By Therese Jacobs-Stewart
Some people are “shameless” alcoholics. My friend Tommy R., for instance, talks about the many people he infected with AIDS while using, and the countless lives he endangered when driving drunk. Tommy says feeling shame for his harmful acts has been necessary, even helpful, to his recovery.
Others, beneath the bravado of drugs and alcohol, are so deeply shameful, that it is debilitating rather than transforming. In my case, feelings of shame predated my drug use. I was attempting to medicate that emotional pain. But the “relief” was temporary. Post numbness, the unbearable shame was still there—waiting.
Shame is defined as the painful belief that we are inherently defective. When I began my recovery, I couldn’t remember a time I didn’t believe that I was “not good enough.” Shame was more than a passing emotional state; it was the “truth.” Any true spiritual freedom depended on healing this wound.
I thought my sense of being defective came from growing up in an alcoholic family, shaped by the experience of my father’s frequent criticism and rage. Then, too, his drunkenness was often public. I felt exposed and mortified that “all the neighbors knew” of our family difficulties.
I’ve come to understand that shame is more complex than being an adult child of an alcoholic, and it can be combated so long as you know what you’re up against.
Find the Source
For some, shame is inherited from past generations. What our ancestors don’t resolve is passed on to us. For example, if a mother or father carries shame from their youth—a family member was an alcoholic, they experienced abandonment or abuse, or there are skeletons from generations past—they are likely to feel inadequate as a parent. In an attempt to exonerate their feelings of inadequacy, they may expect perfection from their kids, who in turn develop their own feelings of inadequacy—the pattern continues. A child can also absorb their parent’s shame through osmosis, simply by breathing what hangs in the emotional air.
Shame can also be acquired through how others treat us. Poor treatment, especially from powerful figures like our parents or caretakers, leaves an emotional imprint. Verbal or nonverbal messages of not being good enough, not being wanted, or not being valued, evoke shame in a child. Even worse, if hit, sexually abused or shunned, the imprint of shame is deep and long-lasting.
Finally shame can be earned through our own harmful acts, such as lying, stealing, or self-destructing to keep our drug habit alive. The experience of dependency on alcohol or drugs, in and of itself, engenders shame. We teach ourselves—every day in every way—that we are not enough the way we are; we are not capable of handling life’s difficulties, we need our “friend” alcohol or drugs or sex or food or (pick your poison).
In the case of a shame-based identity, it isn’t that we feel shame about doing “bad things.” Rather, we believe that we ourselves are bad.
Moving on through mindfulness
Shame can begin to heal through mindfulness practice. In meditation, we watch the mind whip up a storm of self-loathing or bitterness or resentment. We notice that our thoughts come and go and circle around to repeat themselves. From day-to-day, there may be a new situation, but we are running the same, familiar drama. Once we develop even a tidbit of an observing self, we can start to recognize and silence the mean tone of shame-based thoughts, judgments and name-calling that we direct toward ourselves (and usually others, too).
Awareness acts as a mindfulness bell in our mind, “Ding! Ding! That was being mean to yourself.” For me, recognizing the tone of shame-based thoughts was a breakthrough. For too long I believed thoughts like, “That was stupid,” or “You aren’t good enough,” were reality.
I had a spiritual director, Sister Mary Sharon Riley—now retired—who used to say, “Noticing shaming, destructive thoughts is like learning to recognize the smell of a rotten egg in your refrigerator. Once you recognize that stinky odor, you don’t forget the stench.” Even a smidgeon of awareness loosens the grip of shame on our psyche. There is a crack for the light to shine through, space for hope and kind- ness to kindle.
Mindfulness meditation also helps us stop identifying with our shameful thoughts.
We begin to realize they are but delusion built on our history, and we allow gradual “maybe nots” to pop into our consciousness. Perhaps the stinky thought is not true. Maybe it is just an idea I have about myself. A notion born from how my grandparents felt about themselves, or the parenting I experienced, or the way others treated me. Just maybe. Meditation teaches that thoughts are just thoughts. And mindfulness helps us keep something besides rotten eggs in our refrigerator.
Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart is the author of Mindfulness and the 12-Steps: Living Recovery in the Present Moment. She can be reached at MindRoads.com.
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