Shame: A Compass or a Storm?
Shame can both makes us lose our way and help us find our way.
Hello everyone! We’re entering that time of year when our commitment to our New Year’s resolutions begins to waver. Have you slipped up yet? Have you felt ashamed of a few choices recently? Great! You’re normal. This week we’re going to look at shame. There’s a lot of talk these days about releasing your shame. We don’t want to hang onto any unnecessary pain but we also cannot dismiss it completely. We need to have a much more mature relationship with shame. Let’s get into it.
ONE FROM THE AGES
Marcus Aurelius on where to focus our efforts:
“Don’t let your reflection on the whole sweep of life crush you. Don’t fill your mind with all the bad things that might still happen. Stay focused on the present situation and ask yourself why it’s so unbearable and can’t be survived.”
ONE FROM TODAY
Leo Babauta, author and creator of Zen Habits, on releasing shame and learning from it:
“When I said shame isn’t very helpful, I didn’t tell the full truth — actually, it’s very useful, in showing us what we think about ourselves.
When we feel shame, it usually is because we’ve done something that we think says something shameful about us. And so it shows us where we believe there is something wrong about us, something inadequate, ugly, unworthy of love.
Of course, that belief is not true. But in order to let go of that ingrained belief, we have to see it first. Shame shows us where that belief lies hidden.”
Source: Mindfully Letting Go of Shame
ONE FROM US
This time of year, grocery stores struggle to keep their produce sections fully stocked. You’ll find empty shelves of both cold and dry produce, especially pre-washed greens and prepared salads.
The shortage doesn’t come from a supply issue. Our import/export system remains intact. It’s not caused by winter temperatures and harvest shortages. It’s simply increased demand. On January 1, grocery stores expect a drastic increase in demand for vegetables. This annual trend is as reliable as turkey for Thanksgiving, cookies for Christmas, and chips for the Superbowl.
Every national grocer prepares for the spike but still struggles to maintain their supply. However, stores rest easy knowing the trend will only last a few weeks. Like clockwork, millions of people shift their eating habits on New Year’s Day. Then, as quickly as they changed, purchase patterns return to normal by mid to late January. The “new year, new me” excitement wanes, and people finally give up the daily salads that they’ve been forcing on themselves.
As you read this, we are now (at least) 12 days into 2021 and entering the phase of New Year’s resolutions when you can no longer rely on your motivation and excitement to keep you on track. This is the critical phase.
You don’t need to maintain a flawless record. You need to be prepared for when you inevitably fail. Not to question your commitment, but this is a fact of life. No one has ever maintained 100% adherence to a new lifestyle pattern. Sustainable success isn’t about perfection, it depends on handling failure well. Changes require a great system, but also emotional preparation for the times that you fail.
If the first two weeks of January are defined by excitement, motivation, and hope, the next two weeks are characterized by guilt, shame, justifications, and excuses. I have literally heard a former nutrition coaching client say, “well I had a cookie at the office so I figured that the whole day was ruined and I might as well order a pizza for dinner.”
It is easy to allow the shame of a single lapse to kick off a cycle of nihilism and self-flagellation. We feel a shameful combination of “none of my past efforts matter anymore, so I might as well give up” and “I’m a horrible person who lacks willpower and strength. I deserve what I get.”
Shame is everywhere in our cultural conversation. “Shaming” is now a high crime. We are reprimanded when we say or do anything to make another person feel mildly uncomfortable. Many now conflate this new societal rule to construe personal fitness values as “fat-shaming.” Brene Brown has multiple best-sellers and is nearly a household name based on her work on shame. Her work often brings me to tears and has many positive societal benefits, but her commercial success cannot be decoupled from the cultural idea that you are perfect just the way you are.
Brene Brown puts forth the idea that “shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” The emotion of shame deactivates our internal drivers of change. I’ve argued in a previous article that shame is a “spotlight that illuminates the exact areas where we need to direct our growth” and, perhaps, the most powerful driver of change.
Both can be true. Whether shame is a destructive force or a positive one depends on two factors: your emotional maturity and the resulting form of shame you experience.
We could never classify all physical pain as negative. Muscle soreness after a workout feels great to those who are familiar with it and expect it. Acute pain from an injury or a bad repetition is a warning bell that tells you something is wrong. This helps you treat your injury or avoid the same fault in the future. Chronic physical pain is negative, but only because we have continually ignored the signal and now adopt the pain as part of our “normal” being. We develop compensations for the weakness or shift our posture and gait to avoid the discomfort. The long term harm comes from our response (or lack thereof) to the original pain.
Shame is similar. Acute shame—from a momentary lapse in judgment, an off-color joke, or an unhealthy choice—helps us course-correct. Shame is a destructive force only to those who ignore its signal. “Shaming” is painful when it points to something that you need to address but have made it your life’s work to suppress, ignore, and hide.
Avoiding chronic shame requires emotional maturity. Rather than take on the shameful choice as part of our identity, we need to be able to feel shame, move through the discomfort, and take action. Emotions are not an immutable aspect of our being or a lifelong sentence that we must endure. Instead, emotions are a biological response to an external situation. They give information just like our five senses. When you feel cold you don’t spiral into thoughts of “well I guess I’m just a cold person, this is my cross to bear.” No, you get up and put on a jacket.
We can define our relationship with shame just like a pilot uses his warning lights. When an alarm goes off in the cockpit, she doesn’t ignore it. Nor does she consider herself a horrible pilot who is unworthy of love. She adds the new information into her plan and makes the necessary corrections to put the flight back on track.
Shame feels uncomfortable, sometimes horrific, but the logic of feels bad = is bad comes from toddler-level thinking. Pain might show us an area to improve. It might also be a paradoxical “reward” for a principled sacrifice, like post-workout soreness or hunger pains while fasting. Maturity is the understanding that if something feels bad we need to investigate further before we judge.
I define shame as an internal alarm, a compass that shows us when our actions are out of alignment with the identity that we deem our true self. We feel bad when we do things that are harmful to our physical bodies or destructive to our internal self-image. This pain is only negative when we ignore the signal and continue to act against our values.
As your initial excitement for your new resolution wanes, know that you are actually entering the most profound stage. Learning to be consistent now, shows you how to be consistent always. When you fail and feel bad about it, you haven’t destroyed your progress. You did something wrong, but that doesn’t mean that you are a bad pilot. Don’t ignore your co-pilot and the warning alarms. Don’t conflate that mistake as defining your worth. You can see that moment of shame as a reaffirmation of your values that inspired you to work for this change in the first place.
Thank you all for reading today. I hope this helps you categorize the struggles that you will inevitably face anytime you commit to a new change.
If you’ve been reading or subscribing since last summer, you might have heard that I broke my arm in June. After surgery and physical therapy, I had the goal (read: hope) that I would be doing handstands again by Christmas. The holidays came and went as I remained woefully right-side-up. But no more. I did my first proper handstand in over 6 months. I was motivated by the recent completion of our new home gym (pictures to come).
I hope all is well in your world, right-side-up or inverted may you be.
Life is too short to be normal!
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