Thursday, June 10, 2010


I am working with a sponsee on his Fourth Step.  He is working through a section on shame in the Blueprint book of Al-Anon.  I can see that this is a tough topic for him.  I remember that it was a difficult topic for me when I was doing my fourth step.  It dredged up a lot of stuff from the past. I've felt a lot of shame for various things in my life. 

The childhood shame didn't occur until I was old enough to know that my father drank on weekends. I was a happy kid and enjoyed playing but was always anxious when my father was home. He worked a lot so it was the days off that would cause me the most trouble. I also heard so much about how great our family was and how we were better than everyone else, that I began to feel shame because I felt worse than everyone else. I didn't feel good about myself and became withdrawn around others. I would avoid everyone as much as I could and mostly read a lot or played in the woods.

When I got to high school, I made good grades but never felt really like I was part of anything. I guess that I actually didn't want to be part of anything much because to do so would make me very vulnerable. I had friends that I hung with but it was a closed group. I remember going to some drinking parties and got slapped in the face at one of them. Acting out to get attention brought me a lot of shame.

College was where I could be anonymous. No one knew me or my family. I still took me with me to college but I could hide it a little better. I studied hard and played hard. I learned there that I could be in an entire room of people and still be alone. It bothered me some, but I just figured that was what my life would be. Because I excelled at my classes, I didn't feel so much shame. I was good at something and knew it.

The years of graduate school were also okay. I did well, published a bunch of papers, got my career going and got married. I learned that the marriage was rocky right from the start. I have felt a lot of shame from things that happened in social situations in which my spouse would act out after drinking. I couldn't relax in social situations and never knew when the demon created by alcohol would arise. Suffice to say, there was a lot of anger in me, and I was ashamed of how I tried to control and manipulate an insane situation.

I also have felt ashamed at how I felt betrayed by my mother's mental illness. She suffered severe depression later in life and had to have hundreds of ECT treatments. She was a wonderful person but was always in a state of denial. Being the only child, I had to care for her by getting her admitted to hospitals, taking her for outpatient therapy, moving her after my father died, and a host of other things that sucked my time and energy. I knew that she had a disease, but I just wanted it to stop and for her to be well again. My frustration at her was inexcusable and something that I have felt ashamed over.

One of the great shames that I had during my fourth step was that I didn't do something sooner to take care of myself.  I wished that I had gotten into recovery long ago. I was trying to manage the lives of others when mine was as unmanageable as theirs.   I felt ashamed that I was so lost. I felt so much anger that it was hard to be nice to those that I loved the most.

I am glad that I am at a place where I don't feel ashamed of the past any more. The concepts of powerlessness and unmanagability helped me to confront the shameful feelings that I had.  I know what happened, but that part of my life is over.  I now have more manageable emotions.  I know that neither the alcoholism or depression were things that I could control. I take care of myself and think about the good things in my life. I have learned that I don't need to earn the right to be loved and that I have a lot of really good qualities.

I am glad to be able to share with my sponsee that shame doesn't have to define our lives.  He too is seeing that the past doesn't have to overshadow today.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whomever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
from Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi


  1. Well said. However, it's probably shows more character to behave in a loving manner even when feeling frustrated than to do so when it comes easily.

  2. I am reminded of the Alcoholics Anonymous promises that come around the 9th step. One of them is, "We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it." For me, this includes being done with the shame and guilt over the past.

    Very thorough, clear and well written post. Thanks, Syd.


  3. there was a time i had a lot of shame, particularly from the college years, when i broke out of the mold created for me...did a lot i am definitely not proud of but it shaped me...

  4. Thanks for sharing so myself and others know we're not alone. I recently finished my first step and found shame and guilt were 2 major themes of my life.
    Amazing how doing that step and sharing that step put so much of my shame and guilt into perspective, just getting it SPECIFICALLY out.
    I have learned the things I was ashamed of or felt guilty of, were in fact just part of being human.
    Like said above, this was very well-written. The concise way you wrote about your own experience with shame shed some direct light on the issue so many of us face. Thanks!
    God bless.

  5. I have felt shame at the tiny-est instances, where I'm sure nobody but me remembers. It lingers, shame and guilt.

    now I feel more like I "should" feel shame over certain things, feel guilt, but I don't and I'm free. But do I feel guilty about not feeling it? it's a double question, yes and no.

    Feeling weird about not feeling guilty. sigh, maybe with more practice....I'll get it right.

  6. Syd thank you for this wonderful post and sharing your experience with shame. We've all had experience with shame, and reading your story helps me to keep moving forward. Step four changes lives, and thankfully we have steps 10, 11and 12 to maintain )

  7. I'm grateful too that you are also one of the lucky ones, one who gets to find recovery. I especially like "Every Human is a guest house". Beautiful. Thanks for your honest share about shame. I like getting to know you better.

  8. A book that has helped me so much is Healing The Shame That Binds You by John Bradshaw. Have you read it? The fourth step is certainly a tough one, it took me months to complete it. I have an awesome sponsor. Getting to a place where you do not feel shame for your past is a huge giant step and an ongoing process, don't you think? This post is very well written and I am always happy to learn one more person is getting healthy.

  9. a nifty writing there at the end...

    AA has relieved (because of God) much of my shame and guilt. I am grateful!

  10. I love the Rumi poem and admire your honesty and integrity.

    Have a great weekend,


  11. That's a really nice image, a guest house where you welcome in whoever visits. I've been taken over by martyrdom and self righteousness the last couple days, think I will write about it.

  12. Gosh.
    Shame what a force!
    loved this post Syd...
    another better force!

  13. Thank you for your honesty, you are not alone in shame, so many of us are right beside you. I am glad that the program has worked for you to accept the "things" from the path, for you are right, the past helps shape each of us.

  14. I think we all have stories to tell of shame . . . thank you for sharing your story of healing from shame -- not everyone's healing story has been created and documented yet and it is inspiring to read such a story.

    - Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)

  15. Hi Syd. Just doing a rare blog surf.
    I picked a really good day. Loved the piece on shame. And the quote at the end was so beautiful.

  16. Shame was so big for me as well..I was always ashamed of my family for as long as I can remember and then the shame of my drinking...I am so grateful to AA for teaching me that my alcoholism was out of my control and giving me a solution so I never have to feel that way again...and that I can make peace with my history. Thanks Syd...great post.

  17. This is a very thought provoking post Syd. I agree completely with stark raving sober.

    Give yourself credit for doing the next right thing even when you had to fake it until you made it.

  18. Syd, I love the Rumi poem. I have had to visit this poem a lot with my own special variety of emotional illness. These days I am glad when my illness shows up in my body. When my body slows me down, rather than my head. I guess all the wellness I created in my body, made my head the most vulnerable link.


Let me know what you think. I like reading what you have to say.