“OK,” she said, “So sometimes we just need to breathe and go with the flow.” Then she told me that one of the training rooms we wanted to use had been double-booked—a course manager’s worst nightmare. We discussed this for a while, worked out a solution, then squeezed each others’ arm appreciatively, as I returned to my cushion.
My co-teachers were working out seating arrangements with the group when I returned. My mind was preoccupied with a double-booked room, and on alert for any situation that needed to take this into account. One teacher said that participants could collect a chair from the next room, and, with the double-booked room firmly in my tunnel vision, I looked at her, frowned severely and shook my head earnestly, to let her know that wouldn’t work. In true reptilian brain style, everything in the world only existed in as much as it related to the threat of the double-booked room.
It soon became apparent that she was not pointing people in the direction of the double-booked room. It is amazing how much can happen in one mind in a short period of time:
- It dawned on me that I had presumed the wrong thing, and had gesticulated wildly from this incorrect presumption.
- There was a moment of dread about that realization – “Oh my god, I’ve just unmindfully bossed around this woman I want to have a good working relationship with.”
- Then, shame – “What will she think of me – the bossing around, my being mistaken, my overbearing presence? Oh she must think I am so presumptuous, and so WRONG. She must think that I am BAD.”
- And then with that familiar sinking feeling as my perception narrowed (fight, flight, freeze response), I felt the rising up of shame, like a Phoenix from the ashes of my crushed ego: proud, strong, sure. Shame over being obvious and being wrong. Shame over being bossy and being wrong. Shame over sitting at the front and being wrong. Shame over being wrong in a relationship I needed to nurture. Shame over so many factors – in the space of about 2 seconds.
Having a self-compassion practice does not stop shame from arising. Feeling shame is such an old survival response, we can’t just stop our survival mechanisms from doing what they were designed to do. A shame response is like our appendix and our tailbone, neither of which we need any more, but that don’t cease to exist simply because we no longer eat leaves or have a tail.
So, shame arose as I sat in front of a room full of people, trying to be poised and professional, but feeling like a little girl who has just pooped her pants at school.
I saw it and I knew it, and although my first response may have been to try to push it down, after working with shame so much I knew in those few seconds that I needed to be with it if I wanted to be poised and professional, and if I wanted to take care of myself. In those few seconds I saw that little girl who so badly wanted to not stand out for all the wrong reasons; who wanted so badly to fit in; who felt that it was a certainty that if anyone knew she had just pooped her pants no-one would like her and she would be shunned and alone.
Shame is no stranger – to me, or to anyone else. It keeps us in line; it makes us conform; it’s the fear of something so terrible happening that we’d do anything to not experience it. But it doesn’t need to conquer us.
Like a Valkyrie swooping down to scoop up a dying hero, she appeared. She is a combination of Kuan Yin, a dharma teacher called Taraniya, an Auntie Rosemary, the big Kristy, and a mix of many other influences in my life who have helped strengthen me. She appeared to say, “My dear, I’m taking care of your shame; you are totally lovable.” At the same time, her voice cooed softly to the shame, calling it sweetly and lovingly by name, “Shame, shame, dear shame, dear shame,” soothing and softening, acknowledging knowingly, understanding deeply.
And shame left in her arms.
I spoke to my co-teacher after this event, and as these things often go, she had not even registered my gesticulations. The trigger that had just evoked shame didn’t actually even happen. Like the man who painted a tiger on the wall of a cave, then became suddenly frightened by the image, my system had wholeheartedly fabricated a shameful situation.
I’ll surely keep painting the tiger, but gradually I am better able to be with and to soothe those parts of me that react to my shame-inducing creations.