Shame: Healing Old Wounds Through Current Relationships
We are facing an epidemic of shame. Shame is the feeling associated with believing ourselves to be undeserving, inadequate, unlovable, disgusting, or bad in some basic way. When we grow up with people who repeatedly criticize, deny or ignore our feelings, our needs and who we really are, we develop a "pool of shame." We then carry around that pool of shame all the time, feeling it, protecting it, and reacting to it even when no one is currently shaming us. When someone does shame us, or we feel shame for any reason, the pool overflows, so our reaction to the incident seems extreme, until we realize we are reacting to past shame, as well as current shame.
Guilt is different from shame. When we do something that doesn't fit with our value system, we feel guilty. But when we feel shame, we feel not that we did a bad thing, but that we are a bad thing.
What we do to survive shame, then, is hide what we feel is shameful about us. Of course this includes many essential aspects of who we are and what makes us human beings, including our feelings, and vulnerabilities, and sometimes our identities, thoughts, opinions, bodies, differences, interests, and so forth. Hiding our true selves is essential protection when we are trapped in shaming families. But hiding causes its own pain, and it keeps us from healing. First of all, healing has to include fluid access to our feelings and hiding prevents that. Secondly, hiding what we believe is shameful about us gives the shame more power. If we don't show the parts of us we believe to be unlovable, we don't get a chance to see that others don't find these parts to be repulsive, so we assume that if anyone knew these parts, they would be repulsed.
While we are hiding our shame, we also do things to relieve some of the pain it causes. These methods, called "coping mechanisms," are like hiding in that they help us survive, but also cause their own brand of additional pain. Coping mechanisms include: perfectionism, ragefulness, acting as if one is invisible to others, contemptuousness, a need for power, blaming, abuse of substances, people pleasing, compulsive sex, eating, need for control, or busyness, self-hate, measuring people as better or worse than us, obsessing, pushing people away, and many others.
We are born with the natural ability to heal from emotional trauma. This ability is called "grieving." Grieving heals emotional wounds just as certain chemicals heal physical cuts in our skin. Grieving is basically having access to and expressing feelings about a loss. All traumas are losses. In dysfunctional families, we are shamed for expressing or even having feelings, so we lose our ability to heal. We can regain that ability at any time, but it takes being in an environment where we consistently and over time find that our needs, feelings, and who we really are will be met with understanding, respect, and valuing rather than ridicule, denial, and absence.
When we find people who give us this understand and accept us fully, including the secret "badness," we can begin experiencing all the rich colors of our feelings. Then, guided by the vulnerability, we can learn to assert our needs and our true selves effectively, while acting in ways that leave us feeling good about ourselves. In this process, shame loses its power over us.