On Shame Reels™ and self-compassion

When a psychologist asked me to start recording my recurring daily thoughts earlier in the year, my initial response was something like NO THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

It was difficult to tell where the resistance started and ended, but within that vortex of aversion I could detect a series of interlocking protests: I didn’t want to see or share what runs through my head, preserved on the page like some kind of grotesque specimen in a formaldehyde jar. What if the activity mutated into one of those CBT-esque ledgers in which I was expected to label and dispute my distorted ‘depressogenic’ thought patterns, a strategy I've never found useful? (Thinking about thinking? Feeling bad about thinking bad? Eek!) Likewise, if the longer-term goal was to enact a more self-compassionate approach, how would that fit in with the importance I place on authenticity? If we think therefore we are, who would I ultimately be if I adopted an alternative mode of thinking and inner storytelling? Isn’t self-criticism also a form of self-awareness? Would self-compassion eventually mean, at some point down the line, less insight into my weaknesses and imperfections, a murkier appreciation of my flaws that could compromise already fragile relationships and accentuate persistent deficiencies I feel I'm accountable for keeping in check?

Despite my confusion and hesitations, I spent a couple of weeks dutifully recording some of my most penetrating and pervasive thoughts.

Writing them out felt cathartic. Reading them back, however, felt horrible.

So, I stopped.

But flicking through the back of my journal and becoming more finely attuned to how I was thinking (not only what) led me to a troubling discovery: when I’m having a bad day, or if I’m feeling particularly bad about myself, I don’t just fixate on whatever’s immediately distressing or unsettling; I cycle through every bad thing I’ve ever said or done, replay every painful or embarrassing moment — a cassette ribbon worn thin.

This is my Shame Reel.

My Shame Reel comprises a constellation of tiny instances in which I’ve felt, and continue to feel, deeply ashamed. Many of these moments or ’clips’ are embarrassing to catalogue when I consider their age and seeming lack of consequence. A particular argument with my mother about paying board when I got my first job. Letting down some schoolmates when I moved to Brisbane for uni by reneging on a lease agreement I’d signed. Failing to stick up for myself when I was unfairly dismissed from a job in my mid-20s. Shouting at a person I was living with because they never took out the wheelie bins. Ghosting a mature-age student I’d taught in a previous semester because they made me feel inexplicably uncomfortable. Losing my temper on a family trip and making my sister cry. Feeling as though I'd spoken badly on a research panel because I summarised my work in a couple of sentences when the other participants spoke at length using much more arcane, complex terminology (I don’t know why I still think of this, two years later, but it tortures me). Performing poorly in an academic job interview that cost me an ongoing position even though I could think of cogent, sophisticated answers to questions only half an hour later.

There are, of course, bits within my Shame Reel that have little to do with something I’ve said or done. They're things that have happened to me: experiences of abuse or assault, moments of humiliation, glitches and losses that I could possibly have avoided but was in no way responsible for. But most of the highlights are things I perceive as acutely personal failures. And some are more diffuse and ubiquitous than single instances or one-off encounters.

I fixate, for example, on my social ineptitude, particularly at work — the way in which I’m unable to articulate or advocate for myself when I feel uncomfortable or as though I don’t have ‘permission’ to be a perceptive, authoritative adult. I obsess over the boundaries I don’t uphold, my tendency to fade and to fume and to eventually just explode. I fret about how brittle I’ve become over the last couple of years, how I’m no longer willing to go the extra mile or to ‘be the bigger person’ and offer my curiosity, goodwill, and investment where it’s not being shown to me. I’ve always prided myself on a willingness to model the behaviour I hope to receive: to be responsive and reliable, never rude, to show up, to listen, to do the favour. More and more, though, I find myself thinking: ‘Actually, this is making me feel like shit.’ I have become small-minded, unyielding, a person I don't quite recognise. I’m haunted by the realisation that I think of people like my dad in terms of a fantasy self, a version that will probably never manifest, despite all my wishing and hoping and daydreaming about the possibilities. I hate how judgmental I am, the hours I lose out of my life reflecting on other people’s decisions, behaviour, and communicative tics, things that lie well beyond the realm of my business or control. For the first time in my life, I register pangs of something — envy? jealousy? bitterness? — when I hear other people's good news. Not all the time. Just sometimes. But the resulting guilt often threatens to dump me, drag me under.

‘My internal monologue is like the end of a Solitaire game,’ I tried to explain to my boyfriend on a recent afternoon walk. ‘You know, where the packs of cards start bouncing all over the screen?’

Sometimes, usually in the evenings, I struggle to focus on anything else aside from the day's Shame Reel, which then cascades into the feature-length version: Why did I say that to my colleague in the lift? This wouldn’t have happened if I were more likeable, if people just respected me more. Making that mistake proves I am thoroughly incompetent. How have I made it this far professionally when every 'good thing' I've ever achieved has been a fluke, the result of someone letting it slide? Everybody must secretly hate me.

But now that I’ve been sitting with this thought salad for several months, I’ve realised a couple of things that I’m hoping will nudge me towards some kind of gradual rehabilitation or relief.

One is that I’ve rationalised and accepted shame and self-excoriation as crucial components of my cognitive machinery — probably since childhood — and the way in which I perceive some utility in shame is possibly what's making it so difficult to let go of: shame is how I get stuff done. Or how I think I get stuff done.

The second micro-revelation is that I have only a fuzzy, tentative grasp of what it really means to be compassionate. I was raised around an evangelical Christian ethic of so-called love and compassion, but those concepts were often nebulous and inconsistent in their day-to-day application. We were simply not taught about the practicalities of exercising compassion for self as well as for others; if you were a woman, especially, an extension of your ‘compassion’ for others was total sacrifice of self, the erosion of all boundaries in aid of serving, giving, and forgiving.

So, I’m finding it helpful to explore the subject of compassion for now, and I’ve returned to one of the texts I analysed as part of my dissertation several years ago, Uncovering Happiness by Dr Elisha Goldstein. For full disclosure, I didn’t respond well to this book at the time, and I was dubious about how appropriate it would be as an intervention for severe depression. Even so, the author makes a useful distinction between self-indulgence and self-compassion that I've been meditating on as I grapple with the kinds of definitions I'd be willing to accept and explore:

There’s a critical nuance that we need to be clear about when practicing self-compassion. It doesn’t mean just being nice to ourselves in order to soothe a difficult feeling… There’s danger in confusing self-compassion with self-indulgence as a form of avoidance, which can turn it into a another bad habit… True self-compassion takes courage at times to recognise the fact that the way we are going about our lives is not working, but that the most skilful thing to do is to love ourselves and make the necessary changes to move us in the direction of health and well-being.*

I like this bit because it characterises self-compassion as a useful way forward when neither flagellation nor coddling seems to be working. It’s about logic and pragmatism, or kindness as a mechanism for progress. There’s no ego, no performance, no inauthentic affirmation — just getting your tantrumming toddler self off the floor in the gentlest way possible.

This is as far as I've got.

Of course, I know that observations like these are supposed to culminate in some kind of epiphany or ‘arrival’. We love a good narrative arc, a tidy resolution.

But sometimes there is none.

Sometimes there's only hanging in there, and a little bit of Rilke:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

*Dr Elisha Goldstein, Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion (Simon & Schuster, 2015).