How a direct investigation into shame can reveal the heart of compassionate self-forgiveness
Crime is a word we use to speak about one of the more negative aspects of our humanity — an action or omission that is considered to be shameful, wrong, or evil. These are attributes we all tend to want to avoid. For this particular investigation let's consider crime in a very broad way, crime at its most basic, the sorts of shameful or wrong actions or behaviors that might generate comments like, "the way she lied to him is a crime," or, “his behavior was so despicable, it's criminal.”
Crime lives on the dark side. We all have parts that are dark and ugly, that cause harm. These tend to be aspects we want to hide from ourselves and certainly from the rest of world. Investigating what you judge to be the worst of you, what you judge to be criminal, can begin to reveal the shame that rides alongside those acts or omissions in life that you internally judge to be oh-so-wrong. Investigating what you believe to be your darkest, most shameful attributes — those actions, thoughts, and feelings and that you judge to be “criminal” — can surprisingly be the doorway into finding the heart of compassionate self-forgiveness.
What is it that you desperately try to hide? What causes your deepest shame? What do you feel is “criminal?” Unless you are a miracle saint, you, like the rest of us, regularly find yourself feeling guilty or shameful about some aspects of your behavior. The frustrations and challenges of life sometimes just bring out the worst in all of us.
The Rules and Breaking Them
First, it can be important to simply acknowledge that the existence of the basic concept of crime, of wrongdoing, is natural and necessary. It's a basic element of our continuing attempt to create a society with some kind of order. We need structure and rules in order to live together. When rules are broken, wrong becomes apparent.
As with many investigations in our world of duality, this one requires seeing two sides, two parts, two hands coming together. First there is the recognition of the necessity of the rules and secondly comes the understanding and compassion that flows from coming to terms with the parts of each of us that will mess up and break the rules.
No one of us can avoid committing actions or omissions that are considered to be wrong, of doing what is judged to be just plain bad. Those kinds of acts or omissions are done by us and to us. We are each imperfect. This imperfection is a natural part of our human expression. There is no escape from it as hard as we may try. This recognition of imperfection is precisely the seed needed to begin to develop internal compassion and forgiveness. And the more deeply we develop compassion and forgiveness for ourselves, the greater our capacity to apply that same kindness to others.
We naturally learn by trial and error. We learn by recognizing that when we make a mistake that it is an error. It is possible to use that understanding as data that informs, not ammunition to berate ourselves. We can even make a huge error, recognize what we have done, and then appropriately experience guilt and remorse. It’s a self-correcting mechanism.
When we recognize that we have messed up, this does not mean that our mistake, our wrongdoing does not have consequences. Sometimes our misdeeds can have serious consequences. It is absolutely possibly that with our wrongdoings, our blunders, we will hurt ourselves and others. We each must learn how to work with, and live with the consequences of our mistakes.
This does not in any way preclude the possibility of recognizing that the error we have committed is not a fundamental flaw in the core of the essence of who we are. While it doesn’t necessarily feel good to experience guilt and remorse, it does not touch the heart of our core me-ness, our wholeness. We can deeply regret a mistaken action or choice, but our self-love, our self-acceptance need not be impacted. Recognizing we made a mistake is far different than believing we are a mistake.
Working with Shame
Believing we are a mistake is the fuel of shame. The shame voice inside of us says... I am inherently bad, or worthless, or unredeemable, or evil, or defective, or useless, or broken, or whatever words you internally apply to yourself. This voice may speak to you at times in a whisper, at times in a scream. You may not hear the voice of your shame directly; you may just feel it as a sense of dread or foreboding.
It is possible to begin to choose to not align with the message of “I am bad.” Even if a part of you continues to feel unworthy of acceptance and belonging, you can begin to learn how to hold even the experience of unworthiness and unacceptability in the container of your vulnerable compassion.
Attempting to reason with your shame, using logic or some kind of positive self-talk can be just another form of engaging in a battle with the feelings of shame. You can tell yourself, “I am not really bad,” when you are feeling shame, but if you are like me, you have tried that over and over. Someone else can even tell you, “you are not really bad,” and I bet you’ve tried that one, too. This is the approach of reasoning, of arguing. It can provide some temporary solace. That can be good and helpful. If it works, great. But if shame keeps coming back, it is actually asking for more from you. Let’s look at how you can get to the root of the shame mechanism.
Compassion and Self-Forgiveness
Finding compassion and self-forgiveness in the face of shame requires fully experiencing the shame. Yes, you really read that correctly. The fight you have had with shame is exactly what is keeping you from compassion. Letting go into self-compassion can be experienced as a leap of faith. It can feel as if you are standing on the edge of cliff and all of your instinctive protection is telling you to get out of there — to fight, to flee, to freeze. Vulnerability is required for the leap into compassion.
Reasoning can get you to the edge of the cliff. You can read these words, understand them, understand the mechanism, but the letting go requires a giving up of control. Just for a moment, when you recognize that your protective impulses are telling you that the shame you are experiencing is something you absolutely should not feel, that experiencing this knot of shame would be dangerous, in that moment (even as a momentary experiment) stop protecting. Let the experience of shame have you. Become vulnerable to it. You no longer have to maintain the facade of perfection. Just let the imperfection live in you, as you. Let go.
Finally you can see that you actually have the capacity to compassionately welcome the bad, dark, unacceptable, flawed beliefs you hold that you have judged to be so criminal. You can vulnerably, tenderly, lovingly hold the part of you that you have concluded is unworthy of acceptance and belonging. This part has been waiting for the love and acceptance it, as you, has not before received.
In developing the capacity to first recognize and admit (even silently to yourself) that you possess the propensity to commit acts that cause harm, it is then possible to begin the process of forgiveness by working with the companion of wrongdoing, shame. The balm you long for from shame does not come from the outside, but arises from your own naked acceptance of your imperfection.
Paldrom Catharine Collins is a former Tibetan Buddhist nun and co-author of "A Couple’s Guide to Sexual Addiction: A Step-by-Step Plan to Rebuild Trust & Restore Intimacy." Working with her husband and sex addiction expert George Collins at Compulsion Solutions, Paldrom counsels individuals and couples across the country.
For the past seven years, through her depth of awareness, sensitivity, and her kind and compassionate qualities, she has been integral in helping individuals, couples, and groups find more love, deeper peace and meaning in their lives and closest relationships.