Leaning in to shame

In a recent episode of On Being, Krista Tippett interviewed Ta-Nehisi Coates. The interview, like most of Tippett and Coates’ work, was incredibly informative, interesting, and moving. At one point Tippett asks Coates how he answers when white people ask “What do I do with my whiteness, the legacy of my whiteness?” In reply, he says: “Excuse my language, but I tell them to do the same thing I do with the legacy of my nigger-ness. And that is: Work for a world where my grandchildren, and likely, great-great-great-grandchildren, are not niggers; and that they should work for a world where their grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren are not white.” At the end, Tippett suggests that the reason Coates has become such an important voice in this moment is because a lot of white people want to engage with these “hard truths and feeling them in our bodies, and so there is an art to being able to articulate that so that it can hurt, and it can be shameful, and it can be disturbing, and yet we can keep listening and keep thinking about it.”

This rang true to me. I do feel like what I’m trying to do is to face into hard truths, about our world, our history, and about my place in all of it, and to feel them in my body. It also reminds me of the lyrics of a song I was introduced to recently by a 16-year-old family member, Pluto by Sleeping At Last:

I woke up from the same dream

Falling backwards, falling backwards

’Til it turned me inside out

Now I live a waking life

Of looking backwards, looking backwards

A model citizen of doubt

Until one day I had enough

Of this exercise of trust

I leaned in and let it hurt

And let my body feel the dirt

When I break pattern, I break ground

I rebuild when I break down

I wake up more awake than I’ve ever been before

Still I’m pinned under the weight

Of what I believed would keep me safe

So show me where my armor ends

Show me where my skin begins

Like a final puzzle piece

It all makes perfect sense to me

The heaviness that I hold in my heart belongs to gravity

One thing I’m discovering, as I “lean in” to my whiteness and my privilege, is that I have to also work on healing the places I’ve been hurt, by sexism, by anti-Semitism, and by plain old life. I need to feel my wounds, and my shame. I also need to begin to forgive myself. In order to begin to forgive myself, I need to believe that I am worthy of forgiveness. And I’m realizing that it’s only when I believe that I am forgivable that I am really able to face into the ways I have not lived up to my own hopes and dreams for how I will be. To understand this more deeply and share it more thoroughly, I’m going to write more about the generative somatics’ process of “healing shame” that I’ve been undertaking this fall.

After Wendy and I did the preliminary work of identifying my goals for the work, we moved into storytelling, where I shared with her some stories about my life, focusing on ones I thought had caused me to feel shame. As I mentioned in an earlier post, a definition of shame I learned from Tada Hozumi is that it is “an emotional process by which we repress aspects of ourselves, interfering with both self-awareness and self-regulation.”

Wendy agreed with this, and explained, too, that shame is different from guilt. In guilt, we feel we’ve done something wrong. In shame we feel that we are wrong. It is an effect of trauma, where our soma or self, our wholeness, has been violated in some way. It causes us to hide, to disconnect, focus inward, and to keep people at bay, which then interferes with our sense of belonging. And, it has a function, which is to help us avoid feeling even more overwhelming feelings underneath shame, like helplessness, terror, or rage.

The way to begin to assist this shaping to unwind, is to have our stories witnessed. Then — and this is perhaps the unusual part — somatics practitioners do what they call a “shame blend”, where the coach takes on the shaming voice and agrees with it, in order to help the client feel the shame more fully, and to open to the feelings underneath it. The concept of “blending” comes from Aikido, where instead of meeting an attacker’s energy with opposing force, you meet it, go with it,  agree with it, in order to redirect and neutralize it in a way that is safe for both yourself and for the attacker.

In my “shame blend” session with Wendy, I identified a few lines she could say to me that would trigger some of my feelings of shame: “You’re naïve,” “You’re gullible,” “You weren’t thinking,” “You weren’t using your intelligence.” As she repeated these to me, at first it was hard to feel much, other than a feeling of being bombarded. We did another round where she slowed down her repetition of the words, and I began to cry. I felt hot, and I felt like hiding, like protecting myself, like curling into a ball. She encouraged me to let the feelings run, and even to take the physical shape I felt like taking, with my arms shielding my head and ears. We did it a third time, and I felt angry. I felt like fighting back, and felt mad at both myself and at people who led me to believe untrue things, and at the people shaming me for believing them. I spent a little time hitting a pillow on my lap. I also felt like I was bad, despicable, disgusting, immoral… and like there’s no safe place. And then I felt like surrendering, like letting myself make mistakes and be seen to make mistakes, letting myself be a mess. That felt like a relief, and this feeling of it being okay to let my imperfections and messiness show stayed with me for a while.

We followed that session with a session of what generative somatics calls a “spirited commitment to dignity” — using Thai kick-boxing pads held by a partner and (safely) beating the hell out of them and yelling. This is a little harder than the other parts of the process to do over Skype! Although it can be very effectively done without actual physical contact, just using energy, movement, and sound, we arranged for my Madison friend and somatics colleague Liz to join us for this session. Although not as powerful as when I’ve done it at a workshop with a room full of others doing it at the same time, it was still pretty awesome. And, lying on the floor after this intense output of energy, I glimpsed a more centered, non-discursive kind of presence. Just being. And, as I look back in my journal to write this summary, I realize that this session was a couple of days before the sessions with Suzanne and Amy that I wrote about last time, when I began to get clear on made my decision to commit to writing. This is probably not a coincidence!

There are more, equally powerful and important stages to the healing shame process — work on “centered accountability,” and on self-forgiveness. Stay tuned for my reflections on those in a future blog post. For now, it feels good to reflect back on the work of “blending with” the shame, and getting to feel the underlying unworthiness and terror. And I wonder, can we learn to collectively lean in and let our bodies feel the dirt? With each video of police violence, with each public proclamation of “me too,” can we let down our armor a little, and let it hurt? As we do this individually, can we support each other, and find ways to move through this to a better place together, as a society? Remembering, as Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us, that it is in no way a quick fix, and we ourselves will likely not live to see the day when our grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren are no longer beneficiaries or victims of white or male supremacy.

2 thoughts on “Leaning in to shame”

  1. This sounds a lot like the scream therapy of old— hitting a pillow wit anger/rage. How is this different?

    You know me— I can be a skeptic…



    On Sat, Dec 9, 2017 at 1:42 PM towardanakedheart wrote:

    > towardanakedheart posted: “In a recent episode of On Being, Krista Tippett > interviewed Ta-Nehisi Coates. The interview, like most of Tippett and > Coates’ work, was incredibly informative, interesting, and moving. At one > point Tippett asks Coates how he answers when white people ask ” >

  2. I love this exploration b/c I too am exploring shame. I love the idea of letting ourselves feel the hurt and get to the point where we move into non-judging presence. The process you described sounds like it is definitely a moving through rather than a spiritual bypass, and thus for me speaks to a kind of integrity and authenticity that I value. It sounds different to me from the old “beat a pillow” thing b/c it is not simply about expressing one’s anger. It is an interesting question, though — b/c my understanding is that the research showed that technique actually increased anger rather than really releasing it. When to witness (as in, sitting meditation) and when to move the body? To be clear about purpose and then to discover whether purpose has been served. To me, the deeper purpose is to release whatever gets in the way of love. Even shame is ultimately about serving life, right? In the sense that it helped people in a community behave in ways that worked for the group. If a person behaved in ways that threatened the well-being of the group, they might be cut off from the group and thus from life. I am very curious about how to access the LIFE at the root of shame, which it seems your process did.

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