Part 3: Blame and Shame
At the heart of our body battles – and indeed our internal suffering in general – are blame and shame.
Though the dynamic is as old as human culture, we can see it amplified to truly historic levels right now. We’ve managed to blame and shame ourselves for just about every reaction we are having to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Is your body changing because you are stuck in your house now 24/7? You are failing COVID eating. That’s your fault. You should be ashamed.
Have you not replaced your gym workout with online Zumba? You are failing COVID fitness. That’s your fault. You should be ashamed.
Do you have diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol that put you at greater risk of infection, and also live in a larger body? You are failing COVID healthism. That’s your fault. You should be ashamed.
Are you more stressed than usual but not taking advantage of all the free meditation resources now being offered? You are failing COVID stress management. That’s your fault. You should be ashamed.
Are your children having more screen time, staying up later, suffering “learning loss,” not getting enough exercise? You are failing COVID parenting. Your fault. Shame.
Are you having conflicts with your adult children, now suddenly all home again? You are failing COVID adult-parenting. Your fault. Shame.
Are you drinking more, eating differently, watching more TV, sleeping more, working less? Are you distracted, irritable, depressed, anxious? You are failing COVID coping. Your fault. Shame.
We get the message from the endless stream of “How to Avoid” articles, stories, and posts. The implication is that we’ve been told how to avoid and so, if we are still doing it anyway, shame on us. But it also comes from inside our own minds. The latter may be more powerful and punishing because it is there ALL THE TIME. It plays on a constant loop in the back (or the front) of our minds. I am not doing this right. Others are doing it better. I should be doing it better.
Oh my god, no wonder we are all exhausted!
There is so much we cannot control right now. Epic levels of powerlessness. So we take the small arenas of choice that we do have, and we tell ourselves we are choosing wrong.
In Buddhist psychology, this phenomenon is known as the “second arrow.” The “first arrow” is the situation itself – the pain that happens to us. A terrifying virus, quarantine, job loss, school closures, social isolation, financial distress, food and supply shortages, 5-hour grocery shopping trips, DIY haircuts. These are beyond our control.
The second arrow, the one that’s optional, hits when we criticize ourselves for the way we reacted to the first arrow (as in all of the examples above). We are in a tough situation and on top of that, we tell ourselves we are failing to cope somehow. Shame gets tossed in on top of pain, doubling the suffering. You may recognize the “second arrow” as your inner critic.
There is a way out of this bind. If you notice that you’re shooting yourself with the second arrow, try this exercise. You can do this in your mind or with pen and paper (or computer, phone):
1) Identify/name the inner criticism (oh look, I am getting on my own case about “X”)
2) Ask yourself whether X is actually a problem, given the circumstances.
3) If the answer is yes, then you may need to make amends, apologize, or change your behavior. Do that sincerely and with an open heart.
4) Next, forgive yourself. Say the word “forgiven” to yourself. Write it on post-it notes and stick them all over your house. At first it will feel forced, but self-forgiveness will, over time, loosen the hold of that critical voice.
5) If the answer is no, which is more often the case, make a mental (or pen on paper) note as follows:
a. I seem to be telling myself a story that’s not true or criticizing myself for something that is not really a problem
b. Why might I be doing that (Perfectionism? Shame? Fear? Comparison?)
c. That’s understandable, given the circumstances. I am human and humans are wired to be hard on ourselves.
d. Forgive yourself for the self-criticism (as explained in number 4, above). Feel your body soften as you say “forgiven.”
Then, and this step is crucial whether the answer was yes or no, shower yourself with compassion. This is where the process gets beyond the cognitive and begins to really sink in emotionally. The cognitive process is important – to identify the inner criticism, discern if it’s true, understand why it showed up, and forgive it. But -- and I’ve learned this over years and years of trying to stop criticizing myself and coaching others through the process – it is not enough. It won’t change how you feel.
Self-compassion changes how you feel. There is a large body of research demonstrating its impact. Self-compassion involves:
1) Acknowledging/identifying the emotion you are experiencing as a result of the self-criticism (shame, frustration, fear).
2) Investigating how it feels – physically, somatically - to have this emotion. How does your body feel (tense, agitated, frozen)?
3) Comforting yourself the same way you would comfort a loved one who was suffering. You might put a hand on your heart or on your cheek. You might say, “wow, this emotion is really painful and difficult,” or “oh honey, I am so sorry you’re feeling that way – it must be really hard.” If it helps to picture yourself as a child, and talk to the child, do that.
You may be able to do the three steps in your head, or you may find it more effective to do it in writing. Don’t worry, you can use scrap paper and rip it up. Or bang it out on a computer or your phone and delete the file.
The first several hundred times you do this, you may feel really silly. But hang in there with the practice. Share the practice with someone else who you know is hard on themselves. Do it together. Over time, you will notice that the inner critic shows up less, yells less loudly, and has less control over your mood.
Shame is one of the most painful emotions we have. It freezes us, puts us in hiding, isolates us. It triggers a stress response in the body which disrupts your health. It perpetuates itself through repetition of the story of what you did wrong. It can keep you up all night, ruin your appetite, destroy a relationship. And a lot of the time it is unnecessary.
Occasionally, it is warranted. Maybe you really did do something horrible that hurt yourself or someone else. If that’s the case, do what you can to make amends. Then forgive.
But if you did NOT do something horrible (and usually we have not) then shame is OPTIONAL. It’s self-imposed and self-perpetuated. Only the combination of awareness, discernment, forgiveness and self-compassion can relieve it. Like the monster under the bed, it disappears when we shine a light on it. Don’t take my word for it, as the Buddha said, try it for yourself. Repeat it. It’s a practice.