This post was inspired by an email I received two days ago: “Where does shame come from …? How can we approach it so we can eventually free ourselves from it? What works for you? What did you see working for others? Anything alive in you around this topic that might serve other readers as well?”
I don’t really know where shame comes from, so I can only share my opinions and conjectures about it (and I tend to have those about almost anything). My sense about shame is that it’s a primary mode of punishment, a way that adults instill forms of behavior in children who then internalize it and grow up carrying enormous amounts of shame in them. If you look at the language, adults will often say, most literally: “shame on you.” In Israel, where I grew up, the equivalent expression translates into: “Be ashamed of yourself.” In both cases the adult is commanding the child to experience shame as a way of expressing their unhappiness with how the child acted.
Shame is in the category of what are called social emotions, and is deeply connected to our sense of belonging and being loved. If we are shamed often and deeply enough, we end up feeling shame about our very desire to be loved and accepted. Shame is endemic in this culture, and has consequences beyond the pain that it brings to those who feel it. Profound shame is one of the most common experiences of very violent people, a tragic finding to which I have already alluded (see my post Nonviolence and Living Undefendedly). If Gilligan is accurate in his understanding of violence, then overcoming shame goes beyond feeling better – it may well be an essential condition for a violence-free society.
My earlier studies when I was doing academic research point in the same direction. Cross-cultural studies suggest that the single most powerful predictor of a violence-free culture is the length of time that babies are carries in arms, and the other key predictor is the degree to which teenagers are allowed free sexual play in a given culture. Our freedom to love and be loved, both in our infancy and when our sexuality wakes up, is the key to understanding all of these findings. The pain of not being allowed to show love and ask for love is so extreme it can lead to violence.
So how do we overcome shame? How I have worked with my shame is by walking directly into it. I have been doing it for many years now, and I am delighted to say that I have burned through most of my shame. It takes immense discipline and courage. Often when I have done it I felt totally spent afterwards. It means going against everything I was ever told is wrong about me, doing what I was repeatedly told is shameful, and setting myself up for potential ridicule and shunning. Perhaps it’s been relatively easy for me because I have suffered so much ostracism in my life that the prospect of it is no so frightening any longer. I often think that the best way to experience deep safety is by being thrown into what we are afraid of and seeing that we can survive it. One tool that helps with gathering up the courage is finding my own inner acceptance, which can then nourish and protect me if others don’t. The practice of NVC helps me find the acceptance through connecting to the shining light of the core human need or longing that is at the heart of whatever it is that I feel shame about. In my case it’s almost always about love: wanting love, wanting to show love, or trusting love or people.
As life would have it, the next day after receiving that email I had the opportunity to practice. I stepped in front of a group of 40%20 strangers who are attending an intensive program with me (Institute for Sacred Activism, led by Andrew Harvey). I let them know about my struggles with the program, and specifically that in some ways I was not resonating with what has been moving and inspiring to them. And I believe I managed to do with dignity, with undefended vulnerability, and without in any way implying judgment of anyone who was resonating with the language. The result was a sense of more connection, more appreciation of the people, and more trust that there is room for me to be.
Later that day I received one more reference to shame in a comment on my previous posting (A Slice of Heaven). In that comment I see familiar themes: longing for human connection, yearning for support for one’s heart and sadness, aching for love. We all do, we all want so so very much to give and receive love. When will we, collectively, lift the taboo on tenderness so we can release the shame that plagues us and live and love freely?
 If you are interested in exploring, you can look for this article: James W. Prescott, “The Origins of Human Love and Violence”, Pre- and Perinatal Psychology Journal, 10(3): 143-188, Spring 1996. Bear in mind this is very difficult to find; even many academic libraries don’t have it.