My first experience of shame came in the aftermath of my parents’ divorce at the age of eight. At the time we lived in Côte d’Ivoire, in West Africa, where people considered divorce a taboo, something only Westerners did. I felt so ashamed about my parents’ divorce I lied to the neighborhood kids, telling them my father’s business travel kept him away for long periods. I invented a new, more desirable me, and discarded my true self as worthless.
I spent the remainder of my childhood and much of my young adulthood hiding that true self, and as a result falling into a deep and chronic depression. After years of psychotherapy, antidepressants, and deep self-inquiry work, I conquered my depression. This feat, though obviously beneficial, left me confused about my identity. I didn’t know the difference between my real self and my depressed self. I felt restless and incomplete. I sensed life had a deeper purpose, but I failed to grasp it.
So began an arduous spiritual quest for my life’s purpose. This journey included more years of self-inquiry and more therapy, and I learned I needed to rid myself of shame if I wanted to live authentically—which I saw as the key to fulfillment. In my case, the process of resolving shame happened in four phases.
The first phase, which lasted almost a year, deepened my awareness of personal shame as I acknowledged how it diminished me. In the second phase, I started to free myself from shame by recognizing how social beliefs about love and self-worth blocked me from my Essential Self. In the third and longest phase, I accessed my Essential Self by cultivating each of five elements (see below, “Access Your Essential Self”). Once I integrated these, I reached the final phase: I began to live authentically, healed of shame. I now live a richer, more meaningful life.
During my final year in graduate school I did an experiment to see if my process could help others. For five weeks, five participants (myself included) applied this process to see if we could indeed heal shame and live more authentically. To my delight, the process helped.
Phase 1: We spent time tracking shame events in our journals to detect patterns in how shame shows up,. One participant, Sheila, recorded how she got badly triggered whenever someone told her to be quiet. Feeling dismissed, she hid herself from others for several days. In contrast, two other participants—Max and Sarah—closely observed their triggers and managed to avoid any significant episodes of shame.
Phase 2: We took a step back by examining shame as something separate from us. Shame originates from widespread social beliefs about what it means to be worthy of love. One of those beliefs treats shame as innate and, therefore, impossible to heal. Another convinces us we don’t deserve a good life because of our imagined fundamental defects. These toxic beliefs eat away at us and keep us stuck. Sheila, for example, believed she could only manage her shame, and Sarah believed shame came built into her DNA. The truth is that we can dissolve the pain of shame by changing our beliefs. By objectifying shame we can distance ourselves from its effects. By discussing the concept of shame, and not just our personal experience of it, we see how we respond to emotional triggers—and see that we could choose differently. Vulnerability held a key—allowing others to see us during our weakest moments helped us see ourselves.
Phase 3: We turned our attention to the Essential Self. All humans possess these five elements: ancestry, personality, archetypes, core values, and deep wounding. Like fingerprints, the blending pattern of these elements makes us unique—creating our individual essence. Essential Self differs greatly from any idealized version of self. Unlike the ego’s version, our true self encompasses our whole being, warts and all.
Just becoming aware of our Essential Self helps to liberate it. As Sarah put it, “I have worn a suit of armor my entire life to protect myself from feeling hurt, embarrassment, or shame. I now have a different perspective. This armor did not protect me from the outside world; instead, it just shielded me from my Essential Self.”
Phase 4: The final challenge was to feel and express this newfound essence all the time. The best way to do this, we decided, involved some sort of ongoing spiritual practice. We could practice living authentically by doing something simple and practical to remind us of our Essential Self.
Access Your Essential Self
To help each member of our group emerge from the stifling blanket of shame, we examined our individual tapestries created by the five elements of our Essential Self.
1. Ancestry grounds us, gives us a sense of historical continuity, and offers clues to our inherited cultural and familial shame that doesn’t “belong” to us. For example, Sarah’s father felt great shame about his Filipino heritage, which he then passed along to his children. Sarah discovered some of the shame she carried came from her father.
2. Personality brings the skills or tools we need to do our life’s work, and we used the Enneagram model to help unpack our special gifts. My Type 2 personality, The Helper, embodies traits such as a high capacity for empathy, a kind heart, friendliness, and a strong desire to help people. These traits come in handy in my spiritual healing work.
3. Archetypes connect us to the collective unconscious. First theorized by Carl Jung, these mythic characters predispose us to perceive the world in certain ways depending on which mythic character we embody.
4. Core values motivate us. When we imagine the future a hundred years from now, most of us want people to fondly remember us according to our core values or principles. For example, my core values include wisdom and authenticity. To express my Essential Self, I must embody these values as much as possible in my relationships.
5. Deep wounding serves as a springboard for our core values. When properly addressed and integrated, these wounds increase our capacity for empathy. As we heal, the lessons we learn can help heal the world. My wounding, for example, involved feeling unimportant, alone, and abandoned. As a result, I now possess a greater capacity for empathy, building connections, and recognizing people’s gifts.