We have all experienced, like a punch to the gut, old feelings of shame for things that happened long ago. Of course, everyone has committed past blunders or acts of negligence, cowardice, or foolishness. A lot of people hold on to these memories, and they continue to be inundated with waves of regret, embarrassment, and shame.
Even when people try to forgive themselves for old missteps, the memories can persist. Why would we continue to be haunted by such memories from the past? They only bring up—right in the present moment—a fresh new experience of the original shame or humiliation.
The answer to this question affords us an opportunity to see exactly how, in our unconscious mind, we produce much of our emotional suffering.
Jeremy, a client of mine, was lying awake in bed in the middle of the night. A recurring memory from 40 years ago crept into his mind. At that time he was almost fired after making a foolish judgment that cast himself and his company in a bad light. The memory seemed to hover over him like an ancient curse, and once again he found himself reliving the original shame.
“What’s this all about?” Jeremy now asked himself. “This event is ancient history. Why am I tormenting myself right now?”
He recalled what he was learning in his psychotherapy sessions: Everyone has a tendency to relive and recycle whatever is unresolved in our psyche, no matter how painful. As he lay there, he began to process some thoughts and insight that exposed the underlying dynamics of what he was now experiencing.
“I’m making an unconscious choice in this moment,” Jeremy realized, “to allow my inner critic, once again, to punish and condemn me for my foolish behavior committed so many years ago. I now understand that, through my inner passivity, I invite the inner critic to butt in and give me a hard time.”
People are startled by this revelation from depth psychology, namely that we have an emotional addiction to self-condemnation and self-punishment. Instinctively we deny this. Inwardly, we go on the defensive in an effort to cover it up. Unconsciously, though, we do in fact open a doorway and allow our inner critic to barge in and punish us in this way. There’s an element of masochism here. This is the critical weakness at the heart of human nature. This weakness is not our fault—but there it is. When we continue to expose this inner willingness of ours to be abused in this way, we can put a stop to it.
Jeremy could see the inner situation, as well, from another perspective. He recognized the inner conflict: one part of his psyche (inner critic) was determined to be harshly judgmental of him and then accuse him of being receptive to that abuse, while another part was struggling weakly and ineffectively to defend him (inner passivity). Unconsciously, the weak part was saying something to this effect: ‘No, no, no, I don’t want to absorb feelings of being criticized and punished. I really feel badly about my foolishness. I wish I hadn’t been so foolish!’ Employing this defense, he put himself in a bind: he had to continue to feel bad for that old misjudgment and misconduct.
But now, consciously and with new insight, he was able to do an inner pirouette. Now he said: ‘Yes, it’s true! I do indeed want to absorb feelings of being criticized and punished. I recognize that I do this. I own my willingness to punish myself in this way.” This is a remarkable turnaround from being inwardly weak and defensive.
Jeremy was now saying, in effect, “Butt out, inner critic! I’m not afraid of your accusations. They carry no weight with me. Get out of my life! You have no business passing judgment on me!” In this moment he’s updating—from passive to assertive—his inner software. He defuses the accusation. He’s now saying, “So what if it’s true that I willingly absorb the aggression! It’s not a felony! It’s the dysfunction at the heart of human nature. I have the power to see it and understand it. This knowledge will now empower me!”
He’s exposing inner truth, as it applies to him and human nature in general: We all absorb negative aggression from the inner critic and, through our inner passivity, allow primitive aggression to dominate our inner life and punish us at will. To put a stop to this, we have to become fearless on an inner level. We have to stand up to the inner bully. The right knowledge enables us to do this.
Jeremy processed this awareness and within a few minutes the inner torment had ceased. He had disarmed the inner conflict and come to his own rescue. He now felt inner peacefulness and soon fell asleep. In the morning, he remembered that he needed to keep this awareness at the forefront of his mind. His inner critic was always ready to attack him afresh with some old or new allegations of his alleged foolishness, incompetence, or failure. He had to maintain inner vigilance to forestall that or, when his inner critic had already sneaked up on him, to rescue himself from the inner abuse as quickly as possible. He also had to keep a wary eye for when, at other times, his inner critic could come barging in whenever his inner passivity flared up over some issue or other.
Recurring memories of what we have failed to do can be just as painful as memories of our active missteps. In other words, our inner critic is as quick to unload on us for what we did as for what we didn’t do.
Another client, Richard, had painful memories of having been abused by bullies during his early school years. He had been a small, sensitive boy and a vulnerable target for bullies. He had been too frail and scared to do much other than absorb with stoicism their verbal and physical punishment. As an adult in his forties, he frequently remembered that old pain and humiliation. His heartless inner critic still mocked him for not having stood up to those bullies and protected himself.
Richard often pondered with regret all the options he might have pursued, including enlisting the support of school authorities and enrolling in a martial-arts program. His regret, as he now realized, served as a defense: “I don’t want to absorb self-recrimination for my passivity. Look at how much I regret not having taken action to protect myself.”
The more he used this defense, the more he had to feel regretful. Painful memories and lingering shame would persist as long as he continued to feel this regret.
Like Jeremy, he now addressed his plight through the knowledge he was learning in psychotherapy. He didn’t have to be a victim of inner conflict. Victory could be his if he were smart and determined enough to apply the knowledge of this depth psychology. Like an inner martial-art skill, he acquired the mastery to banish his inner critic. In the process, he discovered the authority vested in his own authentic self.
Self-discovery is our redemption, our release from old shame.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.