A woman in one of my groups shared her experience of overwhelming guilt and shame. Four years ago, she rescued a puppy that had deep fears, probably because of abuse. Several months later, it began lunging at people on the street and actually nipped a woman. After extensive training, the dog has come a long way and has not exhibited this kind of behavior for quite some time. While my friend was out of town recently, the dog was being cared for by a neighbor and during a walk, it nipped an eight year old boy in the neighborhood. After learning of the incident, my friend felt so deflated and her storyteller kept saying over and over, “I should have done more training. I should have been more responsible. I should have been a better dog parent.” It did not take long for the guilty feelings to become shameful feelings, in essence, “I don’t deserve to have a dog. I am a bad person.”
The storyteller in our heads is so used to being judgmental, cruel and even vicious, telling us not only that we did something wrong, but that we are wrong. And it influences so many people’s lives from underneath our everyday awareness, keeping us cut off from the vast and healing regions of our own hearts. But we can learn how to see this judging quality in our heads rather than believing what it is saying. We can even move beyond judging this judger! It helps to understand that Life is in charge. Life puts us in situations to help us see our guilt, shame, and all of the other states, so we can learn to relate to them rather than from them. The only power a state like the judger has over us is when we think it is the voice of truth. But it is not.
So, how can we relate to these stories and begin to heal our guilt and shame? By being curious about what is here rather than trying to change, numb or bury the feelings. I used to have an extremely cruel judger inside of me and as I began to be curious about it, listening to what it was saying, I discovered that the judger never sees things clearly. The healing we long for happens when we can be with what is. It is not easy, especially feelings of shame, because the stories in our heads can be very seductive. The unconscious mind really and truly believes that we are only okay if we do life perfectly. Of course, perfectly is a very relative position. Perfect to one person is not perfect to another and so we are losing before we are even out of the gate. The more we wake up, the more we see that everything is exactly as it needs to be. It is never about what is going on at the surface. It is always about what is going on underneath.
My friend also shared that she keeps trying to analyze why her dog behaved in that way even though she knows that she will never figure it out. If we watch very carefully, we will see that whatever experience we are having brings up deep vulnerability inside of us, and so often we take care of deep vulnerability by going into the judger. Why? Because it takes us away from the fear of being banished. Do not minimize that. Going up into the judger is very painful, especially for the one who wants to figure it all out. When this happens, we need to tell ourselves that we are right where we need to be. Can you feel how just saying this brings more space?
Try not to make your mind bad or wrong for judging or trying to figure it out. It is just our survival system. We were conditioned to think this way when we were very young. Rather, be curious about the actual living experience. It takes connecting this way over and over again. We get it and then we forget it, and then we go to a deeper level and we forget it, and we go to an even deeper level and we forget it, only to remember again. That is how life teaches us. We can learn to be curious by asking the question, “What does this bring up inside of me?” and then we can bring compassion to the parts that need our attention right now. “Oh, the judger is here. I see you. You are the one that is laying the guilt trip on me.” As we become curious, we can learn to unhook from these states, or what I call spells.
We have buried most of our uncomfortable feelings and have tried to pretend they don’t exist, or in most cases, we are not even aware they exist. But they do. Life brings us these very uncomfortable experiences for a reason. They are tailor-made for us, custom-designed so that the feelings will come out of hiding and we can say “I see you.” Say hello to the one who is terrified of doing it wrong. And, then tune into your body and ask yourself, “Where in my body do I feel the shame? Is it in my belly?” Say hello to the tight belly and soften. Put your hand gently on your belly and say, “I see you.” If it is in your neck, back, or shoulders, give these tight, uncomfortable places your attention. Maybe even give them a little massage now and then. Be gentle with yourself. These are moments of healing.
The next time something happens in your life that brings up feelings of guilt and shame, ask yourself the question, “What are these feelings showing me right now?” How does this question make you feel?
Original Watercolor of Labrador Retriever by Artist Ron Krajewski
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Forgiveness is a challenge for most of us. Forgiving ourselves is especially difficult. When things go awry is so easy for us to fall into feelings of guilt and shame. I try to remember that I try to do the best that I can with the information I have at the time. It is easy to look back on events in our lives and think, If only I knew then what I know now, I would have made different choices.” Hindsight is indeed 20/20. We are human after all, and doing the best we can at any given time is the most anyone can expect of themselves.
Each of life’s challenges is an opportunity for us to learn and grow from the experience. It has taken me a lifetime of playing the “blame game” for me to realize just how destructive judgement is. I understand that none of us is perfect, and I am much more tolerant of myself and others. Living in the moment and feeling gratitude for all of the blessings in my life keeps me from reverting to my “me, me, I, I attitude” that I used to cling to when I blamed myself for everything and tried so hard to please others.
I can’t say enough about how beneficial it has been becoming curiou about the storyteller. Life changing.
I just got through one of those “spells” last week. It is so painful.