I was really pleased to receive a special request for a blog post by someone who has been reading and enjoying my blog. I’m glad that people are finding this blog interesting and that you are getting in touch with me to share your opinions about it…keep the comments coming! I’m always happy to have suggestions about what you might want to read about. This reader asked me to write about shame and how difficult an experience this can be to overcome. I hesitated at first, because it’s hard in one blog entry to do justice to the depth of emotion that shame can bring out, but then again, it’s Bell’s Let’s Talk Day, and shame is something we don’t talk about enough, and actively avoid. Shame underlies the stigma associated with much of what brings people to therapy.
Shame is a devastating and complex set of feelings and experiences that usually arises as a result of having been a part of something that goes against your values, morals and beliefs. Shame is different from its cousins, guilt and embarrassment. These latter feelings tend to arise when we feel like we’ve done something wrong that we regret. Shame, on the other hand, is more of an embodiment of those ideas. It isn’t that we feel like we’ve done something bad—we feel like we ARE bad, and that because we ARE bad, there’s no changing it. Sure we can modify behaviours, but in the end, if we feel ashamed of ourselves, we’ll feel like it’s just play acting.
A particularly painful expression of shame often arises out of events in which we had no control and were hurt by others. I’ve seen this most keenly in my work with people who have survived childhood abuse or some sort of assault, at any age. Sometimes people blame themselves for things over which they had no control, as a coping mechanism in the face of feeling utterly powerless. While blaming ourselves may feel like a solution to these feelings, this process often reinforces the shame inherent in having been violated in the first place. To cope with the thought that “something terrible happened to me” our minds can switch to “I AM something terrible.”
This switch may happen because survivors can feel as though they are somehow to blame for their trauma. “How could I have let that happen?” “Why didn’t I stop it?” “Why didn’t I tell anyone?” People often talk about the “fight-or-flight” phenomenon with trauma, but there’s also a third option—freeze—which is a common response to trauma when we know that neither fight nor flight will protect us. Freezing is a natural reaction but it’s also a common culprit in reinforcing our shame.
From the outside, it’s relatively easy to see that people don’t bring assaults or abuse on themselves, but the felt experience on the inside is quite different. In my work with clients, I have found that when teens and adults are coming to terms with their shame, they often use their current-day mind to explain how they might have felt, thought, or acted as children. Many people do this, but rather than helping, it reinforces their negative feelings about themselves. Children do not think the same way as adults—their thinking is qualitatively different, and we’re not really capable of complex thought until we hit puberty. The adult-you has many more skills than the when-you-were-little-you. It’s not a fair comparison to judge yourself for not having been able to control a situation you weren’t equipped to deal with, or had no power to effect change in. You did the best you could at the time.
Lives can get divided in two, as though there was the time before and the time after, with the assault or abuse becoming the defining “fact” about how someone sees themselves. Part of the work I do with my clients who feel this way is to help them overcome their shame, and help them see that their abuse history is part of what has come to make them who they are, but not the only or the most important part of who they are.
Also, when we live through something terrible like child abuse, or an assault at any age, it changes us. We see the world, and ourselves, differently than we did before. If we’re feeling shameful we can often end up making decisions that aren’t good for us. Freud called it repetition compulsion—that unconscious (read: not deliberate or purposeful) set of actions in which we put ourselves through traumatic situations repeatedly with the hope of mastering the situation so we can resolve the trauma. Unfortunately, our culture’s focus on the rational, the conscious, and the importance of individual responsibility can make us feel even worse about ourselves—like we’re just asking to be re-traumatized. Of course, had we not been abused in the first place, we wouldn’t be engaging in such risky stuff.
One of the most effective things to neutralize the shame is often the hardest to come by: love and forgiveness. When we feel unloveable, other people’s expressions of love, or most kinds of praise, fall on deaf ears. The negative self-statements ring loudly in our heads, and we’re sure that if other people really knew they would never have anything good to say about us. That’s why the love and forgiveness has to come from within, although this can be extraordinarily difficult.
Shame is a reaction—not evidence that you are unworthy. My hope is that knowing about these things—that freezing is a common occurrence in trauma, and that we can’t hold our adult selves responsible for our childhood selves, and that sometimes very unconsciously we put ourselves at risk to try to overcome our traumatic pasts—will help anyone reading this who feels shameful to be a little more self-loving and a little more self-forgiving. We can never overcome shame all on our own. But if we start to love and forgive ourselves a little more we may be able to reach out to family, friends, and professionals to help us in a process of healing.