Tag Archives: thoughts

Shame on You!

I’ve been thinking a great deal about shame. It lurks in many of my relationships. I observe it in people around me. I cannot remember a time when I was not deeply ashamed of myself. I’ve written about tribal shaming before, but I’ve never excavated the subject further until now.

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Wikipedia has a lengthy page on shame that summarizes different ways in which it has been studied. Assessment tools exist to measure shame and its effects in our lives. Shame has been divided into categories, and distinctions between shame, guilt and embarrassment teased out.

All this information provided me with a lot of interesting context and background, but the subject is not academic for me. I have a problem with shame that I want to solve. How do I go about identifying and dealing effectively with the painful feeling of humiliation or distress we call shame?

I learned in emotional intelligence training that our feelings are value neutral. Some feelings are painful and others are pleasurable, but that doesn’t make them “good” or “bad.” Feelings just are. We all have them, whether or not we allow ourselves to consciously feel them or admit them to others. If we allow ourselves to feel our feelings, they give us information about how we are. Feelings by themselves can empower and enlighten us, guide our choice-making and help us make strong, healthy connections with others.

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Feelings come and go, like the weather, if we allow them to. Refusing to feel a feeling, however, locks it in place, and then we have forged handcuffs and chains for ourselves. The other tricky aspect of feelings is what our thoughts are about them. Thoughts are what lead us into inappropriate action and expression of our feelings.

An emotionally intelligent person recognizes a feeling like rage and takes responsibility for it. In other words, they don’t blame someone or something externally for their rage. That’s a thought. They don’t seek revenge, payback or to re-establish their power over someone they blame as the cause of their rage. They take responsibility for their feeling of rage and discharging it appropriately, knowing that none of us think well or make effective choices when we’re in the grip of strong feelings. They also don’t turn the perfectly normal feeling of rage inward against themselves.

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After safely discharging rage (hard physical labor, tears, journaling, talking things over, screaming, passionate creative expression, beating up phone books or pillows), the next step is to sit down and have a talk with it. Years ago, when I lived alone, I literally began to sit down and talk with some of my feelings. I’ve written about this previously. I sit in a chair across from an empty chair and imagine myself talking things out with the feeling occupying the other chair. I say something like, “You have my attention. What’s the deal? Why are you so angry?” and then I shut up and listen to my feeling. Feelings have presence. I’ve learned to notice where I experience them in my body, what color they are, their size and shape, their density and texture, their scent and sound. Our feelings are trying to tell us things we need to know, and the more painful, difficult and overwhelming they are the more important their message is.

This is what I have been doing lately with shame. I wait and watch for it, and when it comes I notice and pause. In the middle of a conversation with my partner, I’ll feel shame rise up like a foul smell and I’ll pause and look for what is happening that triggers shame. Something I said? Something I didn’t say? Something he said to me? Something else I’d rather be doing? A subject I don’t want to talk about or don’t care about? What else am I feeling?

After doing this for a couple of weeks, I discover that any honest conversation that makes visible my needs and feelings triggers shame. No wonder I feel so burdened if shame is attached to every need and feeling!

Interestingly, during the in-the-moment pauses while I explore all this, more often than not I realize that I don’t in fact feel shame at all. It’s become a kind of chronic hitchhiker that’s attached to other feelings.

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A good example is driving. I typically go the speed limit or 5 miles over it, and in bad weather much slower than that. I rarely run late. I hate to rush. I enjoy music and audiobooks in the car and am quite happy driving. I love my commute. The world is full of people, however, who are in a hurry, reckless, and, to my way of thinking, rude. Of course, they think I’m rude for not getting out of their way!

I rarely drive without feeling shame, but I realize now that I’m not really ashamed at all of my driving. On the contrary, I think I’m a competent, courteous driver. I’ve also been a lucky driver, because accidents happen to the best drivers out there and I’ve never been involved in more than a fender bender. When someone is crawling up my backside in a snowstorm in the dark on an icy road and I’m blinded by their headlights in my rearview mirrors and have no way to move over and let them by, what I do feel is mad and scared. The shame is about feeling mad and scared, not about my driving choices in that moment. I don’t want some idiot in a big truck to have the power to intimidate me on the road. I resent living in a world where I have to worry about sudden violence and road rage, or being a woman alone at night. I’m furious with people who follow too close, even in good conditions. I hate to be pushed and pressured, and I hate even more to feel I’m in someone else’s way or making someone wait on me. That’s an old trigger for PTSD.

It turns out much of my daily shame is nothing more than a habitual default. A rueful realization, but also good news. Habits can be broken, I’ve had a lot of practice with that.

I’ve never yet successfully broken a habit without replacing a not-so-useful thought or frame with a better one. So, what’s the opposite of shame? If I want to replace shame with something more effective, what would that be?

Shame is akin to contempt. Contempt is the atomic bomb in relationships between two or more people as well as in our relationships with ourselves. Contempt withers love and destroys trust. It’s never constructive. Those who employ it seek power and control over others. Shame and contempt are merciless. Guilt, the recognition of having transgressed against another, can be addressed. We can atone for our actions and words, apologize, take steps to repair the damage we caused. Shame and contempt are without mercy or the possibility of reparation. Guilt says we’ve behaved badly. Shame and contempt say we are bad, we are unworthy, and nothing can ever make us different.

I consulted a thesaurus to look at antonyms for shame and came up with respect. Respect!

Shame: Why are you so stupid and difficult? You’re always in everyone’s way! You don’t belong on the road. Why are you such a goody-two-shoes? No wonder nobody likes you, crawling along like an old lady! Nobody else drives this way.  Joe Blow  (partner, brother, colleagues, the guy at work who said the roads were fine and scoffed at slow drivers) wouldn’t be driving like this. You do everything wrong. People like you cause accidents because you go too slow.

Respect: Don’t let this idiot drive your car! Go as slowly as you need to. You’ve got good judgement and a lot of experience. These are dangerous conditions and feeling fearful is an appropriate response. I trust you. Don’t let this driver intimidate you. His need to go fast is not more important than your need to stay safe. People driving the way he is cause accidents.

Quite a difference, right?

I suppose there are more elegant ways to grapple with feelings like shame and a trained psychologist or psychiatrist would laugh at me, but I’ve found that helping myself is incredibly empowering. My experience of therapy is that having a good guide is invaluable, but even the best guide can’t crawl inside our heads and do the work of staying present and making different choices. That’s all on us. Ditching an ineffective habit is difficult and so is encouraging a new one, but it’s perfectly doable. If I lost my right hand, I would eventually learn to use my left. It would feel clumsy, and no doubt frustrating, and it would take time, but I would learn to do it. Our brains are surprisingly plastic, and we’re learning more all the time about healing and adapting neurologically and emotionally.

We aren’t born with a feeling of shame. We learn to feel it. Anything we learn can be unlearned. Shame stunts our growth and our joy. Respect is like the wind beneath our wings. I’ve made my choice.

My daily crime.

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All content on this site ©2019
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Letting Go

I have, on my desk, a small clay sculpture of a woman with her hands cupped in front of her chest. She holds a tiny clay bird and is surrounded by a couple of crystals, a piece of amethyst and a small geode. This little altar has been my daily companion for years. Wise and smiling, round and nurturing, the sculpture has comforted me through many losses, grief and rage. She’s one of my greatest treasures.

Letting Go

These days, the bird she holds is perched on the rim of the wooden dish that she sits on, looking out at the room, at the world, at me. It can stay, or it can fly away. For now, it is content to sit, watching and listening, as I live my life in these two small rooms at the top of our sagging farmhouse.

I have placed tiny polished garnets in the woman’s cupped hands where the bird once nestled.

I had a friend, dear and wise, in my old place who once said to me that if we open our hands and let something go, and keep our hands open, something new will come and fill them. As she spoke, I again saw the image of an open hand, generous, allowing freedom, and prepared to welcome and support the next thing, and the next.

Letting go is power. Letting go is serenity. Letting go is an authentic act of love toward self and others. The usefulness of letting go is not a secret. Almost any self-help book out there talks about it as an aspect of healthy functioning, but I think popular psychology doesn’t explore it deeply enough.

Letting go doesn’t mean we brush aside our feelings. Not at all. Unexpressed feelings cement us in place. We all know people who remain frozen in time because of a death or traumatic event. Years and decades pass, but they don’t heal. They don’t move on. Their emotional growth is arrested. This is what unfinished emotional business looks like. Unexpressed feelings can’t flow through us and dissipate so we can release them.

We know very little about appropriately expressing our feelings in this culture.

Feelings aren’t thoughts. They’re not stories, expectations, beliefs or ideology. They’re not labels or rules. Like it or not, admit it or not, we’re physiologically wired for feelings, and they give us good information about how things are with us. Our thoughts and beliefs, on the other hand, are frequently distorted, confused, inaccurate, misinformed, outdated or otherwise unreliable.

That’s where letting go comes in.

We’ve all had events in our life that left deep scars. We’ve all seen things we can’t unsee, heard things we can’t unhear and done things we can’t undo. We’ve all felt disempowered or victimized at one time or another. Death and disaster enter our lives with no warning and take those we love.

Some people move on from such events with more grace than others. I suspect part of that grace has to do with forgiveness. Not forgetfulness, but forgiveness of self and others. I suspect another part is the ability to fully experience and express the feelings attached to the event. That requires a certain kind of support, and many folks don’t have it. Some people simply don’t choose to move on or let go. They center their thoughts, feelings and energy in the event, whatever it was, and they hold it tight, cherishing it, feeding the fire of their pain, keeping their scars open with the razor blade of their attention and focus. It becomes part of their identity, part of their story, a grievance to cling to, a betrayal to treasure, a wound to worship.

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I have a book called Clean Sweep, by Denny Sargent. It’s filled with rituals and instructions to help us let go of what no longer serves us. The author outlines a banishing exercise in which he suggests the reader visualize holding tightly to a thorny branch. In my own version, the branch is heavy, so heavy I can hardly hold it, which drives the thorns deeply into my flesh. The branch is a person, event, memory or belief that gives us emotional pain. We can make an easy choice and cling to it, cradle it, embrace it, let it tear our skin and make us bleed. We can make a harder choice and set it down, open our hands and let it fall. We can walk away from it. We can burn it or bury it.

In order to let go, we have to be willing to surrender control and endure loss. Letting go of a core piece of identity, a long-held belief or a painful memory is difficult work, even when that core piece, belief or memory gives us great pain. Letting go will leave a hole. Then what? Then who are we? How do we fill that hole? How do we understand ourselves and our place in the world? This is scary stuff.

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Aristotle said nature abhors a vacuum. My friend was right. If we open our hand and release what we’re holding, something else will come, though we can’t predict or control what it might be. In fact, the thing released might return to us in another form. We can’t know. We’ll never know unless we release our need to control. We’ll never find out what might perch on our open hand if we’re not willing to walk through loss in order to reach gain.

I’m having a long and involved break up with my desire to control. Some days I go all day without thinking about it, and other days I want to micromanage everyone and everything in my life. Some days I feel light and free, a confident and lovely woman, and other days I feel like a grubby three-year-old hiding under the covers sucking my thumb because nothing and no one is the way I want them to be. I sulk and pout and snarl and I feel crushed by the thorny weight of my need to control.

Then, at some point, my eye falls on my little clay wise woman and her cupped hands and wide-open heart, and I say, “Oh, yeah. That’s right. Letting go.”

I feel annoyed when people tell me to “get over it.” First of all, I have a right to my feelings, and secondly, it’s not that easy. Letting go, for me, is a practice, and I need time to engage in it. Sometimes I go back and find my leaden armful of hawthorn or bramble or locust and hold it again for a while, opening up all the old wounds, exhausting myself, hurting myself, and, finally, opening my hands and letting it fall again. Sometimes I need to design a ritual for letting go, a prayer or a dance or some kind of purification rite. Sometimes I need to make a physical resting place, like a grave or a patch of garden or a newly-planted tree in order to let something go. For me, taking time to honor whatever it is I’m trying to release is helpful. Whatever it is that no longer serves, it was once a part of my life and experience. Laying things to rest in this way helps me release them fully and finally.

When it comes right down to it, this blog has been an exercise in letting go as much as anything else.

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When we know how to let go, we increase our power, as well as the power of others. Often, what we desperately hold onto is people. This is a strong archetype in old stories; locking the beautiful maiden in the stone tower to “protect” her. Part of love, as any seasoned parent will tell you, is letting go. Imprisoning, disempowering and trying to control others isn’t love. Refusing to let go of someone isn’t love.

Releasing our grievances with others frees them as well as ourselves. Being willing to accept an apology, an explanation, and the imperfections of others allows us all to move forward with lighter loads. The stories and memories we hurt ourselves with are often ghosts, events involving people who are long dead and far in the past. We can choose to bless them and lay them to rest.

I don’t want to haul around painful memories, toxic garbage, the futility of trying to control life and ineffective behaviors and beliefs. I can’t swim with all that tied to my ankle. I can’t dance. I can’t embrace anything or anyone with an armful of brambles. I can’t create with a heart full of thorns.

I want to be free.

I open my hands.

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Make a Boat

Make a boat
out of who you are
not what you have.
If you don’t know who you are
(Search for the desert between the worlds.
Find the Lady of Bones.
Recollect.
Reassemble.
Bathe in soul.
Birth yourself.)
That is another journey.

Your boat will be small.
You can take no one.
You can take no thing.

Shape your boat with the entirety of your truth.
Shape it with the joy in your hands
and the wisdom in the soles of your feet.
Make a chisel of rage and grief.
Sand with the grit of clarity.
Stain with blood.
Oil your boat with the moisture and musk of your life.
Take your time
And remember
Fear does not float.

When you know the boat is ready,
Sit in it.
Lay the backs of your hands on your knees.
Open your hands.
Let everything go.
Let everything go.

Keep your hands open
So that new things may come.

Without fear
Ask the one who stands just behind your shoulder
The one who shelters your life in the shadow of her wing
To come forward.
She will guide the boat.

Surrender yourself to your boat,
to the water,
to your guide.

Find your breath.
Stay there.
Find your heartbeat.
Stay there.
Keep your hands open.
Rest.

Don’t stand up in the boat!
Don’t throw yourself out of the boat!
Don’t you want to see where you are going?

Look. See how the feathers on her wing
trail in the water?

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Once Upon A Time…

Stories.  How many stories can you tell about your life?

I think story has always been deeply embedded in the human experience.  Every piece of art tells a story.  We read, watch television, go to movies, listen to the news, fall in love with music.  Stories, all.

Stories teach, entertain, connect, inspire and guide us.

Stories are prisons and torture chambers.  They brainwash and manipulate.  They can be powerfully limiting.

The paradox of story lies in the power we give it.

Think about a story from your own life.  Something painful.  Likely it’s a story you’ve told yourself many times.  It’s important.  It’s part of who you are and how you understand yourself.  It’s a place from which you look at the world.  It’s absolutely True.  You know.  You were there.  It was such a crippling experience you can’t ever, ever forget.

Stories can’t happen in a void, so there’s an event of some kind, an action, a word, a relationship, other characters in your story.

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Let’s say your story is about four people who spend an hour together on a walk.  In that hour everybody sees, smells and hears, thinks and feels many things.  There’s conversation.  After that walk, and maybe for years afterward, each of those four people can tell a story about that day, that walk, that experience.  Every one of those stories is partly true.  Every one of those stories is inadequate and incomplete.  The truest story is the one all four people tell together.  If one person’s story is refused, denied, disbelieved or lost, all four people have lost something important out of that hour of their lives.  They’ve lost an opportunity for understanding, for compassion, for connection and for becoming just a little bit bigger.

The thing about story is that we create it.  Something happens.  We have an experience.  We have feelings, like mad, glad, sad or scared.  We have thoughts about our feelings.  We make up a story.  We tell it to ourselves over and over again as we try to make sense of our experience, or recover from some hurt.  We believe our story to the point that we refuse to consider changing it.  We behave as if our story is True.

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Now we have a story that imprisons us.  The story has all our power.  We hurt people, break relationships and viciously defend our story.  We will kill people, including ourselves, to maintain our story.  Not only that, others must accept our story in its entirety.  They must never question it, add to it or take away from it.  Our story becomes us.  A threat to our story becomes a threat to our life.

We’ve made something up, chosen to believe in it and now it rules us.

A lot of people talk about truth and lies as though one is black and one is white.  As a story teller, a writer and a human being, I question that.  What is truth, really?  If I was walking with you on that day and I saw a beautiful grass snake and you saw a dangerous serpent, which one of us is lying?  What is the truth?  I was charmed, you were horrified.  So, I must be a sensitive scientist type with big glasses and a mouthful of Latin.  And you’re a beautiful, sexy woman with big boobs and brown eyes who needs to be taken care of in the terrifying outdoors.

There.  That’s my story.  I’m sticking to it.  Don’t you dare try to give me a different version.

See what I mean?

Isn’t the truth that two people saw a snake and had two different experiences and sets of feelings around it?  Don’t we all have histories, fears, beliefs, prejudices, expectations and filters through which we experience life?  Are yours right and mine wrong?  Are mine right and yours wrong?

Can’t we allow room for everyone to experience what they experience?

Some people lie, deliberately and with intent.  We all know people like that.  We learn quickly not to trust them.

Some people distort.  They’re caught up in their story about themselves, about the world, about others.  They’ve been deeply damaged and wounded, or they struggle with addiction, or they have health problems, or they take medication, or they struggle with mental illness.  Am I prepared to call them liars?

No.  But I recognize the danger of some of their stories.

Does investment in a distorted story mean the storyteller is not a valuable person worthy of love and compassion?  I hope not.  I’ve my own set of distorted stories.  I think we all have.

Other, very dangerous people deliberately manipulate with story.  They invalidate yours in favor of theirs.  They tell you you’re wrong, you didn’t understand, you’re too sensitive, you’re too dramatic, you’re too crazy; you’re unfair, mean, disloyal, bad, a liar.  They tell you your story didn’t happen, that they didn’t hit you, even though there’s blood in your mouth.

So what do we do about story—ours and everyone else’s?

Maybe the most important thing is to be aware that much of what’s happening in our head is a story.  It might be partly true.  It might not be.  It’s certainly part of something larger than our point of view.  Our feelings are ours and we need to honor them, but our thoughts about our feelings can become a real problem.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

We could ask others about their stories.  We could be open, curious, nonjudgmental, compassionate, respectful and prepared to be enriched by someone’s perceptions and experiences.  We could, in short, build healthy connection.

If we’re holding tight to a story that hurts us, angers us, or is otherwise destructive, we could go to other characters in the story, tell them how we feel and ask for help understanding the situation.

We can build trust and respect with ourselves.  We can claim the power and dignity to form our own opinions about others, based on our own observations and experience, and decide when to build connection and when to limit it.  We can refrain from repeating destructive stories to or about others.  We can take responsibility for our own rigidity and blind spots; our intolerance, injustice and poor communication skills, and own that we might make mistakes in judgement.

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

We can be wary and watchful of people who impose their stories on us.  Some people use story like a hammer and chisel, relentlessly splitting connection and relationship.  In the end they hurt themselves the most, but many a relationship has been lost because of this kind of behavior.

We can pay attention to red flags such as feeling confused, feeling torn, feeling overwhelmed, feeling exhausted by drama, and feeling dragged down or being asked to keep destructive secrets.  Healthy people in our lives who truly love us will never try to split us from others or force us to make a “them or me” choice.  Healthy people do not share destructive personal stories about others publicly, nor do they tolerate or enable this kind of behavior.  Healthy people communicate honestly, directly and clearly and recognize the ineffectiveness of black and white thinking.

In the end, our only power lies within the circumference of our own lives.  If we want others to give us a chance to speak when someone tells a distorted story about us, we must do the same for them.  If we want to be heard, understood and treated with respect and compassion, we must extend those to others.  If we’re hurt and angry, we must find appropriate and effective ways to talk about that, either with a professional or with others in our story.  We can’t control what others say and believe about us.  We can only live the most authentic lives possible and hope that our actions and words speak for themselves.  We can be responsible for our own stories.

For more on the power of story, here’s another blog you might be interested in.  Same subject, different writer.  It’s titled Who Are You?

Also, here’s a link to a remarkable teacher, Byron Katie, who asks, “Who are you without your story?”  I highly recommend her.

Do your stories about yourself limit you?  Do your stories about others limit them?  Can you consider another version of one of your stories?  What needs to happen for you to revise one destructive story you’ve created?

All content on this site ©2016
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted