Sitting with shame

Posted by Kenetha Stanton on

Kenetha as a child
Me as a small child


Some feelings are really hard to just sit with.

Anxiety is one of these—that feeling that my insides are filled with Mexican jumping beans that are trying to force their way out through the tips of fingers of toes. My whole body feels as if it needs to dance madly to let the anxious energy drip out in every movement.

But my real nemesis is shame. It's like a thick, scalding lava that coats every inch of my insides. I yearn to turn myself inside out in the hopes that, if I cannot escape it, at least it can be the wall of fire that hides my face from others. Perhaps the cold air of the outside world will cool it enough for it to harden into a shell that will protect me from ever experiencing such torture again.

Shame is that insidious feeling that tries to tell me that it is not just that there are parts of my life that are broken, but that I am broken, that my entire identity is brokenness. There is nothing about me that is unbroken.

Intellectually, of course, I know that this is not true of any of us (including me), but when I've been taken captive by shame, it is hard to remember this. Even acknowledging the shame leads my mind down tortured dark alleys filled with black stories of my lack of worth, stories that inflame the lava of shame all the more.

And so, as my insides twist and contort trying to find a way to turn myself inside out, I find it hard to just sit with the feeling. My body wants to spring into motion, as if movement could either shake loose the shame or enable the complete inversion my insides are aiming for.

I want to run as fast as I can to escape the feeling before it overwhelms me.

I want to grab hold of anything that promises to quench the fire—or even numb me to it for a time. It matters not in that moment whether I know that the balm will ultimately cost more than it's worth; I am desperate for relief.

The elixir I most commonly chase when the lava of shame begins to burn is relationships. Ironically, I most often chase relationships that are unhealthy choices and ultimately lead to future shame. Now that I've recognized this pattern, I've decided that learning a new pattern is most definitely in my best interest. (This is an understatement, if there ever was one!)

So yesterday, when an old phantom memory out of my past came snaking its way into my mind precipitating the usual flood of shame, my first thought was about how much I missed someone out of my past. In this case, it was a healthy relationship that I was missing, but the fact that she has been dead for five years and had no connection whatsoever with the memory that had arisen told me that I was trying to escape the shame by substituting sadness instead. Sadness is easier to sit with.

I had just finished reading a fantastic article from Gail Brenner the day before about dealing with emotions, so I was not willing to let myself off the hook so easily. I acknowledged that I do still indeed miss my friend, but then I focused back on the unpleasant sensations of shame that were still coursing through my veins.

Without letting myself get sucked into any of the stories about the memory or about my worth, I just noticed how this emotion felt in my body—the burning, the twisting, the accompanying anxiety, the hollow ache.

And then I stopped to ask myself what I really needed. I could see in my mind my childhood face from the picture above answering me saying that she just needed someone to hold her and tell her she was enough and that she was loved. Can't you see that longing in her sad little eyes?

This is, of course, exactly what I had been seeking in all of those previous bad relationship choices when I sought to ease the burn of shame, but none of them could give me (or the childhood me) what I needed. Because none of them could ever see me as enough until I did. I was looking to get from others what I could only give to myself.

So I wrapped up that little girl inside me with the sad eyes in big hug and assured her that she is enough and she is loved ... that I am enough, that I am loved.

And you know what? That's all it look for the burning and the twisting and the ache to ease. This new message that I am enough and I am loved washed away the lava of shame like liquid antacid blanketing the fire of heartburn. I found myself able to breathe deeply again.

All it took was the ability to sit with it just long enough to figure out what I really needed. Recognizing the underlying need and meeting that need allowed the feeling to dissolve. Without the story, it was just a random set of physical sensations that, while unpleasant, were not harmful.

It felt instead like maybe, just maybe, a new seam of gold was laid down in the crack of an old break, and this kintsugi life continues its healing journey.

What emotion is your nemesis? How do you sit with the emotion and ask it what it needs? What happens for you when you drop the story and give yourself what you need to allow the physical sensations to dissipate?


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