How To Challenge Shame Using The Art of Mindfulness
A lot of folks hear the word “mindfulness” and immediately think that it’s some weird, new age-y thing. But it’s not that.
It’s also not simply awareness or being conscious of something; it goes beyond that. True mindfulness deepens your experience of the present. In The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, the authors describe the relationship between consciousness (awareness) and mindfulness. “…mindfulness is much more than paying attention more thoroughly. It is paying attention differently– changing how we pay attention… Being mindful means intentionally turning off the autopilot mode in which we operate so much of the time – tuning in to things as they are in the present with full awareness”
Try this. You’re sitting or standing somewhere reading this. Notice for a moment how your body feels. If you’re sitting, notice the weight of your body in the chair. Notice what you can hear. Notice if there’s a breeze or if the air is still. Notice if you can taste anything. Allow thoughts or emotions to come and go as you note their presence. That’s being mindful. You’re living in that moment, and that moment only.
Anxiety pushes you into the future – depression pulls you into what’s past. Mindfulness leaves them both on the outside of your thoughts, and accentuates the importance and energy of the now. But the practice of mindfulness has another, vital function – and it’s the act of noticing. If you simply notice a painful emotion or a thought in the present, but you don’t fuel it in any way (like hating it or wanting it to go away), that very acceptance can disempower it. It’s what we think about or believe about something that causes us to make a judgment about it – not the thing itself.
My own journey with learning mindfulness…
Let me offer myself as an example. I’ve been very open about having anxiety, to be specific, panic disorder. I’m a student of mindfulness with much left to learn. But I’ve been trying to notice my anxiety when it happens – to stay in the present and to allow my anxiety to be, rather than forming a judgment about it or fueling it with fear. My particular panic causes my legs to shake at times. I had walked into a very small shop that was packed with people (this was pre-pandemic) and I could feel the shaking begin. Instead of freaking out, feeding the panic with the thought, “I bet this is going to lead into a big panic attack — I’ll be horribly embarrassed and I’ll never come in this shop again,” I simply noticed my legs. “Hmm… it feels like my legs are starting to shake.” I didn’t heap fear or shame on it. Coupled with focusing on externals, the panic faded away.
The more you practice staying in the moment, it’s like anything else you practice. It can become a new pattern, a new behavior. It begins to set up its own pathway in your brain, becoming a ready option for you.
The Catch 22 of perfectionism, and how mindfulness can help…
Just like I “observed” my legs shaking, you can learn to catch perfectionistic thoughts and ignore the voices ofl criticism before they gain power.
With perfectionism, and even perfectly hidden depression, you’re constantly evaluating yourself and finding yourself not living up to your standards. Even if you’re successful or have accomplished things very difficult to achieve, you’ll focus instead on what could be better, how you are falling short of who you believe you could be.
For example, perhaps you’ve had it in your mind to do something but you put it off because you can’t fit it in to your already overly-crowded schedule. So you push it completely (or almost completely) out of your consciousness — except you know you haven’t done it — and rather than admit, “Sorry, I can’t pull that off today,” or, “Hey, I’ll get to that next week, but this week’s just impossible,” you further shame yourself for the avoidance.
It goes way beyond drive or high expectations. It’s a Catch 22. Do it, but not perfectly — and there’s shame. Don’t do it — put it off — and there’s shame.
Try being mindful of shame…
Shame is a feeling. So think of feelings as waves in an ocean. Each feeling — each wave has a life of its own. It begins far out, deep in the sea itself. Then gradually as it rolls to shore you can see its shape, its strength, its power. But when its time is done, when it disappears into froth on the beach, it is replaced by the next wave. And all you can feel is the undertow, demonstrating that it still exists even though it has gone under the surface once again. And this process goes on and on and on. Mindfulness is being aware of each moment of that wave’s – that emotion’s — apparent life — riding it until it inevitably comes to an end.
So what does being mindful of shame mean? What would that process look like or feel like?
The voice of perfectly hidden depression has told you that if you feel emotional pain, it might never go away. But if you’re mindful of shame, you can discover you have the capability of noting it, connecting with it, feeling it, and then moving into the next present moment. “Oh, there’s shame. Hmm…” If you don’t hate, or wallow in the shame, but simply notice its presence, you can learn that you can cope with it — and then let it go.
An emotion or thought only has power if you give it power.
Even if it’s shame.
You can hear more about this and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive my weekly newsletter including a blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression has been published and you can order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life. And it’s available in paperback, eBook or as an audiobook!
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