Shame Is the Master Emotion

If you have poor self-esteem or are easily offended, shame is the operative emotion. If you lack confidence, feel awkward around others or just are uncomfortable in your own skin, then an unhealthy shame is defining your experience. When you sense that you are fatally flawed and believe that you will never fit in, then shame is doing the talking. If you feel unimportant or uncared for in your marriage – or if your spouse reports these feelings – again, shame is happening. In all of these issues and a variety of others, one primary emotion is the chief source of pain and like all emotions it is telling you something about yourself, not the circumstances, the back story or anybody else.

Cain Coming from Killing His Brother, Abel – Henri Vidal, 1896

What’s the message? Shame is saying that your belonging in the community has eroded – a serious problem for social creatures today and a huge problem in evolutionary terms. Getting kicked out of an ancient nomadic tribe would have been fatal. If the problem is behavior, then it’s possible that the behavior needs to change. Think “silence your cell phone” or “stop reading over my shoulder.” This is healthy shame. If the problem, however, is a judgment of your identity or your story, some quality about you, then the shame is derived from ego, and the ego needs healing.

Ego is a complex beast and a subject of its own, but it is usually what you mean when you refer to “I” or “me.” It feels like who you are (though it really isn’t). Pride boosts the ego and shame erodes it.

Who is judging this ego? Answering this question sets the direction for healing. If the negative evaluation is coming from an external source, its purpose is to transfer shame from the source to you. People protect their pride by shaming others, almost like a zero-sum game. This shame needs to be given back and better protective skills developed for the future. If the judgment is coming from within (perfectionism, idealism, “shoulds”), then the work lies in (self-) compassion, mercy, humility, acceptance, letting go. It’s an almost or an actual spiritual path of learning to be human in a contingent, imperfect world – the only world there is.

Shame is the master emotion because it guides so much of our behavior. We evaluate our every move in advance and in hindsight based on whether it will be evaluated honorably or shamefully. Any dose of ego-shame we experience is replayed, over-analyzed and becomes the key memory from the day. When this shame/pride system struggles long-term, depression and anxiety can result. We all long to have and to hold onto a place and a community where we are held in esteem, where we belong. Belonging, a form of love, is the core human psychological need.

12 Step Recovery: Mindfulness

  1. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

Steps 10-12 are the so-called maintenance steps because they have to be practiced everyday. The previous nine steps are revisited from time to time, as the addict matures into ever-deepening levels of sobriety. The last three steps, however, are the way of life that sustains our connection to the source of our recovery, our Higher Power.


The old tendencies covered in Steps 4 and 5 remain, but, now exposed, they lose their absolute power. Going forward, they are being watched and in Step 10, we are doing the watching. The recently popular term for this form of self-monitoring is mindfulness. In the 12-Step language it is called taking personal inventory. We watch ourselves, either “live,” or in a mental instant replay, but no later than a daily review.

What was my intention in that behavior? Does it remind me of anything in my Step 4 inventory? Was I overly responsible or not responsible enough? Was I too selfish or selfless? Did I adequate respect the dignity of the other? These questions have to be asked seriously but also kindly. The purpose is not to beat myself up but only to promptly admit what was discovered. Pulling anything from the darkness into the light is more than half of the solution.

You can afford to admit dubious intentions only because of the first nine steps. With an adequate Higher Power, no number of wrongs are too many! Just catch them and admit them. No shame, grudge or lasting judgment is needed.

Another term for Higher Power might be Absolute Ground. The root meaning of humility is “ground.” Now you can see why it is possible to be humble (noting and admitting our wrongs) day in and day out. There is nowhere to fall from the Absolute Ground.

12 Step Recovery: Right Relationship

  1. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  2. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

“Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (Jas 2:17). Up to this point, except for “to another human being” (often one’s trusted sponsor) in the Fifth Step, this journey of emotional sobriety has been internal, in one’s head, heart and gut. You have to start there to act authentically, but you cannot stop there. Inner experience has to be fully realized (made real) by outer experience.


What counts as outer experience? We meet the world in every breath, ray of light and grain of sand, but we encounter the world most fully through fellow human beings. Before emotional sobriety, our relationships were smeared with manipulations. How can I get you to do what I want in order to fit my program for happiness? In recovery, we regard and relate to others in their full dignity. The philosopher Martin Buber calls this form of address “Thou” as opposed to “It.” Two people who say “Thou” (a respectful “you” present in other languages but not English) are in right relationship.

The suffering addict is in wrong relationship with a great many people. The “praxis” (practice, action) of our new way of being starts with these folks, usually our family, friends and co-workers. We have to go to each one of them and admit that we were wrong, that we caused harm and that we want to make whatever possible amends that can reset us into right relationship. These encounters make sobriety real and interpersonal, not just personal and private.

Of course, there are often no amends that can revert all of the harm, or certain types of harm. The point of the Eight/Ninth Steps is not to pay off debts, though that could be part of it. These steps continue the necessary humiliation of the ego that has been taking place since the First Step. Put more crudely, you are practicing not being full of yourself – again, not to make you good (you were always good), but because you no longer need to prove your goodness. Your dignity and worthiness are guaranteed by your Higher Power, so you can afford to take as much blame as is necessary, even a tad more.

12 Step Recovery: Shadow Boxing

  1. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  2. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

The shadow is the underbelly of the psyche, the vulnerable and messy side, the part that we would rather not see, let alone own. It is not bad yet our first inclination would be to reject it. We are sure that it does not fit into our persona, our “best” side. It shows up in consciousness as “defects of character,” which are easy to excuse or deny.


Shadow Boxing – Steve Huston

In terms of emotional addiction, the shadow covers our programs for happiness, those insatiable appetites for security, esteem, pleasure or control. Moreover, it conceals all of the maladaptive thoughts and behaviors we will deploy to get those appetites fed. When our programs are thwarted, our shadow is revealed in irritation, anger and what I term thrashing/flailing – things we say or do but do not really mean.

“You cannot heal what you do not first acknowledge.” Owning the problem is two-thirds of the solution (three-quarters?). As soon as you expose the insidious device it loses much of its power; it comes out of the shadows and into the light where it can be gradually transformed, integrated and forgiven. Christian scripture presents the image of demons, which I think are an apt representation of addiction. Jesus heals them by merely calling them out. “I see you!”

“Moral inventory” sounds a bit like an exercise in flagellation. Don’t let it be. You will not be judged or condemned by a Higher Power. Anybody who cares about your inventory does not matter and everybody who matters will not care. Instead they will have compassion for the True Self that is deeper than both shadow and persona. Therefore, let your inventory be “fearless” of shame and blame.

The fifth step allows you to experience the promise of acceptance and compassion and know that you are still good! The demons can only suffocate you from the inside. Once let out, they flee; you do not disintegrate. At the same time, this step makes ownership real and eviscerates any lingering denial. It holds your feet to the fire and begins to make you accountable – a conscious act of coming out of one self.

These steps are a movement of rigorous honesty. Only with honesty can a person relate to and be supported by a Spirit-filled community.

12 Step Recovery: Powerless

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

All great spirituality is about letting go. Indeed you have to start this way. Otherwise spirituality or religion is just one more ego accomplishment, as if you have God in your back pocket, so to speak. Recovery begins with a true surrender.


Boy Cutting Grass with a Sickle – Vincent van Gogh, 1881

Surrender is a very unappetizing word. Little wonder that we resist it past the point of denial. Strength, resilience, toughness, determination all employ the rallying cry, “Never surrender!” Adult success is synonymous with independence. You can take care it. You’ve got this!

So little and yet so much needs to be let go. This first step is not an abrogation of responsibility nor a switch to total passivity. It is a breaking of the ideal of self-sufficiency, a movement out of oneself. The accompanying feeling is humility, a word from the Latin humus, meaning ground, as in being grounded. Sobriety happens on the ground, not when you are “high.”

The added difficulty with the primary addictions (to the core programs for happiness) is that our lives do appear to be manageable – if only other people would behave and cooperate with us. It takes long, hard introspection to recognize that you have a problem. Folks will notice that you are insecure, or grandiose, or a control freak, but everybody has “defects of character,” right? This blindness is why the alcoholics et al are kinda fortunate. They are already attuned to the addictive process.

Therese of Lisieux, the Carmelite nun of the late 19th century nicknamed “The Little Flower,” is a good role model for humility. A teenager with little education, her spiritual intuition became known as “The Little Way.” She somehow knew that her divine daughtership was nothing to be earned or won through perfection.

“I will seek out a means of getting to Heaven by a little way—very short and very straight, a little way that is wholly new. We live in an age of inventions; nowadays the rich need not trouble to climb the stairs, they have elevators instead. Well, I mean to try and find an elevator by which I may be raised unto God, for I am too tiny to climb the steep stairway of perfection. […] To get there I need not grow; on the contrary, I must remain little, I must become still less.”

Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul

Admitting that we are powerless is a defeat of the ego, not the soul. Indeed, the soul needs this posture to continue maturing into the second half of life, a time not only of sobriety, but of wonder and wisdom.

Addict, Alcoholic? Keep Calm and Recover On

Primitive reason says that if you have an addiction then you are an addict and if you are addicted to alcohol then you are an alcoholic. Addict, alcoholic: words that still carry highly negative connotations. They commonly infer a pitiful fringe of “proper” society. Inferior, undisciplined, weak-minded, unpredictable, unreliable. It’s a hard profile.


Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon

Without surprise, then, we can see why those who suffer from the more painful addictions do not want to admit to the condition. This denial saddens me, first because you cannot heal what you cannot face, but secondly because there is a missed opportunity to open a big door that leads to a smaller door into the larger recovery room of emotional sobriety, which we all need.

It is almost axiomatic that only great suffering will knock you off the treadmill of life and onto the path of human transformation – the spiritual journey, the next level of consciousness, continued maturation, or whatever you want to call it. Without a crisis, it is too easy to stay on auto-pilot, regarding your emotional addictions as emotional entitlements, to say nothing of the addictions of consumerism, group-think and righteousness.

Thus, the more obvious addictions to debilitating substances and behaviors, while very painful and wholly unfortunate in and of themselves, are also a strange blessing, if they get you in the first door of recovery. Otherwise, finding the second door is very difficult in our present culture. Although the labels of alcoholic and addict may look bad at first, remain calm, get on with your recovery and look forward to something deeper and better than you could have imagined – something that turns these shunned labels upside down. You are still on the fringe of society, but now it’s the healthier fringe! The mainstream remains unconscious in their subtle addictions.

The Twelve Steppers came up with anonymity in order to provide cover for entering the first door. They remain grounded in humility by announcing within the group, for the rest of their lives, “Hi, I’m Joe, an alcoholic.” Yet it’s more than humility. It’s also gratitude, for because of that once awful word, they went on the further journey.