In therapy we are doing EMDR on shame. I started out a few sessions ago doing inner child work, which led quickly to a sense of disapproving adults. I see myself about five years old in a dark red space, curled in on myself, my body hot with emotion, my brain draining with horror at some shameful thing I’ve done.
One memory of shame is when I was celebrating my tenth birthday party. Because it was a family party, it meant lots of presents I wasn’t particularly thrilled with. But they were, after all, presents. I devoured them, ripping through the paper eagerly, barely looking at one before going on to the next.
My dad yanked my into the kitchen and gave me a dressing down. “You didn’t even say ‘thank you’!”
Oh, the shame! I wanted the proverbial hole in the floor to open up so I could be cast into the fiery pits. I knew I was in the wrong, and I knew everyone had seen it. There was no escape. I was a bad person. And to make it worse, I had to go back in and finish unwrapping presents, this time in a more subdued manner, being scrupulously polite. Awful. Scarred me for life.
The difference between making a mistake and feeling shame is that when you’ve made a mistake, you can say, “Oh, I’m sorry,” and move on. But when you feel shame, it’s intrinsically connected to the thought, “I’m a bad person.” It’s one of the worst feelings there is.
I have always wanted to be a good person. I took my cues from what my parents and teachers and the Church said, not what they did. I was always striving to perfect myself. And as I examine shame in my life, it doesn’t take long for me to shift from disapproving father to disapproving God.
I was raised Roman Catholic and had a special devotion to Mary. When I was 14 or 15 a famous statue of her was making its way around the country, hosted in churches and in women’s homes. I went with my mother to her friend’s house to pray the rosary. I was the youngest person in the room by far! I was setting on the floor, gazing up into Mary’s face, intoning the familiar prayers. She was in the usual pose: standing, her arms slightly out from her sides, palms forward, her head tilted down. Meek and mild. And as I stared at her face, I saw a gentle smile start on her lips. I sank deeper into trance. Then the smile melted and her face took on such an aspect of sorrow that my heart swelled with pain. I knew she was taking on the sins of the world, suffering so that we wouldn’t have to.
I was very taken by the martyr concept, particularly Mary and Jesus. I felt I had been touched by God to take on the sorrows of others and transmit them to the Lord. I would take on the world’s pain. I would feel intense sorrow, but I would bear it.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, they re-enact the trial of Jesus on Good Friday. The priest plays Jesus, of course, and the congregation plays the mob. This always ripped me apart. When the authorities try to free Jesus, we kept responding, “Give us Barabas! We want Barabas!” I felt a traitor to God, that I would call for Barabas when Jesus was the one I should be saving. It was excruciating. It was sick. It forced the congregation into the worst kind of behavior, pounding into our heads what miserable sinners we were. Shame on us.
Every act I did wrong was another nail in Jesus’ palm. Every sin was a spear thrust through his side. I could not live without inflicting pain on the Son of God. I could not be human without causing cruelty. I could go to confession and be absolved, but that was after the fact. And I would only do wrong again.
When we approached these memories and feelings with my present self, firmly rooted in Witchcraft, the whole situation changed. High Priestess takes my inner child in her arms and croons, “Oh, honey.” I am filled with compassion for my inner child’s suffering. And I explain that we all do things we are ashamed of, but that if we feel our feelings and make amends where we can, we can heal ourselves and move on.
There is no sin in Witchcraft. There are evil deeds, but there isn’t this obsession with sin and Hell that Catholics have. In contrast, we do the best we can with what we have. It’s a much more chill religion, more compassionate. We seek balance, not perfection.
In the Catholic worldview, all you do is fail, ask forgiveness, fail, ask forgiveness, and fail again. It’s exhausting. In the Craft, you just live. Every human emotion is holy. We seek balance above all things. It’s not about success or failure; it’s about acting honorably and cleaning up your messes when you make them. Because you will make them. But they are not the sum total of your being. Nor is it because you are intrinsically bad. Messes make you human. Not damned.
When I feel shame now, I pray on it. But it’s not complicated by wounding deities. I don’t ask a sky god for forgiveness. I ask Brighid to give me the courage to make things right and Rhiannon to give me the grace to come back into balance with myself and others.
These goddesses are not abstract divinities outside myself. They are strands in Gaia, the sacred biosphere, of which I am a part. They are aspects of the collective unconscious, which feeds me. They are aspects of my self. So I invoke the power of the sacred Whole, which is also the activation of my most authentic self. All of which restores my soul. I make amends from my place of deepest integrity, I feel my feelings—recognizing that shame is just as holy as joy or grief, and I correct my inner trajectory if I am straying from my path.
And as I sing in Barber’s Sure on This Shining Night:
All is healed
All is health
High summer holds the earth
Hearts all whole.