Stalking Shame and Sitting with Discomfort

By Ken Wells - 06/01/2021


Series Two; Blog Thirty-Four

Have you ever had the experience of finally telling someone something that you had never shared with anyone before, and they accepted you and what you said and it felt like you never wanted to stop talking? That’s what a safe 12-step community can offer an addict struggling with shame”—KW

It’s not your fault! It’s nice to hear this when you feel that someone has hurt you purposefully or unintentionally. That said, sometimes it is your fault. Healing shame requires that we determine what is and what is not our fault and how to forgive, particularly ourselves.

This writing is influenced by somatic practitioner and specialist Staci K. Haines. In her book The Politics of Trauma, she emphasizes the importance of safety, belonging, and dignity. Shame gives the message that you are wrong. It carries with it the connotation that you are stupid and flawed. In the old sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Ray and Debra are arguing and, to dramatically emphasize his point about how wrong his wife is, Ray says, “You are so wrong I need to open the window to let some of the wrong out!”  This is how palpable shame can be. You can feel so wrong you just want to leave the room to let the wrong out because you think of yourself as so flawed, so wrong.

When spiraling into shame, instinctively you want to disconnect and go into hiding. Shame evaporates emotional safety. If exposed, you fear that you will never be long and that dignity is destroyed forever.

Steps toward healing shame:

1. Walk through the shame with a friend, mentor, or professional therapist: Haines calls this engagement “Blending”. Twelve-step marathon meetings generate opportunity to walk alongside someone drowning in the shame of addictive behavior. Addicts can talk about the shame harbored deep within connected to addictive behavior, unedited. They are listened to by others who hold space as a fair witness to their experience. There is no fixing or correcting, just listening. The presence of others validates feelings that have long since needed release. It is powerfully healing to reflect back to the addict stuck in shame with the same language used by the addict while maintaining a ground of acceptance. Underneath the mistaken beliefs in the story shared are feelings that have been locked away and need released in order for shame to be reduced.

2. Be centered with responsibility:  Most addicts carry a mixture of their own shame and other people’s shame. If your mother told you not to eat cake and ice cream when you were young because people will make fun of you for being fat, and you just ate a second piece of cake with ice cream while telling yourself not to do it, you probably carry your own shame about your choice as well as your mother’s shame. Haines suggests asking a poignant question when sorting out shame: “What part of the shame I am carrying is mine, and what may belong to the people who harmed me–and who benefits from the oppression?” 

Sometimes addicts are over-responsible for shameful acts. Like a magnet, some take responsibility for everything that goes wrong. Addicts also commonly minimize and marginalize by denying all responsibility for hurtful actions, placing the blame on the injured party. Denial destroys empathy. Healing shame recognizes the hurt that has been done and responsibly sorts and assigns accountability to wrongdoers. There are victims and victimizers. Addicts can be both. Healing shame brings victim and victimizer together with appropriate validation and accountability.

Centered responsibility is difficult to attain. It requires that you remain open-hearted to questions and personal discomfort. Questioning means that with vulnerability you are willing to honestly look at your responsibilities and to courageously assign accountability to those who have harmed you, while you have carried for them the burden of guilt.

Sitting with the discomfort of not knowing will create a space for you to allow for disrupted thoughts about uncertainty and the need for risking change while remaining committed to being connected to yourself and what you feel.

3. Forgiving yourself while remaining mutually connected with community:  Forgiveness is a challenging task in recovery. Shame will not be managed without forgiving self and others. In essence, forgiveness involves grasping the impact of painful experience and working through grieving what was lost. It suggests that in time you choose to not hold against yourself or others the egregious, hurtful behavior that has created so much pain in your life. Seldom is this healing step a one-and-done. Most often it requires an everyday letting go, purposely choosing to not hold the painful behavior against self or others and walking in the opposite direction with resolve and freedom. Forgiveness is a recovery practice, not meant to be an historic event.

Forgiveness is deepened when an addict is mutually connected to community support. In a safe community you can care for others and their concerns while also taking care of yourself. Guilt can trigger a breakdown in the forgiveness process. Because you were such a jerk in your addictive behavior, you can feel guilt and think that you have to abandon yourself to be present for someone else. Of course, when you are lauded with praise for being so thoughtful, you repeatedly abandon yourself to others without caring for yourself. Yet, mutual connection depends upon you being committed to living inside your own skin, feeling your feelings and having your thoughts, while allowing others to engage their own space.

Stalking shame suggests that we sit with the discomfort of the forgiveness process. Forgiveness includes seeing the dark side behavior within that you struggle to forgive in the one who has hurt you. When you can sit with the discomfort of your own dark side, you will be able to stalk your shame and become mutually connected with those who share this broken condition in human experience.

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