This month at Curios, we’re exploring #hardfeelings. Read on to learn more about A.J.’s take on shame and acceptance.
As a child, I felt overwhelming shame about my sexuality. Because I was gay, I thought I was different than every other human I had ever met. My shame said I didn’t fit in, and it was a very convincing argument. I came to believe that in order to be accepted and liked by everyone else (anyone else), I needed to make them feel “good” in some way when they were around me. I needed to reward them for not rejecting me like I feared they would, or even “should”. So if someone didn’t like me, it was “my fault”. This belief implied that their feelings were my responsibility.
You can probably imagine some of the strategies this mindset engendered; repressing my sexuality, people-pleasing, inauthentic “niceness”, forgoing my own needs in order to placate others, and so on. I feared and avoided all hard feelings, both in myself and others. Hard feelings equaled rejection in my mind. So I went out of my way to enforce bland pleasantness. I’ll act happy if you act happy and then we’ll all be “happy” together, right? In this way, hard feelings—especially shame—became a kind of dark secret. To express them was “rude”, to feel them was “weak”, and to dwell in them was “unhealthy.”
Hard feelings are “hard” because they feel so f#@king unpleasant. Our body produces a range of felt sensations, some that we experience as pleasurable, some that we experience as neutral, and some that we experience as uncomfortable. Though all of these feelings are temporary and transient, even the hard ones, they can be very difficult to tolerate in the moment. But we have these hard feelings for a reason, of course; they aren’t just our body trying to torture us, presumably they helped our ancestors survive. Hard feelings are our body’s way of communicating that it perceives something as needing urgent attention, action, repair, or change. Hard feelings help motivate us to meet our needs through the painful power of aversion and repulsion.
And one of the hardest “hard” feelings we have is shame. Shame is our body’s way of motivating us towards competence, self-consciousness, and belonging with others (which, as social animals, is arguably our primary need in life). Shame is a signal that we may not be showing up in the world in the way that we expected, in the way that we want, and the acute unpleasantness of shame highlights exactly where we’ve fallen short of our idealized sense of self. Shame often seems to suggest that by not meeting these expectations, we are in danger of becoming disconnected from our group, from our loved ones, which is one of our worst fears and a threat to our health and happiness.
So shame is important and protective, but its utility is largely contingent on how we interpret it.
Anytime our desired expectations aren’t met, especially in a social context, shame is likely to be triggered inside of us. This will almost always feel unpleasant in our body, that’s unavoidable. But what we decide that unpleasant feeling means is negotiable (though shame is a tough negotiator). As children, we come to associate different feelings and emotional experiences with specific interpretations that colour the way we think for the rest of our lives, more or less. When our stomach rumbles, we come to interpret that as meaning we are hungry. And when the fire of anger floods our system, we often come to interpret that as a sign that we need to defend ourselves.
But these interpretations aren’t always accurate. Sometimes what we think is hunger is actually just a stomach ache, or an unconscious strategy to distract ourselves from boredom, anxiety, or shame. And anger can be triggered by a misunderstanding, or exhaustion, even hunger, and may not mean that we need to defend ourselves so much as take a nap or eat an apple.
The same is true for shame. As children, we learn to associate the discomfort of shame with specific, often disempowering messages, usually along the lines of “I’m different, bad, and alone”. These interpretations get wired into our brain and become our default, conditioned response whenever shame pops up from then on. So even when we haven’t actually made a mistake, haven’t actually done anything “wrong”, or haven’t actually endangered our connection with our loved ones, if shame gets triggered inside of us, we will likely blame ourselves anyway and assume the worst possible interpretation of events—it’s all my fault, everyone probably hates me now, I must be worthless.
And because these disempowering interpretations of shame get wired into us at such an impressionable young age, they aren’t just casual opinions we can easily discard—they become embodied beliefs, ingrained into our nervous system in an unconscious and deeply stubborn way. This means that in the short term, I find there is much more utility in accepting them and learning to manage them like a chronic condition, as opposed to trying to reject or overpower them (which usually just buries them even deeper in our unconscious where they often wield even more invisible power over us).
So the key is just to notice these interpretations. To notice the messages that come up when we feel shame. That way we can learn to accept them, manage them, and work around them. When the all too common interpretation of shame comes up that says we are “different, bad, and alone”, for example, we can just feel it and let it pass without acting on it, knowing that all emotions are in fact temporary, no matter how permanent or powerful they may feel in the moment of activation. And once we’ve let that unpleasant feeling and the old beliefs associated with it pass, then we can honour that those messages aren’t actually true! Feeling shame doesn’t make us “different”, everyone feels shame, it is one of our primary emotions. And feeling shame doesn’t mean we are “bad”, it just means we have something to learn to better refine our expectations for ourselves in the future. And it doesn’t mean we are “alone” either, at the very least, if all else fails, we still have billions of other humans to connect with all around us in our global village, we still have our all-important relationship with ourselves, and if you’re a religious or spiritual person, you still have an opportunity to connect with and belong to the universe or an all-loving God of your choosing.
The next time shame comes up for you, I encourage you to pay close attention and try to determine, what messages are commonly associated with your shame? And then, when you notice those messages arising in the future, see if you can just accept them and let them pass naturally without acting on them or believing them. Remember, just because you feel “different, bad, and alone”, that doesn’t mean it’s true! In fact, we all feel different, bad, and alone sometimes, because we all feel shame. So ironically, feeling different, bad, and alone actually means you are the same, you are normal, and you belong with everyone else!
Watch us talk about navigating shame with A.J. on Thursday, 12/17/20 @ 4 PM PST