Developing Compassion to Heal Shame and Anger
Are you familiar with this kind of internal dialogue: “I shouldn’t feel this way. There must be something wrong with me. I shouldn’t be so weak.” Or perhaps you have internal dialogue that sounds like: “I can’t believe he/she could have done that to me! How can he/she be so insensitive?” This kind of conversation we have in our mind fosters feelings of shame and anger and falls under the thinking trap of “should statements.”
Thinking traps are ways of looking at a situation that contain errors in reasoning. One of these kinds of errors are “should statements.” Should statements insist that we, the world, and others ought to behave in a certain way. They are statements that set up a level of expectation for our performance and for the performance of others. The problem with this is that very seldom are we and others capable of reaching such standards all of the time. It is inevitable that we and others will fall short. When our expectations are not met, we feel upset with ourselves (shame) and upset with others (anger). So not only are we disappointed by the undesirable actions of ourselves and others, we heighten our distress by insisting why we and others should have been able to conform to the expected standard.
This is where the role of compassion comes into the picture. Compassion is to feel concern about someone’s suffering or struggle. That someone can be yourself or another individual. Compassion helps us to see beyond the event or person itself, to the pain that often lies behind the behaviour that has upset us. For instance, you might struggle with insecurities and jealousy. If your internal dialogue is “I shouldn’t be feeling this way,” you’re making your distress worse by adding shame to your experience. However, if you can speak to yourself more gently with words such as “I don’t like feeling this way, but I can understand why I am struggling with this”, you’ll help alleviate the upsetting pressure that leads to feeling shame, which compounds the initial problem. In the same way, when someone does something to upset us, perhaps by speaking harshly to us, it’s easy to think “they are so rude, what’s their problem?!” A compassionate approach sees beyond the harsh words and says “I don’t like how they treated me. I wonder what’s happening in their life or in their heart that is causing them to need to act like that?”
Compassion towards ourselves and others is vital because it places each of us in the context of a shared human experience where a lot of things that happen to us are outside our control yet have played a role in shaping who we are – the good and the bad. It’s helpful to start developing an understanding of how human behaviour works to help build more compassion towards yourself and towards others.
First and foremost, we are born with an innate need for emotional safety in this world. This emotional safety is built when we are babies and our caregiver tends to us with warmth, love, and nurturing. As we grow up we feel emotionally safe and comfortable because we know someone has our back. If we have been given this opportunity, we are likely to experience ourselves as valued, and the world and others as generally safe. However, not everyone is given this opportunity when they were helpless babies and children. Some have had caregivers who weren’t attentive to their needs for emotional comfort and warmth. These individuals perceive the world as much less safe and are more likely to be defensive and perceive others as threatening. This kind of experience in our young, formative years, has a lasting impact on us, right into adulthood, which impacts how we see ourselves, others, and the world.
We are also all born with a set of genes over which we have no control. Genes make people more vulnerable to certain environments, and to mental and emotional wellness. Additionally, some people have gone through painful experiences such as bullying or abuse, which can cause deep and painful wounds. If we combine our genetic disposition plus early nurturing environments, and other painful events, we wind up with individuals, including yourself, who act the way they do for some understandable reasons.
If we can keep this in mind, we can be a lot more compassionate towards ourselves and the people in our life who disappoint or frustrate us. Next time you are upset with yourself for struggling with something, keep in mind that there are likely very good reasons for your struggle. Maybe you never received an opportunity as a young child to learn to see yourself as valuable. Or perhaps you were hurt or let down by someone who was your emotional safety net. Maybe you come from a genetic line that struggles with addictions and so you too struggle with an addiction. These are all things you can learn to work through, however it will be hard to make progress unless you first give yourself compassion and understanding for your struggle.
Next time someone does something that hurts you, be compassionate towards yourself for how that person’s actions has impacted you. Also, see if you can direct some compassion internally towards them – after all, they too likely come from a place of brokenness, hurt, and pain. Often very little of others’ behaviour speaks any truth about ourselves, but rather is a reflection of their own wounds, from a multitude of experiences they’ve had beyond the present one. Using compassion can help soften the anger we can so easily get caught in.
A painful past experience can itself make it very difficult to develop a more compassionate viewpoint. If approaching yourself or others with more compassion feels like the next step for you, do be in contact with us at Living Well, so we can help you start this process.
Karla Reimer, MA specializes in the areas of self care and spirituality, as well as many others. For more information on Karla, her work, or other articles she’s written for Living Well click here to link to her full bio page.