Shame as Your Shadow
While listening to a National Public Radio program about post-traumatic stress disorder, I heard a wonderful description of how to let go of shame. Most disregulated eaters suffer from excessive, unwarranted shame which drives abusive eating and damages self-esteem and quality of life. Learning how to manage shame is a necessary life skill.
On the program, a veteran was talking about his war experiences which included not being able to help his buddies who were badly injured or killed. He spoke of the debilitating shame he carried long after his arrival stateside and how it shaped his ability to get on with life, and went on to describe how his therapist helped him move past it with her explanation of shame. My paraphrase of this explanation follows.
Shame is like staring at our shadow. We know it’s there, but we don’t need to be constantly looking at it to recall this fact. In fact, every time we look at our shadow, we are facing only one direction: behind us. Although we may have shameful feelings—or other distressing thoughts and emotions as well—we don’t need to continually gaze at them. By doing so, we are not taking in the present or looking ahead to the future. By doing so, we are anchoring ourselves in a time that no longer exists.
Moreover, by looking constantly at our shadow—or our shame—we are ensuring that it continues to remain part of us. Every glance backward strengthens our neural activity around that connection so that it really does appear that shame is following us around. There is a process in psychology called selective attention, which says that we choose to cue into specific parts of the environment and that we can change what we cue into. For example, you walk into a party and zero right in on the food buffet, while your “normal” eating friend starts chattering about who’s there and who isn’t.
We are using selective attention when we stare at our shadow of shame. Why pick that out of all the other facets of our lives—our breathing, posture, other emotions, the sights and sounds around us, etc.? What would happen if you stopped staring at your shadow? It would still be there, but it wouldn’t be flashing on your radar. My point is that shame need not go away (although it will if you stop noticing and connecting to it). However, if you’re not focusing on it, it doesn’t matter if it’s there or not because you’re not seeing or feeling it. In the same way that you don’t keep staring at your shadow, it’s time to stop setting your emotional sights on shame. Leave it alone and it will leave you alone.