Shame Is a Path to Freedom
Updated: Oct 17, 2020
My thesis: to be anti-racist, we need to get friendly with our most shameful feelings.
To allow ourselves to see and acknowledge racism and the part we play in it, we have to come into contact with the parts of us that feel bad. To be clear, I don’t mean the garden variety feelings of badness, I’m talking about the parts that know ourselves to be shamefully rotten. And we all have some part inside of us that identifies this way - as deeply and inherently bad and inadequate and to blame. That “bad” part holds stories and evidence of ways in which our histories and relationships have proven that we are fundamentally bad, going all the way back to childhood and infancy. When our shame parts come alive inside us, we usually fall apart. We attack. We defend against. We drink, eat, use, self-harm, yell, hit, run, collapse…all the most extreme behaviors in our repertoire burst forth. In fact, we feel so bad about our shame that we shape much of our personalities around never ever ever coming into contact with it. Our managerial parts work overtime to make sure we’re liked and accepted by others. We want to look good so that we don’t feel bad. We build most of our lives around avoiding shame.
So there is understandable resistance to examining ourselves closely around the idea of our own racism, when most of us identify as good people who desire equity for all. And yet we have been steeped in a culture that has racist roots. Racism exists around us and in us. Looking at it, seeing it, letting it be seen and worked with intimately — this is tender territory teeming with shame. If you allow yourself to acknowledge the racism in you, you will feel like a bad person. Every fiber in your being wants you to survive - and survival feels intertwined with being accepted, and perceived as good.
What if it’s safe to go ahead and feel bad? What if you were willing to look honestly at the part of you that holds all those feelings and memories of shame and badness and failure and rejection? What if you knew for sure that with enough looking you would ultimately find innocence? What if you decided to get to know all the bad feelings and identities you are burdened with, because you were certain that underneath all that pain, you are clean and open and there is at your very core, nothing to hide or avoid? Meet me there.
I’ve been doing that cleaning work, opening to my bad parts and listening, shaking, sobbing, sweating and coming to terms with the beliefs and the memories they unsettle in me. I’m clearing space and I’m finding my innocence. What I notice: new open space. I can really hear YOU now, even when what you say awakens my “bad” part. I can stay with the feelings of shame now, and they don’t annihilate me. I can be more in relationship with you because when my shame flares up I know how to be soft and receptive to it. My defenses don’t have to kick in and knock me out of connection with you. It’s safe to make a mistake. I know I will come back and make repair. I know I am not my shame.
Doing anti-racism work feels very much like doing shame work. I want to dis-identify with my shame so that I can live this second half of my life with greater presence, with an open-heart so I can actually be of service in this world, not just encumbered with the task of hiding and compensating for all that I thought was bad about me. Yes, it’s painful to be in touch with shame and to let you see my shame - but I am here to heal and grow. Help me. Show me where I am blind. I am actively seeking to unburden myself and be here, present, with you. Shame is not my enemy. It is the path to freedom.
Written by Jessica Sorci, LMFT