Sense of Shame


A sense of shame is not a bad moral compass (Colin Powell)

Imagine seeing people trudging through life carrying a heavy backpack. When you ask them what is in it, they reply, "I don't know." "Well, then, why are you carrying it?" you ask. They give the same answer, "I don't know." You see, they have been carrying it so long, they don't recall how it got on their back, what's in it, or why they're carrying it. What a shame it is to needlessly carry such a burden. What exactly is the burden? Often it is SHAME.

Like anything else, shame has both positive and negative aspects. To distinguish between the two, the negative aspect is sometimes called toxic shame. This form of shame is a heavy burden to carry. It is a feeling of worthlessness, a feeling that something is wrong with us, or that we are defective. How can I act confidently and live life to the fullest when I am weighed down with shame? Understanding shame makes it easier to understand what is meant by 'low self-esteem,' for all that is, is being ashamed to be oneself.

In the spring, baby birds vociferously chirp, demanding to be fed. They innately know they can depend on their parents to feed them. We are no different. Though helpless at birth and in infancy and early childhood, we instinctively turn to our caregivers for all our needs. We have been programmed to expect to receive the help of our parents or caregivers. But what happens when in place of nurturing, we are subjected to abuse, ridicule, or criticism?

A child cannot understand responsibility. It has no way of realizing that the abuse it is forced to bear is because of irresponsible parents. So, if it is denied the love it needs to flourish, it assumes it must be because there is something wrong with it; it must be defective or worthless. This is how we inherit toxic shame. This is when we are saddled with our terrible burden or backpack. It happened so long ago that it is no wonder people are oblivious to the heavy burden they continue to carry.

We've been carrying the backpack so long that the straps now dig deeply into our shoulders, making it difficult to remove. So, how do we get it off our back? Begin with understanding how it all began. Understand it had nothing to do with you. You are not at fault, you are not defective, and you certainly are not worthless. Understand, too, that where there is no shame, there is no honor. Where there are no burdens to overcome, there are no victories to achieve. So, welcome your handicap as an opportunity to become truly worthy by overcoming it.

Next, don't try to substitute shame with blame. Don't blame your parents for making you screwed up. They did their best under the circumstances. Forgive them for any harm they did to you. Otherwise you will carry resentment, anger, and hostility, which will ceaselessly eat at you, causing great pain. Keep your thoughts positive and remember this Native American story: "Inside of me there are two wolves. One of them is mean and evil. The other is good. The mean wolf fights the good one all the time. Which one wins? It depends on which one I feed the most."

The next step is to use your pain to understand the pain of others. Others, too, are racked with self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness. Knowing this, how can you ignore their suffering? Go out of your way to support, comfort, and encourage all those you meet. It is a law of life that we must give away that which we wish to receive. It's a very easy concept to understand. For example, if I'm disturbed by the sullen faces I see and the lack of humor and goodwill in my environment, what do you suppose will happen if I greet everyone with a smile and share a laugh or two? Won't they cheer up and brighten up the previously grim environment? So by treating others as though they have great worth (which they do), they become grateful and reciprocate. Therefore, by supporting others, we receive from them the very support we need.

Finally, in addition to offering support and encouragement, perform all kinds of good works. That is, be kind and generous in word and deed. Offer a helping hand. Help someone out and welcome someone in your heart. Just as plant life needs the sun and rain, those we share life with need our love. By offering it, we play an invaluable role in making our world a little bit better. Our very actions will prove that we are not worthless, for the world needs us. The above four steps, then, should be enough for you to dissipate the last remnants of self-doubt. In a word, we heal ourselves by healing the world.

The positive aspect of shame is the feeling of regret we have when we fail to do that which we should. For example, I walk pass a homeless person, failing to offer some of the extra change I have in my pocket. Positive shame is like a clanging bell. It alerts us of opportunities to act with honor. That's why Colin Powell said, "A sense of shame is not a bad moral compass." Another word for positive shame is guilt. It is the voice of our conscience offering us a chance to uplift ourselves, by lifting the spirits of others. The path of goodness that our inner voice encourages us to follow is really the path to happiness. With these thoughts in mind, it's easy to understand why in 1670 Pascal wrote, "The only shame is to have none."

When we read about the numerous crimes being committed, it appears that not everyone is following their conscience. Regardless how heinous the crime, it 's safe to say criminals are misinformed, misguided, and misled. They are lost and have strayed from the path. Yes, they are deserving of punishment; after all, society has to be protected. But they are also deserving of respect and a second chance. Their crimes are not a matter of wickedness as much as a matter of lack of responsibility. It's easy to be cynical, as they are, when you consider the truth of the words of Johann FriedrAich Von Schiller (1759 ~ 1805): "It is criminal to steal a purse, daring to steal a fortune, a mark of greatness to steal a crown. The blame diminishes as the guilt increases." Another way of viewing criminal behaviour is described by John Lyly (c.1554 ~ 1606), "Where the mind is past hope, the heart is past shame." Why all this emphasis on compassion and forgiveness regarding criminals? Because if you cannot forgive others for their misdeeds, how can you forgive yourself for your own misdeeds? And until you can forgive yourself, you will be forced to carry that backpack. May your burden be light.

© Chuck Gallozzi
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