Following up on my post from a few weeks ago where I talked about how intrusive thoughts both originate from shame and cause shame, I’d like to explore some of the root causes of shame.
As I wrote about in the post:
Intrusive thoughts also arise from shame as attempts to “prove” goodness or badness. The anxious part thinks, “If I can answer this one question with 100% certainty I will be exonerated from shame” or “If I can execute this compulsion perfectly I will prove my goodness (outer perfection will be evidence of inner perfection)”. But since you can’t answer these questions with total certainty, and you can’t achieve perfection with compulsions, you then assume that you’re bad. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle; in its attempt to prove “goodness”, it ends up confirming “badness”.
Sources of Shame and the Fear of Humiliation
Note: I encourage you read this through the lens of your own early years and, if you’re a parent to highly sensitive kids prone to anxiety or OCD, through the current lens as well. Also, this is a long post. Please take your time with it. I deeply value any thoughts or comments you’d like share below.
- Protection Against Powerlessness and Heartbreak
Shame is the first scaffolding that gives a child illusion of control: if it’s my fault, I can fix it. This shame belief becomes a structure inside, a rigid scaffold to climb onto to keep a young person just above the roiling, churning seas of powerlessness and groundlessness and heartbreak that are woven through this life. Shame is another intrusive thought and, as such, a protector. There is no truth to shame; the truth is that you are good and worthy and lovable because you exist. But shame takes hold quickly and tenaciously because a young child may not intrinsically know that they’re good.
In one sense, the shame is absolutely necessary. It’s a life raft that lifts the child above the devastation of their powerlessness over the pain and brokenness in this world, and the fact that change and loss and death exist and there’s not a thing a child or anyone else can do about it. It seems to me that shame comes first and the obsessions and compulsions follow. Which means that unless that first faulty belief of shame is addressed we’re only going to get so far in our healing.
To break open the lie of shame is to dip into the vast sea of groundlessness and pain that’s a part our world. And a highly sensitive child, who is the one most susceptible to anxiety and OCD, may not have the ego-strength to tolerate this truth. In other words, it’s easier to feel shame and attach to the belief that there’s something they can do to repair the brokenness in our world then it is to feel the core feelings of powerlessness and heartbreak.
- Heightened Responsibility for the Community: “It’s my job to keep everyone safe”
One of the deepest needs for the sub-type of the highly sensitive person (what I think of as the highly sensitive person to the tenth degree) is to keep the community together, and the deepest fear, alongside excommunication, is that failure to keep everyone safe will be their fault. There is something utterly beautiful about this need when we can track it back to our tribal roots. These people were the connectors in the community, and it was, in some sense, their job to keep everyone safe and to protect the perimeters, if not literally then spiritually.
The literature calls people with OCD people “overly responsible” but the sense of responsibility almost always comes out around family, which leads me to think that there must be an ancestral obligation; they must have been the person in a community whose task it was to rupture the repairs in the lineage and right what was made wrong. This was/is part of their role.
Last year I read Malidoma Somé‘s book Of Water and the Spirit and when I came across this passage where he describes his grandfather’s dwelling it landed as resonant with the OCD experience. His grandfather was the shaman, and part of his responsibility was to keep the family safe.
“Grandfather space housed the pharmacy of the entire clan – an array of roots, daily collected, nightly prepared, to face emergencies of all sorts. These little dwellings contained the prosperity – spiritual, material, and magical – of the clan. Some of these roots were good for physical illness, but most of them were good for illness of the soul. These little buildings held the spiritual destiny of every member of the family. There, each one of us existed in the form of a stone, silent, docile, available… Through his magical means, grandfather could check on each of us at his leisure.”
“After my father had finished his tour of the family units, he had to make sure that all the domestic animals were where they ought to be. Then he would close them in for the night. Finally, he would close the main gate and secure it from the inside by tying it to an old bicycle pedal fastened to the wall. This “lock” was one of my father’s inventions since his return from the Gold Coast.” – p.31
The checking. The sense of responsibility. The OCD compulsion of checking stoves and locks as the maladaptive version of the spiritual and physical “checking” that the heads of the communities engaged in nightly. It’s important to make these connections so that we can track symptoms back to the root.
When I express to my clients that they’re not responsible for everyone’s well-being they say, “Yes, I am.” Consciously and rationally they know that they’re not entirely responsible, but as children some part of them seemed to know that they were the shamans of the family and that they actually were responsible for the family’s well-being in some way, and they were trying to go through the checking sequence in the only way they knew how. But – and this is a huge but in the conversation around shame – they also knew that these morphed compulsions were falling short of the healthy rituals they should have been trained in, and in the falling short, shame ensued.
Let’s take another textbook OCD compulsion and view it through this lens: Hand-washing.
When covid first hit we saw a huge upsurge in compulsive hand-washing. The heightened sense of responsibility that says, “It’s my job to keep everyone safe” intersected with feeling the pain of the world more acutely and, in response to the feeling of helplessness, many people prone to OCD assumed that it’s their fault as a way to try to have some control; again, obsessions and compulsions as a way to try to manage the pain and keep the world together. Without healthy and effective ways to create wholeness from fragmentation and safety from danger – without the shamanic rituals – they’re left to find their own misguided ways to create order and “perfection” and control.
- Awareness of Our Humanness and How Far we Fall from Perfection in the Spiritual Realm. “I’m not moral or pure enough.”
Highly sensitive people and empaths are aware of everything and feel everything, including how far we fall from an ideal state, both physically and spiritually. They carry a heightened awareness of the possibility of perfection and are continually aware of how far short we fall from these ideals.
Let’s take the “just right” anxiety theme. Those who struggle with this theme seem to have a high sense of justice, morality, honesty, equality, and fairness. This is true for most highly sensitive people, but it’s especially true for those with “just right” anxiety. Of course, these are exceptional qualities and the very ones that our world needs. The challenge is when the person with these qualities is unable to accept the imperfect nature of our world and other people who will not always be able to measure up to their utopian ideals of “rightness.” When they can learn to accept “just enough” then channel their demand for justice and equality into their life’s work, they can change the world. These are the people who are working to create a kinder, more utopian world (think Star Trek).
A helpful slogan for someone with this theme is, “Perfection rarely exists in this world. What we’re looking for is good enough.” One of the growing edges here is to learn to tolerate paradox and inconsistencies as they recognize that the world is a not a black-and-white place but instead is painted in murky, messy shades of gray. When they can accept the gray, the brilliance of color fills in the rest of the landscape.
We all have a template of perfection inside of us. We remember the perfect symbiotic relationship in the womb and possibly before that in the spirit realm. I can’t know this for sure, but I have a strong sense that those with “just right” anxiety are trying to replicate that feeling of perfection in some way – again, not for approval but from the inside-in. I imagine it’s like seeking to step into a familiar suit, one that used to exist and that they believe could still exist if everything were “just right.”
One of the key tasks for someone struggling with anxiety and OCD is to learn to tolerate discomfort. They need to learn to change the quest for “just right” to “good enough”, which is, at the core, a spiritual quest. It’s also about recognizing that there is a great gift embedded in this need for something to be “just right”. As most people who have this form of anxiety are highly attuned in certain areas, when the need for just right can be channeled into just enough, brilliance can occur.
I find it fascinating that at the core of the two primary obsessions that highly sensitive people struggle with are the need for certainty and the need for completeness, both of which speak to the core of being human: we’re looking for certainty in an uncertain world where the passage of time ends in death and we know that our physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual selves rarely feel complete or just right. We see here that the highly sensitive heart is also the highly inquisitive mind, pondering our existence in this vast and unknowable universe on this beautiful and painful planet.
The need for perfection is also connected to the need for purity. Again, this need can become compulsive but there’s an archetypal quality to the intense awareness of purity and morality that certain highly sensitives carry. As Malidoma Somé says: “The indigenous spirit in each of us is calling for cleansing and reconciliation.”
There’s a calling for cleansing and then there’s the wrestling with our very human lot that we exist in bodies and we make mistakes. HSPs are more aware of this than a typically wired person, and those prone to OCD may have an even more heightened awareness of our messiness, fallibility, and risk involved in being human.The task is to be able to hold that paradox of both the calling for cleansing and the challenge of accepting our humanness.
These words might help:
We’re messy and we mess up all the time (thus the need for order).
We’re dirty and we fail ourselves and others and we do harm (thus the need for cleanliness).
We die (thus the need for safety).
We are human.
We have bodies.
We poop. We pee. We fart. We burp. We spit. We have boogers. We sweat. We have bad breath. We have body odor.
We make and eat incredible food.
We walk, dance, and do martial arts.
We do magic.
We make music, and hear it.
We run. We play. We swing. We do flips. We do cartwheels. We roll.
We travel. We have new experiences.
We laugh. We tell jokes.
We watch movies.
We eat popcorn and potatoes and pizza and cupcakes and mango ice cream.
We can create extraordinary things, from musicals to buildings.
We smell good.
We sweat because we use our bodies in beautiful ways. It’s a sign of being alive.
Our bodies have a deep intelligence.
They house our dreams.
They allow us to good in the world.
We lie. We steal. We yell. We hurt others. We gossip. We think mean thoughts. We think hateful thoughts.
We love. We care for others. We help the poor and needy. We put others before ourselves. We run into burning buildings. We sacrifice ourselves for our children. We rescue animals.
We do good things. A lot.
The need for purity and cleansing is where ritual comes into play. Humans have a deep need to “purify” ourselves because we know we fall short and mess up all the time, and yet we’ve either lost touch with the spiritual rituals that help us do this regularly OR we’ve been inundated by a control-based religion that has turned these rituals into another fear-based compulsion. I encourage you to creatively ponder what kind of healthy cleansing ritual you might enact on a regular basis that could “cleanse” you of the beliefs that you’ve done wrong, and also allow you to cleanse the very human mistakes that humans make daily. Something with water and stones can be very powerful – like placing a stone into a bowl of water for each hurt, pain, or “bad” thought that you’ve had and allowing the water to cleanse it away, then pouring it into a plant or onto the ground and trusting that it will be transmuted into new life. But it can be any ritual. Trust your unconscious and listen to your dreams. If something arises, I’d love to hear about it.
I truly, deeply believe that those who suffer with OCD are the unsung priests and priestesses of our time: the people with the highest moral bar who are acutely aware that they and all humans invariably fall short daily and, as such, need rituals and practices that allow us to be cleansed of our “sins” (in Judaism the word for sin in “chet” which means, “missing the mark”) and forgiven for our humanness.
These are the people who are aware of impurity and who used to clean the temples to make them pure for sacrifices. These are the ones who enacted the holy rituals, who reminded their community of the harm in gossip. These are the holiest people on our planet who are being tortured by psyche’s urgent need for ritual.
In other times, in other places, you would be taken under the wing of a shaman or high priest or rabbi or wise elder and taught how to be a ritual leader. They would have seen the early signs – what we call “symptoms” – and known that you were destined for a high role in your community, and they would have taught you how to step into that role. As it is, parents and their children are left to stumble their way through the ordeal of compulsions, often with tattered hands and battered souls gasping for air on the other side.
- Inherited Shame
If one or both parents carry shame (and who doesn’t), the most sensitive child in the family will likely absorb it. As the sensitives carry an innate need to be the connectors and repairers, when their highly acute antennae sense a parents’ shame, they might take it on as their own as a way to try to metabolize it. This is how wounds are unconsciously passed down through the intergenerational relay. You will likely experience this as a burden until you learn how to wield and work with your sensitivity as the gift that it is, and realize that much of your pain didn’t start with you.
There is a great fulfillment when you’re tasked with resolving what is unresolved, not only in the personal life but in the ancestral line, the blood line. When we do this layer of ancestral work, we repair not only for ourselves but for the generations above us and those who come after us. In one sense, this may be there very reason why we’re on this planet (more on this next week).
- Heightened Need for Connection and Belonging
Highly sensitive people are also highly aware of social norms, and have a deeper need and longing for belonging than a typically wired person. As I mentioned earlier, one of their most terrifying fears – and I think this extends back centuries and links to our historic cell-memories – is of being shunned by the community. When we lived in tribes, being shunned would equate to literal death. Now, being shunned or rejected by a family or social circle doesn’t mean you’re literally going to die but it certainly feels that way.
An OCD expert once shared with me that, from the work he’s done in the field for twenty years, he’s come to to believe that the deepest fear for those who suffer in this way is of ending up alone. I agree, and I’ve come to see that there’s an additional layer to this fear: it’s not only the fear of ending up alone, but it’s that the shunning and judging will be a result of people discovering how bad you are. The root is shame. And so you have to spend inordinate amounts of energy to prevent that from happening.
The thought process goes like this: “If people realize how bad I am, I’ll be shunned and end up all alone. And it will be my fault because of my inherent badness. Therefore, I need to pretzel and work and manage as fast as I can and with total perfection so that nobody realizes how bad I am.”
- Heightened Sensitivity to Parental and Peer Criticism, Irritation, Punishment and Withdrawal
It’s not possible to parent without shaming your child. Sometimes this shame has a positive result, like yelling at your child for touching the plug socket or not looking both ways before crossing the street. Shame has a social function, and it comes out when we’re trying to protect our kids from danger.
It comes out in other, smaller moments, too: shaming a child for spilling milk or squirting ketchup all over your new white shirt. While a typically wired child might feel hurt but ultimately be able to shrug their shoulders and move on, the highly sensitive child interprets this response as “I’m bad and I’ll never be good again.” Again, it’s like a soul-death, a spiritual shunning that cuts to the core of their being.
This is also a root of perfectionism: the feeling of shame is so unbearable to the highly sensitive child that they’ll do everything they can do avoid it. This intention carries over into adulthood, even when we likely have more tolerance for shame. As Linda shared in the comments on the other post:
“Yes I plan a lot of my day to day activities and conversations with an intention to avoid people finding out I am ‘bad’ – lazy, selfish. I constantly make small adjustments to make sure I don’t seem this way. I think it is where most of my anxiety comes from.”
There’s another offshoot to this element of shame: Some highly sensitive kids (not all) manage their shame by explosive anger. Here a vicious cycle can arise where the parents’ initial human irritation with their child is met with reactivity and sometimes rage, which the parents then meet with more shame.
Again, it’s not possible to parent without getting irritated and angry with your kids. It’s not possible to parent without shaming them sometimes. It’s a horrible feeling to shame your child, but we’ve all been there in moments of frustration.
HSPs are also highly attuned to disconnection from their primary attachment figures. My children have zero tolerance for being disconnected from us (we can’t tolerate it, either). If we get into an argument and I leave the room (this happened a few weeks ago), it’s not long before they come to find me or I come to find them. Sometimes I do need a break from the intensity of the emotional maelstrom we can find ourselves entangled in, and I leave the room. But when I’m lying on my bed I’m soon overcome by an ache of emptiness that floods my body, as if I’m feeling not only into my own pain of disconnect but also my son’s. I can feel his loneliness, his desperation at being disconnected from me, and it’s this empathy into his despair that brings me back into loving connection with him.
There are much more overtly damaging roots of shame, like physical and emotional abuse and being told directly, “You’re a bad girl/boy” for innocent childhood behavior. This often comes out when a parent finds their child engaged in sexual play or exploration, but it can come out around any topic if the parent is abusive (and likely suffering from their own shame wounds).
- Protecting the Deepest Glory of Self Because They’re Not Ready to Share it Yet
Last year I had an amazing walk-talk with my neighbor where we discussed our highly sensitive kids and how we’ve learned not to comment on the moments when they share the deepest gifts that they’ve kept hidden because they will retreat again. These are kids who are keyed into rejection. The good comments are invalidated because they think the person is lying and the bad comments make them self-doubt because deep down they know that they’re good and smart and worthy but they’re not ready to share that with the world yet. Our children protect their deepest self because perhaps some part of them knows that it needs to stay protected.
The conversation allowed me to see that an element of shame isn’t caused by parenting or culture but is more a personality type or temperament, and even a built-in protection system that carries some wisdom. The parent’s role is to usher their children through childhood, and especially through the incredibly rocky 11-14 years, so that their true self can emerge. These children have something exquisitely beautiful and powerful inside and it can only come out when there’s enough ego-strength that they can handle the comments from the outer world, good or bad. The shame-story is, again, a protector – not the deepest truth; it’s truly a story, a mask shielding a child’s soul. If we keep nurturing them, there’s going to be a reveal. The song is going to emerge in some form when it’s ready.
As a parent, I encourage you to hold the highest vision for your child. Notice their spark and notice how they might be hiding it. They can keep it hidden for as long as they need to; your job is to keep bolstering your child up so that they have enough strength to let their soul emerge when they’re ready.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. Again, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
And if you’d like to receive a roadmap and community of support to help soften shame at the root, please join us for the fourth round of my course, Break Free From Anxiety: A 9-month course on the art of living. It begins Sunday, September 18th, 2022, and I look forward to seeing you there.
In advance of the course, I’ll be offering a free webinar called “Breaking Free From Anxiety and Shame Requires These Four Pillars” on Monday, September 12 at 6:15pm ET. You can sign up here, and if you can’t make the live event you can listen to the recording afterward.