There are moments that strike where my body shifts, and my mind trips into a space I dread. In these moments, which materialize from any number of unrelated happenings, I find myself facing a most burdensome emotion: Shame.
It consumes my body. It feels hot and sweaty. It prickles my skin and stabs into my gut. It sits on my shoulders, a heavy, uncomfortable load. It is nearly unbearable, and I scan my space for relief. But nothing helps, and let me tell you, I’ve tried a lot!
Not chocolate (drats!), not wine.
Not loud music, or a fast run.
Not punching pillows, or screaming under the covers.
Those things help relieve stress, but for me, they do nothing for shame. I see Shame as that unwanted part of myself that I can’t escape. It’s a remembrance of what I’ve done, or not done, or who I am, or who I’ve become. It’s an ugly mirror I’d rather never see. Thankfully, I understand that I’m not alone in this and that shame is universal.
Brene Brown, the beloved storyteller and researcher who studies shame says, “ I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
We’ve learned from Dr. Brown’s research, that shame cannot survive empathy. If we’re vulnerable with our shame, and share it, speak of it, and not hide from it, then we open ourselves to the opportunity to connect with others. In doing so, we then invite a space for those understanding our shame, to offer us empathy. In that beautiful gift the shame begins to evaporate. It becomes less burdensome. I suspect this is because we have just authentically connected with another, and not subsequently rejected for doing so.
In my journey through ambiguous grief, it’s been an important learning for me to identify shame. As an empath, being able to understand and feel another person’s pain or insecurity, it’s especially important that I learned early to identify my shame versus the shame of others.
When I accidentally discovered that my marriage wasn’t what I thought it was, and that my then-husband wasn’t the person I knew him to be, Shame settled in and became an unwanted house guest. (Not unlike Shame’s first cousin Grief, whom I write about often).
What took me time to unravel though, was that the shame I was experiencing wasn’t mine. That heavy feeling didn’t come from who I was or wasn’t. What I had done, or hadn’t. It was coming from me feeling pain for the person I had loved so deeply. Pain for the shame he must be carrying. And not only because of WHAT had happened, but because I understand that there is a deeper, underlying shame that drove those choices.
In looking to connect with others in my position, I was disappointed to find that many (most?) women weren’t talking about betrayal trauma. I asked professionals about why this was and was met, time and again with the same answer: “They feel ashamed.”
This struck me.
I was naive, to the experience of trauma and to the power of shame, so I wondered:
Why would a VICTIM of someone else’s abuse be quiet about their experience when THEY weren’t responsible for it?
I was told by one betrayal professional, “your beef is well-taken…but women aren’t speaking out because they feel ashamed…even though they didn’t cause the trauma, they are associated with the other person’s actions, which is often embarrassing ”.
So if victims aren’t talking about it, what happens?
Shame, when not exposed to empathy will grow. Even if the person knows it wasn’t their fault, and they didn’t cause the events to happen. Deeply embedded shame digs in and roots itself. Unattended, it festers and moves untamed until, I believe, one’s own soul becomes covered in the tangled mess that has grown. Without connection to our soul, how are we connecting to the divine within us? How do we connect with our higher power? How do we tune in to our own GPS? With shame so thick, it makes sense that researchers believe it drives our egos, and hijacks our being.
So, what to do with this feisty beast?
For me, when that prickle arises and I know Shame is coming, I pause. Like an early warning alarm notifying a town of imminent dangerous weather, I heed the warning and begin to prepare. I’ve created my own little warning system protocol, too. Here it is:
I stop what I’m doing. I sit and I breathe. I scan my body for the space the shame is developing. Then I ask the most important question I can in that moment:
“Is this my shame?”
I sit some more.
Within moments, I have my answer.
Most often, the answer is no.
No, this is not my shame.
I push out a long exhale, shake out my limbs and let it pass through until it’s gone.
(Which doesn’t take long).
I remember it as an ACRONYM:
STOP – get quiet and pause
HONE – tune in to find the trigger
ASSESS – scan your body and focus on the feeling
MEET IT – look directly at it and repeat the question “is this my shame?”
EXHALE – armed with your understanding, breathe that shame-energy right out of your body.
Identifying and being able to separate my own shame of things from the shame I feel over the actions of others, has saved me uncounted hours of grief.
When I identify that the shame I’m feeling is my own, I give gratitude for Dr. Brown’s work, and know the remedy lies in vulnerability and empathy. So, I take her prescription and share my shame with a trusted loved one, mentor, or my therapist. It’s amazing what the simple acknowledgement of shame can do for it’s healing.
Time and again, the simple act of identifying and understanding the source of shame and to whom it belongs, has helped me. I believe it has kept that gnarly entangled overgrowth from finding a home within me.
Shame from being abused is a heavy load to haul. Abuse, be it physical, emotional, or sexual, takes a toll on the human condition. We know that as survivors deal with trauma of the experience, they often find themselves questioning their role:
“Did I cause this?”
“What is my part in this?”
“It’s my fault.”
But if we can help victims, and those healing trauma look at the situation and understand Shame, it might help. I know it has helped me. My ambiguous grief is healing for many reasons, but not being a victim to Shame is tippy top among them.
While I do not wish Shame on anyone, I do wish everyone the ability to distinguish their shame. In doing so, perhaps we can work to extinguish it, and in the process begin to heal our hearts.