Embarrassing but true: At 70, the age when people are supposed to be wise elders passing on their hard-earned insights to younger generations, I’m still vulnerable to an occasional “shame attack” — what Berkeley therapist Joan Gold, MA, MFT, describes as “a full-scale assault on the self [where] we lose track of our inner guidance.”
During one such recent attack, I managed to free myself from its grip within 2 hours. And when I say “grip,” I mean just that: a frame of mind so powerful and controlling that all else pales. I was in such a frozen state that I didn’t know how to proceed, so I did what 12-step fellowship members call “the next indicated thing” — acting on whatever life presents. Here are the eight actions I took.
Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist and my writing does not replace professional treatment.
1. I Took A Shower
My hair needed washing, and I know how good a clean head of hair feels. I have always believed that water heals. After all, not only are our bodies 60 percent water, but we began our lives spending 9 months floating in our mothers’ amniotic waters. Surely that counts for something!
2. I Brushed And Flossed My Teeth
As I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, putting the toothpaste on my brush, I remembered my older sister, Arabella, a patient at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. I watched her sit up in her bed 12 years ago to brush her teeth on what would be the last night of her life.
She took on this simple routine with a thoroughness and commitment that astounded me. Since she knew she was going to die soon, what difference did it make? Evidently it did. The way she cared for herself with such an attitude of kindness and respect, when she was so frail and in pain, moved me deeply.
After I finished brushing my teeth, I flossed, not in the half-hearted way I often do, but precisely and carefully. If I can floss my teeth correctly, I thought, I can accomplish anything, even overcome a shame attack. I kept musing on a line I once heard, “How you do anything is how you do everything.”
3. I Named The Experience
While washing the dishes, meticulously removing every food scrap and stain, I labeled what I was experiencing. “I’m having a shame attack,” I said to myself.
Naming an experience is a tool of emotional intelligence; it frames our state of mind and reminds us that we are greater than what we are feeling at any moment. As the psychologist Dan Siegel says, “To name it to tame it.”
4. I Made The Bed
I pulled the corners down tight, smoothed every wrinkle, plumped the pillows, and checked that the duvet was evenly spread on both sides because my beloved, Barry, sometimes feels he doesn’t get his fair share of it.
These simple, unhurried tasks helped to steady my unquiet mind.
5. I Paused And Noticed The Moon, In All Her Beauty
After making the bed, looking out the window, I saw the moon high in the sky, her crescent shape glowing in the dark. So creamy, so magical! Could she be reassuring and comforting me? Admiring a thing of beauty helped me remember that, even if I didn’t like myself very much at that moment, I could still appreciate other things, and that was a start.
6. I Asked My Mother And My Sister For Help
My mother died when Gerald Ford was president, so it’s been awhile. She and I didn’t always have a smooth relationship, nor did my sister Arabella and I. But in the years since their deaths, I have turned to one or both of them when I feel deeply discouraged. Skeptic that I am, I’m amazed how afterwards I feel helped in a way that I don’t understand but gratefully accept.
I found the words of Dutch Catholic priest Henri J.M. Nouwen in his book, Bread for the Journey, to be true: “Remembering [loved ones] means letting their spirits inspire us in our daily lives. They can… gently help us as we make decisions on our journeys… Sometimes they can become even more intimate to us after death than when they were with us in life.”
I ask my mother and Arabella for help not because they were always such great models of excellence, but because sometimes they weren’t. Their weaknesses seem to be just what I need. I can feel them empathizing with me, understanding when I feel like a mess.
7. I Went Outside And Walked For 10 Minutes
I believe that motion is medicine. A quote from British historian G.M. Trevelyan often comes to mind: “I have two doctors, my left leg and my right. When body and mind are out of gear (and those twin parts of me live at such close quarters that the one always catches melancholy from the other), I know that I shall have only to call in my doctors and I shall be well again.”
8. I Described The Shame Attack In My Journal
Ever since I started keeping a journal when I was 8 years old, I’ve been an inveterate recorder of the day’s activities. This time, though, I didn’t want to. The shame was so intense. But I had to make myself. I’ve used writing as a restorative tool for decades and I knew it would help.
I believe the body heals faster in motion, and my fingers forming words back and forth across a page is a form of motion.
I’m ashamed of the fight I picked with Barry at the café. What happened? 1) I started arguing in a very public place, which is humiliating, especially in Mexico, where people never act inappropriately; 2) I had just been bragging about how being with Daddy at his facility had brought out my “best self” and then what did I do? I turned into a pouty two-year-old; 3) I got territorial and stupid when he grabbed what I considered “my” bread; 4) I had to have the last word even after we gassho-ed (a physical gesture of hands in prayer position, which for us is a sign of respect and closure); 5) I bet X and Y (friends) never go through this.
Big sigh. OK, there it is, it’s all out, on the page, the healing, freeing page that accepts, hears, receives.
Now, as I type these sentences from my journal, my behavior doesn’t seem that bad. After all, I had just returned from an intense 5-day visit with my elderly father, an emotionally draining trip involving COVID testing, going through customs, and two full days of flying. While visiting him, I discussed his condition with several managers of his facility, along with a health care provider. I had to be on almost the entire time. Now, back with Barry, I was exhausted. No wonder I was on edge.
Ironically, Barry let go of his hurt and frustration and moved on way before I did. But shame is a harsh taskmaster, neither forgiving nor rational.
Later I explored more in my journal.
Weird the way shame takes over and overwhelms anything and everything else. After all, much more happened today than our fight at lunch. We visited a market, I watched the Zumba class in the park, and we walked around a beautiful park. Yet the shame spread all over the day like an inkblot, smothering everything else.
I went on.
What exactly is shame, and how does it operate? Is it like a bully? Is it like cancer, crowding out everything else? Is it like an invasive species? A virus? A colonial power?
I finally decided shame was a wily, cunning trickster who knew exactly how to convince me I was worthless.
As I puzzled through these images, asking questions and trying to find the right metaphor, I suddenly noticed the shame had disappeared. I had become curious, and shame and curiosity can’t coexist. I was now an explorer, studying this powerful state that could reduce me to shreds.
I started this article saying it was embarrassing to admit that at my age I still have these attacks. Talk about laying shame upon shame!
According to author and researcher Brené Brown, shame is universal. “We all have it,” she said in a 2012 TED Talk. “No one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it, the more you have it.” Maybe the real problem is not the shame, but the isolation.
So, I’m talking about it. I’ve come to the conclusion that shame isn’t an adversary I can fight directly; the only way out is through. Small steps, like taking a shower, admiring the moon, and making the bed, all help. What I do know at 70 is that this too will pass. Shame comes in like a powerful wind, and it goes. Maybe this is wisdom.
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