Healing Shame: A Chassidic Approach

Do you often find yourself thinking about how bad or ugly or undesirable you are?

Do you often think that, ‘When I feel others think poorly of me…I want to escape their view’?

Have you tried to conceal from others the sort of person you are?

Do you think that other people look down on you?

In comparison to others do you feel disgusting, embarrassed, humiliated, childish, or bad?

 Do you often blush in the presence of others?

 Do you you avoid publicly stating your opinion under almost all circumstances?

 Do you often wish to sink into the floor and disappear?

If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to any of the these questions then you suffer from crippling shame. The following offers a Chassidic, Jewish Mindfulness based approach to replacing shame with joy and confidence. 

Shame is a terribly powerful feeling. It’s not accidental that shame is the first emotional reaction that we find in the Torah. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed’ (Genesis 2:25). The power of shame lies in human nature: we are social creatures. The drive to be part of the group pushes us to desperately want the group’s good graces. After all, if we don’t follow the rules of the group then we will be ‘kicked-out’, sent into exile, into the terrors of loneliness. So we try to walk a ‘straight’ line even when we are unseen by anyone else so as not to be embarrassed.

At the same time however we are human; our impulses, emotions, and confusions get us into trouble. More than doing something that we regret, we break the rules of the group. Like Adam and Eve, we hide in dread, frightened to the core of what may be done to us if someone should find out. We invest our energies in secreting away the error of our ways. We hate ourselves for our lapses. We built personas and lifestyles to make sure that no one finds out about our dreaded secrets. The life force that could be used to live fully in this moment is wasted on ‘keeping up appearances’.

What a terribly, exhausting way to live. 

There is good news though.

In the view of authentic Yiddishkeit, this shame and dread is totally unnecessary. It’s all a gigantic misunderstanding. In fact, the disgust that we have towards ourselves is a made-up story. I often smile when I think of Adam and Eve, having done the ‘bad thing’ (whatever that was), hiding under the bed, waiting for a dreaded deity to give them the punishment of their lives. The silly thing is that it was all in their heads. Yes, Hashem had instructed them to not eat of the ‘tree of good and evil.’ He told them that the consequences would involve death. Yet He never told them that they would be hated and rejected and kicked out of the club. He never even told them that this death would be permanent. Their terror and lies and denials and finger pointing was totally generated by their misunderstanding. If they had simply said, “Oops! We blew it; we let our confusions get the best of us,” the story would have ended quite differently. Hashem would have welcomed them home with open arms and with great mercy (based on Isaiah 54:7) since He is the ‘generous One who generously forgives’ (from the Siddur). He would have given them a hug and a seat at the table with all of the righteous.

So what are we to do with our shame? Freedom comes through inquiry; clarity liberates. Use these questions to break the binds of shame:

  1. Have you done something that is truly wrong in the eyes of the group? Is that standard truly valid or is it whimsical or symbolic? In other words, is whatever you are ashamed of worth feeling ashamed of?
  2. If you have done something truly wrong, have you made a repair that will allow you back into the good graces of the group? Does the group even have a system for repair and return? It is most instructive that Judaism, along with all of its ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s includes a long list of repairs that one can perform when mistakes occur. Healthy relationships likewise all have methods for repair. 
  3. If you are holding onto residual feelings of guilt, what is still tugging at your conscience? Is it your desire for excessive perfection? Is your ego injured by the evidence that you are not perfect (at least in the way that you wish to be)? Is there someone who you believe would judge you harshly for your lapse? Is this person’s opinion so much better than Hashem’s? He certainly forgives you. In fact, He thinks the world of you. 

Through inquiry, the bonds between you and shame will loosen. This doesn’t mean that those in your environment will let you off so easily. They may not be ready to welcome you back. Some injuries go deep and require time, sometimes years, to heal. Some people may achieve some power trip by keeping you in ‘exile’. Social reputations may take years to rehabilitate. Yet the personal dignity that comes from repair and repentance comes in the moment that you turn your mind, body, and soul towards Hashem.

Whatever persisting ‘stickiness’ or your attachment to the feeling you feel is the result of the physiological changes that occur in your body. After sitting for an extended period of time, you must stretch your limbs and work your muscles to get the kinks out. So it is with shame. When breaking out of its prison, you’ll need to stretch and breathe. I find that singing and dancing gets the residual cobwebs of shame out of my system. The energy of movement and dance puts me in communion with the heroes who preceded me.

Of course, the best part of shame lies in our ability to sacrifice it on the altar of service. Shame is an expression of the ego, that part of us that holds onto its fantasies of self importance and specialness. We are indeed important and special but not as intended by the ego. When we push the ego and its shame out of the way, we slaughter it, riding the crest of its released energy into our true destiny: as part of Hashem’s universe. That is where our true specialness lies. 

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