I am reading a book loaned to me by a friend: Mindfulness and the 12 Steps by Therese Jacobs Stewart. This morning I read what Stewart writes about three sources of shame.
- We Can Inherit Shame from Our Family of Origin
She mentions family secrets, things that have gone on in one’s family that makes one fearful that others will find out and these things might cause them to make judgments about us. Many of my friends talk about the culture of alcohol abuse in their families as they were growing up. Stewart also mentions ethnic or cultural histories such as oppression or genocide. After doing volunteer work on an Indian Reservation years ago, I came to feel shame over what the white European Americans did to the indigenous people living on these lands.
- We Feel Shame If We Have Been Treated Badly by Others
Examples Stewart gives are being neglected or emotionally, physically, or sexually abused. Whatever the abuse or neglect situation, children will feel like something is wrong with them. In his book I’m Okay, You’re Okay author Thomas Harris writes at length at how children take in this message that they are not okay. Steward frames the message to self like this: Why wouldn’t Mom or Dad pay attention to me? Maybe I want too much. Maybe they don’t like me. Maybe I am unlovable. Children can feel this way even in families where parents do a good job of parenting. Stewart says that children “absorb shame like a porous sponge soaking in water.” It is the nature of children, being the small, vulnerable members in their situation. I had to deal with some of these feelings even as late as in my 50s.
- We Engender Shame When We Act Badly toward Ourselves or Others
In my experience, the harms I have done to others cause the greatest shame for me. I have learned how to make amends with those I may have harmed and to forgive myself. Most of the time, when I have harmed others, it was not with the intent to hurt. But of course, the fact that I did not intend a harm does not mean that it did not happen. In fact, most harms I have done were done thoughtlessly, when I was operating in my own head, disregarding how others around me might be feeling. Sometimes an amends is for not being sensitive when someone was being hurt.
I really appreciate this analysis about the shame we experience in life. Knowing the source of my shame helps me to know what to do about it. When shame has its source in my family of origin or in my culture, I can be honest about my family’s or my culture’s black mark, note my own participation in it and become part of “breaking the cycle” of harms being passed on from one generation to another.
When the shame I feel is a result of harms done to me personally, I can share my pain with an understanding and wise friend or with a therapist. Then I can open myself up to being loved by others so that my wounds will be healed.
When I have harmed others, I can own up to what I have done and make amends wherever I can as long as doing so will not harm someone else. When I can’t make amends, such as when the person I have harmed is no longer living, there are ways to ritually mend the wounds such as writing a letter to that person. The key is that, once I have made a sincere amends, I let it go so that shame can dissipate.