Humility is generally viewed as a good quality. Without it, the most incredible people can become narcissistic and unpleasant to be around. Shame is a bit different. It’s not thought of in a positive light. The mere word brings up feelings of discomfort and maybe even a vague memory of a time when you felt shame in your own life. However, at least in my experience, suddenly encountering a shameful moment is what deflates my ego enough to allow me to find humility again.
Shame is a very interesting emotion. It is definitely one of my least favorite. It cuts deep and leaves lasting scars. But I think that this is because shame may have developed as a means for us to make sure we don’t become separated or exiled from our herd. Shame is generally something that we feel when we are behaving in a way, or doing an act we wouldn’t want others to see or even know about. It’s an important inner valve to help us determine what will cause friction or change the way others in our group view us. Which, in the past, it could have meant a death sentence if we were cast out.
There have been many times in my life where I can recall a jolt of shame immediately redirecting me towards humility and self-reflection when moments before I had been boisterous with an overly-inflated ego. There is nothing wrong with being proud or confident, but sometimes it can get a bit out of hand and start to tip over into conceit. That’s when shame can really come in handy to help us check ourselves before we get out of control.
I had a particularly shame-filled encounter yesterday evening. I won’t go into detail, but I’ve been internally cringing ever since. Part of me still wants to jump out of my skin and pretend it never happened. In the past this would have sent me on a downward spiral of destruction. (Sometimes I go a bit past “humility” and into the realm of self-hatred.) This time, I refused to close my heart to myself and to the world just because I’ve made some big mistakes. Instead of turning away, I’ve been examining what happened more closely. I’ve been asking myself: What has this incident taught me? Is there something to be grateful for in even the most painful, embarrassing moments?
Though it still makes my insides contract whenever my mind glides over the memory, I’m actually glad that it happened the way it did. For one thing, it certainly could have been much worse. Simple embarrassment was a small price to pay considering all the possible alternatives. I’m also glad it happened because it shook me out of my stupor. It quelled my growing rage and judgement of others and deflated my foolish ego. If given the choice I’d pick humility over hubris every time.
Instead of my normal, borderline road rage on my drive home that evening, I drove slowly, mindfully, with grace and compassion for all my fellow humans on the highway. A humble heart is quick to kindness. It’s much easier to hold space for the errors of others when you’ve just been reminded of your own shortcomings in such a direct way. Being embarrassed is a reminder that we all make mistakes. It offers insight into our hopes of how others would respond to those mistakes we make and, in turn, makes us more willing to offer that same understanding to those around us.
Shame is also often the catalyst for a much needed change of direction. There is a small thrill in getting away with a shameful act, and the more often this happens the bolder and more obnoxious we become. Being found out is often necessary before we can really recognize the need for change. And yesterday was definitely a blessing in disguise for me. It was a huge wake up call. It was the kick in the pants I’ve been needing for awhile now. So even though it stung and continues to sting, I’m grateful. In fact I hope that memory brands my soul for years to come as a reminder of who I truly want to be. Shame shows us when we’re not being that version of ourselves.
Now, none of this is to say that shame necessitates some kind of personal change. There are plenty of examples of society teaching us to be ashamed of things that we shouldn’t be ashamed of. For instance, LGBTQ people may feel shame for simply being themselves. Promiscuity in women is often shamed. Victims of violent crimes are even shamed. And there are many more examples of unwarranted shame that is not a call for inner change or redemption. Deep down I believe we are able to decipher the difference. If you’re unsure, as long as you’re not hurting anyone or betraying your own sense or morality, then any shame felt is a challenge to overcome within ourselves, not a call to change.
Humility and shame are a beautiful example of the duality of our experiences in this life. It shows us that even in our darkest moments, there is something to be grateful for. As someone who is a deep lover of learning, I can’t deny that pain is often our greatest teacher. And I’m so thankful that the lesson wasn’t harder. I’m going to make sure that I take it to heart so I don’t have to be taught this lesson a second time. I know that I have been acting against my own interests for many years now. I thank the universe for offering me this opportunity for insight and redirection. I will not waste it.