It Wasn’t Pride – It’s Shame (and It’s OK)

Image from SvetaZi, Getty Images Pro

In my last blog entry (Dear Envy, What Are You Saying?), I shared how listening to an attack of envy helped me to recognise that underneath my envy was actually fear. Well there’s another aspect of my interior experience that I had mislabelled and misunderstood for decades until I had started learning about and recovering from toxic shame (Read: What is Toxic Shame at PsychCentral).

You see, I hate to be the one in need. For as long as I can remember, I loved reaching out to others and helping someone in need (especially emotional need). But I avoided admitting my own needs and have a terrible time receiving help from others openly. Even when I knew I felt lonely, I wanted to connect with people from the position of the giver – not the receiver.

For as long as I can remember, I loved reaching out to others and helping someone in need (especially emotional need). But I avoided admitting my own needs and have a terrible time receiving help from others openly.

When I started taking my Catholic faith seriously and became more self-aware, I noticed this phenomenon pretty early. I saw it as a problem but thought that my inability to admit my need and my struggle to receive (rather than give) was a sign of ego and pride. “It is because I am prideful, that’s why I cannot admit my vulnerability” was my thinking, and very unfortunately, this line of thought was sometimes re-affirmed by the confessors I went to. It kept me spinning my wheels trying to be “more humble” when really, the root of the issue was something else. Now and then, there were confessors who would tell me that my problem wasn’t pride – yet none was able to help me understand what I was dealing with, and why.

“It is because I am prideful, that’s why I cannot admit my vulnerability” was my thinking… It kept me spinning my wheels trying to be “more humble” when really, the root of the issue was something else.

Not knowing the reason why I was not ok with being the one in need did not hold me back from making progress in the interior journey. With God’s grace, I was able to recognise that it was ok to be in need and to reparent my inner-child in a way that honours the long-suppressed needs I felt. Along the way I realised I was dealing with shame. I have always hated being “needy” and I started noticing that the moment I felt I was becoming needy, I would feel shame and immediately try and shut those emotions of yearning down.

I have always hated being “needy” and I started noticing that the moment I felt I was becoming needy, I would feel shame and immediately try and shut those emotions of yearning down.

As I learned to befriend my difficult (and ‘negative’ emotions), I learned to sit with shame when it visited instead of slamming the door shut in its face. I still didn’t understand why it came, but instead of interrogating it I found that I could make space within myself to co-exist with it – it need not consume me. I learned practices that helped me self-regulate and become grounded when I was feeling overwhelmed so that I can make room for shame until I was ready to hear what it has to say to me. For I really do believe that all our emotions – even the ones we most fear or hate – have something of value to reveal to us about our inner world which we can use for our journey into healing and wholeness.

I still didn’t understand why [shame] came, but instead of interrogating it I found that I could make space within myself to co-exist with it – it need not consume me.

Then finally, recently while I was watching the recording of an online retreat about Discovering the Wisdom of Trauma, it clicked. The reason I have always felt shame about being in need was because somehow, from a very young age, being strong and caring for the emotional needs of others was what had gotten me the emotional connection I needed. I often heard the virtue of being self-sacrificing and being other-centred extolled while at the same time hearing criticism of those who “did nothing” to help others or who were condemned as “lazy” because they rested or enjoyed themselves instead of serving or helping out.

Subtly but surely, I learned that to be loved, I must tend to the needs in others but never be in need myself. For I am praised when I am in the light – but nobody could hold me without trying to “fix” me when I am in the shadows.

I found out through lived experience that adults would smile at me approvingly, praise me for being helpful and responsible, and reward me with praise and opportunities for leadership when I took care of others. I came to fear the tone and look of disappointment when I failed to meet standards, and the often dreaded “You can do better than this.” Whenever I did fail, or felt sadness, fear, or anxiety, no one ever asked me how I FELT. They only asked me what I could DO about it so that failure would not happen again or I could stop being fearful and anxious. Subtly but surely, I learned that to be loved, I must tend to the needs in others but never be in need myself. For I am praised when I am in the light – but nobody could hold me without trying to “fix” me when I am in the shadows.

[Shame] helped me survive by getting me the emotional connection (however imperfect or distorted) every child needs. But what had served to help me in my youth is now hampering me from growing in wholeness.

Something else I learned from Discovering the Wisdom of Trauma was that this “programming” in my childhood and youth had a function – it helped me survive by getting me the emotional connection (however imperfect or distorted) every child needs. But what had served to help me in my youth is now hampering me from growing in wholeness. I now have access to resources both internal and external which I didn’t have as a child. I have also learned how to become more emotionally attuned with myself (in spirit, mind and body) and to deepen my relationship with God in a manner that psychologists would term as “securely attached” rather than the anxiety-laden insecure attachment I had with God in the past.

So it wasn’t pride I was struggling with for all those years after all. It was shame. And it’s ok, because that shame had helped me find the connection I needed in an imperfect and broken world. And now, recovering from shame has led me to new depths of freely given love I never knew I could be capable of – for God, for others, but most surprising of all – for myself.

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