Making Friends with Shame
Did you know that icky feeling you get is actually a self defense tool?
The last article I published on Medium was a bit unhinged. I was ashamed of it, so I deleted it.
Shame is a funny thing: we classify it as an emotion, and it feels so heavy, so toxic, so burning, so awful that we would do anything to avoid feeling it. The problem is, sometimes we do stuff that causes shame, and when that happens, we do anything to avoid feeling it.
Including taking responsibility for our actions.
What we don’t realize about shame is that it is not an emotion: it is a physical response. And it is a wonderful self-defense tool that gets a very bad rap.
Before I go further into the idea of shame as self defense, I want to quickly touch on the nature of our biological self defense systems. What I mean by “biological self defense” is the systems our bodies have in place, and exercise 24 hours a day, to keep us healthy and alive, in spite of our sometimes stupid decisions. The example I like to use when teaching self defense, is:
Imagine you are in the mood for a snack. In fact you are craving something you have in the fridge as the perfect snack. You open the fridge and discover this food item has past its expiration date, not by a little, but also not by a lot. It’s at that point when things could really go either way. You sniff it: it has the faintest whiff of rancidity. You decide to risk it, and it eat it anyway.
By doing this, you have already bypassed your first line of self defense: smell. The way something smells is neutral. The way we smell something is what tells us if it is edible or not. That is different for almost every species: something that smells rotten to you, smells delicious to a seagull.
But let’s stick with humans: you’ve eaten your snack, ignoring the warning sign of the bad smell, and now you have a stomach ache. Your body’s biological self defense system is fighting the bacteria in the snack. This may become all-out war, e.g., food poisoning. Or…