How the Superhero of Shame Rescues us From this Life-or-Death Matter

by | Jan 22, 2023 | Anxiety, Break Free From Relationship Anxiety, Health anxiety, Highly Sensitive Person, Intrusive Thoughts | 24 comments

At the core of most, if not all, intrusive thoughts and obsessions is the question of enough.

It can show up as:

• Do I love my partner enough?


• Did I wash my hands enough?

But what you’re really trying to answer is:

Am I enough?

I love what Jon Hershfield said in Episode 6 of The OCD Stories on this topic:

“Some people wash their hands. Other people wash their minds.”

What are you trying to cleanse? The contaminant that you’re not enough.

Shame is the false savior that swoops in like a superhero to try to protect us against the belief of not being enough. It says, “If I can prove enoughness, I will be loved. And if I am loved, I won’t be abandoned/rejected/shunned. The way to prove enoughness is to be perfect.” For the anxious mind, the pursuit of perfection is actually a life-or-death matter protecting you from the final fear of being alone.

But there is a better way: we can set out to heal shame at the root, which means learning how to receive the truth about our goodness:

  • You are enough.
  • You are worthy.
  • You are lovable.
  • You are loved.

And the problem was never you.

And also learning how to sit with the pain and groundlessness that live underneath the shame. What is this pain and groundlessness? For some people, the primary pain is not being seen, valued, heard, and attuned to by early caregivers, which can range from overt sexual, emotional, or physical abuse to attachment/developmental trauma (and please do not place “abuse” as “real trauma” at the top of a hierarchy of pain; it’s all pain). For others, where there was “good enough” parenting, the primary core fear is of groundlessness: the fact that loss, change, separation, growing up, and death exist and there’s nothing we can do about it. And for many, it’s a combination of both.

By sending you the magic power of striving for perfection, shame arrives as a first scaffold: an attempt to control the uncontrollable. It says: If I subscribe to the motto If I am perfect, I will be loved, how other people view me is now in my control. Hence, shame takes the fundamental powerlessness and shifts it into an illusion of control. And on top of that arrives the mechanism that the anxious or OCD brain utilizes to arrive at perfection: “If I arrange this perfectly or remember this perfectly or wash my hands perfectly or find uncertainty that I’m with the right partner, I will prevent something bad from happening.”

Alongside being able to receive the truth of who we are (our basic goodness and worthiness) and learning how to sit with the pain and groundlessness of being human, there is still another way that we heal shame at the root: having a deep, embodied, felt-sense of belonging counteracts shame and the fear of abandonment.

This is where turning to the Tree of Life roadmap that I’ve mentioned in other posts comes in: when we’re connected in all spheres – when we belong to ourselves, to others, and to the invisible realm (nature, ancestors, creativity, etc) – we feel securely attached, and from this solid base several things follow: a fullness of being emerges, anxiety is edged out, and we trust in the goodness of life and our place in the order of things. Life no longer feels quite so fragmented and tenuous, and we’re able to move forward in each moment with more presence, purpose, and joy.

Here is the Tree of Life roadmap, shared with gratitude to my son, Asher, who created it in graphic form:


As you look at the map, I invite you to notice – without overthinking – which spheres stand out for you. Which ones feel full and pulsing with life? Which ones feel a bit empty or deflated and might need attention?

Remember that there’s no perfect connection, but when we’re connected enough in all spheres, we’re tapped into a flow of love and aliveness that allows us not only to feel more sturdy and grounded but also to tolerate the unsteadiness and uncertainties of this life with more equanimity.

Which spheres stand out for you, either as pulsing with fullness or needing attention? I’d love to hear in the comments.

Note: I also explored the root cause of shame in depth in this post. 



  1. Hi Sheryl –

    I am grateful that you mentioned the following, “For the anxious mind, the pursuit of perfection is actually a life-or-death matter protecting you from the final fear of being alone.”. Currently I am working on being more compassionate when my husband and I aren’t perfect. I realized I was holding him and myself to a “perfect” standard. I remind myself daily that “it is ok for you and for your husband to feel frustrated, annoyed, hurt, uncomfortable. You have created a safe space to express yourselves and work through it together”. However, I think my ego is rearing it’s head while I learn this new way of thinking, saying things like “this is unsafe. You need to control this. You need to know that everything is going to be ok.” and it is creating intense physical anxiety, most likely stemming from the feeling of groundlessness and like you say “the messiness of being human”. I find it so frustrating that I am trying to learn a more accepting and loving way of reacting and thinking but my body is terrified even though I am not in an unsafe situation. Again, I turn back to compassion and being compassionate to my wounded self while I learn news way of thinking. Is it normal, when we start stepping into a new self, that the ego fights back so hard to the point of causing anxiety?

    • Hi Briana: Yes, it’s quite normal for the old patterns and defenses to increase their efforts when we step into new ways to relating to ourselves and others.

    • Brianna, I can relate to your story so much. The moment that I awakened to how judgemental and unforgiving I can be to myself and my husband, and decided that I was ready to do things a different way and find more acceptance and compassion and love, the anxiety increased tremendously. It was like my ego sent out an “all hands on deck” call to all of my inner characters (mainly fear) to do anything they could to stop my efforts to grow, screaming “Stop! This isn’t safe! Working on turning my compassion to those parts as I work through this. You are not alone!

      • Ah, Caitlyn! Thank you so much for sharing part of story with me. It is always a nice feeling to know we aren’t alone in these processes. I am sending you love and compassion!

        • Thank you! Same to you! ❤️

  2. Sheryl – This post is incredibly timely for me.

    Over the past year, I have been working with an incredible therapist to help process memories and trauma in my life, so much so, I was able to stop taking a medication I was on for 5 years to help with anxiety. This has added an extra layer of challenge for me, but I am determined (with the help of my doctor and therapist) to live without needing it (no shame at all for anyone who takes meds!). It helped me immensely.

    Over the past two days through lots of prayer, I have come to realize how much I depended on perfectionism and people pleasing to cope with life and my fears of rejection and abandonment. I struggled a lot with my relationship with my father and know a lot of my trauma stems from this relationship. It’s hard to wrap my head around how this coping mechanism has impacted my life over 3 decades but I am grateful for awareness – perhaps this is just the beginning of a new way of being – which is scary – but exciting all at the same time.

    Thank you for your words today

    • Thank you for this beautiful and vulnerable comment, Kyle. What a journey you’ve been on, and it sounds like you’ve turned some real corners with the help of skilled professionals. Yes: it’s scary to continue to peer into the black box of our shadows and excavate the defenses that we fell upon to keep us safe, and I’m glad to hear that there’s also excitement in the mix as you discover new – and healthier – ways of related to yourself and others :).

  3. This is very pertinent. I’ve been working with my therapist on preverbal trauma and neglect, and the core of that is shame and aloneness. Hard work, but I definitely know see that that shame born from neglect can be healed in loving relationships.

  4. Thanks so much Sheryl and Asher for this wonderful post and graphic. It was so helpful seeing the graphic in that way and identifying where I feel alive and less so, and also why certain things bring me so much joy and aliveness. For example, I love going on a very slow nature walk with my camera, stopping every minute to capture the way the light comes in through the canopy and creates dappled light and shadow and lights up the leaves in a vibrant lime green. Looking at this graphic, it’s clear that this is so good for connecting to my heart, soul, nature and creativity. It’s always about getting past the perfection, fear, doubt and analysis that stops me connecting with something or someone or myself. So helpful, can’t thank you enough for these weekly posts and your work. ❤️

    • This fills my heart completely to read, George, and I’ve passed along your gratitude to Asher (who is sitting right next to me). The picture you painted with words of the scenes your photograph… delicious! I was just transported to New Zealand greenery in the midst of Colorado white snowy winter. Thank you.

  5. Interestingly, I found myself looking at the outside of the tree and focusing hardly at all on the center (Self). Not sure what that means, but it was interesting. I was immediately attracted to “Friendship Community” as it’s something I’m trying to grow right now. I think the two that feel the most full are Family and Animals and then Purpose. I feel pretty clear right now on my purpose and calling as a storyteller/writer/filmmaker.

    Ancestors feels a little lax, but I’m starting to learn more about my parents’ families of origin. I was never really connected to them before. One really cool thing about that, which isn’t 100% verified to be fair, but through investigation on my mom found out that my several times great-grandfather was Alasdair MacDonald of Glencoe- Chief of of Clan MacDonald- who was killed in the Massacre of Glencoe for being a Jacobite against King William of England. As a lover of Celtic history, this was quite a fascinating find! Obviously that’s a little farther removed, but one thing I did for the first time last year was include my dad’s parents and one of uncles on the ancestor altar at Samhain.

    One thing I think I could spend a little more time in is Nature.

    • Thank you for these reflections, Riley, and for following the prompt at the end of this email 😉. I love hearing about where people feel full and what could use some attention. And that’s an amazing ancestral connection!

  6. Once again, right on time. And I resonate with feeling both groundlessness and pain and their causes.

    This explains so much why I feel empty at times, why I obsess and spin my wheels, wasting my time trying to get my house to look “enough”. And what’s harder still is my husband is the same way and intense in his never ending pursuit of perfection.

    I can see how this if the tree of life needs, if you will, go unmet depression would spring forth. I know I isolate when my needs – any – are not being met. It’s become my saving Grace indicator that something needs attention.

    Love your work, Sheryl! You are gifted!

    • Thank you, Christy, for your insightful comments and reflections. It’s always a joy to hear from you. ❤️

  7. Hi Sheryl, I was wondering whether you might be doing (or have done) a post on ‘relapsing’? I know healing is very non-linear, but to experience intrusive thoughts again after a lovely, long period of absence can be very upsetting.

    Keep up the good work!

      • Thanks that was extremely helpful. I am on the edge of some pretty major life transitions, so I need to realise that intrusive thoughts at this point are completely natural, even though I’ve been free of them for ages. Thanks again.

      • PS the final paragraph of that article on ‘setbacks’ reminded me of Kahlil Gibran in the way it was written. Similar kind of style. Lovely.

          • It was meant as such. Although the context was different, when you used the word ‘shadow’ I was reminded of the line “And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow”

            • Thank you, Josh. I appreciate your presence on this site.

              • My pleasure. It saved my life.


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