I have seen some real improvements in my outlook and mood because of a major realisation about faults and shame. I now know that shame has been preventing me from acknowledging and addressing faults for most of my life. I have begun actually admitting what I can improve on and then actually changing my actions, whereas before there was no change or even real acknowledgment; any hint of recognizing a fault initiated an immediate detour to The Pit of Shame.
First, let me define a few key terms:
Shame: The feeling/idea that you are bad, not just that you did something bad (that would be guilt).
Bad: A generalization of unhealthy, hurtful, negative, worthless, etc. Shame causing you to feel bad means feeling worthless. Doing some thing bad means hurting yourself or others.
Fault: A bad trait. Any behaviour that causes harm to someone (yourself and/or others). Every human has faults.
Ever since I discovered that shame was the root of most of my mental health problems, I started making so many more realizations and so much more progress than I ever had before. I had been treating symptoms of shame, not the shame itself.
I have uncovered little by little all of the ways shame (i.e. the feeling/idea you are bad and not just doing something bad) had seeped into my every thought and behaviour. Truthfully, most thoughts and observations were all looping back to reinforce the belief that I should feel shame because I was bad/worthless. Everything I thought or noticed about myself or the world around me was being used as evidence for the necessity of feeling shame. Seriously—these are all examples of thoughts that created a train of thought that lead to dwelling on the idea that I was worthless:
- The sun is out today.
- Should I brush my teeth now or after breakfast?
- I meant to bring three things from the kitchen to the bedroom but only brought two.
A false dichotomy
This used to be a common train of thought for me: “Do I have this fault or don’t I? I desperately hope that I don’t, because if I did, that would mean I was insufferable.” I saw two possible options: (1) I had the fault and therefore I was definitely worthless. (2) I didn’t have the fault, so I was at least OK. Really, the truth was that I had the fault and I was still OK and not worthless. But I never reached that third option because the shame would shut down any contemplation. I didn’t want to find out that I was, in fact, worthless.
I never could have imagined the feeling of freedom that comes from noticing a fault and not going straight to deep shame. Shame was a detour I didn’t need to take.
The First Stop Cancels the Trip
My brain was like a country with many roads and highways and a hopelessly dark, depressing area called The Pit of Shame. Any trip I wanted to take (introspective train of thought) had to begin with a detour to The Pit of Shame. No matter how out of the way it was or how long or short the trip was going to be, The Pit of Shame was the first stop. But going here was so depressing that the trip I was going to take seemed pointless, so I just didn’t make it. I never would get to any far off destinations (realisations) because the Shame detour sent me back to the beginning.
The necessity of compassion
The major missing factors all of those years of dwelling on shame was compassion. Compassion helped me realise that I could have faults and still be a good person instead of them condemning me to worthlessness. I have hated my own humanity by having impossible standards of perfection. I had subconscious standards of infallibility, and any failure to achieve this infallibility brought on shame. It was a punishment and a warning to do better next time.
Faults are expected and normal and unavoidable. Compassion for your own humanity helps you to address the faults. It takes the pressure off and lowers the stakes. Worthlessness shouldn’t even be on the table as a possible conclusion/judgment of your character based on your shortcomings. It’s the difference between being on trial and having the maximum punishment be execution versus a small fine. Such an awful sentence being on the table increases your fear, worry, and despair whereas an outcome that wouldn’t even be all that bad lowers the stakes tremendously.
Related ideas for future posts:
Witch hunts and condemnation lead you to believe the presence of faults implies worthlessness.
What exactly are faults and why is it OK to admit you have them?