By Chris Germer
Co-founder, Center for Mindful Self-Compassion
January 30, 2019
As you teach MSC more often, you may notice how invisible threads emerge that connect different parts of the curriculum. Most of these threads were not intentionally woven into the curriculum but rather reflect our deepening practice and understanding of self-compassion.
One thread that is carried throughout the curriculum are the 3 components of self-compassion – mindfulness, common humanity, self-kindness. I recently discovered that the 3 components of self-compassion are the underlying framework of the 3 paradoxes of shame. The 3 paradoxes are:
- Shame feels blameworthy, but it is an innocent
- Shame feels isolating, but it is a universal
- Shame feels permanent and all-encompassing, but it is transitory, like all emotions, and it is a burden carried by only part of who we are
The first paradox elicits self–kindness (which is easy to feel toward an innocent being), the second is common humanity, and the third is mindfulness. This is how shame looks through the eyes of self-compassion. Together, the three paradoxes can take the sting out of shame – they help to de-shame shame. That’s why we introduce them before leading students in the Working with Shame exercise.
Teachers can bring these paradoxes explicitly into the shame exercise. Students can be reminded during the exercise that what they are feeling is shared by many others (common humanity), that the experience of shame will pass like any other emotion and that shame is a burden carried by a part of who they are – not all of who they are (mindfulness), and that shame comes from the wish to be loved (self-kindness).
The most transformative paradox, in my opinion, is that shame is an innocent emotion that arises from the wish to be loved. The wish to be loved is the engine that drives the train of shame.
In a nutshell, when we are in the grip of shame and have the capacity to know that we’re caught up in shame (i.e., we’re mindful of shame), then offering ourselves the understanding, “And I only feel like this because I just want to be loved!” can reframe the entire experience.
We would not feel shame if we didn’t wish to be loved. In fact, shame can be defined as the emotion that arises when we believe we are too flawed to be loved and accepted by others. We have mostly forgotten our universal wish to be loved because our innocent efforts to be loved have been rebuffed. The pain of being conditionally loved has pushed underground our awareness of the universal wish to be loved. When we reclaim our wish to be loved (and perhaps go through a bit of backdraft), shame becomes surprisingly workable again. Even people who are convinced that they are unlovable do not disagree that they wish to be loved. Reclaiming that simple intention with which we were all born begins the process of freeing ourselves from the grip of shame.
Shame and the wish to be loved are two sides of the same coin. We just need to turn over the coin.
Of course, the proof is in direct experience. Therefore, we invite all MSC teachers to weave the 3 paradoxes of shame into the exercise Working with Shame, especially by guiding your students to connect with the wish to be loved – “I only feel this way because I just wanted to be loved, and I still want to be loved!” – when they are feeling shame most acutely. This practice is also a lovely informal practice for those times when our sense of self is under threat during the day. If our students can identify moments of shame in their daily lives and remind themselves of their wish to be loved, the transformative potential of self-compassion may be revealed.