I’m Bridget Owens and you're listening to the Waxing Soul podcast. Join me on an exploration of mindful modern magic, a journey towards deeper understanding of self and transformative individual spirituality. It's March 11, 2021, and on today's episode we'll be discussing the role of shame in our spiritual lives as part 6 of our 7 episode series on emotions in spirituality. Are you ready to grow your soul?
Just this episode and one more in this series on emotions in your spiritual life, and I have to say I kind of surprised myself in the direction some of these episodes went. When I came up with the idea to do this, I was confident that it was going to be a productive thing, and I’ve worked with emotional energies in various ways in developing parts of my own practice, but I didn’t have a clear vision in my head of, you know, “when I talk about sadness it’s going to be about this, joy will go into this, blah blah blah.” I just knew it would come to me as I dove in.
But there are some new ideas even for me in all this, so I hope you’re all getting as much out of this series as I have.
So, diving in today, we’re up to shame. And this is one emotion that I knew I had to include in the series because I was Catholic for a bit, and I grew up evangelical Protestant, so shame is something I experienced as a huge part of spirituality and religion growing up and into my adult life. So it’s kind of obvious where shame usually fits into spirituality, the place it occupies, because one thing religion and spiritual traditions are super great at is causing shame over the ways that we don’t live up to whatever ideals those traditions hold.
And this is a really important topic to me because my big thing here, my driving mission, is to push for authenticity in everything, but definitely in spirituality.
So it’s worth considering this whole spiritual infrastructure which gives us some ideal state, ideal way of being to live up to which isn’t in alignment with who we are. Spirituality has this bad way of making us try to be someone else, try to change and reshape ourselves to fit some external idea of what we should be. And I think it’s really important to step back and really think about whether that fits with what you want out of your spirituality. Because it’s two very different things to let yourself be reshaped by a spiritual tradition and to use a spiritual tradition as a way to guide your own evolution.
Evolution is growth and embracing of authenticity. But if you’re feeling shame along the way, that’s not probably evolution. That’s conformity. That’s holding yourself up to an external standard and not living up.Tweet
So the important thing about shame in spirituality is that when we feel it, it’s because there’s a disconnect between our internal reality and external expectations. Not internal expectations. If I say, “I want to develop myself, I want to meditate on a nightly basis at least five nights a week,” and then for whatever reason – probably because that’s not a thing I’ve ever been good at, long term imposed consistency without fail – but for whatever reason I don’t meet that expectation, what I feel won’t be shame. It’ll be frustration. It’ll be disappointment. It won’t be shame. Because shame is for other people. Shame is the feeling that other people are or will be frustrated and disappointed with you.
So, say, if I was part of a spiritual tradition where everyone was expected to meditate daily and I didn’t do it, then I’d feel shame. It’s that “I hope no one finds out I didn’t meet expectations” feeling. It’s about the expectations other people have for us or are at least perceived to have for us. Things we think the people whose opinions are important to us in some way will judge us for.
So the existence of shame in your spiritual life means that there are people and entities in your tradition that you’ve placed as authorities in a position to judge you. And I want everyone to really step back and think about that for a minute. Because for a lot of us, I imagine there are a lot of people listening right now who are solitary magic practitioners, who wouldn’t say there’s anyone with any say in their spirituality, but who still feel shame about stuff. And that means that in a subconscious way, you’re letting whoever it is you fear judgment from occupy a chunk of your spiritual attention and wield power there. Consciously or not, that’s what’s there.
For instance, if I feel shame over not being consistent in my meditation practice even as a solitary practitioner because I feel like if people around me with similar traditions keep up their meditation practice and would – or at least I feel like they would be judgy about mine, then I’m accepting them as guides or authorities or whatever and giving them a pretty significant amount of power in my spiritual life, right? They don’t even have to know about it. They could be strangers, even. I could be feeling some just vague sense of shame over it, and it would still be a matter of giving this group of nameless strangers a role in my spiritual life. So it’s worth thinking through, first in all this, whose judgment causes you to feel shame.
If you're enjoying this episode of Waxing Soul, subscribe to the show! Each week we will dive into a different part of the world of spirituality, magic, and self-evolution. Check out last week's episode for the fifth episode of this series on emotions in spiritual life where we talked about sadness. And come back next week when we'll talk about love in part 7 of the series.
One important thing I want to reiterate is that my point here isn’t to just shove all the shame aside, screw anyone who has anything to say about your spirituality, don’t worry about what anyone thinks. I mean, you can totally make that argument to some extent.
But even for those of us who are solitary magical practitioners, there is room and purpose and benefit in looking to certain people as guides, as teachers, as authorities, as experts, and most importantly as a circle or community whose opinions you choose to value. Because when it comes to our evolution, our connections, there’s a lot to be said for the power of external accountability and guidance.
There is a big difference between the shame we feel because we think other people will judge us for not living up to their standards and the shame we feel because we committed to something or someone and didn’t meet that commitment.Tweet
As with all these emotions, shame has a purpose, and it’s to keep us all responsible to those in our circle, our community, our family. That feeling is supposed to be a reaction from our conscience, it’s supposed to let us know that we’re falling short, not holding up our part of the communal relationship.
It’s easier to see how this is supposed to work when you think about our nomadic ancestors, where everyone has to do their part to keep everyone alive and fed and safe. But that’s not untrue now, it’s just that our communities are much larger, the people whose opinions matter and who we have some kind of obligation to are sometimes not as clear. Especially when we’re talking about our subconscious, the primal roots of our emotions, it’s not like we logically think through whether it makes sense to feel shame for going against the expectations of complete strangers. Our instincts just trigger the feeling of, “I know some people aren’t going to like this and I’m supposed to make people happy, so I feel bad.”
Of course a lot of what we feel in that sense depends on what we were taught, intentionally and not intentionally, about whose opinions matter and what the consequences are for disappointing those people. So, I’m sure you know what I’m about to say – this is one of those things to dig into as part of your shadow work.
But the larger point is this:
As mindful modern magical practitioners we have the ability to choose who we put in position to guide us, to hold us accountable, to sit in that place where we willingly enter into a relationship where, if we don’t contribute and do our part, shame might be the result.Tweet
It’s like choosing to be accountability buddies to hit the gym with. Or hiring a life coach or a business coach or whatever. Or the thing I’ve done where I tell a bunch of people about something I plan to do so I’m less likely to back out, which is what I did when I started talking about running for City Council a few years ago.
We know it’s easier to not do things, to let ourselves off the hook, if it’s just ourselves we’re making that commitment to. I can tell myself I’m going to do something, and then when it comes time to do it and I don’t want to, I’m super good at forgiving myself.
And we all know this, which is why accountability buddies are even a thing at all.
But it’s not just about what we do, it’s about how we behave in general. We choose our cultural alliances, and each culture, no matter how small a group we’re talking about, has expectations and values and traditions and rules that apply to the people in the culture. So when we choose the groups we’re part of and aligned with, we’re also choosing those cultural expectations.
Here’s why it’s important to be thoughtful and mindful and prioritize authenticity when you’re on the search for or in the process of building a practice for yourself. Because we all end up in a spiritual culture, some kind of spiritual circle, even if it’s just about the larger community of likeminded people we’re don’t actually know personally. When you align yourself with a larger tradition, you take on those expectations to some extent.
Think of the people you know who say things like, “I’m kind of Wiccan but I don’t believe in the three fold law.” “I practice witchcraft, but I still believe in Jesus.” We often define ourselves by basically listing the exceptions to the assumed expectations that come along with whatever labels we deal in.
So it’s important to take that a little bit deeper.
Not only what beliefs we might be expected to hold, but consider what standards and behaviors and opinions and whatever we do and don’t want to take on, not just in terms of what we do or don’t want to do, but in terms of those respectful relationships, those cultural obligations and shared responsibilities that, if we then fail to live up to them, is going to result in us feeling shame.
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The role of shame in spirituality really boils down to responsibility. Our responsibility as part of our spiritual culture, as part of our spiritual circle, as part of our spiritual family. Even as part of the universe as our spirituality leads us to understand it.
And it’s not just the overtly spiritual roles and responsibilities.
This is where we get into our responsibility to humanity, to our society, to the earth. Those things find their roots in our spiritual understanding of the world and the universe, too. When we feel ashamed it’s our internal reaction to external expectations, and it means we want to do better, either because we’re motivated by what we will gain if we do better or because we don’t want to face the consequences of not doing better.
So if there’s a purpose to shame in spirituality, it’s as an internal reaction that reminds us of the responsibility we have to our community, to the other people who are important in our lives.
Which means it’s really important to be mindful of who we feel responsible to.
Last week when I was talking about sadness, I pointed out that all relationships are energetic connections, and it is relevant to the topic of shame as well. The obligations we feel to people that result in us feeling shame for not meeting those obligations? Those are energetic connections, and it’s definitely worth considering whether they’re helpful or harmful to your practice and your self-development, your self-evolution. Because at their best, the relationships of obligation and responsibility we are part of help keep us motivated to keep working on ourselves, keep us reminded of the contributions we can make to our community and our circle. When we feel shame within a strong, nurturing relationship it’s a prompt to realign ourselves to the commitments we’ve made.
But within a strong, nurturing relationship, even where it asks a lot of us, the obligations we are expected to meet are about collective benefit, about strengthening our relationships and doing our part and all of that. So when we feel shame in our spiritual existence, is it regret shame or anger shame? How much of our shame feelings come from an honest desire to prove ourselves, to contribute, to carry our fair share, to elevate and grow in our spiritual environment? And how much of our shame feelings come from obligations placed on us that we resent, that we don’t see a point to other than the consequences threatened for not complying, obligations to be different from who we are or to fill roles and take on responsibilities we don’t agree with?
See, here’s the thing: The remedy for shame is forgiveness. It means saying you’re sorry. So if you feel shame, it’s important to ask what you’re sorry for.
I didn’t actually expect this episode to take this direction, but I’m going to go into a bit of my own history for context here.
I’m estranged from my parents. It’s a long story, but it has to do with homophobia and racism and me just, you know, me figuring out it’s unhealthy to try and exist in that kind of relationship and let my energy be sucked into that. Now, this has gone on for a while, the estrangement, and now and then my mom reaches out to try and end it. She’ll sometimes even say she’s sorry.
But have you ever had someone give you an apology that’s a non-apology?
And I don’t want to get into details, but the thing which kicked this all off was a social media post my mom made that said some pretty horrible things about the queer community as if that didn’t include me or any of the other non-cis non-hetero members of the family. And the apologies I have gotten over the years go something like this: I’m sorry you were hurt by what I said. I’m sorry you feel like I don’t support you.
I bring this up because it’s a really good illustration of the difference between actual remorse, an actual apology, a real request for forgiveness, and an apology without remorse, without regret. If the shame you feel in your spiritual life makes you actually feel bad about your actions – and I want to say again the thing I say so much about spirituality being about what we do not who we are – if the shame is about doing something you truly wish you could undo, or not doing something you wish you could go back and do, then it is about our relationship and it’s a reminder to do better and a push to care for and mend those relationships when we’ve damaged them. If the shame you feel in your spiritual life sends you to non-apologies, if it’s about anger and resentment rather than regret and remorse, then what kind of relationship is it? It’s no longer about forgiveness, it’s about wanting to be free of the obligation, right? That’s a power imbalance. That’s oppression.
Oppression has no place in our spiritual lives.
The relationships we have in a spiritual context need to be the kind where we choose to be there and want to contribute and fulfill our obligations, where when we feel the burden of shame, we want to seek forgiveness. So the Spiritual Tookbox download for today’s episode focuses very heavily on forgiveness. Self-forgiveness most of all.
Thank you so much for listening. New episodes of the Waxing Soul drop every Thursday. All materials and resources except the music are copyright Bridget Owens. Many thanks to my readers, listeners, friends, mentors, inspirations, and my framily for riding with me into season two. Until next week, blessed be and be good to yourself.