Discovering True Worth – Humility’s Role In Overcoming Shame and Pride – Practicing These Principles by Ray A.

Feeling that we are different, that we don’t belong or fit in, is a staple of the alcoholic story. However, few openly connect the feeling with shame. Bill W does. In Pass It On and Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, we read about two circumstances that fostered the emotion in him growing up. The first was his parents’ divorcing and leaving him to be raised by grandparents. This immediately set him apart from other kids, who naturally lived at home with their parents as was the norm in small-town, early 20th century Vermont, where divorce was a rarity. The second circumstance was his physical awkwardness. This worsened as he grew into a tall and gangly adolescent and his clumsiness became a constant source of embarrassment.

Seeking relief from the sense of being less worthy than others, he set out to prove that he was as good if not better than them. Having been told by his grandfather that no American had ever built a boomerang, he resolved he would be the first to do so. His schoolmates having mocked him when he missed a ball and it landed on his head, he would undertake to become captain of the baseball team. His grandfather having compared him unfavorably with a musically talented uncle, he would become first violin in the school orchestra. And so it went. Bill would become driven, and shame would provide much of the fuel. That was the source of his eventual desire to become a “Number One man.”

Bill’s need to prove himself points to a seldom recognized and little understood connection. This is shame’s relation to pride. Shame and pride are both concerned with worth. In shame we experience a low, and in pride a high, sense of our worth. As emotions, the two constitute contrasting self-construals. To the extent that Bill saw his athletic or musical abilities as reflecting on his worth as a person, to that extent he would experience shame when he fell short. By the same token, he would experience pride when he could measure up and shine.

Thus pride became his antidote to shame. In time, however, pride would become just another poison. As we saw he intimated in his Grapevine article on emotional sobriety, he would crave for “prestige” and “security” to the point of obsession. He could never be just a friend among friends or another worker among workers, as he wrote (no doubt autobiographically) in Step 4 of the 12& 12 (p. 53). He had to struggle all the way “to the top of the heap,” lest, as he apparently feared, he should be consigned to “hide” under it. When the struggle ended in defeat, depression would set in. This continued well into sobriety, when, as he confesses in As Bill Sees It (p. 231), he was so ashamed of what had become a chronic condition that he didn’t want anybody to know about it. Pride would make him hide it.

Bill’s experience shows that, as a solution to shame, pride is a double-edged sword. It would motivate him to better himself, but no matter what he did, he could never be good enough. To explore the reason for this we need to delve deeper into the interaction between the two emotions as concern-based construals. As a response to shame, pride doesn’t originate in our natural concern for worth, which we have said is an intrinsic feature of being human. Rather, pride originates in shame’s consequent concern: the desire to be or appear to be more worthy. More worthy than what? More worthy than we perceive ourselves to be, or perceive to be seen by others, when subject to the emotion. As a response to shame, therefore, pride originates in a desire which, as is typical of pride, is based on a comparison.

…Rather than a solution to shame, then, pride is part of the problem. Pride keeps us from looking at ourselves and honestly examining the real reasons for our shame. It fosters a spirit of invidious comparison and competition which keeps us stuck in a vicious cycle of self-promotion and self-demotion. It leads us to blame others for our shame, breeding anger and resentment and a desire to retaliate in kind. It compels us to hide, deny, rationalize, and justify ourselves. It distorts our legitimate concern for worth, leading us to seek it in external, socially derived, and transitory standards, in material and superficial things which ultimately cannot satisfy our deep spiritual need for it.

There is a solution, and it begins, not with pride, but with its true opposite. And that opposite is humility. Why? Because if shame is concerned with low worth, and pride with high worth, humility is concerned with true worth. Humility is the corrective to both. Humility steers a middle course between the deficiency experienced in shame and the excess experienced in pride. Humility is knowing who we are and what we are worth, our true identity and value. As a virtue, humility enables us to take the proper measure of ourselves. It enables us to see what we have become at a given stage of our development in relation to who we truly are as spiritual beings.

That is why humility is at the heart of our spiritual awakening. For what makes that awakening spiritual is that it is fundamentally an awakening to who we are in relation to God, and, based on that, in relation to our fellow humans. Through humility we awaken to a vision of our true identity and our true worth. We are the children of a loving God who created us in his image and likeness, as the Big Book and the 12& 12 affirm. That is the ultimate source and the unshakeable foundation of our value, the common ground of the dignity we share with all human beings.

Humility also enables us to recognize that we fall short of that divine image in us. It enables us to see that we are deeply flawed and defective human beings. We are capable of great evil, and that evil can sometimes manifest itself in behavior which the term shame most properly names: that which, in diminishing our inherent worth, demeans our humanity. This makes humility the cornerstone of the self-examination we begin in Step 4, an examination that focuses on us, on what is wrong with us and how we can go about righting that wrong and in so doing heal ourselves and help others to heal.

What does that mean when it comes to shame? It means going through a spiritual process that reorders our concerns and our perceptions so that we come to base our worth on God and God alone. It means taking the Steps that will help us to regain the worth we have forfeited and to help those we have shamed to regain theirs.

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