When “Should” Becomes Shame

Quick Look

Every human mind seems to contain ethical murmurs that say “You should . . .” or, more often, “You shouldn’t . . . .”

This voice is often helpful — even necessary — for an orderly life and an orderly society. (I really should look both ways before I cross the street. I should aid the poor.) It can wake me up from Complacency.

But when this voice gets carried away, it creates mayhem, and labeling it OCD doesn’t help.

The Tale

Barreling down the freeway, I need to pass. I give a signal, but the guy behind me and to my left (my passing lane) speeds up and pins me to the slow lane. I’m late; people are expecting me. Anger wells up. What to do? Plan my revenge (how can I get ahead of that @#)? Shoot him the bird? Get his license number and turn him in? Nah; I don’t have time, plus he didn’t really break a law.

Gollum (from "Lord of the Rings"; my image for Shame)

Gollum, from “Lord of the Rings”; my visual aid for Shame

Blocked in those responses, I go Moralizing: I start shoulding on him. Suddenly, he takes an off‑ramp and is gone. So now my shoulding needs a new anchor, so I should on myself, too: what’s wrong with me? Why do I do this? Why am I so quick to flip out into all the destructive stuff? I need to be in therapy; it’s my mother’s fault; if I didn’t have to go to a job, none of this would happen.

The Tale Wagged

When Shoulding gets out of hand, it snow-balls into shame*: I’m comparing myself to a standard that seems better than me. (It helps me work on Shame if I personify it as Gollum.)

*In one of his early visits to America, the Dalai Lama had so much difficulty understanding questions about shame from his audiences, that he and his translator finally realized that the pervading sense of “I’m not good enough” — almost universal in Americans, maybe Westerners — was simply missing in the languages he spoke.

Yeah, but how do we put it into practice?

If I want to walk free from shame, I must trace my inner Gollum to its origin. Shortcuts don’t work: just telling myself to stop being angry or ashamed is like trying to taste my own tongue. Until I separate from it, I can’t see it.

Once I “get it” that I am not a feeling/thought, the hard work is done. And then I can even welcome it home, Prodigal Son that it is.

I breathe; I listen. At last, the shame has my attention. Maybe I re-trace it again to its source, just to know it better. I allow it to have its full say, camp out with it for a few moments. When I do, it begins to break up into smaller pieces. I’m beginning to see it as it is.

Disentangled – “dis-identified” – from the feeling, external circumstances can differentiate, too; I see that I can’t guarantee their outcome. As I observe it, more and more wind goes out of its sails. It’s like saying a common word over and over and over until it reduces to sounds alone.

And then I start to breathe again. I (or “we” – me and this unruly little Gollum –) settle down considerably.

It’s surprisingly easy — (once you get past the embarrassment of seeing your skulking little Gollum in the mirror).

Echoes: What Other Folks Have Said about Shame


About RayMunn

Husband, father, Zen guy, web designer, film-maker.
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