The Air We Breathe: Facing Our Shame

According to a Hindu proverb, there are three great mysteries in life: air to a bird, water to a fish and a person to themself.

Last week I was stunned to discover that the air I’ve breathed my entire life, and the emotion that has strained all my social interactions, was shame.


As is often the case with the most profound changes, it started out with a small observation. Returning to New York after a three-month trip around the world, I was eager to make friends in my new city, so I went to a social event for Europeans. I went alone to the soiree organized by EuroCircle New York at a swanky bar in Midtown Manhattan. As I expected, it was a good place to meet new folks, as all you need to jump start a conversation is to ask “Are you with the EuroCircle group?”

As I mingled, striking up conversations with total strangers, an outside observer would probably think I was socially adept. Over three years of living a mobile lifestyle I’ve regularly had to force myself to get out into new social situations and push myself to make new friends. I’ve become quite good at it.

But in every interaction I felt a hidden stress. As the night wore on, my right shoulder gradually tightened to the point of being painful. Events like that always exhaust me. When I couldn’t muster up enthusiasm for talking to yet another new person, I left – happy to have made some new connections but drained from the process.

As I would like new social interactions to be easier for me, I decided to explore that tightening in my right shoulder once I got home.


The Transform Your Fears guided meditation from the Self-Confidence Made Easier and Easier course is designed to work with fears, contractions or tightenings like the one is my shoulder so I followed that meditation.

As the meditation prompted me to explore what underlay the tightening in my right shoulder, I realized that it was a fear of judgment by my mother. If I was ‘rude’ in social situations in our proper English family, she would scold me immediately and in public. “Mark, don’t interrupt!” Although her scolding was only verbal, as a little kid the intensity was scary and unconsciously I tightened my shoulder to protect myself from the emotional – if not physical – blow. My fear of being scolded by my mother for being rude had gotten trapped in my body.

So, as an adult the tightening in my shoulder in stressful social situations was an unconscious protection against my mother’s wrath for being rude. Although my mother passed away years ago, my unconscious was still working to protect me from her judgment. For most of my life I had been holding my shoulder tight – locked in defense – in stressful social situations.

The duodenum and pancreas are home to shame in the belly.

The duodenum and pancreas are home to shame in the belly.

As the Transform Your Fears guided meditation took me deeper, discovering the underlying source of the protection, unexpected sensations burst into my awareness. There was a sickly feeling in my duodenum – the home of shame in the body.

My eyes popped open with surprise. Shame!

I have worked with many clients whose lives were shaped by shame, but I’ve always considered shame to be one of the least important factors in my emotional makeup.

Yet there it was: shame front and center in my awareness. My mother’s judgments had made me ashamed of myself in social situations. For my entire life I had been battling that shame when meeting people, even though I had not been aware of it until this very moment.

By my mother’s command, in my unconscious the very worst sin was to interrupt a conversation or be intrusive. Her repeated snap of, “Mark, don’t interrupt!” was enough to condition me into a fear response. Interrupting was the epitome of rudeness and to be avoided at any cost.

Suddenly I understood why I find it relatively easy to meet people in ‘warm’ Latin and Southeast Asian cultures where people greet strangers with a smile and a welcoming “hello” but almost impossible to meet new people in ‘colder’ cultures like Northern Europe and China where people avoid eye contact with strangers. If there’s an invitation to converse, them I’m OK. If there’s no invitation, my mother’s rule prohibits me from initiating an interaction.

With these new realizations and feelings swirling around in my head and body, I tried going back to the Transform Your Fears guided meditation, but it just wouldn’t work. The sense of shame in my belly got stronger and stronger, and I couldn’t follow the suggestions in the guided meditation.

Shame, shame, shame! I’m here in your belly. Deal with me!

I turned off the guided meditation and instead turned on my audio recorder, preparing to guide myself through a process of exploring and transforming my shame.

As I explored, my shame metamorphosed into self-acceptance and I updated my unconscious beliefs to ones that match my adult values and conscious beliefs. It is OK to strike up a conversation with a stranger, even if they don’t invite it. It’s OK to interact with people as an expression of myself. I don’t have to constantly monitor myself, but can just be myself.

People will like me or not, and that’s OK.

As my old rules of not being rude dropped away, I felt a sense of relief. The queasy feelings in my belly disappeared as my heart and chest expanded. My breathing became deep and relaxed.

Being in new social situations is going to be so much easier in the future.

After the exploration, I flopped down on my bed and fell into a deep sleep, my mind and emotions still swimming with the revelations and changes that had just occurred.

The Real World

The next morning I woke up feeling refreshed and excited to go out into the world to meet new people.

There was just one problem.

Although I didn’t feel any inhibition to meeting new folks, I couldn’t imagine how I would act. What would I say? What would I actually do to initiate a conversation without an invitation?

After a lifetime of holding myself back, interacting with freedom was literally inconceivable.

I turned to the Generate New Behaviors guided meditation in the Self-Confidence Made Easier and Easier course. This guided meditation is designed for situations like this – where we’ve made deep changes at an unconscious level, but we still need to translate those changes into tangible behaviors in the real world.

I took an afternoon nap as I played the recording as it is designed to be used: on continuous loop. I ‘slept’ for two hours as the guided meditation gently encouraged my subconscious to generate new outward social behaviors that would match my updated inner reality.

After such deep changes I was tired and ironically felt introspective and unsociable for most of the week. I followed the guided meditation several times through the week as I napped or fell asleep, but didn’t feel like going out or being social.

By Saturday my integration process was complete and I was ready to go back out into the world.

New Reality

A field trip from my apartment in Spanish Harlem to SoHo to buy business shirts would usually be unremarkable, but not today.

Instead of closing myself off from the aggression I often perceive in Spanish Harlem, I smiled at people as I walked the three blocks to the subway station. Many ignored me and some smiled back. To my surprise, I had a short conversation with someone at an intersection as we waited for the crosswalk signal. Delightful!

On the train I found myself in talking with an Italian archivist about her work in moving an art collection from one boutique museum to a smaller venue. Moments later I met two fellow Brits, one from my hometown, who had just moved to New York. We chatted about our impressions of the city and America and I gave them suggestions for cheap activities in the City. In SoHo I surprised a group of Japanese tourists who were struggling with a map by greeting them and asking where they wanted to go in their native language. After giggles, smiles, bowing and receiving the directions they needed, they scurried away, their day a little brighter. In a coffee shop I had a conversation with an African American couple about the virtues of H&M for affordable clothing and how well they treat their staff. On the subway home I got into conversation with another Japanese group – this time students at a New York drama college. We had a fascinating dialogue about the virtues and restrictions of Japanese culture, and about how after experiencing freedom of expression in an American drama school it would be hard to go back to the constraints of rigid and hierarchical Japanese culture.

A week earlier New York was full of pushy, unfriendly people. Close ethnic and social cliques had fun with each other while offering me no opportunity to participate. I felt like an outsider most places I went. Everywhere I went I saw interesting groups of people I wanted to play with, but couldn’t. The contrast between the vibrancy and diversity of the city and my experience of exclusion made my isolation all them more painful.

Now on this sunny Saturday, the city was filled with warm and inviting people who where delighted to strike up a conversation.

In the course of a week, New York had magically transformed into a totally different city.

All I had to do was have the courage to say “Hello” loudly enough for someone with their headphones on in the subway to hear me. To my amazement, the common response to that ‘rude’ interruption is to pull out the headphones and reply with “Sorry, what did you say?” and then happily launch into an engaging conversation.

There are a lot of fascinating people in New York and I’m going to have fun meeting more of them.

Transform Your Shame

The article Shame – The Silent Killer explains more about how shame can get trapped in the body and impact your life.

If you’re ready to leap in and transform your shame, the guided meditation Transform Shame Into Self-Expression will help you do exactly that.

What Is The Air You Breathe?

But what if you don’t know the air you breathe? What if there is something inhibiting your success and satisfaction that you’re completely unaware of?

How can we discover what is most hidden from ourselves; what the Hindu tradition says is one of the three great mysteries of life? This is important because it’s only once we recognize what is hidden that we can transform it.

Big events focused on a particular topic have their place, but they also have their limitations. If a workshop is not relevant to what is going on in your life right now, then you might miss an enormous growth opportunity.

As I’ve developed the free guided meditations on this site, and have been using them myself, I’ve found the most effective way to uncover ‘the air that we breathe’, the most hidden and important keys to our personal development, is to take any issue that emerges – large or seemingly-insignificant – and explore it as soon as you become aware of it.

I’ve used the Transform Your Fears guided meditation a bunch of times on issues that seemed small at the time, but turned out to be huge in impact. I’ve heard from several readers who have been doing the same and experienced similarly remarkable results. With just a small amount of time each week, I’ve experienced some of the most remarkable transformations of my life over the last few months.

If you’d like to discover and transform the hidden influences that drive your life, I recommend using the Transform Your Fears guided meditation whenever you feel an emotion surface that has a component of fear or contraction, and the Mind-Body guided meditation if you feel an emotion that is not fear based.

The sooner you do the guided meditation after experiencing the contraction or emotion, the more impact it will have.

You’ll be amazed by how exploring even a seemingly-small issue can have a huge positive impact. Your discoveries will be different from mine and other readers. They’ll be distinctly yours and relevant to what is most important to you.

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