The one emotion keeping you from the life you want

The other day I was watching the Netflix show Easy when shame screamed in my ear.

I couldn’t stop looking at Orlando Bloom’s ripped abs. How does he look like that? He’s fucking 44. I shouldn’t have eaten that donut.

I’ve gained a few pounds this summer, and like many men, they went straight to my gut. I know I’m relatively strong and healthy. But that doesn’t stop me from criticizing myself when I see six-pack abs or bulging biceps.

I suddenly wasn’t enjoying the show anymore. As social worker Brené Brown writes, shame is a “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

Luckily, I was with a friend who’s in recovery from an addiction and has a longtime, white-knuckled relationship with shame.

“I just know that shame is going to come up,” he said. “When it comes, I say, ‘Oh, there you are.’”

Poof. The shame disappeared. It was like I was standing behind myself, watching my shame from a distance rather than being caught up in its story about my flabby stomach. This wider vantage point allowed me to see the shame for what it was: just a story, just one voice among many in my head.

Then a familiar voice chattered in my mind. I’m not going to eat bread or sugar for the next week. I’m going to lift weights and run sprints every day. I’m going to get my shit together.

This one was like a drill sergeant, determined to get me back in shape with a disciplined diet and workout regimen. Or a parent who was fed up and took away my toys.

I’d experienced this one-two punch of shame and punishment before, after drinking one too many beers or eating one too many slices of pizza or smoking a one-off cigarette at a party.

But this time was different — and encouraging. I was watching shame and punishment’s little game play out inside my head.

How to get to know the different parts of yourself

My buddy didn’t know it, but he was essentially describing a form of psychotherapy I’m a huge fan of called Internal Family Systems (IFS).

IFS is a way of describing our personality as having different “parts.” Parts are like little people inside our head with different goals and motivations.

It sounds weird, but you’ve probably said something like this before: “Part of me feels like this, but another part of me feels like that.” Rarely do we ever feel one singular emotion and not a tangle of feelings that are hard to separate out.

With the help of my therapist, I’ve found IFS to be a powerful tool for untangling my feelings. It helps me understand and relate to the different parts of my personality, which has lowered my anxiety and — most of all — helped me talk about my emotions more clearly.

For example, often the loudest voice in my head is the one that thinks I should be working 24/7. “Get to work!” it says every morning, “You’re lazy!”

Sure, it’d be fine and healthy if I woke up calm and relaxed, focused on my routines and to-do list. But instead, I’m tense and anxious, worried whether I can get everything done.

My days often feel like a constant sprint to catch up. By the end, I don’t feel all that accomplished because this hardworking part is still whispering in my ear that there’s more to do, that I have unfinished business.

Again, it’s okay to work hard and strive to do more. But when this part of me takes over, I get so hyper focused on work that I forget to take breaks.

I wear out more than I should. I get short with people and turn down their help. I struggle to show up fully with friends and family even after my workday ends. There’s a nagging sense that I should be doing something somewhere else — though I don’t know where that somewhere else is.

Before working with IFS, I sort of knew my tendency to overwork had to do with anxiety. But I didn’t have a strategy to work with the anxiety rather than try to suppress it. IFS has helped me peel back the layers on where this part of me came from.

My parents both come from hardworking, self-sufficient farming families. So I got the message early in life that relaxing means that you’re lazy.

Capitalism elevates work above everything else. Patriarchy socializes men to think that our worth is to provide for others. Whiteness has cut me off from my European roots, thousands of years of rituals and traditions that connected my ancestors to nature and its rhythms of change and rejuvenation.

Knowing all of this has helped me have compassion for the hardworking part of myself. I now see that it’s trying to help me. It just has an extreme, rigid view: that if I stop working, even for a moment, I will get left behind — and I might even die.

No wonder my hardworking part can’t shut up. It’s like a little kid inside of me trying to protect me.

As Richard Schwartz, the therapist who developed IFS, says, our parts “are like internalized children who are in over their heads and don’t know how else to run the whole family other than by yelling and criticizing.”

Now that I see this hardworking part as a little, scared kid, I don’t have to listen to it all the time. I can grind out a blog post, respond to 20 emails, and then hit the gym with the best of them. I can work as hard as I ever have. But I can also rest.

I can tell the hardworking part of me that it’s okay to take a break. Through getting to know this part, I’ve built up enough trust in myself.

Why shame is counterproductive

Back to my shame. That Netflix moment was a turning point. For the first time, I was able to see shame as a just a part of me rather than believing its story about me. I also saw how quickly I pivot to punishing myself.

“The experience of shame — feeling fundamentally deficient — is so excruciating that we will do whatever we can to avoid it,” writes the psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach.

The next step will be to investigate where this shaming part of me came from.

How did it get the story that enjoying a donut is bad? What is it so afraid is going to happen if I gain five pounds? What does it think is so special about having six-pack abs?

Once I get to know my shame more — once I can see that it’s just trying to protect me, albeit in an extreme, rigid, counterproductive way — I’ll be able to relate to it differently. When it comes up, I’ll be able to say, “Oh, there you are,” rather than believing it’s painful story that I’m unworthy of love and belonging.

Hi, I’m Jeremy, a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. Subscribe to my weekly email on how to be more mindful at your job, in your relationships, and when it comes to politics here.

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Photo by Anthony Easton.