Something a friend wrote recently sparked a thought that is the tip of a larger iceberg on the topic of the difference between feelings and thoughts (specifically, value judgments).
This post is entirely predicated on a statement about “feeling unworthy”; “unworthy”, and worth in general, is a value judgment, which puts it in the Thought category because it comes as part of a deeply-unconscious-but-process-driven experience of defining value. My teachers have taught me that processes like this frequently gets mistaken for feelings because they happen at such an unconscious level that we forget they ARE processes, but they actually occur somewhere far higher up the cerebral chain than feelings. The mistaken attribution makes it much harder to get to them, however, to name the actual feelings and give them safe space to just exist before we examine and/or release them.
Value judgments of worth (or unworthiness in this case) generally correlate to a feeling of shame, specifically. It’s different from person to person, but that’s the most common associated feeling; “When I believe I am found to be unworthy by myself or others, what I feel is ________”. A friend reframed that as, “more like an intuitive process pulling together non-consciously collected data and slapping logic to explain the shame feeling as a more distant and vague sense of unworth”, which is a reasonably astute way of describing the process. I’m a firm believer that “intuition” is just “deep processing we don’t know that we do”; I’m not sure “logic” applies, beyond a certain point, or perhaps it is generally “flawed logic”, the kind children create self-defensively as part of their emotional development when they have to process, internalize, make sense of emotionally-impacting events in their lives that may be beyond their ability to otherwise cope — the kind that leads to broken or errant narratives that we build on all our lives.
“Shame” is such a big and monstrous feeling that as children AND as adults, we do everything we can to escape it, so we bury it and mislabel it and pretend it’s all kinds of other things. The same friend posited it as a “social tether”, “the bit of deep programming that tells us when we’re in danger of losing the safety of the community by breaking our part of our contract with it”. I think that’s just one piece of it; that it’s nothing so simple (and yes, “simple” is perhaps the wrong word there). Most of the approaches I’ve had to the topic of shame come roundabout from the world of addictions, but in its own way, clinging to the broken narratives to avoid the direct experience of shame is also a kind of addiction, like armor we never take off (if we change the narrative, we’re vulnerable, and that Just Cannot Be Allowed).
Complicating the issue of exploring shame is the fact that we use the word, but we all apply different nuances to it. And the closer we come to the actual experience, frequently the stronger the sense of needing to avoid or deflect the emotional impact altogether. It’s the child’s resistance to going into the darkened attic or basement or bedroom closet: Here There Be Monsters, and we *definitely* don’t want to go in there. That sense of slipping and sliding off the things I’m trying to observe is one with which I am frightfully well acquainted, as it’s where the origins of my personal Weasel Dance are rooted. I would do ANYTHING to avoid feeling shame, or feeling shamed (depending on whether I was applying the value judgement to myself, or perceiving it as being applied to me by external sources), and this has led over the years to some absolutely BRILLIANT bullshit tactics in deflection and diversion while I frantically dance to avoid looking at or naming the elephant in the room, which was (is) generally something associated with feeling shame or ashamed about something I want or have done.
That Weasel Dance is friggin’ exhausting.
One of the things I have learned only recently is that the more we struggle against something, the stronger it becomes. Force applied to force, isn’t just force doubled; there’s an exponential increase that has some complex mathematical formula I can’t remember, but I remember the “physics of increasing application” part well enough. That’s why the whole point of meditation is to not struggle against the thoughts that intrude, but just to let them be, then gently guide focus and breath back to stillness. There are entire streams of martial arts that stem from the idea of using an opponent’s force against them without exerting your own in opposition, and guiding their momentum past us safely to pull the opponent off balance and into us. It’s the same with these kinds of emotional internal struggles. We can apply force to force, or we can be still and use the momentum of the reactivity to draw the Thing at the other end of that reaction close enough to observe it, without putting ourselves off balance and at risk.
Anger, for example, is energetic force. A common response to feeling shame is to get angry, possibly to the point of aggression; shame reduces us, but anger makes us (temporarily, at least) feel big, powerful. We resist, and perhaps even drive back the Thing at the other end of that perceived value judgment for a little while, but in truth the emotional tinder is still in us all the time and while we’ve expended a lot of emotional energy, while we’ve destabilized the apple cart in whatever relationship housing the current emotional upheaval, we haven’t necessarily addressed that tinder that can be so easily sparked.
Until we recognize and understand the components of the bomb, we cannot understand how best to diffuse it effectively.
My friend Alf tells an amusing anecdote that, while appearing unrelated, is entirely related: Twice while visiting a friend in northern Ontario, he got tagged by highway OPP late at night, doing egregious speeds along the highway. The second time he was stopped, he asked the cop in humour why they spend their nights out in the wilds like that, just waiting for him. The cop smiled, then explained, “We’re saving lives, for real. If you hit a deer at 80kph, you have an excellent chance of walking away with nothing but some damage to the front of your car and probably a window replacement. If you hit a deer at 120kph or above, odds are good we’ll be scraping your remains off the next two kilometers of highway, because the impact will kill you.”
The more force you apply…
This all ties back to yesterday’s post about breathing, and emptying hands. There are a lot of images of breathing into hands that I find useful and evocative, from breathing warmth onto them, to breathing or blowing things out of them; blowing onto the dandelion head held in my fingers releases the fliers into the sky and freedom. Breath is both what fills and what empties. Breathing enables us to take the pause that pulls us back from the brink of picking up a weapon-of-choice and applying force where force is perceived; our reactivity to feeling shame, for example. The physical signals are the clue that something is amiss, and the cue to make a conscious choice rather than an escape into unconscious, reflexive, self-defensive reaction. We don’t want to, but to allow for change and growth, we probably have to.
It does get easier with practice, and it’s okay to ask for help. If this work was easy, everyone would be wearing saffron robes and eating granola.
One day at a time, one breath at a time; one foot in front of the other.