The Secret Power of Shame

Though Bill W. was unaware of the power of shame, he was nevertheless a victim of it. No where in the first 164 pages of the Big Book is shame mentioned, but it is a pernicious presence that research has concluded is the source of our addictions and the frequent cause of relapses.

Shame is hate turned inward.  It’s the factory of our character defects.  It drives our suffering.  Yet, very few of us know this.  It’s a secret even to ourselves.  By becoming aware of our shame, we can greatly reduce the suffering it inflicts on us.

Only recently have I discovered how shame has infected my life like a virus.  It’s the furtive voice that is forever whispering its message that I am a bad person.

I grew up in a home with a rageaholic father and an enabling mother.  They rarely drank.  My dad was an emotional drunk.  What would trigger my dad into explosive rage was forever unpredictable.  Every day, the hum of the bomber circled overhead, and the threat of bombardment hung in the air like toxic gas.

As a child, I breathed in his hate.  And, like any child, I didn’t yet have the boundaries in place to deflect it.  His hate became my own self-hate, and it lodged deep within my soul as shame.  Rarely could I figure out the reason for his rage, so what my mind couldn’t grasp, my soul embraced: I deserved it.

Unfortunately, our endless capacity to adapt often has tragic consequences.  Few of us escape unscarred from the battlefield of a dysfunctional home.  My youngest sister died as a casualty of heavy smoking and drinking.  Fragments of rage and anxiety have embedded themselves into the lives of my other two sisters. And I, 10 years in recovery, find myself surveying the devastation, hobbled by shame.

Sources of Shame

Shame is universal.  Its seeds are sown in childhood.  Whenever we are powerless to deflect another’s hate—whether in the form of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse—it becomes internalized deep within as shame. “We believe we ‘should have’ been able to defend ourselves.  And because we weren’t able to do so, we feel helpless and powerless,” according to Beverly Engle, in her article “How Compassion Can Heal Shame from Childhood,” published in Psychology Today.

“This powerlessness causes us to feel humiliated—which leads to shame,” Engle says.

Shame can result from any situation that causes us to feel shunned by others. It can also be the by-product of regret, especially after hurting a loved one.  If we fail to make amends to that person, regret often converts to shame.

The Secrecy of Shame

It’s mystifying to me that after years of working the program of AA, sponsoring, and pouring myself into recovery literature, that I have remained unaware of shame’s covert operations.  But I don’t think I’m alone.  Being unaware of shame is very understandable.

For many of us, our textbook for recovery has been the Big Book (BB). However, shame is not mentioned anywhere in its first 164 pages (containing the entire AA program as Bill W. first conceived it).  For the ranks of us who are traumatized by shame, this is a critical omission.

I believe the BB is a masterpiece. Yet, as acutely attuned as Bill W. was to our malady, he was not yet aware when penning the BB that shame is the father of our character defects—resentment, selfishness, and unworthiness being its children.

We Climb to Recovery on the Rungs of Words

Words have the power of revelation.  Think of the word “resentment” as Bill W. used it, and see how much light his discussion of that word brought to the understanding of our addiction. The same can be true for the word “shame.”  Once we shine the light of awareness on it, we can identify it as the source of our character defects.  We see it for what it is, and there is great power in naming. Mark Brackett of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, says labeling our emotions is key to their treatment. “If you can name it, you can tame it.”

As addicts we know there is something at the root of our addictions.  In the hundreds of AA meetings I have attended over the years, the word “unworthiness” is frequently heard. What we call unworthiness, though, is really an expression of shame’s much deeper and darker domain. Other character defects—defensiveness, criticalness, anger, resentment, and emotional withdrawal—also bubble up from the depths of shame.

Amazingly, in the same day, shame has us toggling between feelings of inferiority and its paradoxical mask of superiority.  It creates a pervasive feeling of inadequacy that resides in the background of all we do.  It fuels our drinking.

Invariably, we cross the invisible threshold between heavy drinking and alcoholism.  Drinking then becomes a desperate coping strategy, cycling back on itself.  We drink to numb us to the pain of shame and then we feel shame because we find ourselves drunk again. On and on, over and over, day after day.

Shame Versus Guilt

Shame is often confused with guilt. Brene Brown, a professor of research at the University of Houston, makes a critical distinction: “Guilt is I did something bad.  Shame is I am something bad.”  Guilt focuses on the behavior; shame focuses on the person.  Brown’s research finds a high correlation between shame and addiction but virtually none between guilt and addiction.

Providing the first link between shame and relapse is a 2013 study published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.  The study, conducted by Jessica Tracy and Daniel Randles of the University of British Columbia, involved 100 middle-aged men and women from the rooms of AA with less than six months sobriety.  Tracy and Randles found that “people who feel shame may blame themselves for negative events and view their ‘bad’ behavior as an unchangeable part of who they are. Thus, shame may actually be a risk factor for certain behaviors rather than a deterrent. But this doesn’t seem to be the case for guilt.”

The study also found that “one reason that certain sobriety programs may be effective is because they encourage people to see their behaviors as something they should feel guilty, but not necessarily shameful, about.”

The amount of shame participants displayed strongly predicted not only whether they relapsed but also how many drinks they had if they did relapse.

Good News

We don’t have to remain shame sufferers.  Recent scientific breakthroughs reveal that the brain has a nearly endless capacity to rewire itself.  “Due to what we now know about the neural plasticity of the brain—the capacity of our brains to grow new neurons and new synaptic connections—we can proactively repair (and re-pair) the old shame memory with new experiences of self-empathy and self-compassion,” Engle says.

When treating shame, we must remember to be good to ourselves.  After all, shame entered us through others’ hatred.  Self-empathy and self-compassion are crucial in combatting shame.  In a 2012 TED Talk, Brene Brown said, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”

By employing the fearlessness and thoroughness that we used in our 4th Step, we can surface the pain of being hated that created our shame.  Once we become aware of the source of our shame, we can grieve the pain and suffering it has produced.  We can cry our response to the hatred, and we can cry about how unfair it is.  Finally, we come to a place of peace and give shame back to its rightful owner.

I leave you with this self-compassion exercise, courtesy of Beverly Engle, in hopes that it helps you as it helped me.

  1. Think of one of your most shaming experiences from childhood. Now think of what you wish someone had said to you right after that experience.  What would have been the most helpful and healing for you to hear at the time?  Write this statement down.
  2. Image that someone you care very much about, someone you admire, is saying those words to you now. Hear those words in your ears.  Take those words into your heart.  Notice how those words make you feel.
  3. Now say those words out loud to yourself. Take a deep breath and really take in those words.  How does hearing yourself say those words out loud make you feel?

You might receive a real sense of healing and peace from the words that you hear while doing this exercise.  Exploring shame can be a journey that requires courage and self-honesty, but the reward is recovery that goes beyond the mere absence of addiction—recovery that is a deep healing of your past and a life of real happiness and peace.

If you would like to work one-on-one with me regarding shame issues or issues related to addiction, relationships, negative habits, anxiety, or depression, please visit me at rjhandley.com.

The Secret Power of Shame was originally published in The Fix. 

The connecting power of play

“God enters through the wound.”

Years ago I read this quote attributed to Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. The words have remained sacred to me, and I have applied their balm to even the most superficial of wounds.

I find it easy to confide in others about the deep wounds life opens. Yet, it’s these small, seemingly insignificant scratches that, for me, cut as deep as glacial ice.  Over time they have carved out my self-image.  These are the ones that I keep secret because I am embarrassed to show them.  But, as I have learned in recovery, it is what I keep secret that makes me suffer.

Today is no different. I have found that I have been living a lie.  It’s another one of those silly scratches that I struggle to reveal because I don’t want others to laugh and say, “Really? Is that what you’re upset about?”

Yet, silently, I am in awe how God enters the wound if we allow ourselves to acknowledge that we have, indeed, been wounded.

Just yesterday I was completing an exercise from the book The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris.  It asked what values and goals I have in four facets of my life:  love, work, health, and play.

All was going great.   I was experiencing a flood of warm, glowing feelings of how much I have grown in my ten years of sobriety and my work as a spiritual life coach.  I was really patting myself on the back.

Yep, I was feeling like the Lebron James of love, the Wayne Gretzky of work, and the Hank Aaron of health.

Then I came to writing my values and goals for play. WTH! Crap!  I felt like I was hit on the head with a bat.  I came to the realization that I am the Pete Rose of play.  I have sabotaged my career as a player, the very thing that used to bring me joy.  I tried to remember the last time I went out on the town with a friend.

I came to the startling realization–a core truth:  The reason I drank was because I believed it was the only way I could feel a connection to others.

WTH! So I am sitting here today bleeding from the epiphany that I know as much about play as Donald Trump knows about public service.  I don’t just suck at playing, I haven’t even put on the uniform for what seems like years.  I have been so busy with my career and my commitments that I’ve forgotten how to engage in play with my friends.  I knew the power of play as a child, but my career and my commitments rob me of my play time.

At least that’s the lie I have been telling myself. The truth is that I find play to be uncomfortable.   It puts me right back into the story I have been writing over the years that I am socially defective.

I think about all the amazing people I have known in the past 20 years of my adult life. Many of those I have worked with.  But I poured myself into my work-a-day world so I went numb to my own needs and to theirs, neglecting the power of play to create the connection we needed between us.

So it grieves me to admit it, but I am suddenly—and consciously—aware that the reason I haven’t been doing fun things with colleagues, friends, and other loved ones is that it surfaces my own inadequacies.

As a child, I played fearlessly. But as I entered adulthood, I just sort of gave up.  I felt—and still do at times—that I am unworthy of play.  For years, I stood on the edge of my circle of friends, envious of the joy and laugher they shared, giving my social shame the power to keep me sidelined.

Is it any wonder that I worshipped the effects of alcohol? That it did for me what I couldn’t do for myself?  Instantly, without doing any work on myself, I could suddenly connect in play with others with just a couple of drinks.

It’s easy to blame my socially-isolated parents who never modeled for me what having friends over looked like. Yet, I promised my sponsor and myself to abandon my victimhood as I did the bottle when I became sober.  I know there are things that happened to me that I am not responsible for but, as an adult, I am responsible for healing them.

God really does enter through the wound. And it’s my commitment, just as it was with my 4th Step, to fearlessly look at myself and surface my character defects that keep creating the wounds.  And, just as before, I will get on my knees and ask God for the same miracle that got me sober.  Surely, if God’s grace could free me from the power of alcohol, then that same grace can free me from the prison of my own social fears.

I acknowledge to myself that play is crucial because it is how we, as human beings, connect. It will take time and courage to tear up the story about my social defectiveness.   In The Confidence Gap, Harris says that our problem is not that we lack social skills, it’s that we become fused with the story that we lack those skills.

Today, I am making a vow to call up a friend and ask him to join me in play. It takes practice to overcome any of our perceived defects.  Harris’ words hearten me in keeping me committed to this crucial project: “The actions of confidence come first; the feelings of confidence come later.”

I thank God that he used the simple exercise in Harris’ book to reveal to me a deep truth about myself that I have been hiding from for years.

God really does enter through the wound—even the scratches—and transmutes the pain into victory.

If you would like to work one-on-one on with me concerning an issue that is robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, negative thoughts, or esteem, contact me.  I’m at rjhandley.com.  Google my name if you’d like to find out more about me.

RJ Handley, Spiritual Life Coach

Recovery Step 13

 

As you know from my post titled My Story, I owe my life to AA.  Its fellowship was like a loving hand that lifted me out of the deep trench I had dug with my blackout drinking.  Because of AA, I now have 10 years of sobriety.

To me, the Big Book is an inspired masterpiece.  Yet, Bill W. never intended it to be the last word on spirituality and personal growth.

Nearly two decades after the publication of the Big Book, Bill W. wrote the letter “Emotional Sobriety,” published in the AA Grapevine.  In it he says, “Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops…because of my failure to grow up emotionally and spiritually.”

It’s clear that Bill W. realized that the Big Book did not hold all the answers to overcoming our malady.

As with the tornado metaphor in the Big Book, Bill W. understood we can never clean up the ravages of our character defects if we remain unaware of the psychological issues that continue to wreak havoc in our relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God—even after working the 12 Steps.

He foresaw the need for a spiritual psychology to carry us beyond the “spiritual awakening” mentioned in the 12th Step. In response, we now have writers like Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, and Ram Dass whose words are like an inspired friend walking beside us, informing us of the empowerment of self-discovery.

The Big Book awakened us from the big sleep of our addiction.  Now, in recovery and attuned to consciousness, we continue on the path of spiritual and personal growth.

In my journey down my own path, I have read widely from the works of spiritual sages.  With their encouraging presence, I have turned to face my own dysfunctional thoughts and behavior patterns that created seeming insurmountable obstacles to my own happiness and potential.

Through this blog, I will be honored to share some of the insights and lessons I have learned that will help you to experience more moments of bliss on this earth.

If you would like to work one-on-one on with me concerning an issue that is robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, negative thoughts, or esteem, contact me.  I’m at rjhandley.com.  Google my name if you’d like to find out more about me.

Kindly,

RJ Handley, Spiritual Life Coach