longer than that at least tell me that you got the message and are thinking about it.”

With my friend’s text, the shame was telling me that I had to reply immediately. The shame was disconnecting me from my true beliefs.

Shame can keep us from pursuing our values and taking care of ourselves. If we are feeling toxic shame, we think that we are somehow “bad.” If we stay in this feeling, we won’t believe that we deserve to pursue our values.

The term “wholeness” has always been confusing for me, but I think I get it now. If I imagine myself as a national park, shame is the overzealous park ranger that blocks off areas with signs that say “DON’T GO HERE!” I want to build trails to these places — these shameful streams, mountains and forests — and link them back into my wholeness.

To sort out my authentic values from the beliefs that I’ve adopted due to shame, I journaled about themes like money, physical appearance, and family, noting where I felt shame. A.J. said that a tool to get through shame is anger. Authentic anger gets activated when boundaries are crossed, when appropriate responsibility isn’t taken. Finding the anger can be a way to beat back the shame, so that I can more clearly see what my real values are.

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