Holding space for Shame: the journey of freeing one’s self
What happens when you see yourself as defective, not whole. Spirituality keeps reminding us we are whole and nothing can take that away. As a healer, I hold that stand no matter where someone is in his/her self image. The person needs to value himself/herself foremost. If that is not present, I hold that for the other.
So let us look at the mechanism of shame. Whenever you feel like hiding, not wanting to be seen, averting your eyes, bending the head/chin forward/downward and the chest backwards, and the urge to disappear, you may have somatic clues operating. There is powerlessness present as well in this sudden exposure. We feel that we are not enough. We “lose face”. This exposure of being less than can be to others or to self. Shame induces the freezing response. Fear or/and rage may follow. According to Gershen Kaufman in Shame: the power of caring, “to feel shame is to feel seen in a painfully diminished sense.” Shame is directly linked to the failing of an ideal self.
For some individuals, the core wound is not being seen nor appreciated. The energetic anatomical parts related to being seen are compromised, dried or knotted up. We are not in our optimal expansive selves when we feel less than. Illness, aging, disability, gender identity, school and work “rules” all can induce shame depending on the cultural status quo. In the American culture, anything that is not perceived as independent, self sufficient and successful can be shame inducing as one is not functioning according to prescribed templates. Basically if you don’t identify with the group, your form of differentiation can be perceived as a threat to the group.
Some questions I have heard from people over time include: “Why am I being punished?” This thought process has an implied “I am bad” or “I did something wrong and I am now punished.” The core belief of not being good enough is operating at that moment. Not only is there a separation, there is a separation because of a felt sense of diminishment.
To begin to restore wholeness, one must to step out of the internalization of shame in order to begin restoring the present time interpersonal seeing. This is the time to be witnessed by yourself or another. Witnessing means receiving non judgmentally. To listen to another openly without the burden of our personal bias is crucial. When this happens, the gift goes both ways as each person has the opportunity to experience a new behavior,
I had a recent experience of shaming and it was fascinating to follow its trajectory. May this disclosure help you or your clients who are caught in shame, especially in conjunction with chronic illness or a different abled body, begin to tolerate and overcome shame.
I had moved into a new home where I was exposed to gas fumes that immediately made me feel horrible. There was an invisible pervasive quality of being taken over by this substance. My breathing, muscular and neurological systems were immediately affected. I had a visceral sense that I was in danger. As I shared these with a few friends, their first reaction was to fix it. I, however, felt a more immediate response to get out of danger. What transpired was some sort of dialectic where my gut response was in contradiction with what others were suggesting. I simply didn’t understand this disparity. If I was on fire, they would see and help me get out immediately. But this was gas, invisible.
Similarly, when I spoke with my landlady, her initial response was a denial of my experience because she didn’t experience it as such. Her suggested ideas of fixing were not real solutions to the problem I had encountered. Sufficed to say that I entered a weird zone of unconscious shaming. We had many conversations over the course of time that at the end, I think she had a much better understanding of what it was for me.
In the process of it was advocating for myself as a person with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), a condition most people don’t know about nor know how debilitating it can be. “MCS is a medical condition characterized by debilitating chemical sensitivities. People who are chemically sensitive are made sick by exposures to chemicals found in many common products such as pesticides, perfumes, tobacco smoke, new carpets, air freshener a, new paint and building materials, and many cleaning and laundry products. Most of these chemicals will make everyone sick at high levels, but for chemically sensitive people exposures to even small amounts of these substances can cause symptoms.” Please check out Www.chemicalsensitivityfoundaton.com for more information.
My immediate solution was to prioritize my health and take myself out of a dangerous situation. In the meantime, it gave me a window on how we operate in places of distress, especially when shame is involved.
I was surprised that initially I was met with responses that did not match my experience. I went away to restore my health, refine and re-find my internal integrity and stabilize in my healing arc. In this process, affirmation and restoration strengthened that I then continued to the next steps of moving. As I searched for new houses, I kept noticing that I was searching from a place of getting out of danger. I felt I was making decisions based on an emergency – a survival need based assessment. I had a list of needs but not wants. I had to continue advocating for my needs. As my brother said, “People don’t know your condition.” What I found, however, was as I said “no new paint, new carpet, gas, glues, etc”, prospective landlord and landladies were defending their decisions of using chemicals to do upkeep on the homes. It was clear that stating my needs was questioning a whole paradigm, not just personal but collectively. We as a culture accept and depend on petrochemicals as normal ways of living. I received a litany of responses of “the government standards and that it must be safe” to “we have to protect our investments by using chemicals to treat it”. In short, why are YOU sick and why aren’t we?
It was narrow, dry, and lacked joy. As you can see, this was a challenging landslide of events that had a domino effect. When I noticed the multilayered dynamics, it was a first to step out of a limiting situation.
One core structure I have is when there is conflict, I immediately find solutions to harmonize it. Emergency/dangerous situations evoke early developmental strategies of being stuck. Getting out physically was not an option then. In fact, to even think of getting out was shame inducing to my body-mind system as it meant I was abandoning ship. The belief was if I couldn’t find self comfort there, I must not be trying hard enough. This was another shame inducing behavior. Bringing to consciousness my affect around failure, shame and survival is key to fully integrating this experience. And so it is with individuals living with chronic conditions or other abilities not in the consensual normal.
I address the present situation as well as the psychodynamic triggers. We need to differentiate how the external parental relationship has been internalized. Is it limiting? How? Is it nurturing or persecutory? Is it discouraging or supportive? Is it waiting for a “parent” to step in and restore the balance of health and harmony? This process requires seeing the identification that we may dis-identify and dis-internalize.
At first, my landlady and friends were rationalizing the gas fume problem. They were not experiencing the real threat to my health of the poison, and their suggestions, albeit trying to help, felt dismissive. This wasn’t just about me having MCS, but that my body was being poisoned. Any rationalizations of government “safety standards” simply pointed out the current blindness we have as a culture to how our lifestyles are poisoning our bodies and our planet. Some of us feel the effects more immediately than others.They also had no idea the significant effect of petrochemical exposure to someone with MCS. The old habit of wanting another to see my best interest once again deflated as I acted from a genuine place of self care instead of wishing for a three way detour of it. My journey lay in accepting my different-abled-ness and not experiencing a deficient-abled-ness (A.L. Riger).
It is essentially about valuing ourselves. In this time, I recognized that I needed to keep infusing my confidence with joy, strength, relatedness to people, animals and plants in addition to detoxing the gas. These are my resources to accessing health, vitality and wellness. The opposite of shame is being seen. Relatedness and belonging are opposite to being alone and isolated. Gratitude and appreciation are medicine to me. They connect me to what is right rather than just what is wrong. Being real and including the full spectrum of what is arising decreases the disassociating tendencies. This meant owning my feelings of fear, distress and overwhelm. Once it was clear that I had to pack once again after just moving in two weeks prior, I asked for help from my closest allies. We all have different strengths and gifts. I reached out to friends whom I knew would help me in the most encouraging way. I didn’t have space for drama or individual egos. I was already compromised. I needed relationships that were not costly to my energy at this moment. Clarity is needed in addition to value. I saw I couldn’t do it alone either. I knew I needed a team to help me through this. I am fortunate to have devoted friends who stepped in most graciously and provided stability in a disorienting situation. The key to healing from shame is to come out of hiding and be supported by loved ones.
Because the container was shifting so rapidly, I tried my best to keep my work schedule stable. I honored teaching commitments made earlier. I grounded in the earth by working in the garden. And I continued allowing space for prayer, meditation and beingness,
As you can see, turning shame around requires many factors. I am happy to share a slice of it with you. Let me know how have you dealt with shame in your life?