Shame: Self-help as self-harm
Recently I had an important epiphany. I came in contact with a deep layer of unconscious shame, and realized how it has structured a lot of my life and self-work. The many ways in which I have tried to grow and improve myself have, from a certain point of view, been self-harm.
It happened at the last 4-day Circling weekend of the Circling Europe Leadership Training. I was there to be certified to lead Circling, which I now am. Circling is a practice in which 2 or more people enter a sort of meditative space together, and each participant aspires to share with the others what is alive in the present moment within him/her/them. Something I find interesting in Circling is that leading Circling is done from the inside of the practice, by embodying it and thus showing and inviting by example.
It was a humbling experience to meet with the teachers again, they are very good at what they do. What exactly that is, is a bit hard to pin down; but it is something about being really honest with themselves, and about being very attentive to what happens in themselves and in others. Imagine someone spending a decade or two practising that and you get some idea.
The retreat came to be centered around shame for me. Before I share what happened there, I want to give some background:
When I was around 11 years old I stood in a school yard in Eslöv, a small city in the south of Sweden. It was a pretty rough environment. I routinely got my boundaries pushed and crossed. To make a long story short, after having lost yet another fight, I decided to protect myself from further humiliation by never again becoming angry and never again showing anyone how I really feel inside. Over time, controlling my emotions and not asserting my boundaries lead me to completely dissociate from my body and spend all my time in intellectualization.
Much later, I think I was about 21 years old, I smoked some weed in my small dorm room in Lund, another city in the south of Sweden. I remember standing in the door frame to the bathroom stretching when I suddenly found myself inside my body instead of outside. I was being it instead of having it. This discovery started a completely new adventure for me. Where I had previously had my explorative direction set on physics and computer programming, I now turned more and more towards the self and towards my awareness. I started studying Buddhism and the broader field of self-help. Alan Watts, Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary became my guides, and I started to try to meta-program myself.
So, fast-forward almost two decades and we’re back to the present. I have liberated and expanded my mind in many ways by e.g. meditating, studying body therapy at Manuvision, Circling, and seeing a Gestalt therapist. But in a scout cabin outside Copenhagen during that Circling weekend, I discovered that the basic dissociative drive I had developed was still very active.
I was lying on the floor, having a conversation with one of our teachers and a friend of mine. While listening I was examining my body very closely and found that I was upholding some defences in my contact with them. What I call defences here was something I experienced like a sort of posturing, a tension under my eyes and over my chest, and an upholding of stories–stories as a readiness to verbally defend my right to be.
When I managed to relax all the defences I could notice, I found myself again being my body, and my body was full of shame. There was a very strong sense of not being enough, and touching that with my awareness was almost like touching fire. Immediately my attention got scattered and my defences came up again. It took a little while until I discovered what had happened, and I gently moved my awareness back to my body and lowered my defences again, and again lost focus. It took a few trials until I could stay with the shame without quickly dissociating again.
What I discovered here is what drove me to write this text: it is that this shame I found in my body, that I almost can’t allow myself to feel, has acted in unconscious ways this whole time and reinforced itself in my attempts to work on myself.
The very basic approach, to look for, figure out, and fix what is wrong with me is that shame at work: the sense that there is something wrong with me. And it is really difficult to not get ensnared by it again and try to analyse the shame and fix the shame, but that would be exactly that very shame in action again, just reproducing itself in self-judgement: self-help as self-harm.
One way that I view this is to conceptualize the part of me feeling shame as my inner child. The child I once was has made imprints in my consciousness and it is still there somehow, feeling that it is somehow wrong. When it feels that, and I judge that as wrong, my inner child can’t just change how it feels, it can only hide and affect me from the depths of my subconscious.
What I now aspire to do instead, is to approach my inner child as I would any other child and ask it how it is doing. By asking, I mean that I direct my curiosity and awareness to how it feels in my body, to my emotions and what stories they carry. Then I gently keep my awareness there and listen without judgement to all that is there. When the unresolved inner child is listened to instead of judged it can come out of the subconscious and start to resolve.
The crux in this aspiration is to also allow the inevitable judgements without believing them or identifying with them, but to also just notice them, and also any judgement of the judgements and so on. It gets messy at first, but staying with curiosity towards that mess lets it calm down eventually. Another crux here, a meta-crux of sorts, is that I know that this will make the mess calm down, but if I drop into wanting it to calm down, then I am no longer open and curious, and it doesn’t calm down. This staying with curiosity is a skill and it takes practice and patience.
When I manage to stay unmoved and open like that, then the shame stops controlling me, and I regain a lot of freedom. Metaphorically, but quite real still, the inner child feels met and starts to heal, without any interference needed.
Somewhat paradoxically, the attempts to fix myself and to grow turned out to be self-harm, and at the same time it was necessary to do it to get here. From a certain point of view, I am now fixing myself, by not trying to fix myself. I find it funny, and I really like paradoxes like that. The key seems to be to curiously stay with what is.
Back 15 years ago, my then girlfriend’s father quoted something to me that has stayed with me and that feels relevant here. It was about enlightenment and went something like this: It can’t be found by seeking, but only seekers find it.