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  • Writer's pictureAnnelisa MacBean

Holding Shame

How can the shame that is so profoundly fundamental to the life experience of so many people be relieved and resolved? How is shame healed? The answer is found deep inside shame itself, the last place most people think to or are willing to look. Shame is an introject from the outside, a toxic interpolation of someone else's pain and self-rejection. Shame is not an emotion. It is a non-physical force or energetic, similar to a slap or a hit or a poke. It comes from outside of our sense of self and gains entry into our psyche by way of innocence.

This self-loathing, projected into us from a wounded "other" enters into our consciousness when we are very young and cleaves the developing inner sense of self into disparate and isolated parts: a shaming part identified with the parent or caretaker emerges within us, taking over the role of master shamer . . . naming and blaming the judged activities, separating them, isolating them, repressing and denying them . . . making them wrong, unwanted, guilty, unloveable. Things we love, activities we enjoy, self-expression that feels authentic and natural, being silly or loving or needy . . . each of these can be judged, criticized, shamed according to a parent or caretaker's idea of what or how we should express and behave. To preserve and protect these parts, our internalized master shamer silos and dissociates our brightest expression; in the name of love, our beauty, spontaneity and tenderness is shamed into exile to preserve its existence.

Shame is the threat of rejection, the threat of non-belonging, the threat of separation or isolation used to coerce and control the person being shamed. The words are often spoken, sometimes not, but the message is clear. We learn very early that continuing certain outward activities or expressions will compromise our relationships with our primary caretakers, thus compromising our survival. We learn to take on the practice of shaming ourselves, and in so doing, maintain a sense of connection to our families and society.

As infants and young children our need for belonging trumps authenticity . . . it even trumps love! Survival is what drives us to conform, to capitulate, to take on their shame and silo those parts of our selves that threaten our dependency.

The secret to healing shame lies in finally meeting it from the inside. Not meeting some clinical, abstract, experience-distant definition of shame, because concepts cannot truly be touched. Rather, it is meeting the very alive, embodied, unique experience of shame as it appears in the body, in the connective tissue, in the heart. This meeting and holding of both the shaming and shamed parts of our selves transmutes and transforms shame.

While we can and must address yesterday’s shame or last year’s shame or the shame from the age of seven, generally speaking, in the moment this shame is too far away. Today’s shame, this moment’s shame, the raw, achy, shame, emerging as thoughts, feelings, and sensations; as pressure in the head and fluttering in the gut; as emptiness, and loneliness and longing; as voices in the mind, as yearning in the heart. Get close to this moment's shame, but not so close that you fall in. Explore and practice interpenetration with your consciousness, with awareness but without enmeshment . . . without identification. Intimacy without fusion.

Forget about ‘healing’ shame today! Instead, find the ashamed one, bring your attention to the one who feels unworthy and broken, who feels sick and unlovable and bring them out of hiding. Hold steady with compassionate awareness as you notice how the shamed one grips the belly, tightens the chest and the throat. When you're ready flood your body with light, curiosity, care, and tender awareness. Do not effort to ‘fix’ but simply witness and understand; do not attempt to ‘mend’ or 'heal' or make it stop . . . just witness, listen, embrace. There can be no ‘annihilation’ or 'stopping' of these feelings or sensations, because it all is YOU. Now is the time for soothing and re-parenting.

Hold your shamed parts close like a mother holding her precious child and ask:

“My love, do you need to be healed today?"

And listen, listen carefully, listen from the depths of your soul; listen to their timeless response as it emerges out of the tender silence of meditative connection:

“Not healed, today; only held.”

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