Decades ago I watched videos of John Bradshaw talking about shame. What he said struck home, but nothing shifted inside me. More recently I’ve listened to recordings by Brené Brown, with the same resonance and the same lack of effect.
Then, last week, my therapist pointed out how shame lurks in my history of sabotaging careers and relationships. Two days later, during a long drive, I listened as my wife played an audio recording by Tara Brach entitled Radical Self Acceptance. With sudden clarity, I understood the pivotal role shame has played in my life.
Why did I work so hard in school? Because earning good grades helped me feel better about myself after a childhood with little love and lots of suffering. Why did I give up my dream of a career in field biology and begin graduate education in biophysics? Because my physicist father considered ecology a ‘soft science,’ and his approval felt more vital than my own happiness.
Why did I pursue relationships so aggressively, only to feel unsatisfied once in them? Because the affection of women filled a void inside, but only partially. As a young man I craved romantic attachment but always felt frustrated by it, because it never resolved my sense of unlovability.
I’ve made major purchases hoping valuable possessions would ease my feelings of worthlessness. I’ve spent a lifetime on self-improvement for the same reasons. I’ve taken psychiatric medications. I’ve tried my hand at blogging, acupuncture, and yoga. All in a doomed effort to escape the conviction that I am flawed, unwanted, inadequate, peculiar, incompetent, and disgusting.
With every effort to escape shame the same dynamic unfolds: an initial hope of release, then disillusionment, rejection of my choices, and descent back into discouragement. Most everything I’ve done, I’ve done for Shame, but what is driven by shame leads only to more shame. Now, since this past weekend, I feel ready to quit living by its demands.
Tara Brach offers an exercise. First she says to take a difficult situation currently in view and mentally say to it “NO!” over and over in one’s mind. Doing so left me feeling exhausted and tight.
Then, she says to do the opposite. Take the same situation and greet it with a wide open “YES!” Such relief!
For the past two days, I’ve been saying YES to all that arises. All my flaws, all my failures, all my moods, all the stuff I ordinarily criticize. And I’m taking that YES all the way. Rather than badmouthing my sleepy suburban neighborhood, I say YES to it. Rather than cringing at California’s aridity after years of drought, I say YES.
YES! YES! YES!
I even say YES to the fact of my shame. And in that YES, the shame dissolves.
Shame has many roots. In my case, it arose first from maternal depression and suicide, paternal disinterest and abandonment, and humiliating child abuse at the hands of an unwilling stepmother. But it was nourished by a society that judges people on appearances, achievements, and material wealth. It was fertilized by a culture of craving and insecurity. And it blossomed in a mental health system that, until recently, discounted childhood context and viewed chronic fear and sorrow as brain malfunctions.
What if we let go the idea that discomfort is a sign of failure? What if we lived our lives without criticizing them? What if we loved ourselves without reservation? We might approach the ideal set for us by Marianne Williamson in her famous poem, Our Deepest Fear:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.
… as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we’re liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.
I’m tired of selling myself short because of shame’s tiresome NO! For today, at least, I choose to shine with an open-hearted YES!