The Bright Side Of Shame – Part III
How Living On Promise Can Paralyze Our Lives
Thus, we are all familiar with the many aspects of the dark side of shame. We may give up in school because the teacher says we are stupid. We may quit cooking meals, because our spouse says we cannot cook. We may act out “bad” behavior because on some level we have come to believe that nothing we do of a positive nature will reveal us to be adequate, decent persons. We may even act out due to a "fear of intimacy" because just when our relationship is moving to deeper levels of intimacy, we begin to feel that the revelation of more ourselves to our partner will surely result in abandonment and the devastating sense of shame that would follow.
All of these examples described above have one thing in common. When examined at a close enough perspective, it becomes easy to define the outline of that dark shadow of shame that permeates the dynamics of behavior in each case. In such circumstances, if we are courageous enough, we can readily identify this dark shadow of shame that casts itself over the activities of our daily lives and paralyzes us with the fear that we dare not move on, lest the shadow of shame will lengthen. When shame can be readily identified as the source behind our behavior, it can be more easily moved through in a process of healing.
The bright side of shame
It is in those of us whose lives do not readily reveal the presence of shame that the process becomes most difficult. When one has promise, when one seems to have everything going for him or her, yet they are still paralyzed to the point of inaction, we find it most difficult to identify the existence of shame. No shadow is readily apparent, but the shame is still there. In the full light of our promise, expectation and hope, the shame is still there. This was the discovery that I had made about myself and this was the discovery that I was about to reveal to Brent as we sat together in my office.
We are about to discuss why promising scholars drop out of school and promising writers don't write. We are about to discuss why successful musicians and rock stars and performers paralyze their lives through excessive behaviors like taking drugs and even kill themselves in their sense of shame. We're about to discover why the promising worker in the mail room never asks for a promotion and why the new CEO fails to implement the strategies and creative innovations that propelled him into his position in the first place.
Short of losing loved ones, there are few things in life more devastating than the sense of unfulfilled promise. The saddest stories in life all begin with two words: “if only.” If it is true that we are defined as losers in life not by our failures, but by those things we abandon or fail to try, then coming to understand how we can become paralyzed in the face of promise and destiny may become the most viable thing we can do to get unstuck and get on with our lives.
Brent sat patiently waiting for me to offer insights that would allow him to understand the behavior he found so baffling. Why wasn’t he doing what he knew he needed to be doing in order to get on with his life? He was a bright, articulate, college dropout who was having as much difficulty returning to his chosen path of promise as I was in pursuing my writing. One of the great joys of practicing in the counseling profession is that we counselors hear coming from our own mouths the very things we need to listen to ourselves. It is true that we teach best what we most need to learn and years of observation and study, contemplation and practice, were about to come to fruition.
“This is about your sense of shame, Brent,” I began.
“How could I be ashamed?” He replied, “You know, I’m gifted. Everybody expects so much of me – I expect so much of me! And here I am, just living day by day, going nowhere.”
“And that makes you feel . . . ?”
Brent sighed, ran his fingers through his hair and looked disconsolately at the floor. “Frustrated at myself . . .” He continued to stare intently at the floor. “And . . .” He lowered his voice. “Ashamed.” There was a long pause. “But, what have I done to be ashamed . . .?”
“It’s what you haven’t done – what you are not doing that brings you your sense of shame . . .”
“But, if I try and fail . . .” He paused as the insight swept over him like a wave taking his breath away, “. . . I’ll feel even more shame! This way, I’m safe – until I can figure this out.”
With that, Brent disclosed the dynamics behind his impasse: a process I call the bright side of shame. Living in the light of promise – even unfulfilled promise – is preferable when our underlying sense of shame paralyzes us with the fear that we will be unable to fulfill that promise. Yes, looking at it this way, we may feel some shame at being stuck at this impasse, but nothing like the shame of failure if we try and do not succeed.
This comes about because we are stuck in the illusory thinking that bright promise followed by failed efforts will reveal us as impostors – posers who really had no promise after all! The thinking (usually unconscious) goes: Why risk losing the respect and admiration of living in the bright light of promise by trying and failing – thus losing All?
The dark end of the bright side of shame
Again, the sense of shame is grounded in the fear of not being enough. If we interpret failure to perform according to expectations (actually, a process of doing) as an indication of lack of personal worth, we open ourselves up to the experience of shame. It is possible for one to live a lifetime basking in the bright light of promise. Yet, without making the efforts and taking the risks to fulfill that promise, the bright light of promise inevitably becomes the bright side of shame. Even as we are fixated on the light of promise, our shame is ever the dark foreboding that lurks under promise paralyzed by fear. Eventually, this too must end. Youth fades as surely as the light of day.
Like fruit rotting on the vine, there is no emotion so vile and bitter as that found in one who has lived a lifetime never overcoming the fears to take the risks to fulfill one’s potential. There is no bed of sadness more melancholy than the deathbed upholstered with a lifetime of “if only” stories.
It is better to take the risks and make the efforts and fail than to give up or never try at all. Why? There is healing available for shame. There is healing for the disillusionment of efforts followed by failure. There is no healing in this life for deathbed regrets.
The challenge, then, is to move beyond the fainter light of unfulfilled promise, overcoming the fears of inadequacy that paralyze our efforts. We act in spite of our underlying sense of shame – our sense of not being enough – because, in life, that is our only viable recourse. Part of this involves our changing our culturally indoctrinated self-limiting ways of thinking and perceiving.
Granville Angell © 06/2007
Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC: local counselor and author of The God-Shaped Hole – A Story of Comfort for The Child in All of Us. Read his prior articles at www.transitions-counseling.com; contact him at TRANSITIONS: angell(AT)transitions-counseling.com 704-276-1164.
To call TRANSITIONS/SoulMentors: (704) 276-1164