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The Antidote to Shame

By Christian Chensvold

Photo by Spencer Brown.

Pardon: Why compassion — not forgiveness — matters most in trying time.

The coronavirus probably has you wishing you were somewhere else right now, perhaps in another galaxy far, far away. If those words sound familiar, it’s because the Star Wars film franchise, which was created right here in the Bay Area, provides valuable wisdom for how to manage ourselves through this grueling test we’ve been forced to face.

Bunkered down in our huts with our imagination running nonstop doomsday scenarios like some out-of-control supercomputer, it’s easy to succumb to our dark side, becoming evil taskmasters and our own worst enemy. Uncertainty leads to fear, and we struggle to remain productive, perhaps even to concentrate on much of anything. Then we beat ourselves up for it, despite knowing that everyone else is going through the same thing.

One could say it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of how to view the challenges of life, of trying to be a hero — which is an immature aspiration — versus being a warrior, which is a seasoned one. It’s exemplified by the character arc of naive farm boy Luke Skywalker, who wins an early victory by saving the galaxy (at least temporarily), only to be subsequently humbled by a 2-foot-tall green guru, forced to confront the evil within himself, learn bitter truths, and get a hand sliced off. In order to become the man with Zen-like calm we meet at the beginning of Return of the Jedi, Luke had to outgrow his hero stage and become a humble warrior who’s in it for the long haul and knows he can’t do everything himself.

The reflex to reproach ourselves for being imperfectly heroic during a global pandemic often stems from simply not allowing ourselves to feel what we’re feeling in the first place. “You need to step back and give yourself permission to not be OK in this moment and acknowledge that,” says Kealy Spring, a practicing psychologist in San Francisco. It doesn’t do any good to pretend you’re fine when you’re not, which only makes anxious feelings fester. It’s far better to admit feelings of fear and depression, of low motivation and concentration, by simply acknowledging them, then working toward a realistic assessment of the situation with a clear head, and taking steps to make the best of it.

In other words, show yourself some compassion, which, as Spring points out, is not the same as forgiveness. The difference is right in the etymology: Forgiveness implies an error, while compassion is the ability to console oneself in times of trouble. You don’t need to forgive yourself for being unemployed through no fault of your own, but you do need to let yourself feel the negative emotions that come with it.

“The more energy we spend trying not to feel something, the more it becomes a problem,” says Spring. “Just acknowledging it gives it less power. These are strange times and we’re all just trying to get through it, and being kind to yourself will probably get you a lot farther than blaming yourself.” The virus situation has made us prone not just to fear and lethargy, but also to anger and grief, says San Francisco psychologist Erika Shershun. Both are energies that must be released. Chastising oneself — or family, friends and co-workers — for being less-than-optimally productive, for failing to master a foreign language or musical instrument under quarantine, is a poor approach.

“A lot of emotions are coming up that are pretty traumatizing right now,” she says. “Grief is heavy in the air, and for some the critic is coming on strong and people feel shamed into having to be productive.” Compassion, explains Shershun, is an antidote to shame.

As always, social media is a double-edged sword that can offer support from one’s peers as well as their judgment. People are grieving the loss of their life, of routines and rituals such as graduations, weddings and funerals. And you won’t find a solution for what you need to see yourself through until you admit what it is you’re actually feeling, whether it’s anger, fear or loneliness.

“We realize what we need by acknowledging the feeling is present,” says Shershun. “Anger and grief especially need expression.” One way to give anger an outlet, Shershun says, is by punching a pillow.

A more long-term solution, and one that tends to keep anger in check, is practicing a martial art. At the present time, that may only be possible through online classes, such as those offered by Stevan Grengo, proprietor of Aikido of Noe Valley, who’s practiced the Japanese discipline for 40 years, in addition to holding a Ph.D. in psychology. A fundamental principle from the founder of aikido is that our real opponent is ultimately ourselves, and that true victory is a kind of self-victory. “This means we overcome temptation to blend with an incoming assault by moving off the line of attack,” says Grengo, “adding one’s own energy to the fray, and then drawing it to a spiraling, nonviolent conclusion. Once grasped in the body, it becomes easier to apply this approach as a metaphor.”

Which brings us back to a certain young pupil named Skywalker and his confrontation with the true enemy within himself. Coronavirus has exposed the weaknesses in all aspects of our system, from manufacturing and supply chains to our health care system and ruling class. It’s also exposed a characteristic weakness in ourselves: the myth of the all-conquering hero. But life under lockdown is not something that can be defeated, only endured. It requires humility and compassion, both for ourselves and for others. If we all practice this together, it might just become a force that binds the universe together.

Lack Self-Compassion? Ask the Experts

Stay-at-home orders have further disrupted the already blurry line between life and work. Those working from home may find themselves working at a limited capacity yet at all hours. Returning to the hero vs. warrior theme, don’t burn yourself out in the early stages of what could be a long fight.

If you’re feeling powerless during lockdown, remember that you can’t control external situations, only your reaction to them. Find small ways to keep your living space and diet orderly rather than chaotic, which will have a positive effect on your state of mind. “It helps with anxious feelings that you can control some aspect of life in these moments,” says Spring.

Likewise, people who feel a sense of agency in their lives are better able to use this time productively compared with those who generally feel the victim of circumstance. If you’re one of the latter, build up your sense of power through small things that you can control.

When suffering from low motivation and productivity, keep a log of the small things you did accomplish each day, even if it was just getting dressed. It will train your mind to see the positive steps you’re taking. If the inner critic rears its head, try to treat yourself as if you were a friend who’s come to you seeking help. You probably wouldn’t call the person weak and kick them to the curb, so why take that attitude toward yourself?

If a storm of anger blows over you, find a way to let it out by punching a pillow or doing jumping jacks. It’s better to let the feeling “move through you,” says Shershun, rather than pushing it aside through avoidance, which just makes it resurface even stronger. What you resist, persists, as the saying goes.

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