Sunday, 15 June 2014

Shame - quicksand of the soul

One of the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve ever had to work with is shame. It is the thing that can keep people mute and immobile and resides in a place beyond flesh and blood. Carl Jung famously described shame as a “soul eating emotion” and I cannot think of anything more accurate. Shame erodes a person at the core, insidiously shaving off in slivers their ability to be the person they were supposed to be. It chokes potential and ties your shoelaces together as you try to step forward to fulfill your dreams. It drives people to hurt themselves and to end their lives, believing they can never escape it.

"Shame need not crouch, in such an earth as ours. Stand - stand erect: the universe is yours."                 Emily Dickinson 

I would liken it to quicksand of the soul. It has that deceptive cunning quality. When you move to try and free yourself, its components move and shift, allowing you to reach for the surface, before sucking you back down, even harder and farther than before. It lays a heaviness over every part of you, but lets your head remain above ground, gasping for air, while the rest of you is submerged in something you feel you will never escape. In fact it feels like it has become part of you.

People come to believe that shame is a part of them, like a personality trait, but that is simply not true. It does indeed burrow into your very being like a persistent parasite. But a parasite, although it leaves a trail through your whole system, leeches on your nourishment, it is not a part of you – it can be removed. Shame does not have to be a permanent resident. The reason that it feels so persistent is because it is buried so far down underneath everything else that it becomes very hard to reach. It is also a paradox in that the longer we hide from it, the more we try not to feel its full force, the stronger and more persistent it becomes. We are so afraid of feeling shame in its fullness – we believe we will evaporate under its glare – we feel like our very existence depends on turning away from shame.

And yet, it is only in feeling it fully, and still existing, that we can overcome it. Basically shame is a bully. It beats us up all the time. It tells us we’re useless, disgusting, stupid, clumsy, ugly or simply boring. It dares us to step out, step forward, take a chance – all the while holding a trip wire, just so it can mock and watch as we stumble and fall.

"Shame is the lie someone told you about yourself."   Anais Nin

But like standing up to a bully, it is hard to do on your own. I think it takes someone with courage and patience to stand beside you while you face up to shame and put it in its place. It takes gentleness and compassion and bravery – towards yourself. It really is worth it though. Shame is like seeing yourself in a murky puddle when you should be able to see your true self in a sparkling clear pool. Wading through the sludge, fighting through the quicksand and emerging clean is a remarkable thing.

Dr Murphy - signing off (from Virginia, USA…this week)

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