Finding Compassion Amidst Shame

By Caroline Netschert

Apparently the topic of shame is “up for me” this week. It seems to work out that way—the topics we’re investigating in this class become more glaringly obvious in my life. The past few weeks it’s been self-righteousness, but the past few days it’s shifted to shame, as we explore this idea/practice of “getting off the hook.”

Today I drove to the women’s jail. There’s a woman I wanted to meet with before her court date this Thursday. I promised her I’d come see her and bring her some specific things to read, since she’s been really struggling and she’s finally starting to open up about trauma she’s experienced. We’d had a really amazing conversation two weeks ago that I’ve been replaying in my mind a lot. So I drove 40 minutes, parked in the garage and went to grab my ID out of my purse, but found out I’d left it hanging in my bedroom at home. I can’t get into the jail without my ID.

So there I am sitting in the garage, defeated, overly caffeinated, with a wave of shame and self-pity swelling from the dark pit in my stomach. I shed a sprinkling of tears and my old narrative of “how could I have been so careless? (stupid?)” chimes in. This time, however, I remember I have a choice.

I often dive straight down and pull that wave of self-pity and self-hatred over myself, wrapping it around me like a cloak of jaggedly, heavy, familiar pain…adding fuel to that fire that is so oddly comforting because it’s been the go-to “tool” for so long. But this time I paused. I start investigating and naming what I’m feeling: shame, disappointment, self-pity, fear that I’d let other people down, perfectionism…my expectation that I should never make mistakes. I think to myself, “How can I find compassion for myself in the midst of shame?” How can I “let myself off the hook?” so-to-speak?

During my 40 minutes drive home it dawned on me: somewhere in that pit of my stomach I have the belief that if I don’t self-flagellate and shame myself when I do something I think is “wrong” or “bad,” then I’m worried that I (and people around me) will think I’m not remorseful…that I’m “letting myself off the hook.” That I’ll see myself (or others will see me) as a callous person who doesn’t think about anyone else. And you know what? They might. Or they might not. And if they do, would that make it true? And what if it is true sometimes? Does that mean I’m “bad?” Underneath it all, I know I’m not. And holy shit, I’m trying and it is so effing messy and I really hate messes. I can’t control a mess and I really hate feeling like I’m not in control, which of course, I’m not. It’s the grand delusion that continue to chase, but will never obtain.

So, this time I investigated and I recognized what was going on. I breathed and then I surrendered to the simple fact that I tried to do the “right thing, but I “failed” (made a mistake), and it’s not the end of the fucking world. I got home, laughed at my purse hanging in my room, made myself lunch and put my shoes on to go to work.

Thinking about this experience in terms of how I relate to the shame I have around my power, privileges and differences, what happened today seems pretty tame in comparison. The tailspin I started to have in the parking lot, which I unpacked my way through, was essentially around forgetting my purse—an annoying, but fairly tame “offense.” So, my shame around my privilege and social role is bound to be way messier when it pops up. The question is, can I find compassion for myself when it does surface? Reverend angel Kyoto williams, Sensei questions in the reading from this week will definitely stay with me for those moments:

“What place are you not feeling?
What part of you are you rejecting?
What aspect are you not loving?
What truth are you not willing to accept?”*
*Williams, Angel Kyodo, Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah. 2016. Radical Dharma: talking race, love, and liberation. p. 96

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