Updated: Jun 17, 2019
A lot of what I’m going to describe here probably seems like a bunch of big no-brainers to the ordinary reader.
But you have to understand that for me, these revelations were enormous. Earth-shattering. I had lived a lifetime completely oblivious to my inner wiring. I thought psychology was for the weak, for those who lack inner strength, or for those looking for an easy way out, as opposed to toughening up and charging at life head on. Psychology was a parental note, allowing the weakling in gym class to get out of playing the hard sports.
It probably won’t surprise you then to learn that, by far, the most unlikely, and difficult milestone, was when my eyes opened and I realized for the first time that some of my fundamental thinking – my foundation perceptions – were distorted.
I don’t think people generally understand what a huge deal this was. A core belief, or fundamental perception, is something you became certain of in your early childhood, from consistent, direct experience. You then use this, forever afterwards, to inform your approach to life. Gravity pushes you down. Sugar is sweet. Fire will burn you. Things we long ago stopped questioning and filed away as permanently settled.
(The two distorted core beliefs I will single out in this article are not the two fundamental beliefs which form the entirety of Borderline Personality Disorder. I speak of those at length in other articles.)
It’s not enough to tell somebody if they jump off the roof of their house, that they’ll drift slowly and peacefully to the ground like a feather. They’re not going to believe you, no matter how convincing you are. It goes against what they instinctively know from direct, consistent experience. Yet, this is precisely the type of hurdle I had to overcome to start questioning my fundamental understanding of the world.
Think of anything you have plenty of experience with, and that you feel comfortable with. For example, a sunrise. Now imagine the forces, the power of reason, that would be required to make you genuinely question if your perception of sunrises has been wrong all along.
I resisted. Boy, did I resist. It took the right person a lot of patience to get through to me. I’ll never forget the moment my first breakthrough happened. It was while I was talking to a psychologist in Scottsdale, Arizona. We were already into our second week.
The breakthrough moment happened when this psychologist sort of off-handedly said, “Feelings are neither good or bad, right or wrong, they just are. Just as it is neither good or bad, right or wrong that grass is green. Grass just is green. There’s nothing good or bad about it. It just is.”
Somebody had probably said something to this effect to me before, and I don’t know if I was simply worn down this time, or if my mind was in the right place. But the way he said it, at the precise moment he said it, miraculously broke through and impacted me hard. It was like a piece of wall crumbling and a ray of sunshine streaming through.
In that moment, I realized something for the first time in my life: That for as long as I could remember, I had been judging my feelings as good or bad, right or wrong. I don’t mean I felt bad for memories and thoughts, but rather, I often felt bad for things I felt. As if by feeling certain feelings, that this in itself was committing some terrible, secret wrong.
This one thing – and the greater implications of it – were staggering. I sat there, my mouth agape, staring off into nothing, seeing it all for the first time. This aspect of myself - which certainly had tremendous power in defining who I am and how I operated in the world - had been completely hidden to me just a mere second before. If it were a snake, it would have bitten me. Something about myself had been preventing me from seeing what was right under my nose. My mind reeled.
Feelings aren’t good or bad, right or wrong.
Feeling isn’t something we do, it is an experience we have.
If feeling isn’t something we do, but an experience we have, then feeling things – no matter what those feelings are – cannot possibly fit into a category of good or bad, right or wrong.
Many things can be used to classify me as a good person, or a bad person, but my feelings are never a factor in what determines this, no matter what those feelings are, at any time.
It was like a waterfall came crashing over me.
It doesn’t help that in English, when we talk about feeling, we use it as a verb: He feels, I felt, she will feel...
Nevertheless, feeling is not an action human-beings carry out, such as, for example, saying I bought, or he drove, or she screamed. For every action a person carries out, no matter what that action is, the individual behind that action is inherently responsible for it.
I had lived my entire life with the distorted perception that my feelings fit into the category of an action that I was responsible for, and that I, and the feeling itself, could therefore be judged for. With a single bolt of lightning, my eyes were opened to this ridiculous, yet unbelievably-powerful mistake in my perception of things, as well as to all of the broader implications of it.
I was still digesting this new revelation about feelings two days later. I was full of excitement and eager to interrogate this man more who had the insight to detect where my distortions lay, and to focus me upon them. I realized at this point that he was my ticket to learning some practical, life-changing things.
I didn’t have to wait long for more revelations to work with. It was in our very next session when he hit me with my next huge epiphany by bringing up, and then explaining, the differences between guilt and shame.
Like most people, until that afternoon, I had used the two terms more or less interchangeably. I had never stopped to really consider what the subtle differences were, and frankly, I didn’t see how any nuance could really matter all that much in my life. Oh, how wrong I was.
Again, he had the insight to detect that this was an area where I had a distorted perspective, and then direct my mind upon it.
What I learned that day was the second profound insight which has helped me achieve, and maintain, an emotionally-healthy life perspective ever since:
Guilt says I did something shitty. Shame says I am a piece of shit.
Guilt is always healthy. It is always constructive.
Shame is never healthy. It is never constructive.
Guilt says what I did was wrong, and this motivates me to do better next time.
Shame says I myself am what is wrong, which is why I am able to act that way. I am inherently defective. Why even try? No matter what I do, it won’t change the fact that I am a piece of shit. A piece of shit that does good deeds is still a piece of shit.
‘Inherently’ is an important part of this.
Think of a turd: No matter you do, it will always be a turd. You can put it in an ice-cream bowl, top it off with whipped cream, stick a spoon in it, and it is still poop. It will always be poop. Nothing can change this, because nothing can change what something simply is.
As in the case of many people, I had lived my entire life getting notions of guilt and shame mixed up. I thought I had been going about life lugging the heavy weight of guilt around inside of me, when in reality I was burdened by shame, and it was destroying me.
To make matters worse, the reason I felt this shame (which I had always mistaken for guilt), was because I was cruelly, judgmentally critical of myself for my feelings – which were never good or bad, right or wrong, to begin with!
All of this had been going on inside of me for thirty-five years, informing and manipulating my approach to life, until right at the moment he said these things. Then, I internally, deliberately, took a look at myself in a genuine way, and I realized that the principles he was explaining were, not only fundamental to a healthy approach to life, but that I had only ever operated with an unhealthy understanding of them. The truth of it all gushed out at me. What had been completely shrouded from me up to just moments before, was now suddenly, overwhelmingly, obvious.
These two epiphanies in combination were like taking the Matrix red pill. One alone would have given me years of positive, healthy readjustments to make. But the two of them together? In combination? The way they interact and play off of each other cannot be fully examined and explained here in a single article. I spent nearly ten years ruminating over all of the ways they harmonized to negatively affect my life, my behaviors, my view of myself, my view of others, and on and on. In all areas, these things were connected in some way; had powerfully informed and negatively influenced my life.
Of course, this breakthrough allowed me to ask why. Why did I end up with an erroneous understanding of these things to begin with? In turn, this allowed me to trace their origin back to the two unhealthy foundation perceptions of Borderline Personality Disorder (mentioned earlier), and once I had done that, I was then able to ask why again, and trace their origins to my parents' subtly unhealthy attitudes when I was a child. A snowball of progress, beginning with just two small, but incredibly-important epiphanies in my understanding.
The revelations I had on those two separate days, years ago, continue to serve me powerfully for genuine, positive emotional health. As you can imagine, I no longer discredit the importance of nuance. Nuance matters. A single, subtle adjustment in understanding, on something seemingly insignificant, can very literally be the wrecking ball that blasts through the wall separating you from real progress. It can be a defining moment for when you begin to change your entire life in an authentic way.
There are still plenty of those in the psychology field who want to debate the concept of shame, and argue over what exactly it is. They do this, not out of interest in providing you with accurate, practical answers. Rather, they do this as a way to stroke their own intellect. But there is no ambiguity about what shame is or isn’t, except for the ambiguity they themselves create. Leave these people to their stroking, and don’t allow them to pull you into it with them.
The experience I have related here was just the beginning. The Big Breakthrough, if you will. It eventually led me to many more milestones and epiphanies.
It may be too much to hope the same major breakthroughs for you reading this, given that we’re all individuals at different receptive stages and desperation. But if it has a positive effect on just one person who is where I once was, then it’s worth sharing my experience in intimate details with a universe of strangers.
Let me tell you something about a sunrise. There's a reason I chose to speak about it earlier.
Did you know that you have never seen a sunrise or a sunset as it is actually happening? The light from the sun takes approximately eight minutes to reach us here on planet earth.
Think about that for a minute.
What this means is that when you are sitting on a beach, early in the morning, looking out at the horizon, and suddenly you see the slightest sliver of the sun peak up over the horizon in the distance, that actually happened eight minutes ago. You’re observing what happened eight minutes ago, in your past.
Something to think about.