Riding the Waves of Shame

A couple weeks ago I did something out of alignment with who I want to be in the world and afterwards I spiraled into a deep well of shame. 

Shame is not uncommon experience, but this spiral lasted longer than usual. Since it was here I used it as an opportunity to look at it as a teacher.

In yoga therapy I often ask clients how something is attempting to help (even when that something, whether a behavior, thought or sensation, is simultaneously hurting). I asked shame how it was trying to help me, and I got a clear answer. Shame told me if I was punished enough for what I did I would not do it again (thank you Catholic school!). Shame was attempting to teach me a lesson so I would be the person I want to be in the world. I took a moment to say thank you to shame for trying its best to help. 

I then shared with shame the way it was hurting me. My stomach hurt, I felt nauseous, I lied to friends about why I was in a shame spiral, I pushed other friends away, and I became more and more disconnected. 

Then I just watched it. Sometimes it felt heavy and swirly. At first it felt deep in my bones, and the more I watched it the more shallow it became. When it was started to fade my mind brought back the memory of being out of alignment and another cascade started at my head and moved down my body. “Remember, I’m trying to help you show up differently in the world,” shame would say.

The second sutra in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali reads, “yogas chitta vritti nirodhah,” and one translation of this is “yoga is the stopping of the mind fluctuations.” I think of these “fluctuations” as the waves our mind rides. Sometimes our minds are riding shame waves, sometimes joy waves, sometimes pain waves. So how is yoga the stopping of these waves? The awareness that is watching these waves is not simultaneously riding. As I spiraled I also had awareness on the shore witnessing as big waves rolled in, then smaller ones, then another big one. Awareness can be an anchor that can support riding of the waves instead of fighting them, and when I am more rooted in that anchor of awareness I can meet pain with a sense of curiosity rather than judgement, fear, panic and a need for something to change. When I am patient I know there will be change, and I can witness the impermanent process unfold inside this body. 

Shame happens. It happens to most of us, and it is a sign we are hurting. Underneath shame was the pain of grief. When the shame subsided I was able to grieve that I didn’t show up the way I wanted. I grieved that my body is conditioned to freeze when I want it to act. I grieved that I am imperfect and I cause harm. The wave of grief felt different than shame. It was more gentle, like rolling waves rather than violent waves. It felt like a catch in my chest and I could not quite take as deep of a breath.

When shame arises for you how is it trying to help? How is it hurting? What, if anything, is under the shame? How does that feel the same or different than the shame? These questions can help me get a bit of distance from the intensity of shame to get to the shore and to hold space and witness the waves as they come and go. 

With gratitude for the waves and the shore,