Meeting Shame with Compassion

helping-hand-1Easier said than done? Absolutely, but still worth it. Shame is one of the most difficult inner states to be with. We all experience shame but sometimes move away from it so quickly we don’t even notice. Avoidance strategies tend to deepen shame, whereas compassion in response to our felt experience of shame helps connect us to our shared humanity through the suffering we all feel sometimes. Often, we would rather distract ourselves, deny shame or numb-out somehow through compulsive or addictive habits, but these strategies only serve to catch us in a loop – increasing shame after the numbing wears off, and starting up the cycle again. Another way of avoiding shame is to deflect responsibility by blaming someone else (you’re making me feel/act this way), thereby side-stepping the responsibility for our own actions, the only ones we actually can control. When we avoid shame, we may end up causing more harm to ourselves and others in the process.

We may also believe that to turn toward our own feelings is to wallow in them, but do we instead overcompensate by ignoring our difficult feelings altogether? Does this really help us build up the skills we need to effectively manage painful emotions? Can we touch into the shame we experience with compassion and see that it is just a passing experience that doesn’t define us?

But how do we actually practice meeting shame with compassion? Together, the root words com-passion, literally translated, mean to suffer with. So, can we stand gently alongside of our suffering, simply acknowledging the truth of it? (“This really hurts.”) And then gently suspending another layer of judgement or shame, we can employ investigation instead: “So this is what shame feels like in my body/mind/heart.” If we can practice this kind of resilient reflection, even for a few seconds at a time, we begin to understand ourselves beyond this one present experience, letting it move through us, as it will. This is a courageous act that can bring surprising results over time. See my earlier post: “We Strengthen What We Practice.”