The feeling of shame is one of the most painful feelings there is. For many people, the discomfort they feel in relationships and the pain associated with a breakup, stems from shame. But most of us don’t really understand shame, and have a hard time even recognizing it when we are experiencing it! Shame is so powerful it can keep us from doing what we know we should do, and it can make us do things we know we shouldn’t. Shame is sometimes called the closest emotional state to death.
Shame can destroy relationships and it can prevent people from even going after a relationship they really want. Shame is defined as the painful emotion associated with the thoughts or beliefs: I’m bad, I’m not enough, I’m not good enough, I’m wrong, etc. Shame says, “You’re not good enough! No one could ever love you. You don’t deserve love. You’re disgusting. They don’t like you. Don’t even try reaching out.”
It’s understandable that these kinds of thoughts and beliefs could keep just about anyone from having a satisfying, loving relationship! But here’s the thing: it’s totally normal to experience shame! What’s more, our ability to experience shame is directly tied to our ability to empathize and connect with others. Psychopaths, for example, don’t feel shame. Our ability to feel shame implies that we have some understanding of and actually care about how others see us.
I’ve been dealing a lot lately with my own experience of shame, so it’s been on my mind. My guide in this journey has been the amazing Brené Brown. Most people who have heard of Brené are familiar with her TED talk on vulnerability. She also studies and talks and writes about shame. I’ve recently listened to the the audio version of her book, Rising Strong. In this book she talks about dealing with the painful feelings of shame that are natural after experiencing a setback or defeat.
In my ruminations on shame, I considered the question: What is the opposite of shame? At first the obvious answer popped into my head: pride, of course. But no, pride has tinges of shame implied in it’s own definition: we strive for pride so we can avoid shame. When we are feeling pride it is in contrast to shame.
What then is the true opposite of shame? The next thought that came was pleasure, as pleasure can be enjoyed for it’s own sake, and when we are feeling pleasure it is hard to also feel shame at the same time, but, no, pleasure or enjoyment is not really the opposite of shame. For example, what about schadenfreude, or the taking of pleasure in another’s misfortune? Or the pleasure derived from addictive behaviours?
A key factor about shame is its closeness to death. When we are in heavy shame we want to not exist. We want to erase ourselves. We want to die. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, self-harm and suicide. Shame and death are linked.
Then it came to me: the opposite of shame is creativity. Creativity is the creation of something new. It is linked with life and expansion. To create requires hope.
But both creativity and shame spring from vulnerability.
Think of a seed. Tight within the shell, the seed is dormant. But when the shell becomes moist with water (in symbolic language read: emotion) the seed becomes vulnerable. At this point two possibilities exist: the seed can sprout and grow, or it can rot and die. Out of vulnerability there are two paths: creativity or shame. Life/expansion/growth or death/retraction/shriveling.
This is one reason that having creative outlets is so vital to living a healthy human life. We all feel tender emotions and experience vulnerability. But do we express that vulnerability creatively, to create deeper intimacy within a relationship, or do we create music, poetry, artwork to express our emotions? Or do we get lost in a negative shame spiral, eating our emotions, drinking in order to stop feeling, lashing out at those we care about the most, or engaging in other self-harming or self-sabotaging behaviours?
Working with my creative mandala process is one way that I have developed over almost twenty years to transmute challenging, shame-triggering emotions into creative gold.
After one particularly challenging breakup in 2011, I almost gave up on finding love. I was in so much pain and shame around my “poor choices” in relationships that I doubted my own lovability and my ability to participate in a functional relationship. I did my mandala process, and the questions I asked were: Why did the breakup happen? What am I supposed to learn? How do I move forward?
The images I got were of golden light, and gold coins, a puppy who was very excited to see me and licked my face. On the puppy was a red rose. And I had the distinct impression that Ganesh and other guides and guardians were smiling—this was a gift.
Here is part of what I wrote after creating the mandala image:
Breakup needed to happen because it wasn’t giving me what I really want. I had been having trouble even recognizing and voicing what I really want—affection, love, devotion, faithfulness, and excitement [enthusiastic, happy-to-see-you attitude] that are represented by the dog (and the rose)….was left with a feeling of a full heart and hope for the future.
The inspiration from this process gave me the hope I needed to continue forward and I ended up meeting my partner, Joe, one month later. Joe is my “puppy who is happy to see me” (Joe has a very positive, enthusiastic attitude that always cheers me up) and carries a red rose (love and romance). I do truly feel that Joe is a gift in my life and I am grateful for our partnership and connection every single day. I’m so glad I did not give into my own shame and doubt and give up on finding love.
It’s so easy to become jaded and afraid in the process of finding love. It can feel so tempting to retreat back into our shell thinking we can stay safe. But the path of love is the path of growth and creativity and expansion. Yes, it also involves vulnerability, and sometimes shame and pain. But there is also tremendous growth potential, and tremendous potential for joy. Say yes to life. Say yes to creativity. Say yes to joy. The journey is worth it.
If you want to experience my mandala process yourself, sign up for my workshop at East West Bookshop in Seattle on May 23rd! More info here: https://www.eastwestbookshop.com/collections/may-2018-events/products/may-23-2018-wednesday-6-30-8-30pm-mandala-inspiration-playshop-with-una-drake
What are some ways that you deal with vulnerability? Leave your comments below!