I’ve worked with shame all my life – which means, I have studied it deeply within myself, and have extensive training in working with shame with my clients. I am certified in the clinical work of Healing Shame originated by Bret Lyon and Sheila Rubin: their website is a great resource for anyone seeking out respite and comfort amidst this most difficult of all human emotions.
Brody is my psychotherapy client – and a psychotherapist himself. In one particular session, he shares with me what happens when he goes into a room full of people; the distress of it for him, the sheer physiological activation of his nervous system, the sweating, his whole body being on high alert. And as he tells me more about what occurs to him under these circumstances, I listen, with care and attention.
Only recently has he been able to identify and acknowledge that this difficult experience is shame: there has been so much shame about shame in his life that to even mention this taboo territory as he shares this with me brings about a twinge of distress in his lower chest. To find out loud and clear that shame is universal has been very humanizing for Brody. Realizing everybody experiences shame is reparative of his being outcast – because it feels as if he alone seems to feel shame; and no one else even mentions it.
Shame is universal, one of the basic array of affects we are born with. Shame is our built-in biological regulator informing us that our moving toward something we find interesting or exciting has run into an obstacle. Shame, in its healthy forms, keeps us safe, informing us when we’ve overstepped boundaries and run the risk of hurting others. Shame is the breaking of the interpersonal bridge – and shame then warns us later that we may be approaching that crucial point of rupture again, and we need to take care.
Examples abound in early life, particularly in the taboo zones, such as sexuality. Young children are naturally sexual, but have to learn to regulate and control these interesting and exciting experiences. The moment when a child stimulating their own genitals is told not to do that is exactly the moment at which shame announces there’s an obstacle to the lovely excitement of it, and shuts it down. We have shame around sex because sex is one of the most profoundly interesting and exciting things we can do, and like shame, sex is universal for us – and societal conditioning must find a way to regulate it.
Later in life, both the sexuality and the shame will disappear into the taboo darkness. Sexuality is disallowed, on the surface of our daily life anyway, but shame, the earliest regulator of sexuality vanishes even more deeply into the dark.
And where does the early, innocent, loving curiosity of the child disappear to? What happens to the unselfconscious interest of the child in everybody around them? The natural affect of shame, a primordial biological signal announcing obstacles to excitement and interest gradually becomes the power wielded by our conceptual mind. (For more on this, see Wrongness.) The power of shame as an instrument of external conditioning – essential to finding out the rules by which the world plays – gradually becomes internalized.
And for some people – Brody amongst them – this internalization can produce some rather hellish experiences. At some point in his life he realized that There is something wrong with me had become a kind of theme song, playing sub-vocally in the background of his consciousness. This sentence represented layer upon layer of the freezing and paralyzing effect of shame gathered in the dark of himself until such time as he turned, with loving and informed support toward the experience and started to be freshly, newly, interested in it because it is not how he was born.
Something happened to bring about this shame-saturation in Brody, and likewise, something healing can happen to change it. But this healing could only happen once he became conscious that There is something wrong with me was a condensed expression, a summation of layer upon layer of believed-in shame experiences laid down, close to invisibility in his inner world.
Curiously enough, many of his experiences of shame distress happened as he underwent psychotherapy training, the ongoing shaping and honing of skill and receptivity that may go on the whole lifetime of the professional therapist. But he marveled – perhaps marveling at shame’s remarkable ability to hide itself – that he had been in so many of these gatherings of gifted and profoundly empathic clinicians, of brilliant theoreticians and synthesizers, yet until very recently only rarely had someone noticed that what he struggled with, in these groups of peers is shame. That what he’s struggled with socially all of his life is shame. And most poignantly, that this difficulty is also a doorway to the deepest essence of himself, and the full living of it.
Seeing and Being Seen
I’ll go on telling the story of Brody’s therapy session, as he continued to share it with me. As our therapeutic relationship deepened, it gradually became apparent to him that I was connected with him in a way that was genuine and empathic. In response to my care, something in his own heart began, quietly and shyly, to open; a gentle tide of safety wove back and forth between Brody and myself. He knew intuitively that I was a trustworthy companion with whom he could embark on this ride into the depths of himself, and because of this intuition he begin to tell me about some of his inner experiences of being in a room full of people.
He talked about wanting to see – and wanting to be seen. But I began to perceive from the distress that came up for him that being seen was problematic for him. In a moment of inspired intuition, I joined him within his experience and asked, ”What do the people seeing you see?”
I asked Brody if he might turn toward his experience within himself – with him knowing that I would accompany him, that I would be there with him, in this most fearsome and difficult of places. Because he knew already, in his inner half-shadows, what it was like to feel people looking at him – but he felt too alone, too unbearably alone to be able to safely let the suffering of that experience in and become conscious about it.
Unbearable aloneness is the quintessential territory of shame. Shame is the deepest and most powerful regulator of our lives as social beings. The weapon shame ultimately wields is the risk of feeling separated from the rest of our kind, from the shared social aspect of us which ensures our survival. And, at the far end of the spectrum of possibility, this sharing of relating invites a blossoming of love that is profound and unconditional.
The power of shame is the way it makes us feel separate from others. After we’ve experienced it a few times the merest murmur – of the threat, the possibility of it – is enough to make us dance protectively away from the danger with every ounce of energy we have. Once this installation of protections has become habitual and encrusted, and the accumulated layers of the freezing and paralyzing effect of shame have vanished into unconscious darkness, a shame-bound character is the result.
Brody tells me how shameful that sounds to him, as he shares it with me: ‘I feel like a shame-bound character.’ Someone uncomfortable around others, someone habitually given to being alone. Someone who finds themselves repeatedly tucking the light of their life under the rug–all because of the risk of shame. And naturally, sadness garlands the shame.
But as he drops down into his heart, and pauses there a while longer, gathered in by the possibility that there is something else in the genesis of this, something of the nature of love, of wisdom, of the light trying to make its way in through the crack in everything, what happens next in the session makes complete sense.
He was able to be with his experience as he responded to my question, as he paused there, not-alone, trembling into new consciousness because he’s always wanted to answer this question; What do the people seeing me see? But the shadow of the whip of shame had kept him feeling too alone to do so.
They see my shame, he said to me, his voice resonating with emotion.
He could feel the shame, a painful nimbus or miasma centered around his head. And for the first time in his conscious life, there was a glimmer of separation between himself, his essence — and the experience of shame. And then there was the marvel of becoming conscious, of essence clarifying itself.
The Gift of Shame
The gift here is of conscious essence becoming clarified, for a moment unhooked from the shame-bound identity which had so long agonized and mystified him. The more obvious levels of identity – New Jersey-accented, male, vegetarian, prefers scotch to wine, and well past 60 – can all readily be seen as distinctly different from essence. But the deeper levels of essence only became apparent to him by diving into the depths where essence has always been unconsciously bound – in this case, by shame.
What is this essence? I ask. He says he can best reply to this question by talking about the times when he sees others, and how that is for him. He tells me that the goodness of that seeing reaches its highest peak when he’s functioning as a psychotherapist, seeing the other, his client or patient, from a space that feels very much like pure presence.
And, he hastens to add as he shares this with me, this presence includes all the things that happen in his body and mind – the images, energies, thoughts, sensations, and intuitions that pass through him while he’s in the role of therapist. All of these are seamlessly noticed by presence, just as presence relaxedly takes in the seen sense of the person he’s sitting with.
You can notice the very same presence for yourself by turning your attention inward, and staying close to your experience (and away from being run by and believing your thoughts and beliefs about your experience). Isn’t the seeing, the noticing of these words on screen or page effortlessly served by what we ordinarily call awareness, or consciousness – and isn’t that also the essence of what we are? When words and descriptions fall away for a moment, doesn’t this essence remain utterly unaltered, completely relaxed, and absolutely free?
Brody says he doesn’t talk about this essence very often, especially not to other psychotherapists. He’s perfectly clear it’s everybody’s birthright, but he feels vulnerable talking about it, which means it is potentially the territory of shame. In this particular psychotherapy session, sensing my sincere engagement with him, and feeling my intuitive resonance with what he’s shared with me about presence, Brody named his own sense of vulnerability – and then pressed on to talk more with me about the experience of just being presence as a psychotherapist.
A flood of feeling begins to well up in him: how important this has always been to him, how much deep connection happens within himself and with others when this presence, this essence, fully opens and is allowed. He has a sense this is our original ground of being, of love; the ground of being he was born from, born as, and born into.
At this point in the session my eyes, and Brody’s eyes are soft and moist; he’s done marvelous work in sharing with me the backdrop of resource from which he could turn to the question I asked him earlier, of what people see when he comes into a room.
And it is from this backdrop of resource in presence, in essence, he says that he suddenly and for the first time became conscious of how shame is woven in with his essence; when he replied to me, What they see is my shame. His identity as shame-bound underwent a tectonic alteration; essence, and shame, momentarily separated from each other in an unforgettable instant of liberation.
Oftentimes, psychotherapy is viewed as reparative of dysfunction, or even illness. And there is indeed suffering and distress in the dark places to where this session went. But interwoven in that dark place is a particular kind of light, a light that is so difficult to notice that it has to dance in great intimacy with dreadful uncomfortableness before attention will go there, and liberate the light.
The kind of attention that can go there is accessible to everyone, because it is that same light we all share. Shame seems to sequester this light, for some of us, and the loving, open-hearted, curious attention that is the gift of good psychotherapy goes right up to that ancient enclosure, knocks gently on the door, and asks May I come in there with you? The interpersonal bridge is restored and there is the cellular sense of being accompanied, with deep care and curiosity. Then essence, the light of presence can tell the story – and celebrate the dark journey it took to find the light.
Let’s start: you’re a newborn infant, and your mom’s whole face – her whole body, her touch, her hands, and her heart go all soft and marveling the moment she sees you, the moment your soft and total body is placed on her body and for the first time she really, really knows what love is, because there are no barriers to love in you, not at all, and all her barriers fall away.
She knows now that she always felt what love really is, despite the fact that a whole bunch of thoughts and beliefs kept her enclosed, and then you arrived, and you had no thoughts and no beliefs, you were just wide open, and so she fell open (the way she’s always longed to fall open) and the two of you fell open into each other, and the openness has no limits. That’s right; the openness has no limits – and you, and everyone else were born here, in this place that has no limits to the openness and to the love – and this openness, and the limitless love is still right here, and if you feel the music that’s playing right now you’ll notice how you can’t tell where the music stops and you start, because the moving is beautiful, and the beat, divine.
This love play with your mom that started at birth really has no end, but for just about the same amount of time that you were in the womb it plays out between you and your mom out there, in the sunlight, the two of you connected with each other in a way that nobody can explain because it’s the deepest kind of connection that exists in the whole universe. Every momentary flicker of gesture that shows on your face, every waving of your arms and legs, and every spontaneous flicker of life in your innocent body that absolutely needs protection and nurturance and care, every whisper of this movement delights your mom, and she becomes spontaneous, because love has lit her up in a way she has always dreamed of and never before this moment realized, and the spontaneous movements in her face, and the way her energy flows towards you in this love without limits absolutely thrills and fills you, and you shine back at her.
Never to Forget
She stirs when you shine back at her, and how she stirs, in the core of her, moves the core of you and you can’t help the delight coming up in waves out of your belly. Nor can she help the same movement in herself, and her love and laughter and your pleasure flow as if one being is moving in two. The middle of you, the core of you, the very quick and essence of you will never forget this, and even when all memories have vanished this divine beauty will persist, beyond touching, a taste of the divine communing with itself.
There are nine months of this, then ten, and then sometime around the end of the 11th month, before you even turn a-year-old, a new energy begins. The first time it happens is a complete shock. It’s shocking because you are so attuned to her by this point that nothing can happen in you without it moving in her, nor any movement in her can occur without it flowing into you, a communion that feels eternal and blissful, a love that will last forever, and never come to an end.
But the newness happens: she’s feeding you and the food is too hot and hurts your mouth, and you burst into tears and just for a moment, her face goes cold, a flicker of disapproval. You’ve never known this before – it has never happened before. Then the love waterfall starts again, pouring into the space where that shock was, easing it, and probably not until a day later does something like that happen again, when you’re exploring in the kitchen and your hands go up towards the power outlet, and her face rapidly contracts into severity and her voice becomes hard as she moves you rapidly away from the danger, this time saying loudly No!
And you don’t know why, but you do know that her speaking to you like that affects you differently than you’ve ever been affected before; your face gets hot, and the delight inside you freezes, and your shoulders slump, and tears of distress come flooding up because the love has moved into a new and foreign place in you, a place where you’re not sure anymore that it is love, because it feels tight and painful. And although she picks you up right away, saying Oh bunny-love, I didn’t mean to scare you, but that’s dangerous, and the smell of her and the feel of her and her warmth make you feel safe again, as you hold onto her; but something is different, something is changing, and a tiny spot deep inside where love has always lived brightly has gone dark and tense.
Doubt has been born. In the wide openness of unconditional trust is a shadowed spot of remembered pain. Something about you in that moment was wrong, when the face of love went cold, or the voice of love became harsh. Before this, nothing could ever be wrong about you, in the wide-open gorgeousness of love: you were safe, you were at ease, you were relaxed, you could completely trust yourself without self-consciousness. But now a tiny portion of your being is occupied by doubt. By remembered shame. And the unlimited background of you begins, in the merest way, to be hidden by this contraction.
But once again everything blossoms into love without limits. These moments when you seem wrong last hardly any time at all. They seem to hurt her as much as they hurt you, and all she wants – all you want, and yearn for – is for the communion to start again. Feeling separate and alone seems close to unbearable.
What you don’t yet know is that feeling alone, different, separate, and uprooted is going to gradually become your identity as you make your way into adult membership of the tribe. Everybody feels separate from each other and separate from the world by the time they reach adulthood. What you can’t know, as the process of identifying as a separate person colonizes your being, is that this shamed wrongness will gradually come to seem like who you are. When you say ‘I’ you will no longer be reflecting the endless luminosity you were born as.
By the time you’re a year old you’re getting used to all this: much later in your life, as an adult you pick up a research report* by an eminent neuroscience researcher called Allan Schore, and he affirms that all the research clearly says that about every nine minutes, between 9 and 18 months old, mom’s do something that seems to provoke shame in a baby, always because they’re trying to tell the baby how to be more welcome, and more acceptable as they begin to mature beyond early infancy.
There’s no other way for mom to carry out the second most important task of your joined lives: first, she loves you unconditionally, and then, she helps you to join the tribe. She starts to shape you and train you. She starts to tell you what’s important, and what’s not. She doesn’t use language for all this –because for most of this time your language is very rudimentary. She uses her face, her gestures, her voice tonality – and your attunement with her is so perfect, so beautifully fluid that everything that flows through her flows through you, the love – and the shame when the love is interrupted – for your own good, for your own learning and shaping.
All the research says about every nine minutes there’s a dark moment when you feel shame – because mom, helping you with just the same unconditional regard she’s always had is now shaping you to become a person, to gradually shift and change into somebody who controls themselves, who knows when to squelch a tantrum and how to restrain a bowel movement. Sometime much later the adults around you will see you change from someone who is absolutely authentic, innocent and helplessly true to yourself – into someone who can smile on demand, even though you don’t feel like that inside. You’ve learned how to do this by watching the adults who have this particular skill firmly established; of control, and self-alteration, and falsity for the sake of the social good.
What a Person Is
But earlier than this, you don’t know you’re a person. You know only wordlessly and spontaneously that you are, that you exist and be. From inside you feel the beauty of you, the fragility and the innocent openness of you, and the perfect display of you being you without any identity whatsoever: you are just the universe in one more completely unique form, unselfconsciously playing. And the beginning of being a person comes as the shame creates edges and limits in this infinite-love openness. Boundaries begin – hard, made of pain and hiding, and when you cross them, you find yourself unwelcome: then what you naturally are is wrong. Your being, your existing, your open naturalness begins to be encroached by moments of painful contraction in the flow of you – and this shrinkage start to feel like who you really are.
Being unwelcome when love has been so open is hideously painful. Shame is the pain, the deepest emotional whip shaping you, shepherding you forcefully away from the moments where you might feel wrong – because to feel wrong is the deepest agony. To feel wrong is to stop dancing as aliveness itself, the way children dance, and be solidified into an identity, a miserable fixity that – because it is enforced by shame and the secret of it – you can tell nobody about.
Nobody later in life willingly tells another person how deeply flawed they feel, how they struggle with a lack of self-esteem, with a shamed self-identity, how they feel convinced and shamefully certain in the core of themselves, that they are wrong, and bad; inferior, inadequate, worthless, and close to nothing. But these devastating experiences come to some of us because the unutterable openness we are born from, born as, and born into has to learn how to play the game of limitation, the tribal game. And this game, of particular identity begins in due course to hide from us what we really are, the openness. We become identified with a version of ourselves that Mom never intended, but which she fostered anyway.
*Early Shame Experiences & Infant Brain Development, Allan N. Schore, 1998 in Shame: Interpersonal Behavior, Psychopathology, and Culture, Edited by Paul Gilbert & Bernice Andrews
Touching into and then inhabiting emotion and our feeling selves draws us in and down, toward the realm of being where we actually are at all times. Our thought process spins a seemingly entirely different world, of there and then. Emotions and feeling, experienced directly in our bodies have a very different quality of immediacy about them.
“There and then” is the world most of us seem to inhabit, most of the time. Yet whenever a person attains to any kind of bliss, any deep realization of the true nature of things they find they have awakened to now as the divine reality. They also awaken to the endless marvel of our capacity to create futures before they exist – this writing could not be happening without this marvelous gift. But implicit in this creation of futures is the distress of creating a future I who will unquestionably die, even with the best planning in the whole world and the most immense good fortune.
The momentum of our thought process compels us to attend to out there, in the form of circumstances seemingly separate from us which might be changed so then our emotions will be different. Thought focuses on there and then. And thought, by its very nature completely convincingly weaves a world that is separate and other than me: there is me, and my life; the world and I are nose to nose; I am trying to protect myself from what is external to me.
Real and True
What we miss in this hypnosis is that the real and the true is always here in this moment of now. Projecting a fantasized I person out into a fantasized future is an invitation to double-harm: the fantasized I person who exists tomorrow is imaginary, and therefore fragile; and the circumstances of tomorrow are completely beyond our control. Woe betides anybody who identifies with this non-existent character, as almost all of us do almost all of the time.
So what is to be done in therapy when someone shows up asking for help, ideally consisting of removal of pain and addition of pleasure, satisfaction, and joy? When a patient asks for their self to be bettered, healed, improved, or altered?
There are as many answers to this question as there are therapists. And, the answer depends crucially on the client. Some people will be entirely satisfied by cognitive behavioral interventions that give immediate relief, doing the trick they ask for. All they came in for was to get this problem squared away.
I may not be the best therapist for such a client. I’m interested in the largest possible promise of being human, a never-not-present timeless divinity that is utterly individual. To me, suffering is a call for attention to the place, here that hurts or has my attention now. But my thought process always tries to escape here, where the pain is in order to create a different future, one other than now.
If I follow this call for attention to what is present here in the moment I am led inexorably inward and downward. Inwardness refocuses us to the place where our interior reality can be directly experienced, moment by moment. Having made adequate empathic space for the story of self-and-circumstances necessary to set the stage, we turn to the experiences that show up now in the inner space of our bodies.
And, refocused inwardly from the compelling outward flow of events we realize the existence of a quality of presence that we barely know when we first turn toward it. It is never not here. Nor do we have any cultural mirroring – and certainly no depth educational process – about this intrinsic quality of wisdom which reflects everything and is utterly untouched, even by death itself.
Inwardness is contemplative and curious. Not assuming what we ordinarily take for granted opens us to a quality of beginner’s mind that we realize we were born with – and cannot get rid of. As we also realize how much the accumulated junk of belief and conditioning obscures this intrinsic loving luminosity we find we are discovering ourselves anew – for this luminosity is nothing other than our intrinsic self.
Inwardness can reflect thoughts: “The thought just came out of nowhere that there’s something wrong with this process.”
Location, emotional flavor and even a sense of intentionality can be discerned in inwardness: “And now I notice that thought of something being wrong came in from the right side of my head, and I feel slightly nauseous, and very distrustful and anxious, almost as if someone wants me out of this room where we’re talking.”
Body sensations and emotions show up as part of the flow of inwardness: “When you ask that I feel tears rising up in my chest.”; “Hmm, curious – when I mention my mom the whole right side of my body goes all dull and numb.”
Inwardness illuminates images: “You ask me if I can unfold that and I have a sudden image of holding up a golden disk as a shield, and much more important than the fact I’m protecting myself is that I feel completely in love with the way this wonderful disc shields me.”
“Downward” initially refers to below our necks. A common – and enormously helpful – saying has it that “You are never upset for the reasons you think you are.” We always have a reason for our upset – that is to say, we entirely believe the thinking that justifies our distress as existing out there in people and circumstances causing our upset. But pause your thinking for a moment, suspend belief in it for a while and shift attention to your bodily sense of yourself.
If you pause long enough to let the question “What am I really upset about?” infuse you and come to rest in your inner space you’ll discover that the portion of your upset appropriate for you to deal with is entirely in your own world.
It is the clinging to the false that makes the true so difficult to see. Once you understand that the false needs time and what needs time is false, you are nearer the Reality, which is timeless, ever in the now….If you need time to achieve something, it must be false. The real is always with you; you need not wait to be what you are. Only you must not allow your mind to go out of yourself in search.
A space of grace shows up when I work with people. I can’t account for it, neither through my professional training nor in terms of how good or not my life is relationally. Work can be where we give of our best, if we’re lucky. The spontaneous emergence of this space at the very center of my vocation, and the continuing deepening of it in ways I could not imagine nor orchestrate feels like the greatest blessing in my life.
I say “space” because that is the foundation of what I’m doing as a therapist or coach. That I see, feel, hear, and sense from foundationally open space is universal to all sentient beings; but not everybody finds themselves fascinated by it, nor wordlessly studies it, inhabiting it as the deepest truth and mystery over decades. None of us control our most compelling fascinations.
I’m not laying claim to anything when I say that: as far as I can see this basic space, as Buddhists term it will still intrinsically be here when my body has melted back in death into its origin. And yet, the unique perspective or particular point of view of this basic space, the one that you might point to and say “That’s you, you’re Glenn,” is what shows up when I sit with my clients.
The situation of being a coach and therapist has liberated me over years to being my best self in relationship with someone else who comes to me because they are in difficulty, or suffering, who feels confused, or anxious, who wants to know how better to be in relationship with food, or with love and death, or with their own hidden strengths. And while my training shows up interwoven with how I be as my best self, what I experience more and more is simply the capacity to be myself.
And this being my best self is seamlessly mixed in with the free nature of the open space. There’s a quality of being with my experience and the experience of my client that is both deeply intimate with both and completely free to be a lovingly impartial observer of it.
That word intimacy sometimes strikes a problematic chord in therapy, yet it is intrinsic to healing. “Into me I see” someone once suggested to me is the real meaning of the word, and I would say yes, but remember also not only seeing, but also sensing, feeling, swimming closer to being.
Resonant With Grace
And in evoking these richer qualities of experiencing oneself and another a lovingly impartial observer begins the recognition that we see most clearly when the eyes in the center of our chests begin to resonantly open.
I hunt deliberately for this resonance in a session, a truffle dog sniffing for the heart of the matter. And the central vitality inherent in this flow of mutuality when shared heart space begins to open is so different in import and consequence from the story that plays out in our heads that I’m tempted to say we move from face-to-face, interface – to interfaith. The faith experience has little to do with belief and everything to do with stepping into life’s intrinsic trustworthiness, into risk and back into the only place where undivided healing really happens and wholeness lives uninterrupted. Now.