How shame works
It hurts just enough.
I watch my daughter ride horses. I love watching her ride. In order to get the horse moving, she uses her heels. She digs them into the horse's side. She uses a bit of pain to keep him moving. She uses a crop as well. In addition to getting things moving, she’ll crop her horse on one side of the neck or another to keep him on track.
Functional shame is a lot like this. When shame is working well, it hurts just enough to get you moving or to let you know that you’re veering off track. Shame is a painful experience. We humans love to avoid painful experiences. When I feel like giving up, a little whiff of the shame I would experience if I did is typically enough to get motivated. If I think I may be straying from one of my core values or aspirations, a little whiff of shame is enough to get me refocused on what I need to do next.
Eventually though, shame becomes a conditioned response.
I’ve recently been told that the experience of leasing a horse is very different from riding a school horse. School horses have been cropped and kicked by a lot of people indiscriminately. Some children when riding have their heels bouncing repeatedly off the sides of their steeds.
There are times when the rider is giving too many inputs. The horse starts ignoring them. Horses are not stupid. They know their routines. The school horses know what’s required of them. With less experienced riders, they ignore the pain. They ignore the inputs. They just go through their routines and do their jobs.
Some people get stuck living parts of their lives like a school horsehorse. They’ve had too many shame inputs. They’re been hurt just enough too many times. They’ve been over hurt, over pressed upon by shame far too often. They’ve become numb to their shame and go about their routines as though confined by an invisible, electric fence.
A lease horse is different. Riders develop a relationship with their horse. They learn what specific things they need to do to work best with the horse. Things aren’t done on automatic pilot. A bond of trust is created through sensitivity and listening between the pair.
Developing a sensitivity to the experience of shame in yourself and compassionate towards that in others is a kind of super power. It’s a way to give people permission to be themselves and to recognize and honour the boundaries that can both be supportive and restrictive.
When we become sensitive to shame and understand how it impacts us, we can respond to the information it’s giving us more quickly. If we can consume shame in a smaller dose, we can do so before it consumes us.
Soon? I’ll riff a bit on shame and sales as well as on the difference between guilt, embarrassment and shame.