In case you’re dropping into our conversation without having read the prior blogs, I want to underline a certain aspect of shame today, specifically, one of the ironic ways it acts as a “protective mechanism”:
Shame is isolating. Shame isolates us. We isolate when we fall into shame. We might even flail for certain kinds of connections and then still succumb to the isolating story shame is telling us. This is often the story of not being good enough, being broken, being unwanted by others, or the possibility that if we do reach for connection about shame, we might get shunned or rejected, or, even blamed.
When we’re in a shame storm (my term for this overwhelming cascade of mental, emotional, and physiological surges), we are also isolated from our inner resources. Our brains collapse into survival mode where short-term decisions are urgently navigated from our primitive and limbic brains. We lose access to our wiser self (our neo-cortex goes ‘offline”).
When we have the chance to lean back, to gain perspective, and when we do so together (even in an internet conversation), we’re more able to see how widespread and insidious shame is, and has been. We also begin to see how unkind, unreasonable, untrue it is capable of being; though it asserts its worth (and its apparent truth) by being forceful, loud. At times, unrelenting.
When our shame shows up in this way it is acting more like a bully. Which is one reason why shifting our lens to see that shame was trying to protect us initially is so essential, and yet, such a paradigm shift can seem very perplexing. Even paradoxical.
When shame emerges, having a wise and curious relationship to it helps us consider how it once aimed to protect us. Today, it may be absurdly trying to ‘motivate us’ (for some behavior change). It may be ‘reminding us’ of what it’s been trying to tell us ‘all along’ (the story of our worth). It may be taunting us to ‘improve ourselves’, once and for all.
Something we may not realize while this is happening is that shame is also separating us from essential parts of ourselves. (This is a further internal isolation, deepening our sense of our external isolation.) We become separated from innate parts of ourselves. Those parts capable of self-respect, self-kindness, forgiveness, and love.
How do we move from isolation to connection? Both internally and externally? What if our brain is flailing too much?
Throughout the storms of isolation, we are confronted with many surges, which can ultimately push us forward towards re-connectivity or backwards towards desolation. Some immensely useful resources in ensuring taking steps forward often revolve around our mindset and our frame of reference. More often than not, what restricts us from being kindhearted and expressing self-empathy is the lack of acknowledgement of our selves, our earnest efforts (even the small ones), or our larger surroundings.
We’re often distracted from the tiny, poignant and beautiful nuances of daily life by our fixation with completion (as an example), but it is important to our brains (and our mental health) to also recognize the rhythmic intricacies of life. We ignore millions of people around us, and often regard them as invisible due to our directives being different. The acknowledgement of two very important facets of this are key to kindheartedness.
We live in an interdependent system that by nature forces us to confront our own diversities. Each and everyone of us are individuals, yet we are predominantly composed of the same three base elements. Oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon. Like waves in the ocean or lightning in a stormy sky, each is an expression of a larger majesty. With this in mind, by recognizing our diversity and our undeniable molecular kinship, we’re able to appreciate and love each other for who and what we are. With a break in the storm, we glimpse this larger force..
Secondarily, there is another equally important facet of kindheartedness that manifests into self-empathy. Learning to love thyself is a continuous process. There will always be highs and lows, some of which are deceptive enough to convince us of the finality of “losing” in the storm again and again. The hopeful reality (paradoxically) is that this struggle is a part of the human condition and that every single passerby is dealing with something equally as difficult, but entirely unique to their own experience.
Keeping this in mind, we’re able to acknowledge that despite our own grievances, we are not alone in our struggles. We are here to help one another, and, in so doing, also realize the value of, and innate instinct for, helping ourselves. The illusion of separation fades. A Break in the storm becomes a new view. Our connection to others allows us to become more connected to ourselves. At the end of the day, we may have others looking out for us and wanting the best for us, yet we are still our own persons. We must look out, appreciate, and love ourselves as one immediate way for us to create and enable the healthy foundation for tomorrow’s versions of ourselves.