Healing shame

There are many consequences of having lived through sexual violence. But if I had to chose the most important one, for its impact on my life, or its overwhelming presence in my mind all these years, it would be shame.

Our shame seems to know who we are. It is this voice telling us that we are so inappropriate, wrong, guilty, and stupid, whatever we do. Since it is about us and not our behavior, there is no chance at ever escaping it. The best we can do, is hide our true nature to people around us.

This belief is one of the reasons we feel so lonely: even when surrounded by people who love us, we cannot help thinking they would not, if they knew the “real us”.

Shame is an ugly feeling. It’s dark and heavy. By its sheer presence, it can ruin everything good in our life: either preventing something good to happen, or preventing us from enjoying what is good. It’s a contemptuous, hostile way to relate to ourselves.

And it can be never ending. I used to think I would prefer be anyone else than me. And then I would feel ashamed to be so ashamed. Oh boy.

Shame attacks

One way shame could erupt in my life was shame attacks. Everything seemed normal and I was busy doing my thing, then I was sucked into a bottomless pit of shame out of the blue. Thoughts about my innate badness and stupidity were howling in my head. I could not see anything else. All I wanted to do was to find a place to hide from others.

This could go on for hours, before I could participate in my own life again. And then just the memory of a shame attack would be enough for me to feel terrible and start ruminating.

As a child I had already experienced plenty of them. I remember one in particular, while I was playing with a friend and my Barbie doll. Without realizing it, I was reenacting sexual victimization with my doll. My friend stopped, looked at me and said I always played that way, and she did really not want to play like this anymore.

I remember freezing instantly, being hit by the most profound shame attack. I was experiencing wave after wave of feeling defective and inappropriate. I realized I was not like other girls. That they found my way of playing (if we can call it that way) repulsive. That in the future I’d better pay attention and play normally.

I’m not even sure I was able to play with a Barbie doll after that.

I feel so sad when remembering this episode now. Sad and angry – not at my friend, she was just a child – but at the grown ups around me.

These shame attacks were so difficult to live through, I was willing to do anything not to hit one of these vicious attacks. It was difficult, because triggers were many: showing signs that I had been traumatized. Not understanding something. Being disapproved by someone, even a total stranger. Having needs. Not being hyper productive and hyper competent. Losing my way. Being late. Wanting a connexion with someone. Feeling angry. Being evaluated at work.

Obviously, it was impossible to avoid all these triggers: they were about me being human and having a normal life, even if I did not feel that way. At some stage I understood I would never be able to conquer shame by being perfect. I needed to try something else.

Healing shame

As often, being unaware of a problem is half of the problem, and awareness is half the solution. In my young years I was not experiencing or labelling this as “shame”. This is just the way I was. I could see others were not feeling like that but it felt normal to me: they were obviously not as bad and defective as I was. I was completely identified with my shame.

The fist time I came across the concept of shame, was when reading “Healing the shame that binds you” from John Bradshaw. There was a lot of very useful information and ideas in this book for me, the first being naming and describing the issue; what I was experiencing was not just “me being me”, it was shame. It was a set of learned emotions, beliefs and reactions. I could recognize them when described in the book. I understood I was not the only one to feel shame. I could link it to some of my behaviors such as addictions.

It was also the first time I read shame was cause by what happened to us. To be frank, it did not really sink in when reading the book. But I stored all this information in my memory for future use. When reading about in another book, or coming across the issue in therapy, I could link it to what I remembered already. Repetition worked its magic and helped rewrite my beliefs.

It took a bit of time to stop experiencing shame attacks, but it happened. I don’t even remember the last one.

I just remember the first time I realized I “should” experience one and I was not. I was at work, late for a meeting. As I burst into the meeting room in a huff, I realized very important people were around the table and were very surprised to see me; I was not only late, but into the wrong meeting room. I apologized, exited the room, and started to laugh in the corridor.

I was making fun of myself. This was so unusual that this outwardly small, small event stayed in my memory as a tremendous success.

My best advice if you suspect you are suffering from shame:

Looking for information about shame, and absorbing it, is very helpful. I will come back to shame in future posts, for sure: I only scratched the surface of the issue here. Here are two very good books on shame that bring a lot of information to reflect upon:

Coming out of isolation is also important. Of course, it is a very difficult thing to do when being in the throws of shame.

Yet, it’s the only way, intellectual knowledge is important but not enough.

I know. I’m really sorry.

If you have people you trust around you, give it a try with a small bit of information and see how it goes. Hire a therapist and do the very same thing, it did wonders for me. I also saw group therapy being very effective for dispelling shame: when everyone in the group tells you you are human and normal, but they understand your shame, it is very powerful. Participating in online forums can also work.

One very important thing to remember is that shame is an oppressive learned behavior. It can be unlearned, if dragged out of hiding.

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