Rahima's Inner Views Blog

Posts on Creativity, Writing, and the Inner Life

Shame and Self-Forgiveness

An Inquiry into Shame and Self-Forgiveness

Rahima Warren

 Someone tells me that they didn’t like something I said to them. I apologize and we hug. But I am left with a yucky feeling inside. “I was a bad girl!” says the child in me. “You were a bad girl!” roars the inner critic. I cringe and try to hide out: watch TV, read a book, anything to get away from this horrid feeling. But of course, that doesn’t work. It’s still there when I turn off the TV or put down my book.

As I have learned, I need to face up to this yucky little monster and get to know it. “Okay, who are you? What are you made of?” As I feel into it, I sense it is compounded of shame and fear.

Where did this come from? I ask myself. As a psychotherapist, I know shame is often used to control children’s behavior. In my family, there was lot of shaming criticism from my parents, and we four siblings did the same to each other.  This is surely one of the sources of this yucky feeling.

As a student of sociology and anthropology, I also know that humans are very social animals. To survive, our ancestors needed the acceptance and protection of our family and tribe, especially as children. In part, shame is an instinctive reaction to a threat of rejection, based on fear of being cast out to starve or be eaten. I recently watched a nature show where a baby primate was cuffed when she misbehaved, and was under threat of death if she did not show the proper subservience to the alpha male. This is how far back the instinctive fear-shame reaction goes. Its purpose is to keep us within the bounds of our tribe, to keep us safe.

But I sense there is something else. Underneath, I am assuming that I should never make a mistake, thinking that I can always do the best thing for everyone. How unlikely! Why do I cling to this absurd notion? Oh, I see. Believing I can and should be perfect helps me maintain the illusion of control. In my child-mind, I believe that I have the power to always do the best thing for everyone. As long as I never make a mistake, no one will reject me or cast me out of the tribe. I am in control and can keep myself safe.

Making a mistake or being criticized or rejected punctures this illusion of control and safety, and my shame/fear rises up. I criticize myself for my failure, and keep on believing I should be able to be perfect, and therefore safe. This just sets me up for more shame/fear in the future. How can I step out of this trap?

I am human. I make mistakes. And sometimes, out of their own pain, shame or fear,  people are rejecting or critical even when I have not erred. There is no getting around this. It’s a fact of life. The question is: Can I hold this shame/fear with compassion instead of self-rejection?

Shame festers in the darkness when we try to ignore it. By facing up to it and inquiring into it, I already feel the shame dwindling. I take a deep breath and remind myself that I am not really under threat of being cast out or killed. I take another deep breath and smile to myself. Now I feel some self-compassion and self-forgiveness coming in, some gentleness for myself, some relaxation of tense ‘fight or flight’ muscles. I’m not perfect. I make mistakes. And that is okay.

Contemplation Questions

How do you react when you make a mistake, or feel rejected or criticized?

Does shame arise? How do you respond to that? With anger? Defensiveness? Despair?

What helps you find some compassion for yourself? Forgiveness for yourself or the other person?

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