What if we believed that shame is actually the compass?

You know, I once read an interesting book, which said that, uh, most people lost in the wilds, they, they die of shame. Yeah, see, they die of shame. ‘What did I do wrong? How could I have gotten myself into this?’ And so they sit there and they... die.
— David Mamet

In healing from trauma, shame should be one of the biggest indicators of healing, of being on the right track. When shame hits, we should all feel good—that things are moving, shifting, healing. Like when a wound heals over and it gets itchy because the skin is growing back.

But I have found that we rarely see shame as the harbinger of good news. The sign that we are actually on the right path. When we are lost in our own wilds of healing, we often also risk, as Mamet reports, dying of shame: we hit the places in our healing that are uncomfortable, that feel like a backwards slide, that are vulnerable. These experiences catapult us into shame and we freeze, we stop reaching out, we spiral down and feel more and more lost. Instead of looking up and out and calling for help, we berate ourselves for being “back here again” “feeling this way again.” We say things like “I thought I was done with this.”

Shame is almost always secondary. It is a judgment about where we are. Shame isn’t being lost. It is the feeling we put on our experience of lost. Shame isn’t the feeling of grief or rage or desire. It is the feeling we put on top of those feelings so we don’t have to feel them. People die of shame in the wilds because they can’t stop the judgment about how they got lost. And instead of sitting still and being mindful of where they actually are and where they have been: shame spins them in a circle of where they wish they were. Shame keeps them from finding the way out.

And in healing from trauma it is absolutely no different. This spring I have had a lot of work and travel. And I also took on moving. I anticipated a number of stressors that went with all of this, but didn’t anticipate the healing work it would generate: when you shift every system in your life, things will get unearthed. I think this happens to a lot of trauma survivors: you plan some big changes in your life, good changes, growth changes—and then this growth shifts you enough to heal. What needed to be healed was waiting for exactly this series of changes to happen. But it doesn’t make you feel good, or happy because what needs to be healed makes you feel lost: and then you end up feeling betrayed by your own feelings, “What did I do wrong? How could I have gotten myself into this?” And you risk, as Mamet, says, dying of shame. Or at least, being stuck in the woods forever.

But the thing is--I know the way out. I have been here before. But I never, ever, remember at first. At first I panic and run in circles desperating doing everything I can do NOT to feel whatever it is I am feeling. I rant and complain about what I WANT to be feeling instead of accepting and talking about how I am actually feeling. I run through an entire argument in my head and end up back exactly where I started--only more exhausted and full of despair. 

But there is always a way out. In fact, the only way out of this lost place, and the shame that can come with it is to stop. Look around. Be willing to say exactly where you are. Give that place words. Is it angry? Furious? Desperate? Exhausted? You will know you hit the right words when your body lets go: you cry, you can breathe, you relax. When you slow down and name the place where you actually are -- you are no longer lost. You have been found.

In the forest of healing, shame is almost always a sign that you are standing at the point of rescue. Shame is the sign pointing exactly to what needs to be said –out loud—if possible. Instead of it being the thing that spins us around, shame might actually be the compass. It always seems impossible that you can be found as you are, wherever you are. But really, it is the only place that you can be. I don't know why I can never remember this when I feel lost. When I feel shame. I don't know why I need to learn this lesson over and over again. But I am fairly certain I am not alone in this. So join me. Stop. Breathe. Name where you are—no matter how much you have to fight shame to say it. Name where you are. Create your map. Let yourself be found.

© 2015 Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD