Loving our enemies needs to start inside ourselves. Each of us has a dark part, a side of ourselves we don’t like and may not want to acknowledge. This is our own internal enemy or shadow self. This aspect of ourselves is the part of us from which we react to people and situations most strongly. Imagine situations where you react out of strong fear or anger, or when a person just rubs you the wrong way for no apparent reason. This is the part of you that judges. It judges you and shows you all the things others have judged you for. It causes you to react in judgment to others. This internal enemy is where shame comes from.
We are very fearful of our internal enemy. We want to conceal from the world and even from ourselves, the parts of us that we don’t want to look at. They hurt too badly to tend to. These are our own inner open wounds, the crying child in our soul. But we feel unable to help because they hurt so badly. So, often we look the other way just as we would when we feel afraid of the gore at an accident scene or the need of a lonely beggar. We leave it, hoping it will go away. Doing this is causing more pain, of course.
Imagine an injured child coming to you, bleeding and crying. If you strike the child and tell it to go away, you cause further injury in numerous ways and the child cries louder. If you soothe the child and reassure it, tending to the injury, then it stops crying and the bleeding soon stops. When we ignore our own internal cries out of fear, it is as if we are striking a bleeding and crying child who has come to us for help. We create shame over having these feelings and needs and then we create new shame over the behavior we demonstrate when we don’t acknowledge our own needs.
We all have a shadow self that we ignore. And we have all seen and experienced the many expressions of this fear and shame, this disconnect from our inner selves. We see and experience it every day, directly and indirectly. It can come through overt means such as any form of judgment against self or others (self-harm, self-abasing speech, racism, classism, homophobia, religious exclusion, etc.). It can also be more hidden, such as when a person fears speaking what they feel or believe, saying what their needs are, or hiding their true self out of fear (subconscious or otherwise) that they will be “seen”. It can arise in co-dependency, dishonesty, or manipulation. We all judge and hide to some degree and more in some situations than in others. Extremes can cause physical and/or mental illness to differing degrees when the same cycles keep repeating unnoticed and unhealed.
Shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt is that uncomfortable flickering emotion that we experience as a sinking feeling in our stomachs and a clenching in our chests. It lets us know we have just done or said something that falls out of step, out of alignment, with our greater good. We have done or said something that created cognitive dissonance.
Sometimes when we feel guilty, the negative consequences are seen immediately and so the reason for the guilt is clear. Other times we may need to take a deep look at how we have come out of alignment with our greater good. Guilt serves as a red flag to tell us to do this looking. It is not helpful if we carry it as a punishment in order to continue feeling bad over and over. This will only keep us out of alignment, leading to shame and holding us back from doing the necessary work to break the cycle of negative consequences. We can’t think or see clearly when we are feeling upset. We think at our best and resolve issues in our highest form when we are in a clear and positive state of mind. So it is most helpful if we can thank our mind and body for offering the red flag to us in the form of guilt feelings, acknowledge the feelings, then let go of the guilt and move on to resolving the behavior that created it. Staying stuck in it is more likely to leave the problem unresolved and thus lead to the behavior (and the guilt) returning.
Shame runs very deep and can control our every move and thought–our programming. It does not leave until we understand and heal the pain from which it came. Changing a behavior won’t solve shame, though we often believe it will. This belief is what leads some to use shame and fear as a tool to correct behavior. The fear of punishment, fear of Hell, fear of the apocalypse, and fear of loss are used as pervasive tools to control behavior. Individually we may fear things such as exclusion, bombs, all the way down to spiders. The fear isn’t wrong and it doesn’t even mean that the things we afraid are not or were not real, but being stuck in the fear does not help us stay safe or satisfy our needs for happiness and growth.
Fear is at the bottom of shame and every other negative emotion. When we can see that we are fearful, sometimes that is enough for the fear to dissipate. Other times, we see a deeper wound that we need to heal. If you don’t see the fear, and then the wound, you can’t heal it. Seeing is the first step. Sometimes it won’t be any more difficult than acknowledging the fear and that you are willing to face it. Again, I see it very much like acknowledging an injured or frightened child. Sometimes just a hug and letting them know they have been heard is enough to calm them, other times it takes some time and some pressure on the wound, and there can be times that need professional help, but often, a hug is all it takes.
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” –Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
When you are stuck in the fear/shame cycle, the only thing you can see is to avoid the thing you are afraid of, usually at all costs. This is very limiting and defeats the purpose in the bigger picture. When you can be at peace, having dissipated the fear, you can see the bigger picture much more clearly. We can’t see where the pain-shame-behavior cycle started if we continue to add shame to the behavior. Again think of a child, but this time think of one who has hit his sister. Clearly, you don’t want the child to hit his sister. But you have choices. You can ridicule and criticize him in various ways, even humiliate him, thinking this will teach him not to hit. Or you can find out what caused him to hit in the first place and really listen to all of his feelings. He will better hear you if you hear him and he will trust what you say. Understanding is much more important and useful than fear and shame. We need to do this for our inner ‘enemy.’
When someone is honestly heard they can heal amazingly quickly. That healing causes the shame to go because shame comes from pain and it is self-perpetuating. If the negative behavior is what you want to get rid of, then treat the root cause, not just the symptom! The behavior comes from the pain, which creates the shame we all recognize so well at some level.
We need to heal ourselves by seeing, honoring and loving our own enemy deep inside, recognizing it as part of ourselves and becoming fully whole. Patience and practice are necessary, but if we implement these with ourselves first, we will become masters at loving others.