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Empathy as the Antidote to Shame

It is a challenge for even the most emotionally-aware to acknowledge feeling shame. Just the idea of doing so conjures up ideas of embarrassment or forecasts ridicule. Shame is a powerful experience, and can lead to seemingly unexplainable behaviors because it is often buried deeply under a lot of defenses. Even in my work with clients, it can take a long time to peel back the layers and see that underneath, shame is what we have to grapple with. And it’s not always pretty, either. And to me that's so okay. “Alright, so I realize I feel this way, now what” is often a question I get asked, and I’ve begun to understand that this question rarely gets asked when we are sitting with feelings that the client enjoys, such as a lightness, or a self-contentedness (the answer to those times is "cool, let's hang out here then and just feel what that feels like!") It is instead a question that will usually get asked to see if I know a way to rid the feeling all together. No, there isn’t a way, is my short answer. I would not encourage any client of mine to get rid of any of their feelings. Probably as my client would not immediately seek to advise a struggling friend to just get rid of a feeling that he or she might be struggling with, by saying something like “get over it, it’s no big deal.” Instead, we could do a few things when we reach a point where we’ve identified a place in ourselves where we feel shame (it might feel like a pit in your stomach, I know that’s where I would tend to feel it myself.) We could ask, “what’s this doing here” with that sort of curiosity in order to try and figure it out, maybe become more clear about it. Perhaps that is something you might find helpful, the overall understanding of the experience. I believe that to be a step in the direction. Because, what ends up happening when we start putting the puzzle pieces together and making sense of the shame, is that we can find an understanding for it. And with an understanding comes an empathy. I truly believe that every human being has a capacity for empathy, provided they can make sense of and understand the situation before them. As I wrote in my last blog piece, we are standing at this "thing" that is our feeling (or maybe our "felt sense"), in this case shame, and we are being curious towards it. Shame is a painful feeling, and it is likely so painful because it comes from a very young place in us, possibly a place that was abuse or otherwise victimized as a child, when we had little agency. We’ve carried it around with us just trying to get through this world, persevering and resilient as much as we can be. But here we are at one of our roots, and we realize it’s not pretty, and we can see why. What can we do? Like a child that just wants support, instead of being shamed, let’s give the child an empathetic ear, maybe even a hug. Let’s just be with it. And tell it, “you’re okay, I see you. And I’m here for you when you need me.”