I’ve been inspired by Linda Graham’s article on the practice of mindful empathy to heal toxic shame. In the article, she lays out a multi-step process that looks something like this (reworded in a way that makes sense to me; you may prefer her original):
- Meditate briefly (a few minutes each time) five times a day on unconditional love, calling to mind a moment of being with someone who loves you (or has loved you) unconditionally. Feel the sensations and emotions this creates in your body and savor the feelings of warmth, safety, trust and love. When the feelings are steady, let go of the image but hang on to the feeling for 30 seconds. Start this practice by putting your hand on your heart and focusing on your breath, breathing in any sense of goodness, trust, or acceptance that you can muster, then adding in the memory of being loved.
- Cultivate mindfulness about body sensations. Note your initial response to any sensations as positive, negative or neutral. Then you can catch your emotional reactions early and let it go or intentionally shift it. You are gradually training your mind to observe sensations without reactivity or judgment. Notice and name thoughts, feelings, and beliefs as thoughts, feelings and beliefs. “This is fear” or “this is my old sense of unworthiness.” Naming these keeps the frontal lobe of your brain functioning and decreases the firing of the reactive amygdala, which can trigger anxiety or shame attacks.
- Gradually develop the ability to hold experience with compassion. You can come to examine your experiences of shame, humiliation, or disgust with tenderness for yourself. As you are able to name the feeling, you can start to bring compassion and acceptance of yourself to those experiences. You might tell yourself, “How painful it is that the memory of the experience of shame is here again. This is so painful! And I can love and care for myself through this feeling.” You can conjure up the unconditional love you feel for a friend, family member, child, or even a beloved pet, leaning into the the flow of the loving emotion. Then let that same love flow to yourself and your experience.
- Reflect back on various experiences and realize they are all moments of experience, separate from your core self. Remember moments of joy, sadness, or frustration, and step back to see them, as well as moments of shame, as just different moments that make up your life. You don’t have to see any of these experiences as definitions of who you really are.
- Proactively re-wire the memory of shame, connecting it to new experiences of empathy and compassion for ourselves. Evoking the old experiences of shame and suffering, now you can apply the skills of empathy, love and compassion that you have been cultivating. By linking the memory to different emotions, “the sense of shame literally dissolves in the larger self-awareness and self-empathy, like a teaspoon of salt in a lake.”
I’m not claiming this is going to be easy. My personal sense of shame around sexual abuse experiences is so hypersensitive that I nearly collapsed from it the first time I read this article. Even thinking about overcoming shame threw me into the shame pit, for a few days anyway. All the old urges to harm myself were re-awakened. But I’m tired of spending so much time in the muck of the shame pit, so I’m determined to try this anyway. It seems very consistent with other lessons I’ve taken from yoga and meditation, and those have always benefited me; to me, it holds more promise than any other approach I’ve tried.
For me, I’m already realizing that a crucial key will be doing this slowly, with no predetermined timeline, allowing myself plenty of time at each step. It’s not a “Lose Your Shame in 15 Days” kind of exercise. I started the first step last week. I only managed to do the meditation at most three times a day, often once or twice. And I ran smack into a wall with the unconditional love piece. I started trying to remember times I felt that kind of love as a child, mostly because people often feel that sort of love toward a child, so I figured that is where I’d find that memory. I started with my beloved maternal grandparents, but quickly got diverted by the sense that I disappointed them as an adult (and felt ashamed about that). I tried to remember a time I felt that kind of love from my mother. She’s very warm to small children, so I am sure there must have been examples, but I couldn’t think of any. And that demoralized me. Instead of loved, I started to feel unlovable.
That was the frustration I carried into my therapy session on Monday. Long story short, what I carried back out was the realization that I didn’t have to contemplate the whole of my 40+-year relationship with my grandmother; I could just pick a moment in our relationship where I felt deeply loved. I also realized that my husband offers me those moments regularly, daily even; I often push them away or minimize those moments because I doubt I deserve them. But they are there, over and over.
So this week I’m still working on step 1, and I may be for a long while. That’s okay. I’m encouraged because it went better today than last week. It’s also nice to take short meditation breaks at work, to stop and breathe in the middle of the hectic around me. If I’m on this step for months, so be it.
At the same time, I am starting to observe myself when my husband offers me his love. Am I able to be open to receive it? When am I, and when is it harder?
Phew! I am repeatedly amazed at the amount of work and patience it takes to get better. Still, I see that it is possible, and I know I can do it. Not only that, but I’ll have a richer, deeper emotional life for having done that work.
P.S. I loved this image of a child meditating that I found on a Greek website. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone learned as a child to calm and observe their own minds?