When discussing what draws us towards healing, growth and renewal and what holds us back, shame claims a place in the conversation. For some, it’s not original sin thinking (“all people are inherently bad”) but shame (“I in particular am inherently bad”) that holds them back. My study group is blessed with a woman who has deep insights into how shame’s tentacles reach into seemingly unrelated parts of one’s life. “Childhood tapes” are what she calls the messages, for better or worse, deeply ingrained from one’s upbringing. Sometimes the tapes say that you’re not good enough, that you have to earn love, or that you will never do or be enough. The feeling of being bad—the person not the behavior—is shame.
There’s a difference between shame and remorse. When we look back on past choices, we will feel proud of some of them. We will also change our mind about some of the choices we made. That’s what it is to repent—to rethink our choices and to change our minds about some of them. Once we see the moral weakness in our choices, it is natural to feel regret for them. We might feel a separation from God. We might even feel a separation from ourselves, or the self we desire to be. Remorse is a sign of hope because it signals a change of heart. It’s the very seed of life change, and God plants it.
Healthy remorse says, “I made a bad choice,” rather than, “I am bad.” The latter inhibits healing in several ways. First, it implies my condition is static, and that is inaccurate. Popular Buddhist activist, author and monk Thich Nhat Han repeatedly expresses the idea that anything is possible as long as one is alive. When I say, “I made a bad choice,” I open myself to the other possibilities that were present. When I say, “I am bad,” I close myself off to them, both in the past and in the future. Second, when I tell the person I offended, “I am bad,” perhaps hoping for some form of protest, I am warning her to expect a repeat performance. “I made a bad choice,” accompanied by genuine remorse, gives the person I offended reason to hope for better in the future. Finally, whereas “I made a bad choice,” can lead to feelings of guilt and healthy remorse, “I am bad,” leads to feelings of shame.
When we grow into a pattern of shame from childhood, the impulse that triggers shame may be wired to a deeply rooted survival impulse. Perhaps bowing down to “I am bad” statements was the only way to survive a parent’s wrath. Or maybe accepting blame was the path of least resistance. In either case, a child might develop a reflex—an unthinking habit rather than a thoughtful response—of shouldering wrongs that belong to another. When we realize shame is connected to a primal survival impulse, we can understand how it has the ability to reach into all aspects of life. Despite the deep hold shame can have on a psyche, it can be disconnected. It requires a thoughtful inventory of the impulses that trigger shame and mindfulness to replace unconscious habits with intentional responses. It will take effort. Ask for God’s help, and let him do the miracle of making it enough.
Join the conversation. How do you re-wire childhood tapes from your past so that they no longer connect to your present?
Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.