Updated: Jun 30, 2021
Living outside of ourselves
Many of us, to some degree, have lived our lives outside of ourselves. This may be a natural part of development, where we establish our place in the world. However, I also suspect that it is a symptom of something malignant, something that is actively keeping us from being in touch with our inner, personal reality and even existence. This something is shame.
Shaming cuts us off from our existence
Many of us live ashamed.
Shaming is the effective way we keep individuals useful and compliant, and teach them how they should act, if they are to belong, or at least be tolerated, here. It is the way the fearful stages and scripts we inherited (https://www.thomasrowlandcounsellingservices.com/post/faith-and-fear-part-i-stories-of-fear-and-stories-of-faith) protect themselves from being seen as constructed, and enforce their authority upon our lives.
Shaming could be the silent look of disapproval. It could be the public exposing of some vulnerability. It could be a parent’s dismissal of a child’s want or feeling: It’s not that bad! We don’t do that. You silly boy! Stop it! It could be the violent abuse towards another to keep them in their place.
Shaming threatens to or temporality casts out the individual into the 'other' camp: bad, uneducated, stupid, inferior, evil or misinformed. Shaming is bewildering, as no explanation is given: What did I do wrong? And this bewilderment disempowers us, for we learn we cannot trust ourselves. We learn that our inner reality must be unreliable, or, worse, bad.
Shaming strips the person or their inherent worth and makes them an ‘It’ we can ignore, use, judge and cast out. For many, without hyperbole, shaming is to bring hell on earth, seeking to light within the individual's conscience fires of disapproval and judgement that will never be put out, so that their inner truth and experience do not challenge, embarrass or threaten us again. We may believe they deserve this in their disrespect. We may believe that this is an important lesson they need to learn. We forget all this when, years later, these fires lead that person to depression or suicide.
Shaming thus leads us to distrust our inner reality and experience. We learn that we know nothing except what others tell us. We learn to make our decisions according to what others think or society tells us is true, good, the right thing to do, needed or useful. As Rogers put it, our ‘locus of evaluation’ is external: we judge as the many do, as our group does, or as our parents would; we live trying to please, fit in or perform; we may find it impossible to make decisions and know what we want, except to appease and comply. This feels safe. To not do so is to make ourselves judgeable. To make ourselves vulnerable to being shamed again.
And so we live, as if the only thing that exists is on the outside. This is what matters. This is what can be trusted. This is what our life is all about. Until, that is, we realise that such a life has only brought emptiness and self-betrayal.
The distrust that shame instils cuts us off from our inner being and truth. It’s like it gets slowly hardened. The surface may be the first to harden to stop any of the wildness, the otherness, showing itself. Before long, more and more of the centre of our beings, of the centre of our experience, where all used to naturally flow, hardens off too. Until we no longer feel, or are even aware, of many emotions, longings, ideas, opinions, power, hopes, dreams. It’s like we don’t exist anymore, except as an actor on the stage.
But this denial of our inner self is to forsake and to betray ourselves.
This self-betrayal will play out in our chosen actions. We will contort ourselves - what we joke about, what career we seek, what lifestyle we pursue, what or if we feel, how we relate to others - so that we play according to the script and fit in successfully. We may realise that we cannot speak out for what we know is true or call out what we know to be evil. Thorne writes of the self-betrayal he chose when a young officer across the road from an interrogation centre in not speaking out.1
And thus the promotion of self-betrayal, via the shaming of selves, is the means by which evil and oppression is perpetuated and left unchallenged. Self-betrayal is the necessary means by which the othering of people - whereby we make them worth only as much as they benefit us and validate any means to make them convenient - can continue. It is the way that our stages remain intact, though they harm ourselves and everyone else on them, as well as those thrown off the edge. Self-betrayal leaves us leading empty lives, prescribed by others, meaningless to ourselves, and devoid of connection and delight. It leaves us regretful and can leave us bearing the guilt, the guilt of our own complicity and cowardice that is not imposed on us from outside, but arises from within.
Faith becomes a well to our spirit
So far I have imagined faith as a place within us that is quiet enough to hear the whispers of another story, or still enough to remember an older story, than the scripts and stages we find ourselves living on. It hears a story of inherent belonging and worth, rather than conditional (https://www.thomasrowlandcounsellingservices.com/post/faith-and-fear-part-ii-death)
We could picture faith as a still pool, still enough that the silent whispers of these other stories can still make ripples on the surface. However, with this hearing, faith is deepened, strengthened and revitalised to see what is beneath, what is within us, as valuable, simply because it exists and because it contains its own kind of truth and wisdom. It starts to dig down through the hardness that slowly accrued around our soul. We may need to start with trusting that what is down there is not evil, untrustworthy and unlovable, nor can it remove our place in the world from us. Instead, (even tentatively), it is precious and life-giving. Gradually these waters of faith will erode more and more of the hardened defences, so that we access more and more of the emotions, hopes, longings, and knowledge we have, some deeper, some shallower. Gradually faith connects us to our inner reality.
For many men, our emotions are a big part of this hardened-off self. This hardening can stop us from relating vulnerably to others, from pursuing what is ours to do, and from challenging what is ours to confront. And so, faith may start clearing the way for the emotions that are more permissible and more at the surface, or that have still been allowed to trickle within, as we come to fully embrace our whole contradictory and vivacious self as valuable, powerful and trustworthy. We may have moments when some suddenly gush or erupt all at once, perhaps from deep within, and may continue to do so for a while, like a live volcano that has until recently been blocked off (perhaps even frozen). These may be the pains of long ago. If they are allowed to, they will subside and find their place within the swirl and flow of our being.
Thus our faith can be seen as the meeting place of the hopeful stories of faith we hear and the life of our own spirit that these very stories call forth as precious, belonging and powerful. Its surface is disturbed and disrupted by the whispers of another story and the turbulence rising up from within: the flow of our own spirit. And these will cause turbulence in our lives. But they are the turbulence of a wise, old soul we can trust.
A new way of being towards ourselves
It demands courage to risk the condemnation and judgements that trusting our own inner reality and claiming our own belonging, worth and hope may bring. We must let go of those fears that keep us from being authentic or we choose the path of self-betrayal. Self-betrayal is rooted in the self-scepticism and self-cursing that itself is the only alternative path provided to many, who are threatened with shame if they do trust their own truth. Instead of bearing the beating, the indifference, the rage, the humiliation, the cold shoulder or the burning guilt-ridden fires, we choose to doubt ourselves and even believe ourselves to be dark, ignorant, wicked.
The opposite of self-betrayal is self-ownership and self-blessing. I own my darkness, my cowardice, my complicity, my fears, my fantasies, even my hopes, delights, dreams and drives: the swirling chaotic flow of all of these and more. I do not attempt self-mastery, which always ends up in cutting parts of my truth, reality and being off, or silencing, cursing and burying them, or throwing them out of myself by accusing others of such things, until they uncontrollably make themselves known and explode at a most inopportune moment and in the most vexing ways.
No, self-ownership must go hand-in-hand with self-blessing: the compassion and love that sees the logic and value of all of these contradictions and swirling currents within, as they rise and fall, clash and join. Self-blessing lets these be and finds, more often than not, that they settle. The soul can feel these parts that settle and know its truth. Equally, the soul learns to sense when a story heard by faith - perhaps in the spoken or written words of another, in the ways of nature, in the experience of the world, or in the intimate simplicity of a touch - meets with a rising flow of the spirit, and in that moment knows what it must do. Perhaps this rising flow is the bellows of something deep within us crying out to be heard that has, for a long time, been imprisoned in a crevice or cave within the protective solidification. These are not the oughts, should or musts of our fears or shame; not to belong but because it already belongs; not to be of worth but because it already is of worth. These are instead the musts of our spontaneous spirit that drive us towards life, the musts of maintaining our soul’s integrity; the musts of claiming again and again the inherent value, belonging and hope we all have, against the scripts and stages, shaming and fears that we find ourselves in and tell us otherwise. These are the musts of our inner reality.
1. Thorne B. Infinitely Beloved: The Challenge of Divine Intimacy (Sarum Theological Lectures)