Dr. Brene’ Brown, the country’s current guru of shame, writes that shame and empathy are on the same scale. On one end we have shame, the feeling that when we mess up we are a horrible, awful, unlovable person rather than feeling a case of healthy guilt, which is “Oh crap. That was a mistake. Could have chosen a better option.” It’s the difference between recognizing that our action was less than stellar and hating ourselves for messing up because that means we’re pathetic losers. You get the difference? We all have shame. Some far worse than others, but it’s there rearing its head every now and then. So, far down on the scale of Shame are the characteristics of Fear, Disconnection, and Blame. It’s what happens when we are feeling the full-blown brunt of shame, and it’s never pretty. Hurts like hell.
On the other end of the spectrum is Empathy, the opposite of Shame on Dr. Brown’s scale. Empathy is accompanied by the concepts of courage, compassion, and connection, and that’s not only outwardly directed. This means that if we are “shame resilient” (which we all need to learn, it’s not an innate reflex) when we mess up, we may feel the beginning pangs of shame but then deliver the antidote to that poison pill, which is self-directed empathy. This may look something like, “I hate myself, I’m such a loser!… Oh wait…No I’m not…My action was just a little stupid in that moment…I’m okay…moving on.” It’s the ability to courageously and compassionately find connection with our inner wounds which are always responsible for “shame” attacks. It’s about learning to self-medicate with the neuropeptides responsible for empowerment rather than neuro-chemicals of crippling self-criticism. It starts with simple biology.
When I was a young woman in my twenties, I was lost. Struggling to find my way after losing my mother at the age of nineteen, I threw myself into my career. In my mid-late twenties I was managing the surgery division of a referral veterinary hospital in New England. I was a tyrant. Ugh. I couldn’t own any of my faults, and any time something went wrong I looked for who I could blame. I was also in a relationship at the time with a man who made sure to point out every one of my faults just in case I wasn’t keeping track in that moment. It was clearly my teaching at the time. All of this stuff made for the makings of a really horrible leader. But then something shifted. I discovered Zen Buddhism which was like surgery for my mind; all of my illusions and attachments excised. Suddenly I began to recognize the mechanism in me that searched for others to blame. Because if I accepted the blame I would have to accept my shame, and it was just too big to contend with, or so I thought. The simple recognition began to turn everything around for me.
By the time I reached thirty-one, I had made a complete evolution. Connecting to my soul enabled me to find compassion for myself, and in so doing, I gained the courage to not only face my faults, my occasional errors, but also my shame. Damn, it hurt! I was a raging inferno for ten years. But I found such a euphoric freedom in it that I nearly became addicted to saying, “It’s all my fault! I did it! I showed really poor judgment, didn’t I? Please, look to me for blame! I’ll take it!” I went wild with it. And if felt so freaking good. It still does.
AND it will always be there in my shadow. Others today who are in the same place that I was in my twenties are a real trigger for me. When someone can’t own their stuff, it disgusts me. But only because when I look at them, I see myself. And then I remember that sad young woman who was so desperately trying to keep it together and believed that the only way to do that was to not feel… blame or shame, it’s a blurred line. It’s an invitation for compassion.
That’s the start.