When We Shame Ourselves: How to Unhook from Self-Shaming Thoughts

For many (dare I say most) people, spending time with parents can unleash some pretty strong emotions. No matter how grown up we are, our original family can put us in touch with deep hurts, primal longings, unmet needs… a tsunami of feelings. If we want to challenge every ounce of peace, wellbeing, compassion, wisdom and strength we’ve earned over a lifetime, we need only spend a weekend, day, evening, hour, few minutes, or maybe just say hello with the person who is our parent.

Jane, a woman in her 40s, recently had an experience with a parent that set off a strong and somewhat unexpected reaction in her. She met her father for a meal and he behaved the way he always behaved, asking her no questions, acknowledging nothing about her, completely invisibilizing her, while simultaneously demanding that she act as a mirror to reflect his own grandiosity. It was an experience Jane knew intimately and one she had been living for decades. But on this particular day, sitting across a table from this man she called her father, a man who had never shown Jane the kindness of acknowledgment or curiosity, it all broke—the dam that had protected her from her actual experience was gone. Without warning, Jane discovered that she could not keep pretending this kind of interaction was okay. Even if she had wanted to continue the same relationship with her father, her body had decided otherwise: being unseen and unknown, receiving nothing, inauthentically playing the role of the loving validator, was no longer possible.

Midway through the meeting, Jane took off the hat she had been wearing her whole life; she stopped confirming her father’s importance, and also stopped playing the role of the grateful daughter, who would happily enjoy the glow of his greatness while remaining forever invisible. She even went so far as to suggest that something he had said about himself might not be true, a first. The encounter ended abruptly and with obvious prickliness. While no words were spoken about the tectonic plates that had just shifted between them, it was clear to both father and daughter that their usual way of interacting was suspended, if not finished for good.

Very shortly after the meeting ended, Jane’s body started crying and vomiting and didn’t stop for hours. At the same time, her mind was in an intense swirl, trying to make sense of what had just happened, to create the narrative that would give her some ground in this emotional storm. The casing that had contained decades of grief, rage, and longing was broken open.

Interestingly, within a day or two, Jane had moved on from the experience. She was feeling fine and also empowered by a new-found, never before experienced clarity. She knew at a cellular level, without any doubt, that she was no longer going to continue subjecting herself to her father’s unkindness. A new reality had emerged entirely on its own. While she would have to continue seeing her father in family settings, she would no longer be participating in a “close” relationship with him or playing the role she had formerly played. She wasn’t angry, just clear and decided. She was lovingly and steadfastly on her own side.

And then, shame appeared. While Jane was aware that something profoundly important had taken place within her, and that she had behaved in a radically new way, and that she would not be continuing the relationship with her father in any kind of similar manner, she also felt a sense of shame. She shamed herself for having had such an intense response to her father, for being so impacted by him. So too, she was upset with herself for visibly reacting, which she believed shamefully revealed to her father that she was indeed affected by their relationship.

As someone who had meditated and practiced spirituality for many years, Jane began convincing herself that her reaction to her father meant that she was a spiritual failure. And furthermore, that her pain meant that she was also psychologically weak, someone who couldn’t be flourish unless in ideal, kid-glove circumstances.

And, as it turns out, Jane was not alone in administering shame and blame. Jane’s partner was pouring his disdain into the mix with a common cultural belief, namely, that after years of spiritual practice, she should have found a way to be immune to her father’s behavior, to build appropriately thick walls around herself. If she knew that this was how her father behaved, which she undoubtedly did, she should expect and be prepared for his behavior. She should not, still, be so devastated by her family. He accused Jane of being “fragile” and too sensitive to live in the real world. This was how he chose to support her in her transformation.

After being subjected to her partner’s and her own shaming however, something magnificent happened.

The same grace that had allowed her to know the truth with her father showed up and awakened Jane to yet another truth. Jane realized that she was indeed a spiritual grown up, now. She understood that spiritual and emotional wellbeing has nothing whatsoever to do with being able to deny, not feel, push away, or become immune to our experience. Indeed, quite the opposite. Spiritual maturity means having the courage to welcome whatever emotion is happening, to let reality be what it is. It means being willing to allow the full mystery, majesty and catastrophe that is the human experience, being willing to live with what is, which includes pain.

With spiritual and emotional maturity, we learn to welcome whatever emotion is arising and to do so without creating a narrative or personal identity out of its contents. As in Jane’s case, she could feel and internally validate the sadness of her relationship with her father and yet not cling to it, create a personal narrative or build an identity out of it. She could experience the sadness without being it. She had the wisdom to let the tsunami of emotion move into and through her, but also, by not grasping onto it, to allow it to move through and out of her, just as swiftly and effortlessly. Both processes, the in and out, are part of the same grace, of which we are not in control.

Furthermore, spiritual wellbeing is not about building thicker walls around our heart or finding freedom from difficult emotions. It’s about the willingness and bravery to deconstruct the walls around our heart, to let them dissolve so that we can live the full human experience: joy, sadness, and all the rest. We cannot reside behind walls and imagine that the emotions we want will get through while the ones we don’t will be kept out. A closed heart is a dead heart. When we live behind walls, we lose out on the whole enchilada that is life.

Growing up spiritually means living with a warrior’s heart, which is not a more armored heart but rather a less armored and more vulnerable heart. It means being willing to offer a seat at our inner table to whatever emotion is arising, and at the same time, to know ourselves as the compassion that holds the experience in company. It means trusting that the continually changing internal weather can move through us with great ferocity and yet, simultaneously, something can remain steady and well, holding the space in which life happens. A warrior’s heart contains the strength to open the doors and windows, to let life come in and also to let it leave.

There is a strong cultural belief that when you’re spiritually and emotionally well, you should stop feeling pain and stop being affected by life’s difficulties. This is a false belief. When we grow up spiritually, we don’t stop feeling difficult emotions or being fully and fallibly human. Rather, we stop fearing and judging our emotions; we embrace our imperfect humanness. With spiritual maturity, who we are evolves, from the one to whom our feelings are happening to the loving presence within which they happen. We feel our emotions and witness their comings and goings, both, simultaneously. Ultimately, we come to know that our heart can get bounced around and broken into pieces, that we can feel everything, and still know a wellbeing that perfectly holds the whole dance.

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