Guest post by Veronica Monet, ACS, CAM, founder of TheShameFreeZone. Article originally appeared in Living Well Magazine
Healing shame is a vital step toward realizing your full potential and can have many unexpected benefits. For instance, if you are less controlled by feelings of shame, you may have more energy and enthusiasm to explore your creativity, find your passion, realize your purpose, and find fulfillment.
I create a profoundly shame free experience for my clients in part, because I’ve had a long, personal history with shame. It’s been an intense journey which continues to unfold to this day. The process of healing shame is, for me, on-going. But it does get easier.
There was a time when the shame itself evoked feelings of shame. Now I greet my shame with love and acceptance, with a tenderness akin to parental love. But that didn’t come automatically. I had to work for it.
As a child, I was not encouraged to love myself. My parents did love me but that love was compromised by their own shame. When people don’t love themselves, when they find aspects of themselves so objectionable that they deny their existence, there is a tendency to project that shame and self-hatred onto others. I was routinely the object of that projection and its infliction left deep wounds in my psyche.
My mother was afraid of her own dark memories, preferring to repress the trauma of incest, rather than deal with her grief and rage. Instead, she preached a gendered shame which blamed women for anything men might do to them. When she incurred injuries from my father’s violent temper, she blamed herself for not being a more submissive wife.
My father lived in constant fear of being cowardly or ineffectual. This was how he viewed his father, and his life was a reaction against those perceived weaknesses. In an effort to ensure he was not seen as weak, my father became an imposing tyrant who insisted that his wife and daughters live in fear of him.
My father rarely missed an opportunity to humiliate us. His verbal attacks became a lethal assault on my personhood. He was also physically and sexually abusive. But somehow he still saw himself as a loving father. My father was obviously in denial.
Denial may make a difficult situation temporarily more tolerable, but it prevents us from connecting with the truth or finding authentic responses to reality. It perpetuates shame, and dooms us to repeat dysfunctional patterns passed down from previous generations.
Family secrets are like threads which when pulled unravel the fabric of everything you think you know about the people who share your DNA. As I came out of my own denial, I became aware that there was rampant sexual and physical abuse on both sides of my family. Because of this, my origins have also been a source of shame for me.
My family of origin was deeply dysfunctional, but this did not occur in a vacuum. We were members of a conservative Christian cult which enforced a plethora of prohibitions while requiring that we dress and behave differently than “the world.” I was homeschooled and lived in isolation, removed from the culture . By the time I left home to attend college, I felt like an alien from another planet. Fortunately, I possessed extremely adaptive social skills so I fit in very well, but I lived in fear that my friends might discover my strange past and reject me.
As soon as I left home, I began breaking every rule I had been forced to obey. I dressed provocatively and began smoking, drinking and taking drugs. I indulged in sex with various partners. I continued to give my academic success precedence, however, as that was something my father disapproved of. He didn’t want me to attend college because I was “just going to get married and have babies anyway. ” So as an act of rebellion, I made the honor roll.
Our parents may have the best of intentions when they try to redirect our behavior to something they deem more socially acceptable, but unfortunately, the message many of us take away is that we are not okay the way we are. Many of us have been encouraged to “act polite,” to “say nothing if you can’t say something nice,” to “behave like a gentleman” and to “act like a lady.” Rarely have we been admonished to “share how you really feel” and to “feel free to disagree if you see things differently.”
Raised this way, it is difficult not to absorb the message that our thoughts and feelings are not welcome in this world. Most cultures, place a high premium on conformity. And since our very survival is dependent upon membership in the group, we work hard to sublimate our true selves in favor of “fitting in” and “getting along.”
Fear of being ridiculed, ostracized, scape-goated or otherwise dealt with in a manner which is prejudicial, unfair and even life-threatening, keeps most of us confined to societal expectations. It takes personal strength to choose thoughts, feelings and behaviors which are not condoned by the majority.
For most of us, it isn’t until we reach a crisis in our emotional or physical health, that we find the incentive to move past our fears and locate the courage to stand up for our true thoughts and feelings no matter how different those may be from what we are told we should think and feel.
Although my childhood presented many obvious forms of abuse, your childhood need not have been traumatic for you to suffer from shame. Most people suffer from some sort of shame, even if that shame does not lead to debilitating coping mechanisms. The absence of crippling dysfunction does not mean shame is harmless. Shame erodes self-esteem, compromises our ability to achieve and creates an additional stressor on our mental and physical health.
Although not everyone agrees on definitions, it is important to identify shame and distinguish it from guilt. I believe that shame attacks who you are, while guilt warns you that something you have done is not working for you. This definition is also preferred by recognized shame expert, Brené Brown, Ph.D. who shares in her interview with Judith Stadtman Tucker in “Motherhood, Shame and Society” for The Mothers Movement Online:
In the simplest terms, shame is about who we are, not what we’ve done. Unlike the paralyzing effects of shame, guilt often prompts us to make amends or change our behavior. Feeling guilty doesn’t produce the same feelings of being trapped, powerless and isolated.
While guilt can play an important role in our lives, shame is always destructive. If we lie or steal, guilt can guide us toward more pro-social behaviors. As social creatures, it is important that humans operate with a conscience and guilt plays an important role in that. But shame attacks how we feel about ourselves.
Shame is experienced as a core defect confirming that we are not worthy of love or forgiveness; that we can never measure up or be enough. Shame attacks who are. There is a profound difference in not only how we feel with shame or guilt, but how the two emotions cause us to behave.
For instance, if you feel guilty about something you might be more inclined to search out ways to make amends or balance the inequity your actions have created. But if you feel ashamed, you are more likely to indulge in self-pity, withdraw or seek sympathy. Shame causes us to shrink energetically while guilt can actually motivate and expand our energy.
Shame separates us and condemns us to living in emotional isolation. We may be surrounded by people and meaningful relationships, yet because of shame, we tend to hide some key aspects of ourselves from others – even the people we love.
Being dishonest or keeping a lot of secrets can be an obstacle to healing shame. After all, we are “only as sick as our secrets.” I began healing my shame when I first got sober. In the twelve step groups I attended, I learned that keeping secrets would lead inevitably to getting drunk again, so I practiced rigorous honesty in order to dispel my shame and protect my sobriety.
Participating in twelve step groups gave me one of the most important tools I acquired for healing shame: making amends. At first, the idea of “making amends” sounded like I was blaming myself for what was done to me, and I feared it would only lead to more guilt and shame than ever. But that is not what is intended by “making amends,” and that is not what happened.
Early in my journey of recovery, I was for the first time truly getting in touch with the fact that I was not to blame for being molested by my father. I had to work hard to feel my anger and outrage. But it was worth it, because moving into my anger was healthy.
But now in twelve step groups I was being asked to inventory “my part.” Was I being asked to accept “the blame” for my own victimization? If that were the case, I would have eliminated twelve step groups from my support system. But in practice, “making amends” ended up creating a sense of empowerment for me.
Before I could even consider my amends, I had to get in touch with how horrible the abuse was, and to know without a doubt that I did not deserve to be abused. By getting in touch with my anger over what was done to me, and at the same letting go of my fear and my defenses, I was free to explore whether I had in any way behaved in a negative way. I explored my deepest motivations. Was there any part of me that wished my father harm? Did I bring hate or negativity into our interaction?
Of course, even if I did, that does NOT mean I am to blame for the abuse my father perpetrated. But acknowledging where I felt guilty about my behavior or my mind set allowed me to begin to free myself from shame. I became better able to separate the various factors so that I felt even less responsible for my abuse than I did before I claimed “my part.” As I became less identified with what was done to me, I became better able to experience myself as innocent because I had examined all my motivations and no longer felt burdened by the impulse to hide from the truth. In this way, the truth really did set me free.
Perhaps most importantly, I learned to make amends to myself – for the ways in which I abandoned myself including blaming myself for what was done to me.
While it may sound silly, my experience of making amends to myself has given me a greater sense of connection to and respect for myself. I feel less fear and have more empathy for me, which helps to heal my shame.
This process is entirely counter-intuitive, and flies in the face of our natural response to shame which is to run and hide. Doing an inventory on the shameful event or fact can reveal how we blame ourselves. Making amends to ourselves can be freeing. Finding that thing which we wish we had done differently, can empower us in ways which are uniquely transformative.
Feeling compassion for yourself, allows you to realize how unjust attacks on your innocence and your individuality are., As your shame is replaced by compassion for yourself, you’ll find that you have more genuine compassion and empathy for others.
Shame is a heavy burden to carry through life. It can weigh on your heart and mind, diminish your sense of worth, and cripple your creativity. It’s important that you find a safe person to share the events which have created shame for you. When you experience understanding and empathy from a safe support person, your shame will begin to heal.
Brené Brown developed “the Shame Resilience Continuum” which asserts that shame is bolstered by blame, while the antidote to shame is empathy.
I couldn’t agree more. I’ve seen empathy work miracles in my own life, and in the lives of countless other people. As an Empathy Expert, I am deeply grateful to facilitate the healing of shame for my clients. It is an incredible gift as well as a sacred privilege.