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Archive for the ‘Shame’ Category

I believe it was in Geneen Roth’s book, Women Food and God, where I first learned that our bodies have a physical reaction to our emotions. I have spent most of my life staying dissociated from my body, so I have had to learn basic things that come naturally to most people, such as what hunger feels like. I truly could not tell the difference between physical hunger and the need to “stuff down” my emotions, which was part of the reason for the binge eating disorder.

I am making progress through baby steps in reconnecting with my body, but I am still very new to identifying what my body feels like physically when I experience different emotions. The only emotion I am very good at recognizing is shame. Being able to identity my body’s physical reaction to shame has been immensely helpful in eradicating shame from my spirit. I flat refuse to buy into shame.

For me, shame feels like I have a small fire burning on the topmost layer of my skin. It kind of feels like a sunburn, especially on my face and arms. Whenever I feel this bodily sensation, I know that I am struggling with shame, and I have learned how to process this emotion quickly. In the case of shame, I process it by “pouring it out” – I refuse to give any energy whatsoever to shame because I don’t deserve it.

If I feel the sunburn sensation, I tell myself that I am experiencing shame, and I refuse to fuel it. I love and accept myself exactly as I am, so I have no need for shame in my life. If I have done something wrong (guilt), I will take responsibility for it and make amends, but I will do so without buying into shame. I have done nothing to deserve experiencing that emotion.

After I tell myself these things, I do a visualization to remove the shame. I breathe in deeply, envisioning lots of positive energy and love. I will then breathe out slowly, pushing the shame out with the breath. I direct the shame out through my right side – I have no idea why. This visualization came to me one day and worked, so I haven’t questioned it. Whatever emotion I want to purge always leaves through my right side.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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I told a friend (one of my best friends who I met after therapy) what I blogged about yesterday, and her response was surprise that I would ever try to be anything but me. She was truly perplexed that I would think that I needed to be anything other than myself. I was perplexed that she was perplexed.

Why have I been afraid to be me? It’s all shame-driven, which is why it has been so hard to shake. Here are criticisms I have heard about myself for my entire life:

  • Too intense
  • Talk too fast
  • Too “Type A”
  • Too passive/too headstrong (depending upon who is commenting)
  • Nerd/Geek (straight A’s, computer geek, etc.)
  • Too honest
  • Too committed (stay in things too long) and don’t try hard enough (again, depending upon who is commenting)
  • Too “perfect” (goody two shoes) and not good enough (again, depending upon who is commenting)
  • Too smart (make other people feel stupid)
  • Too nice/not nice enough (another depending upon the person)
  • Not good at “Southern Women” things – housekeeping, etc.
  • Lacking in social graces (learn through bumbling about basics like ask what to wear and what to bring when invited to someone’s house)

I come across as very confident, which many people (mostly pre-therapy people) seem to think needs to be knocked down a notch. I am actually an incredibly frightened person who has spent her life trying to be “perfect” so I won’t be abandoned. As you can see from my list, being “perfect” is hard to do when I am both too nice and not nice enough at the same time.

I am finished defining myself by anyone else’s list. Here is my own list that I will live by. People can take me or leave me, but these rules are replacing those that others have placed upon me:

  • I will be myself regardless of the setting – in personal relationships, professional relationships, and everything in between
  • I will be honest – not cruel and tactless, but honest in a diplomatic way
  • I give myself permission to make mistakes and view them as learning opportunities – If I cannot make a mistake in a relationship, then I don’t need that relationship
  • I will listen to my intuition and follow its lead – no more talking myself into staying in places that I have outgrown
  • I will be true to myself no matter the cost – no relationship in my life is worth abandoning myself for
  • I will set aside time each day for myself – to exercise, watch a comedy, read a book, do yoga, take a walk — something that is just for me
  • I will not take responsibility for anyone else’s side of a relationship – I am responsible for my own actions and reactions, not anyone else’s
  • I will keep telling myself that I will be OK no matter what life throws my way until I believe it – there is nothing and no one that I cannot survive losing
  • I will give myself the freedom to express whatever I am feeling, no matter how badly it feels, and learn how to feel my emotions without being washed away by them
  • I will not allow anyone else’s opinion of me to define me
  • I will keep telling myself that I love myself as I am until I believe it

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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I learned a lot last week by watching my friend deal with rejection without experiencing shame. That was a new experience for me, so I thought I would blog about it.

My friend had to have outpatient surgery last week, and I was scheduled to take her to the surgery, wait with her, take her home, and look after her until her mother got home from work. The day before the surgery was scheduled, my kid got sick. By the night before, he was congested and coughing – just a cold, but too sick to go to camp the next day.

I worked out childcare, getting a friend to babysit during the surgery and then a relative to transport my son to my friend’s house so I could tend to both of them. However, my friend didn’t want to “inconvenience” so many people and asked her relatives if any of them could help out instead. That kicked off WWIII. You would have thought she was asking for a $100,000 loan by their reaction. She said “never mind,” and we put my plan into motion, which went just fine.

I have been in similar situations too many times to count – so many times that I expect the tiniest of family favors to have to be repaid with a major organ. So, I very rarely ask family for anything. I do it myself, ask a friend, or do without. My friend is the same way, which is why I was so surprised that her reaction was very different from what mine would have been.

My friend was understandably angry and hurt by her family’s reaction. However, at no point did she seem to feel shame over it, which really surprised me. When I am in that position, I feel shame. I feel like I am not worthy of being taken care of and that there is something fundamentally wrong with me that makes my own family members react like that. Even though I know that they are being self-centered and unreasonable, I still believe that I would be treated differently if I wasn’t so fundamentally unlovable.

It was eye-opening to me to watch another person react to the same situation in a different way. Don’t get me wrong – she was hurt and angry: she just didn’t turn that hurt and anger inward. I want to learn how to do that!

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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A reader emailed me with a topic suggestion. The reader is having a difficult time dealing with the shame of child abuse, and the shame is interfering with the reader feeling like a part of the family. The isolation the reader feels is reinforcing the shame, and the reader wants to know what to do about it.

I have been in that terrible place, and it is truly miserable. The shame is one thing that drove me to enter into therapy. The shame was so heavy and dark that I could not look anyone in the eye. I didn’t know how to interact with anyone else because I felt like I was so dark and dirty while they were pure and good. How could I interact with them in my “filth”?

Fortunately, I got into therapy soon after this, which really helped me to work through the shame. I found it powerful to have a licensed professional tell me that I was not responsible and did not deserve to feel the shame. I also read several books written for survivors of sexual abuse that dealt squarely with shame and also talked with fellow child abuse survivors at Isurvive about how I was feeling. Isurvive was particularly helpful because I did not see why any of them should feel shame, and they were able to say the same thing to me.

To a certain extent, I had to do things that were good for me despite how I felt about myself. For example, I would tell myself, “I love you. You are safe. I’m sorry,” multiple times a day even though I did not believe of word of it. My therapist gave me “homework” to do kind things for myself even though I didn’t believe I deserved them.

If you haven’t heard of the “Good/Evil Wolf” story, read it here. I think there is an enormous amount of truth in that story. Each time you choose to think bad things about yourself, you are feeding your “evil” wolf, and each time you choose to treat yourself with kindness, even when you don’t believe you deserve it, you are feeding your “good” wolf. As you strengthen your “good wolf” through self-kindness, positive thoughts, and choosing to tell that negative voice inside to shut the h@#$ up, you will begin to lose the shame.

Being mired in shame feels so “normal” to child abuse survivors, and self-kindness feels foreign. To a certain extent, you are taking a leap of faith to try something different that you believe you do not deserve. I am glad that I took this leap because the shame, for the most part, is now gone.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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On my blog entry entitled Enemas, Tubes, and Object Insertion as Part of Child Abuse, a reader posted the following comment:

I still struggle horribly with this daily. I didn’t even remember until about three years ago, and that was only because it had become part of my self-injury, which I have done since I was about six years old–I am 39 now. My heart breaks everytime I think about it or talk about it. And everytime I go to bed, THAT is what is I have nightmares about! I want it to stop, to just go away, but it doesn’t, and it feels like it never will! I hurt so much inside–to the point where I don’t want to do this anymore! It wasn’t just the enemas and the tubes, it was objects, and bleach and soap–the list could go on, but I can’t say anymore. My mother was the main person that actually did those things, but my dad was there, and most of the time, he had his way with me, after she was done. And this just wasn’t a once in a while thing–it was several times a day–every day! What am I suppose to do with this? How am I suppose to be ‘normal’ when I feel like I am gross, dirty, freak? ~ Theresa

Theresa is specifically talking about enemas and tubes, but every person reading this blog can insert his or her own “I just can’t get past this” form of abuse – mother-daughter sexual abuse, animal rape, sibling abuse, vaginal rape – and it doesn’t even have to be sexual abuse – being forced to kill an animal, seeing a pet killed, watching a sibling beaten by proxy, locked in a closet, being beaten, tied up, etc.

Any form of child abuse is “that bad,” but those of us who endured ongoing child abuse sometimes categorize the forms of abuse in hierarchies, such as finding enemas or animal rapes being “worse” than vaginal rape or being locked in a closet. Each child abuse survivor will have a different “this was the worst” form of abuse, even those who have been through the same things. For example, my “worst” was vaginal rape while my sister’s “worst” was animal rape. We both endured the same abuses (including mother-daughter sexual abuse), but each of us found a different form of abuse to label as “the worst” form that we would never “get over.”

The truth is that all forms of abuse are traumatizing, and all forms of abuse are “that bad.” Even if you had never endured your “worst form,”you would still be this “messed up”– you just would have identified another form of abuse as “the worst” and used it to minimize the impact of the other forms of abuse you suffered. This is a coping mechanism used by abused children. If the other forms of abuse are not “that bad,” then they are survivable.

You will use the same process to heal all forms of abuse that you suffered, from those you have minimized to those that continually haunt you. The process is this:

  1. Acknowledge that the abuse happened: Stop repressing it.
  2. Face the abuse: Allow yourself to remember and tell someone about it (such as your therapist). You don’t have to relive it, but you need to connect back to the memory enough to say, “This happened to me.” I found posting my story on Isurvive was very helpful.
  3. Express your feelings: Give your feelings a voice. Cry, punch pillows, etc. Break the silence you have held for all of these years.
  4. Comfort yourself: Tell yourself it is okay to feel whatever you are feeling and reassure yourself that it was not your fault. Let your adult self comfort the wounded child inside.
  5. Be compassionate with yourself: Choose to stop fueling your shame with name-calling such as “gross dirty freak.” Instead, flood your mind with compassionate thoughts – It was not my fault. I love myself. Visualize yourself holding and comforting your wounded inner child. Tell yourself that nothing anyone did to you could change your value.
  6. Build on what you already know: If you have already healed any level of trauma, use what worked and apply it to this. I did this with the animal rape memories. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye, just like when I first recovered the mother-daughter sexual abuse memories. So, I used the same tools. I told myself that nothing – even this – had the power to change who I am.

I am not saying that this is fast or easy, but it really is that “simple.” You have the power to break free from the shame, but you must have the courage to challenge the beliefs you have held about yourself for most of your life.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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On my blog entry entitled Enemas, Tubes, and Object Insertion as Part of Child Abuse, a reader posted the following comment:

[My abuse] started when I was an infant, and continued until I was in high school. I always feel like its my fault, and I wanted it to happen, becasue even as I got older, I DIDN’T STOP IT–I LET IT HAPPEN–I DIDN’T SAY ANYTHING! For me, that only proves how much of a freak I really am! And it wasn’t just my parents that hurt me, there were others–a deacon from our church, and my brother–who abused me as a kid, and then raped me about 12 years ago. I asked my mother when I was teenager if she knew that my brother had done this–her response to me was ‘yes, but he’s my son!’ So what does that make me??? ~ Theresa

Theresa’s comment expresses the shame that so many child abuse survivors feel, even though child abuse is never the child’s fault – NEVER! According to Judith Herman’s book Trauma and Recovery, feeling responsible for the child abuse is a coping mechanism that abused children use to survive the abuse. As long as the abuse is “my fault,” then I can do something differently to make it stop. To accept the truth – that the abused child has absolutely no control over the abuse – would result in the child acknowledging just how hopeless the situation is, which would cause the child to sink into utter despair. It is actually easier for the abused child to believe that he or she is responsible because then there is at least some hope of making it stop.

While this shame might serve a purpose while the abuse continues, it is extremely damaging to the adult survivor of child abuse who is no longer being abused. When you judge your childhood actions through adult eyes, you are being very unfair to yourself. From an adult perspective, you can see different alternatives that never would have occurred to you as a child (or to any other child). This is because you were a child, not an adult. Also, it is easy to forget how helpless a child really is because, as an adult, you are able to take care of yourself. A child depends upon the adults in his or her life for food, clothing, shelter, etc., and simply leaving home and taking care of yourself is not an option. Also, those in charge are three or four times your size, so physically fighting back simply isn’t an option.

One truth that people don’t talk about enough is that abused children (without therapy or healing) revert back to being abused children in their heads when they are triggered, even if they are 80 years old. Whenever I tell someone about my mother sexually abusing me again after my father died (when I was 17), they inevitably ask why I did not fight her off. I didn’t fight her off because, when she awoke me and started hurting me, I “became” that wounded abused toddler again. It did not occur to me to fight back at age 17 because I was not 17 years old emotionally when she hurt me again.

The same is true into your 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, and beyond. Until you heal, you will perpetually stay the emotional age that you were when the abuse started whenever you are triggered, particularly if the child abuse was ongoing. This is why you hear about some incest victims who continue having a “sexual relationship” with their abuser even when the child becomes an adult. It’s not a consensual relationship – the twenty-something victim is still an abused child emotionally.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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A reader emailed me and asked me to discuss how I was able to turn my shame, guilt, and anger from myself and direct it outward toward my abusers. The reader talked about the dynamic that child abuse survivors know well – knowing in your head that you are not to blame while, in your heart of hearts, you completely believe that you were at fault.

I struggled with the shame and anger much more than I did with the guilt. I was only a toddler when the abuse started, so I never had a problem with believing that I was at fault for causing the abuse. No toddler could possibly invite that upon herself. On the rare occasions that I struggled with guilt (such as when I recovered the memories of my sister and me being forced to do things to each other in the presence of our abusers), I was able to lean upon my attitude toward my abuse in other areas and recognize that I was not to blame. I never once touched my sister without an abuser forcing me to, so I moved through the guilt phase very quickly.

However, the shame and anger were completely different stories. Let’s take them one at a time. I will focus on shame today and then on anger tomorrow.

While I have struggled with shame on and off for my entire life, I can think of two particular times when I thought I would die from the shame. The first time was when I first started recovering the memories of my mother’s sexual abuse. I saw a friend who I thought of as “pure” and “good,” and the sharp contrast with how I felt about myself was simply too much to bear. That is what catapulted me into considering ways to kill myself, which in turn forced me to acknowledge that I needed a therapist. The second time was when my sister inadvertently triggered me about the animal rape.

In both cases, I could not look anyone in the eye. I felt too dirty and disgusting to make eye contact with another person. It was a miserable time that I hope never to have to relive.

The first time, I got through it through therapy. I found a good therapist who would tell me repeatedly that I did not deserve the shame. Through sheer repetition from an outside source who believed in me, I started to push through some of the shame.

Another thing that really helped was confiding in a friend who did not reject me. If she could hear my “ugly” story and still want to spend time with me, then perhaps I was not as “ugly” as I feared.

One more thing that really helped me break through the shame was telling my story on Isurvive, which is a message board for child abuse survivors. As I recovered each memory, I would write about it, and several fellow child abuse survivors would tell me how strong and brave I was. I needed lots of outside validation that I did not deserve the shame before I could begin to believe it.

I dropped back into the shame full force after the first animal rape memory came. I could not look my best friend in the eye, but I forced myself to tell her my story. I did the same things that had worked before, and I forced myself to face the truth once and for all … that NOTHING that anyone ever did or does to me has the power to take away my value. Once I “got it” after the animal rape, shame has not plagued me since. It took an enormous amount of effort to push through it, but I am so grateful that I did.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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