During the Fall I ran a series of posts based on an article I was reading from Dr. John Guarnaschelli. I thought that he really was able to express how men feel shame in a way that I had not seen before. While working on that series, I contacted Dr. Guarnaschelli to see if he would let me publish his followup article about men healing shame. He responded back to me and said that he was working on editing it and was going to have a new version available soon. He contacted me a few weeks later with the final version. This is a long piece, but I encourage you to work your way through it. It may even mean you need to read for a bit and come back and finish it on another day. I hope you enjoy it!
PART II: MEN HEALING SHAME: EXPLORING HOW MUCH GENUINE PERMISSION I HAVE TO EXPERIENCE MY SELF.
On the day after, as the sun rose in the Eastern sky
I sat quietly on a stone at the edge of the stream
Where I had never previously seen any sign of life;
Suddenly, in the silence, a small deep black frog emerged
And sat utterly still upon a rock amidst the rushing waters.
Slowly, as I patiently watched, light touched upon the frog
And slowly, the black frog turned to Gold.
The story of Ali Baba is quickly told. Ali Baba, a poor man, is gathering wood in the forest. Fearful when he hears many horsemen approaching, he hides. From his hiding place, he overhears the Captain of forty thieves cry ‘Open Sesame!’ toward the blank wall of the nearby mountainside. Where Ali Baba had previously seen none, a door into a deep cave magically opens and the thieves disappear into it. Fearful of their reemergence, Ali Baba remains in hiding.
Some time later, after the thieves have departed, Ali Baba stands before the mountainside and dares to repeat the Captain’s exact words, ‘Open Sesame!’ Again, the unseen door opens. Ali Baba enters into the deep cave, and where he had expected darkness, he unexpectedly finds jewels, silver, gold, fine silk, and endless other wealth, a vast treasure bathed in bright light,. He returns home from the cave with only a few sacks of gold, and the intention of returning for more.
Once home, however, Hassim, Ali Baba’s rich and greedy brother, spies out his new wealth and cajoles him into revealing the secret of where he found it. Out of kindness, and since he himself is not greedy, Ali Baba is willing to share his treasure and reveals both the cave’s location and the password. So very early the next morning Hassim hurries alone to the cave, intending to hoard the treasure for himself. But, excited by all the wealth and the dreams of more wealth that he can gather in the cave, Hassim cannot remember the password to exit. Increasingly frightened and aware of his danger, he forgets Open Sesame as ‘if he had never heard it.’ Sure enough, the thieves return and discover him trapped in their cave, with his bags loaded. Determined to sell his life dearly, Hassim attacks them. But, the thieves kill Hassim and cut him into four pieces, which they nail up inside the cave.
When Ali Baba returns later to the cave, he finds his dead brother’s body. He returns home with the four pieces of the corpse, whose honorable burial he arranges…and with more gold. When the forty thieves and their Captain discover that Hassim’s body, and more gold, are gone, they conclude that two men must know the secret of their wealth. They have killed one. They must now discover and slay the other.
Soon enough, the thieves discover Ali Baba has been displaying unusual wealth. But now, his loyal slave girl, Morgiana, cleverly frustrates every effort they make to kill him. The thieves begin by twice marking his house with a cross, the first time white, the second time red. Each time, Morgiana draws similarly colored crosses on all the houses to the left and right of Ali Baba’s house so that the thieves cannot identify which one is his. Each time, the infuriated Captain of thieves slays the thief who has failed to kill Ali Baba.
On the third try, the Captain himself poses as a traveling oil merchant. He imposes on Ali Baba’s hospitality for a night’s stay, and thus smuggles the remaining thirty-seven thieves hidden inside giant oil jars into his house. Once again the faithful Morgiana intervenes. She discovers the thieves inside their jars and kills every one of them. Ali Baba buries the thirty-seven dead thieves in his garden, sells their mules in the market, and grants Morgiana her freedom for saving his life.
Having lost his entire band of thieves, the Captain is now really furious and fully determined on revenge. He conceives an elaborate scheme to kill Ali Baba. Carrying many fine goods from the cave, the Captain of thieves sets himself up as a cultured merchant across the way from Ali Baba’s house. Because he is so cordial, so refined, Ali Baba’s son befriends him, and finally introduces him to Ali Baba himself. Ali Baba judges him a good friend and invites him to dine. The Captain demurs and begs off. But Ali Baba insists. Finally, the Captain declares that he demurs because he eats no salt. Ali Baba responds that this is no problem whatever, and instructs Morgiana and his other servants to prepare a fine banquet without salt for the “merchant,” his own son, and himself.
The fact that the merchant would eat no salt with her master arouses Morgiana’s suspicions. She contrives to get a close look at their guest and immediately recognizes that he is none other than the Captain of thieves himself. And he carries a dagger hidden in his garments with the clear intention of killing her master. After the meal, Morgiana dons a dancing girl’s headdress and offers to dance for her master and his guest. As part of her dance, she brings out her own dagger. In turn, she points it at herself, her master, his son, and finally at their guest as though doing so were part of her dance. At the opportune moment, she catches the Captain off guard and plunges her dagger into his heart.
Ali Baba’s initial dismay turns to profound gratitude when Morgiana reveals that the slain guest is the Captain of thieves. Saying ‘see what an enemy you have entertained,’ she uncovers his hidden dagger making plain the Captain’s plan to slay both Ali Baba and his son. In gratitude, Ali Baba offers to wed Morgiana to his son, who readily accepts. Their wedding is celebrated in great splendor. When sufficient time has passed, and no more thieves show themselves, Ali Baba returns to the cave and brings back as much gold and treasure as he can carry. He then reveals the secret of the cave to his son who also hands it on so that “the children and grandchildren of Ali Baba enjoyed riches to the end of their days.”
Ali Baba’s story may be understood as a symbolical depiction of the process, an illustration of what needs to be done, to genuinely heal Shame. At bottom, the crucial question is how may I deal with the unavoidable paradox we have recognized at the heart of the problem: How can I heal my Shame without shaming myself further, without shaming myself for feeling shamed, without further shaming the feelings I am ashamed of? How may I deal with my Shame without assuming everything I am saying and doing, or not saying and not doing, is wrong, sick, bad? In other words: How may I discover and enjoy my riches without inviting forty thieves, and the Captain of thieves, to kill me?
We may begin to explore our process by noticing that though Ali Baba’s brother, Hassim, is rich and greedy, for some reason Ali Baba himself is poor. This was the clue which originally led me to suspect Ali Baba’s story might work as an exploration of healing Shame. Ali Baba’s poverty reflects how shamed men commonly feel “poorer,” less gifted, without energy, without direction, without talent or ability, always wrong, “cloudy,” denied some degree of knowing themselves, somehow always defective in comparison to other men. “Inside” they just feel poorer. As in the story, the causes for this poverty usually seem unclear. “Because there’s just something wrong with me, other men always and obviously seem to have their act together, while I myself obviously do not.” Such feelings are a reliable indicator of Shame’s presence, an infallible signal that the problem is there to be dealt with.
Hassim’s greed and lack of concern for his brother were a second indication of how the story might teach us concerning Shame. Since Hassim and Ali Baba are brothers, it is most likely they grew up in the same house, subject to similar family patterns of Shame. Hassim lives with all that his Shame deprives him of. So though he is rich he nonetheless remains greedy, endlessly needy. Such a combination is a perfect sign of Shame’s presence. Rich, but feeling boundlessly poor, Hassim can only think of himself. So he is not concerned whether his haste to rob all that is in the cave thereby robs (Shames) his brother…all that is valuable must belong only to him. But men who Shame because they live in their own Shame never discern the true path out of it, never possess the riches they constantly steal. In stealing, they endlessly repeat their Shame. Thus they cannot remember the password for exit and so repeatedly end up poor, denied any treasure, dead every day, killed always by the thieves of Shame. And anyone they deal with must end up robbed…”what you oughtta do”…”can’t you do better than that?”…”what the hell’s wrong with you?” Robbed of myself by Shame, I must rob everyone around me. No one else may enjoy his own riches if I cannot!
As we explore Shame, Hassim may therefore stand as a reminder of two important ideas. First, if I have been shamed, perhaps I will want to go through life shaming others, constantly provoked into robbing them of what they have, denying them of what is theirs. Second, as I explore Shame in order to recognize and heal my own feelings, I must not forget to recognize others, the Hassims, who really are out there trying to shame me, rob me (however unconsciously!) in the unsuccessful attempt to compensate for their own poverty.
Forty thieves and their well-hidden cave were finally a third indication the story might be useful for exploring Shame. Forty thieves guard a great, stolen treasure in their cave. In some traditions, the number forty stands for totality or completeness…as in the forty days and nights of rain in Genesis. So the treasures in the cave have been totally, completely, irretrievably, that is, perfectly, stolen by forty thieves who can symbolize how thoroughly Shame robs me of my Self, or of anything my Self possesses.
Finally, as he wanders in the woods “earning his living,” Ali Baba does not even suspect the existence of the cave of hidden treasure. Even though it is quite nearby, the door is invisible. As he ekes out his familiar, impoverished livelihood, Ali Baba has no inkling how close the enormous treasure is…just as a shamed man often feels little more than the hopeless absence of rights, talents, abilities, desires, or goals. Never suspecting the existence of his own treasure, he feels only the poverty of guilt, self-doubt, and uncertainty. Indeed, the theft of himself may be so complete, so well hidden, that he may not even suspect he has been robbed of anything! When I am robbed of my Self, I may lose every sense of my own treasure: my intelligence, my imagination, my good looks, my energy, my strength, my sexuality, my humor…anything whatever.
Thus, when he hears the thieves approach, Ali Baba hides, fearing for his life. And after the thieves have entered their cave, he remains in hiding, fearing their imminent return. This suggests a beginning for the process of healing. For, this is a good description of the feelings a man may have when he first begins to suspect he has been shamed. He will feel fear…fear of even the slightest approach toward the dark cave of Shame and what Shame has stolen from him. His gifts and talents have repeatedly been attacked, and ultimately his life itself has been endangered. But, by the teenage years, or certainly by the time a man is an adult, the impoverished state will feel natural, appropriate, like his own genuine feeling, his own proper state. It is the Truth, his Truth. Any attempt now to recognize Shame and reclaim his feelings and gifts will plunge him once more into the same terrified fear (anxiety!) of annihilation and death inflicted on him ever since his initial encounters with being Shamed. To change in any way will feel very, very wrong! He will therefore resist and actually prefer to remain frozen in fear, hidden and unmoving, just as Ali Baba does… because, as with him, “it will save my life.” Questioning Shame will kill me. But remaining Shamed is right, and true, and saves my life (“the way it always has.”)
Tom is a middle-aged man who was raised in an upper middle class family in an Eastern city. He is very well educated, intelligent, handsome, and in perfect health. It is clear he could practice almost and profession, have any type of work, he puts his mind to. He could easily excel, and easily earn considerable money in his choice of job. But, he persistently feels and believes he cannot do so. He remains in a marginal job in which the amount of money he earns never permits him to escape from worry about any extra expenses he might incur. If he even dreams of recognizing his own abilities, much less seeks to fulfill his own hopes or desires, he fears his family will abandon him, his wife will not love him. It is safest to simply “lie low.” Moreover, Tom understands any suggestion that his situation might be otherwise as a genuine death threat, as “an attack,” as one more criticism of who and what he is, that is, he is shamed by any suggestion that he might not be!
This is how he really feels. This is how he has always felt, throughout a life time. This is the real Tom. And he will not tolerate any idea, any suggestion, of feeling different, of discovering his own treasures, as anything other than more loss. Deep Shame speaks confidently: “It is wrong for me to question whether I am wrong!”
But precisely because he remains so still, Ali Baba can clearly hear the magic word the Captain uses to open the door to the unseen cave. He hears ‘Open Sesame!’ just as a man may hear an opening to his own feelings if he remains absolutely still and listens. Fearful as ever but curious, he uses the thief’s very own words after they have gone. He enters the cave and all the riches that are now open to him. As Ali Baba descends into the cave, he is apprehensive. But where he had expected darkness, he unexpectedly finds light. And, in that light, he discovers treasures, wealth beyond his imagining.
The most important question we must ask at this point in the story is: What exactly do the cave, and the treasure that Ali Baba discovers in the cave, really represent? In any attempt to heal Shame this is unquestionably the most important and fundamental point. If this point is not clear to us, however much we may strive, the thieves of Shame will attack again and again in many different ways. And as the story indicates, Ali Baba will never possess the treasure.
So we must be clear that the cave and the riches hidden in the darkness stand for three things: First, to heal Shame, like Ali Baba, we must descend into the cave. We must never “ascend” to drive away Shame, by resolving to overcome it, transcend it, undo it, in some way finally banish Shame. To deal with Shame, I must first and foremost “descend” into my own real experience, my own cave. I must stay in the dark truth of my own experiences, what I really feel. “I have been Shamed and that is where I begin.”
Second, the riches stolen by Shame and hidden in the cave’s darkness originally were and are Ali Baba’s. They all belong to him. So, the treasures represent the native endowment, all the rich gifts, the special qualities, the talents and abilities, the personal characteristics, a man possesses literally from the first day of his birth. They represent his own intelligence, his own imagination, his sensitivity, his sexuality, his sensuality, his mind, his body, his energy, his beauty, his humor, and all else that is his.
Third, the treasure represents every item of experience, without exception, that a man has encountered during his lifetime, from the moment of birth on…everything said or done, or not said, or not done. It is all these things, which amount to my treasure, to the experience of my Self. It is all these things which the thieves of Shame have stolen, and strive to keep hidden, strive to obstruct Ali Baba from seeing.
In a word, as a shamed man I must never see what is already there.
Finally, the story tells us that in order to possess his treasure, Ali Baba must return many times to the cave. So the process of healing Shame will happen over time and repeat over and over in partial bits and pieces. Healing will be a cumulative process in which a man may learn new ways to feel himself, to know what he is, and consequently, to live his own life. Thus, concretely, healing Shame is almost never a one-time, overnight experience. Requiring time, happening gradually, and usually composed of many parts, healing is in fact a reversed mirror image of the lengthy process whereby Shame was inflicted in the first place! In short, we will spend a life time experiencing “Open Sesame”…entering the deep cave to ourselves. If being Shamed is a learning, healing Shame is not an un-learning. It is new learning…and genuine learning it must be.
We observe that once he becomes aware of the cave’s existence, Ali Baba steals into it by using the Captain’s own words, ‘Open Sesame!’ Here, we have an indication of “the opening word” when it comes to healing Shame. For healing, this is a first and most valuable clue. Like Ali Baba, a man must begin by acknowledging he has a cave of Shame to enter. He must somehow “say the word” and take the risk of recognizing Shame itself. Perhaps, if he is not directly aware of Shame, he might begin with an inkling that something isn’t quite right. He may vaguely feel something always gets in the way of how he wishes to live, what he wishes he could do. Maybe, in reading through part one of this article, a reader might speak his own ‘Open Sesame’ by identifying with one or more of the feelings or behaviors described as “actually the way I feel, the way I do things.” However it happens, recognizing himself as shamed represents the indispensable first step into the cave, the first step toward healing. Paradoxically, by noticing it and knowing the words, “I am shamed,” Shame itself leads a man to “notice himself” and thereby enter exploration of the cave of his own experience, his own riches. When a man utters “Opem Sesame, I am shamed” that is the first moment in which he is not shamed!
So Ali Baba’s Open Sesame reveals the all-important heart of how we may dissolve the paradox of healing Shame without inflicting further Shame. Standing before the cave, and to enter the cave, Ali Baba succeeds because he stands Shame itself on its head. To heal Shame, a man must embrace the feeling of Shame itself …however badly he feels it, however long he may have to “wait” until he can say the word. He needs to say aloud, bravely and clearly, above all to himself “Open Sesame! I am shamed!” Thereby, he begins the process of accepting and trusting whatever he himself feels as utterly reliable, as his. His admission is the authoritative foundation of his own authority!…which therefore includes statements such as “I can’t feel any authority in myself.” He really feels his Shame. By implication, he can really feel all his feelings as real. Perhaps for the first time, he realizes that he does feel, that he has feelings. Perhaps for the first time, he also begins to recognize/identify what his feelings are. And contrary to Shame’s every message, he may observe he is now the one who has both the right and the ability to feel them…and to learn from them
Brian speaks quietly, as though to himself, as he addresses his men’s group. “All my spiritual remedies haven’t worked,” he says, eyes lowered. “I’ve tried to substitute them for what I really feel. They haven’t helped at all. They end up being a kind of emotional bypass once again burying what I feel, once again telling me what I feel is wrong. I’ve finally decided I need to stop avoiding my real feelings. I must stop trying to “fix myself.” I spoke to my mother recently, describing my experiences growing up with her…the violence, the way she beat me. My anger. She denied everything…said I exaggerated. I feel really sad. I realize now that I’m never going to have had the tender, loving, understanding mother I always wanted. And these are the feelings I’m going to live with and work with for the rest of my life.” Brian has said Open Sesame!
It is most important to notice that Ali Baba’s fear of the thieves is quite intense as he says the word and enters the cave. This suggests that as a man acknowledges his Shame he cannot expect to “finally feel good.” The thieves of Shame are menacing. So, in fact, as he enters the healing of his Shame, as he acknowledges his real feeling, a man will often feel far worse, at least immediately and maybe for a while. The thieves that stole his treasures become more clearly known, more clearly felt. His shamed, hurt feelings become more vivid, more sharply known and felt. So there is really great danger in entering the cave. Such danger may drive a man away from entering the cave at all…maybe for a time, maybe for good. And his experience will certainly be intense, and painful, when he finally chooses to enter.
Sam is a middle-aged therapist in a Southern city who frequently works with shamed men or women. With a kind of rueful smile, he describes a frequent experience. As we really enter the work, he says, my clients often explode with a statement like: “I came to you in order to feel better. Right now, I’m feeling a lot worse. And you’re telling me that’s great?!!” He assures his clients that this is indeed the real beginning…essential to entering the cave. So, to heal Shame, to feel better, the process very commonly begins by recognizing how bad I feel, how terrible my feelings are. I begin by feeling as bad as I really do feel!
Once inside the cave, Ali Baba expects darkness. As we have seen, Shame strips away awareness of feelings, of gifts, of even a sense of existence. Shame produces a sort of “amnesia.” So a man almost certainly approaches healing Shame without hope, expecting darkness. There’s nothing for him here but continued pain, deficiency, loss, above all “badness.” His profound hurt, his certainty that he is endowed with nothing of his own, leads him to cling needily to women, sex, work, money, power, food, drink, drugs, excitement, masculine roles, having everything, having nothing, knowing everything, knowing nothing, feeling nothing or any other “external savior” that allows him to finally escape his unreceptive childhood, that allows him to fill the hole in his chest. The very last thing a shamed man expects is to save his own life by feeling his own Shame. The very last thing he expects is to fill himself with his sense of HimSelf.
But saying Open Sesame produces a most important first benefit. A man can now realize he has the power to feel that very feeling. And from that observation, he can set in motion an “unvicious circle.” He may gradually perceive feelings of Shame attached to specific issues in his life, such as work, money, sex, relationships, his power, his feelings, his knowledge, and thereby proceed to feel his larger Shame. Or, on the other hand, by directly sensing his larger Shame, he can gradually learn to perceive shamed feelings connected to individual issues that trouble him. Moving slowly in either direction, the important benefit of “accepting” his feelings is that a man gradually finds the treasure of his own authority, his own ability, his own right, to feel.
The process that effectively reverses Shame is in motion. A man gradually perceives he has power that he may more and more accept as his own. Thereby, he absorbs his right to take charge of the process of healing. And, every feeling he accepts (regardless of its positive or negative content or how painful it is) contributes to re-affirming both his power and his authority to do what he needs to do for himself.
We may note in passing that the pain-filled process of healing Shame as we are describing it curiously resonates with the process of Initiation. In traditional societies, the overwhelming majority of the rituals that initiated young men into their adult malehood involved cutting their foreskin with a sharpened flint at age twelve to fourteen. The pain must have been beyond imagining. And we must ask: why was this so often selected as the method of introducing a man to himself?
But now the story tells us the thieves do not easily relinquish the stolen treasure once it has been discovered. They return again and again trying to kill Ali Baba. Shame strives to keep me shamed. Twice they mark Ali Baba’s home…the signal that he is the one marked for murder. Morgiana intervenes by marking all the neighboring houses, and by causing the death of the would-be assassins. So Morgiana is most important in the story. She represents the vigilant, self-respecting, cherishing self love a man must feel for himself in order to prevent Shame’s reassertion in his life. Self-respect, self-tenderness, self-acceptance, self-listening, patience, courage, perseverance, daring…Morgiana stands for all this. And viewed in this manner, the opposition between Morgiana and the thieves becomes clear. The thieves who strive to “keep their treasure” (be perfect) actually do prevent a man from having his treasure. The servant who protects a man as he is (not perfect), a normal man living a normal life, actually enables a man to have his treasure! And the man is not alone…unique…a freak. There are crosses on the houses all around.
At a class in psychodrama, Bruce expresses his confusion about an exercise just completed. Most people in the class, including the leader, urge him to deal with his confusion by undertaking the next exercise. Bruce is reluctant. Something in the suggestion makes him uneasy. He muses aloud that perhaps his hesitation has something to do with the way he was always put down at home for what he felt. Both leader and class continue to urge him. However, one member of the class supports Bruce in whatever he wants to do. If Bruce does not want to do the exercise, then his reluctance in itself is the right starting point for him. He is fully entitled to respect his own authority. Bruce exclaims that such recognition makes him feel wonderful. He loves being able to trust and rely on his own feeling instead of being “pushed” by the class. But, the “helpful” class continues its urging. And the following week the class member who supported Bruce in doing what he himself thought best, is vigorously criticised in his turn. The thieves return.
So, Open Sesame leads to an attitude of acceptance toward the full authority of my own experience. My first reaction is not the usual one of correcting or mending myself. Even in moments of my worst, most painful feelings, I regard myself with kindness and dare to say Open Sesame to myself in the depths of my cave. I allow Morgiana to do her work. I slowly take a breath and allow myself to feel whatever I feel. I might even relax and look around a little. By doing so, I undo the attack on my authority perpetrated by the rejection (attack) or abandonment (neglect) that defeated me in the first place. It all begins with standing still in the cave. Nothing is more important for healing Shame than learning to accept whatever I feel right now
But the remaining thieves hide in jars in order to enter Ali baba’s house, and kill him. They represent all the great and little ways that Shame seeks to reimpose itself on my experience in all the events of daily life. So here too, the deadly paradox is at work. Apparent friends must be identified as the hidden feelings of Shame. A “Friend” with good advice, a therapist who condemns “pathological behavior,” supposedly positive affirmations, condemnation of “addictions,” self-help books full of advice about how to “think positively,” to think good thoughts, to create a happy future, friends who negate our experience by assuring us that parents or others “did the best they could,” books or leaders who urge us to forgive (and thereby deny our reality)…all these are thieves hidden in jars. And once again it is Morgiana, gentle self-love, self acceptance, soft tolerance, admission, radical truthfulness, that kills the killers.
Finally the Captain of Thieves himself poses as a cultured friend, and convinces Ali Baba to “invite” him into his home, to dine with him as a welcome guest. The Captain of Thieves may be seen as the most dangerous and most insidious killer. For, paradoxically, a man must even be careful not to jeopardize his own experience by “advising” or “pushing” himself to accept his Shame, to act kindly toward himself–crucial as that is to the process–if in fact he feels otherwise! A man must learn never to abandon his own truth by trying to “conform himself” to his own ideal, much less to anyone else’s, about what he should feel or do. Not even to what is being said in this article! It is never helpful to “drive away” what a man has experienced, really feels; (though, of course he needn’t act on it, however real it is). So much then for all too many self-help books, workshops, and unfortunately, a fair number of therapists! (It goes without saying that the professional who adopts a negative stance–especially in the form of “confrontation” or “good advice”–towards a client’s shamed behavior is merely avoiding and exporting some form of his or her own.) Any of this is the Captain of Thieves.
Finally, Ali Baba recognizes Morgiana”s service. She is no longer a servant. She is free…and she marries into Ali Baba’s family. Finally, gentle compassion and the man himself are wed, united.
So entering the cave of Shame, yields a second profound benefit. Directly uttering the words of his own Shame is also an acknowledgement of a man’s very existence. However bad he feels, knowing his own Shame contains a sense of a man’s own reality. Feeling his feelings a man may also feel himself present. I exist like a boulder, like a pebble, like a massive tree, like a twig, like a chunk of gold, like a common stone, like a mountain. No matter how persistently the thieves reappear, no matter how much “they” beat on me and tell me to stop existing, no matter how Shame has threatened me with death, nonetheless I am. I live. I am my own subject. As I say the words, as I walk into the cave, I exist at the center of my process. Acknowledging Shame thereby helps heal the feeling that I shouldn’t exist, don’t exist– the feeling that I am in a fog, am a fog—the feeling that I’m constantly threatened with annihilation or death—which is so often Chronic Shame’s ultimate message.
Recognizing the pain of Shame turns out to be “Morgiana” herself, an act of loving kindness for myself. Paradoxically, my negative experience itself, bad as it feels, becomes a tangible, positive assurance that I have survived every assault. I am affirmed by it. In a perfect reverse of how I was shamed, my bad feeling itself is proof that I exist, feel, act…even when it tells me I don’t exist and have no right to. Thus, whenever I feel empty, needy, DEPRESSED, angry, rageful, or suicidal, I may “look directly” and observe that “I” pre-exist. The feeling is in me; I hold it. No matter how bad or terrible it is, it is mine, in my body. “I” am here feeling it. I am here saying Open Sesame, I am here in the cave. I feel all this.
In a paragraph that needs to be read slowly, the process of ‘Open Sesame’ may be summarized in words that stand directly in the central paradox of healing Shame. In my young years, I was aggressively attacked, rejected, or passively abandoned, neglected, and thus made to feel inherently wrong, Shamed. Today, as a shamed man I continue to feel wrong, and act accordingly. However, I now perceive that my feelings during my young years corresponded to reality. I was perfectly right to feel wrong! (What??!!) However well intended, that was indeed my caregivers’ message. Hence, if I nowadays try to “correct or banish my bad feelings”, I simply continue to make myself wrong once again. I re-shame myself. I yield to the thieves. I entertain the Captain of Thieves. But, the very act of accepting my “wrong” feelings–painful as they are–as “right” is kindness to myself. With it I begin to heal my Shame. I begin to feel both my authority and the underlying sense of my own reality.
This renewed confidence may be expressed by realizing “I have never been wrong.” My adult feelings or reactions may now seem confused, despairing. And perhaps they tempt me to act in ways opposed to my real interests. However, at one time during my growing years, my feelings were an absolutely accurate response to what I was experiencing, and were entirely real, entirely justified.
Quietly, almost secretively, Mitchell reveals he has been feeling suicidal, as though he wants to do away with himself once and for all. He looks down as he speaks. He obviously expects to be contradicted and corrected for such a “shameful” feeling. But it is accepted without criticism. Instead, he is gently asked who exactly feels his dark feelings. He looks up with surprise. It is evident a new perception has just dawned on him. “I do,” he murmurs, nodding. “I do.” Asked to rub his thumb and forefinger together and to notice the act, he looks up again, startled. He sees himself perform this simple gesture over which he has power. “I’m here,” he whispers, “I’m here. I feel all these things.” And he finds the anchor in himself from which he can more confidently begin to trust, explore the cave, and sort out the real experiences of his life, past and present, including why he feels suicidal.
At a men’s weekend, Ben takes part in an exercise which places him before a mirror. The leader asks Ben what he sees in himself. He is clearly stymied. He stares but is obviously not allowed to see anything in himself. Finally, a leader whispers, “Who’s looking, Ben?” Ben turns, wide eyed, and begins to repeat ever more emphatically, “I am. I’m looking. I am. I am. ” As he speaks, he peers intently at himself in the mirror and the words come with great difficulty. As Ben repeats them, tears well up in his eyes. Allowing himself a kind and accepting feeling while he looks at himself, is obviously an unexpected miracle, perhaps never experienced before.
When a man admits his dark feelings of hurt and hopeless Shame, he clearly feels considerable pain. If he stays “under” his feeling, hearing only what it says–if, in a sense, the feeling binds and hampers him–he will of course feel overwhelmed and humiliated by it. He will continue to feel Shame’s destructive condemnations. But if he suddenly glimpses instead that he is the one present to his feelings–destructive and uncomfortable as they are–he may accept them as only one of the many realities present. Since it is a feeling he experiences, he is bigger than, and prior to, it. As its container and host, he is in charge. Painful as his feeling continues to be, accepting it actually becomes an act of kindness toward himself…perhaps the very first act of kindness or tenderness he has ever experienced! It may become the first of many. And, he administers it to himself . This is my experience, mine. And, no matter what it is, I respect and cherish myself because I am having it.
When the Captain of Thieves is dead, the false friends recognized and banished, Ali Baba can now safely return to the cave to explore and enjoy its treasures. Ali Baba enters the cave and repossesses the treasures necessary for living past Shame. But, we remember, the treasures are all originally his. The treasures are the jewels every man is born with. He and his family may therefore possess and benefit from all his personal treasures for many generations. So once past all Shame’s attempts to re-shame me, I may explore the treasures of the cave, my own riches, the treasures of myself. I may proceed to learning new things about how to live my own life. And here is located my own treasure which my present culture is tragically slow to recognize, when it is in fact not overtly hostile to it.
In a word, when I accept my feelings and whatever information they contain, they will inform me, perhaps for the first time, that my cave is full of treasure. Against my usual belief, Shame has not in fact annihilated my abilities and talents. I may feel empty, numb and entirely without feelings, but that is itself a feeling response to Shame. Gradually, I perceive my feelings of numbness, of desperation, of emptiness, of dire need for some magic person or thing from outside myself to “finally save” me, all my intense expressions of Shame are really expressions of my energy, of my real feeling, of my real treasures. And contrary to expectations, they continue to contain treasure, immense value. My shamed hankerings in and of themselves reveal that something of my own, something inside me, has always remained alive, has always been perfectly aware of what I need, and seeks it intensely…perhaps for quite a long time. There is treasure and light in the cave. And the final point of the Ali Baba story is that I am entitled to exploit my own treasure in order to live my life.
So, Shame merely buried and camouflaged my gifts while they were in danger, and brought danger to me. Though my gifts may feel gone, they are not gone, and cannot ever be gone or lost. I am not empty and lost. I have not been annihilated. My treasure has merely been “robbed,” by forty thieves and hidden even from me. Not a single one of my born qualities or abilities has disappeared permanently. Lo and behold, within Shame’s cave I still possess all my talents! My job as a shamed man is thus not at all to conform myself to some ideal perfection, or to a “cure” that someone else prescribes. I will not find myself by adhering to some solution, some magic pattern, defined by an authority outside myself. My sole task (difficult and dangerous as it indeed is) is to re-discover who and what I am, my authentic self. I am the treasure in my own cave. I am the answer to my own questions. I exist to become/be myself. All I have to do is “see through” my Shame to “learn” what my riches are…and then start enjoying the everyday use of what has remained so long buried, has seemed so long absent.
Thus exploring my emotional past opens the way to looking back through my experiences in order to understand the specifics of how I became shamed– how I came to feel what I now feel, and above all, what I was like, what I am like, really. How was my affection, my tenderness, my love, handled? Was I seen or supported as I needed to be? Was my intelligence recognized? Was I allowed to express my point of view? …my energy?…my anger? …my pleasure? …my sexuality? …my hopes and goals? …my love? Was I attacked and numbed to my talents? Was I neglected and shown nothing of how to use them? Was I subtly co-opted and disempowered? The precise ways, the precise places, I feel Shame will necessarily differ from any other man’s in precise correspondence to the unique ways I was attacked or neglected growing up. But, examining the jewels, exploring Shame, will always yield an understanding of how exactly right my reading of the emotional situation was during my young years, and why I feel and act (or react) as I do now. At one time, my rage was justified. …my hatred, right on the money. …my silence, a life saver.
From his initial foray into the cave, Ali Baba returns with a few sacks of gold and the intention to return for more. The degree of doubt about himself Shame imposes on each man varies according to the intensity and frequency of the attacks that inflicted it. Not every man will need the same degree of reassurance. So whatever degree of self-doubt and recrimination my Shame inflicts on my “defective” self, my initial foray into the cave yields whatever first quantity of gold I can give myself.
Assuming a benign attitude towards whatever I feel, assured of my own being, and certain again of my own treasures, I am increasingly allowed to experience what truly heals Shame. Contrary to the message implicit in every act that shamed me, I may now own, trust, and rely on all my own feelings, my own reactions, my own needs…whatever they are, however “evil” or “selfish” they may seem…at least for starters. From now on, I act as my own guide.
If Chronic Shame is a “two-level” experience, Open Sesame and Ali Baba’s cave of treasure imply that it can be healed on two levels. I am unshamed on the first level because the implied act of felt kindness towards myself gradually undoes the unkind acts of rejection or abandonment that initially greeted my individual needs, wants, abilities, and hopes.
I am unshamed on the second level by similar kindness toward myself in recognizing my fundamental authority and the goodness of my being, thereby undoing Chronic Shame’s unkind condemnation of my whole person. In other words, I simultaneously heal my Shame about such individual issues as money, sex, or achievement, and my underlying sense of Chronic Shame about almost everything. Above all, if at last I greet it with kindness, it is my Shame itself that teaches me to affirm myself in this way.
In the process of healing Shame, it is however crucial to remember the enmity of the forty thieves and how many times they try to kill Ali Baba. The forty thieves tell us it is entirely counterproductive (that is, re-shaming) for me to assume a stance of hostility toward myself that replicates and re-inflicts my childhood experiences–to once again make myself “wrong.” Such attacks may assume unlikely disguises. Good advice or “affirmations” are the subtlest forms of this kind of attack. “I ought to stop” these horrible feelings. “I should” have much better ones. It is counterproductive to scold myself, criticize myself, lecture myself, belabor myself with “healing” resolutions, to hurry myself, or to shame my darkness with the “light.”
Just before his thirtieth birthday, Kevin is attending his first men’s retreat. He tells his small group he has adhered to New Age beliefs since his early teens. Right now, he has never felt worse or more confused. He feels depressed, hopeless. He confesses he is attending the retreat hoping to begin discovering whatever is really inside him. He wants his real feelings to provide him with guidance he can genuinely follow. “Every time I adopted another resolution about the light,” he says, “it left me feeling further away from myself, and even more confused. It was just another way for me to abandon myself. From now on, I want to be faithful to myself…whatever that might mean.” He looks contented as the men around him nod in understanding.
And it is entirely counterproductive for me to allow anyone else to assume that stance. Any such “helpful advice” merely means what I am really doing is fundamentally imperfect. And of course, I “should” do something different from what I’m doing or feeling. Once again, I shame and reject my own real energy.
Ali Baba’s brother, Hassim, illustrates this point to perfection. Ali Baba has been kind to himself, has taken care of himself, by entering the cave and returning with gold. No longer “deprived” or poor, Ali Baba has something to share. He can therefore extend his kindness to Hassim by his willingness to share the treasure. He indicates both the location of the cave and the secret password. But, Hassim is greedy and in a hurry. Still “poor” (shamed), he intends to hoard the treasure for himself. He rushes to the cave before Ali Baba. Feverish as he is to gather treasure, he forgets the self-kindness of Open Sesame ‘as if he had never heard it,’ and is therefore trapped in Shame’s cave. Discovered by the forty thieves, Hassim attacks them and by them is killed. He therefore symbolizes almost perfectly how I might sabotage healing my Shame, if I scold myself, or am scolded, however “helpfully.” If I hurry the process…if I “grab” at the treasure in a renewed process of shaming,…above all, if I “attack” myself (my Shame) in my effort to heal the problem, like Hassim I will forget Open Sesame’s fundamental self kindness. I will once again end up dead in the cave of my Shame. And of course, there will be no kindness to share with anyone else.
Paradoxically, when I say Open Sesame to the dark cave of my Shame, it opens the treasure of fundamental kindness toward myself. There are as many ways to feel such kindness as there are individual men. I may feel it as mercy, love, softness, self acceptance, self esteem, peace, quietness, strength, confidence, divine grace, joy, Buddha’s smile, or whatever. Whatever words are used to describe it, the important point is my bodily feeling of allowance, of reception, of gentle opening without fearfully tensing up, whenever I am aware of some inner reality…no matter how bright, no matter how dark or negative. I exist. I’m a good thing. And–however slowly I learn it–whatever I feel is just fine (though I may need a bit more work here or there).
All that remains to complete this process is to realize what Ali baba could see and brother Hassim could not. Hassim could only imagine his treasures were for him alone. So he completely disregarded his own brother in his grab for what was in the cave. Ali Baba was not greedy and could realize that others also desire to feel and enjoy their own treasure. So he could respect his brother and share his wealth with him. To know one’s own gifts is not to act like a solipsistic monster. It is to realize that everyone wishes to enjoy and share his gifts just as I do.
This view of healing Shame may also be understood from the perspective of the past. It’s certain my Shame began because my adult caregivers somehow rejected or abandoned my early need for the support of my personal qualities. I still yearn for that need to be met. But, shamed for it once, it now feels wrong (i.e. selfish, egotistical) or hopeless for me to take action that would do so. So today, in my adult-sized body, I remain in the pattern that was truly appropriate for childhood. I go through life passively aching for someone or something “big” outside of me to take care of me. Once past childhood however, outside saviors cannot work. Even if anyone does grant me what I achingly yearn for, I feel unworthy and unable (i.e. too ashamed) to receive it. I cannot take in what I deeply believe I’m not allowed to have. Besides, I must remain loyal to my caregivers in the hope they will finally love me for continuing to behave as they desired…this even when they are long dead. So, “nothing seems to work” for me. Constantly yearning, I go through life hopeless and unchanged.
As an adult man, the only way out of the emotional dilemma is to take charge of both sides of the process–provider and provided for. That is, with firm yet gentle kindness, I gradually realize I am the one who has real power (provider) to care for my needs, qualities, and hopes (provided for). Providing for myself I learn to consistently align with and support my own power. I learn to discern my own needs. I learn to take care of them. As an advisor for others, all I need do is encourage the same attitude in them. As a writer, therapist, workshop leader, or helper of any kind, I must invariably align with them so they re-learn their own power. Advice, criticism or any other stance which–however implicitly–attacks them for being “wrong,” re-inflicts Shame by once again undermining that power.
Ali Baba’s entry into the cave therefore symbolizes the psychological attitude absolutely required for any genuine healing of Shame…my own or someone else’s. I more and more act as my own father, my own guide, my own friend, my own adult, gradually affirming my authority, power, and right to know my own treasures. Thereby I re-establish within myself the bond of trust and love that was broken in childhood.
With that loving authority, I am more and more honest about myself, may more and more trust and nurture my feelings. I slowly but surely gather them to assess what treasures they contain. No matter what they look like, I may explore them as treasures, to mine the riches they yield for my own life and that of others. In other words, no matter how Shame presently locks up my genuine energy into self-defeating patterns, I accept those patterns in order to release and reclaim my energy for my productive use. By intimately revealing my own true energies to myself, I allow them to flow into the world once more…for only I can do the job.
The story tells us that ultimately, I need to marry Morgiana to myself. She blocks every effort made by all of Forty Thieves. She recognizes the Captain of Thieves when Ali Baba doesn’t. Significantly, because he will eat no salt with his host, she recognizes Shame’s unrelenting desire to keep us a stranger to ourselves. She honors Ali Baba’s guest with her dance…just as each of us must. But while dancing, she points her sharp dagger at herself, then at Ali Baba and his son, finally at the Captain–whom she stabs to death.
Here is the pattern of kindness that heals Shame: attention first to myself, then to those I love, finally to my real enemies. As always when dealing with Shame, these are “dark” deeds. But Ali Baba’s horror of them turns to joy when he realizes Morgiana has finally killed his hidden enemy. Each step in healing my Shame will horrify me. But, in the end, my hidden enemy will truly be dead.
After Morgiana succeeds in killing the Captain, Ali Baba waits until he feels sure no more thieves will attack him. Then he returns to the cave for all his treasure. The treasures found in Shame’s cave are quite real. This is gold I may spend in the practical pursuits of my everyday life. It may require multiple visits for me to bring the gold and jewels home. But in time, the Shame does turn to gold.
The story tells us the process of healing is no longer a story in a book, but really produces changes in how I live. This happens when, with Morgiana’s persistence, I carefully pick up and scrutinize the gold present in every one of my previously shamed feelings…and smelt it into treasure for daily life. I abandon no feeling by “letting go of it” or “leaving it behind.” Instead, as I am able, I gather each feeling, each reaction–no matter how dark–with kindness, and scrutinize it care-fully in order to see what instruction it holds for me. Relying on them, I increasingly learn to guide my own life because I may specifically ask each jewel to show me precisely what it wants.
What does this feeling of mine really want? When I ask that question, I come full circle in the path of healing Shame. That is because my feelings contain my reactions to all the specific qualities and abilities that were shamed during my young years…as we have seen in the first part of this article. By care-fully examining each feeling for what it wants, I can recover all those specific assets. And little by little, I can bring them to full expression in my adult life. My feeling become my guide! The treasure is mine to share.
As he has done before, Philip explodes angrily when another man in his men’s group makes a clear request for something he wishes the group to do. A good man with good manners, Philip is embarrassed by (i.e. ashamed of) his reaction. Though he clearly wishes he could, he cannot deny it–It is in fact what he feels. Without attacking Philip’s anger, another man in the group gently asks him what he is feeling. After a time, Philip blurts out that he is jealous and angry. He’s jealous because he hardly ever knows what he wants, hardly knows that he can want. Philip is angry with himself for not knowing. But he expresses it by anger against the man who seems to know what he wants so clearly.
After a few moments, Philip is gently asked whether he knows what his jealous feeling wants? Now he is close to tears. He says he can hardly believe he hasn’t been criticized and attacked for his anger. He takes a long moment, during which he clearly struggles to stay with his feelings. After a time, with a tone of revelation, he says his anger and jealousy make it plain he really wants to sort out and be clear about his own needs–to know what he wants. His feeling wants him to realize his own right to want things for himself. And it wants him to become clear about what he specifically wants.
Philip would not have been able to see these treasures if he hadn’t accepted his own jealous and angry reaction against the first speaker, “ugly” as that was. He also sees that his attack on the other man does not at all gain for him what he really does want. But the clarity his own feelings have given him, provides him with some knowledge about how he might more effectively gain his ends.
With great difficulty, Andy shares his terror of homosexuality. A man with a long-term girl friend, he has never acted on his feelings. He has always wondered why any such thoughts would occur to him. Ashamed of his own thoughts, he’s astounded the man he’s talking to hasn’t simply run away and left him. After some quiet assurance he would not be rejected for his thoughts, Andy wonders what they might mean for him. In a while, he says, “You know, it all feels like I need a man. ” A light dawns in his eyes. His silent, distant father neglected him for long hours of work in his business. As a boy, Andy had no attention from his father or any older men. He had no models, no attention, no support from a man who might have recognized who he was. He smiles sadly as he makes the connection. It’s clear he’s “looking through” his frightening thoughts. “I did need a man!” he exclaims, “and I still do! Not sexually, no, but emotionally, from the heart, intimately. I need to know a man so I can know my own heart, know what a man’s like on the inside, recognize myself in what I see. Hey, I can do that!”
No matter how “tarnished” it may be, each of my feelings is a gold piece that contains a precious message. I have only to learn that it is OK whatever it is, and that it contains treasure whatever it is. By asking what it wants, I may see that I am seeking some “right thing” in a self-defeating way. But I also get to see what I want. And now, I am able to seek it in a manner that attains it successfully.
Brad is often furious with one or another of his friends. He finds himself angrily stalking away from offense after offense. He wants his friends to “talk profoundly” with him. But they always seem to dodge, putting him off. His resulting anger often leaves him feeling isolated, friendless, and lonely. Exasperated after repeated bouts with such anger, he expresses frustration with his own conduct. He is gently asked what his anger wants. He slowly admits he is lonely, wants to share the affection and friendship he never felt as a child. Does his anger tell him that? It does if he really listens to it. Does his anger get him that? Obviously not. So, his anger has clarified what he wants, and now he may learn more effective ways to attain it.
The experience of healing Shame will often be painful, unpleasant. If I have embarked on the road of self-discovery with the hope of feeling better than I do, or with the need to “cure” my ills, this is difficult to understand–never mind accept. Yet if the necessary first stage of healing Shame is realizing and accepting it, then I inevitably confront what I felt when I was originally shamed. And that is never anything but painful in the extreme. But, this is the sole (“Open”) door into myself, and no wonder Hassim wants to hurry past the process. Morgiana however, is wise and slow. She dances with Shame until her dagger puts an end to it.
Once Ali Baba has brought home the gold from his cave, he shares the wealth with his son and daughter-in-law, and they and their descendants are rich to the end of their days. Here we arrive at our final observation. Thus far, we have spoken of healing Shame almost entirely as an individual, internal process. This was necessary because whatever the source–personal, social, or environmental–of my Shame, I will invariably need to heal it personally, within myself. But, Ali Baba and Hassim show us once more that healing Shame cannot be understood as a purely self-regarding internal process, a kind of narcissistic navel gazing.
As I reclaim all my feelings and accept their guidance toward what I genuinely need–as I reconnect with myself–I discover my very real need for love and contact with others in my life. I also discover my need for connection with society, other people in a more general way, and with the world. Thus, I always heal my Shame by myself, but I never heal it absolutely alone. Yet, heal it I truly may. My authentic self is not an isolate. My rediscovered, healthy, and genuine self-ishness will find that it is truly connected with men, women, children, the earth itself, and will see them as connected to me. I care about others not from a sense of external obligation, a moralistic “should,” or any belief system detached from my real experience. I care for others as a felt expression of care for my own being. Once again kind to myself, I may be kind to others. This is the vast, “social” importance of Men healing their Shame. As we do, our emotional wealth will flow down through generations to the end of days.
John Guarnaschelli Ph.D. is a licensed therapist in private practice in New York City. In training he would say: when I receive my license it is going to seem WalMart has moved into the area. He would be happy to discuss this article with anyone genuinely interested. He may be contacted at 212 265 0584 or via firstname.lastname@example.org.
At this point however, Ali Baba’s greedy brother, Hassim, teaches a crucial lesson. Once I have realized my treasure has been shamed, it is very tempting to rush forward “to grab the treasure,” to keep it all. And Hassim indicates what necessarily happens when men strive to grasp “a cure” by depending on authority outside our self. He symbolizes Shame’s subtle and fundamental grip on us as we “strive” to “cure Shame” by surrendering to others. We resort to leaders, “experts,” gurus who know best what we must do. We depend on books (such as The Secret). We attend workshops and week-ends where the unstated message is “we know best what you need, far better than you possibly could.” And if you have any questions or problem with what we suggest, “you have a serious problem.” We consult “self-help” experts (their names should be obvious, but, beware, you might be treating this article as such!). In short, like Hassim, we forget our Open Sesame and remain frozen in the cave of Shame where the forty thieves will find us, where we will end up as dead as ever Shame obliged us to be. All our “effort,” all our noble intentions will fail us, and ultimately feel like “New Year Resolutions.”
Quite normally, like Hassim, a shamed man will “forget the word” that has allowed him to enter the cave. He condemns his “bad feelings.” He urges himself to “let go of them.” He may spend years trying to forget them, “get beyond them,” as though what caused them in the first place never happened. Basically, he wishes to hoard the treasure by “getting rid” of such feelings. Sometimes, he desperately desires to convert them into “good feelings.” Sometimes, he energetically strives to be “cured.” For this reason, like Hassim he feverishly grasps the treasure, he may study any number of “authorities” striving to replace feelings he judges “bad” with feelings he judges “good.” He may succumb to forceful advice, such as the indispensable need to “exercise forgiveness,” or the indispensable need to “agree that they did the best they could.” He may devour any number of ever-so-helpful “self-help” books. In whatever fashion this is done, Hassim teaches us that behaving in this way is quite literally counterproductive. By condemning his Shame, a man reaffirms it. He shames himself for being shamed. Shame actually grows because underneath it all the man once again feels he is “fundamentally wrong.” Anything he knows, anything he feels, is “wrong.” Underneath all the effort, he reaffirms his impotence. He forgets the word that will enable him to exit the cave. The thieves will catch him there. He never lives to enjoy his own treasure, his own truth, the expression of his own life.