How to transform past shame into something positive and healthy

Tips on coping with the shame that we carry around in our hearts and on our sleeves.

It’s easy to look back and ruminate on past missteps.

I can remember many of my misdeeds. When I was 10 years old at summer camp, I was very mean to one of the kids in my bunk. Even a leader then, I was the ring master of picking on this camper. I can remember early romantic relationships where I was insensitive, unfeeling and careless. And of course, I remember the many times I raised my voice at my daughters when they were little.

Why do we look back and remember our bad behavior and don’t think about our good deeds?

Shame sticks to us like glue.

We carry it around in our hearts and on our sleeves — we struggle to let it go, and yet, we can’t. Recalling our past negative acts makes us feel bad and sad. It can even engender self-destructive behavior like binge eating, alcohol and drug abuse, or self-harm.

One of the reasons I appreciate the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous is that it takes shame head on. The early originators of the program recognized that shame about past negative behavior, associated with drinking, was a potent trigger for relapse. True recovery could only come from acknowledging past behavior. Participants are instructed to take a fearless moral inventory, admit and acknowledge their mistakes, identify whom they’ve hurt and seek to make amends to those individuals when possible. Working through these steps, in a supportive community, are key to healing.

I still want to apologize to that 10-year-old bunk mate for my cruelty. But I have no recollection of his name. And like me, he’s now a 70-year-old man.

So how do we cope with shame?

Accept your feelings. I will never stop feeling bad about my bad behavior. I must acknowledge my wrongdoing and the feelings that go along with them to heal.

Find forgiveness and compassion for yourself. I was only 10 years old — a child. The acceptance of my peers was more important to me than being kind to my bunk mate. I wanted to feel powerful and didn’t know how to do it. I can forgive myself for my childish behavior because I was a child. As I’ve grown, I became increasingly aware of the importance of kindness in every aspect of my life. My present behavior is different.

It is vitally important to have a generous spirit towards oneself.

You can’t get rid of anything that is part of your past. Your life is like a garden, filled with plants, trees, shrubs and rocks. Underneath some of those rocks are creepy crawling things that will always live there. Leave them where they are. It isn’t necessary to keep looking under those rocks to see if they’re still there. Let them be and focus your attention on nurturing the qualities that you want to grow. Become the person that you hope to be.

Learn from your history. It’s impossible to change anything that we’ve experienced, from one second ago to the beginning of our lives. While we can’t change our history, we can learn from it. This is why we study history.

Find healthy ways of coping with shame. When “bad and sad” come for a visit, triggered by the present moment or by memory, acknowledge the feeling and let it pass through you. Don’t run from it or try to push it away. Breathe. Go for a walk. Do some jumping jacks. Listen to music. Dance. Talk to a friend. Don’t indulge in self-destructive behavior. It will only add insult to injury.

We’re all in the same boat. I’ve never met anyone that didn’t have something they did or didn’t do in the past that they regret. What’s important is what we learn from the past that we can incorporate into our lives today. By changing our present behavior we’re able to transform our feelings of shame into something positive and healthy.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/ healthwellness-library.html.

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