In week three of this four-week series, I share a bit about one of my personal traumatic experiences and give you insight into how shame shows up in our lives.
Exploring Shame: A Deeper Dive
In the first two blog posts in this series, we talked about the effect of shame on our self-care and on the limiting beliefs that make us feel we are “not good enough”. We also discussed how we should turn down the volume on our “shame gremlins”. But before we go any further, I’d like us to pause and focus on what shame actually is and how we can move through it, to a place of self-compassion.
What Is The Most Damaging Emotion?
Is it fear? How about pain? These two emotions are usually assumed to be the most damaging. However, the most damaging emotion can actually be shame. Shame can rip apart your self-image, destroy your sense of worth, and leave you feeling deeply flawed for many, many years.
Shame is a power emotion. And, unfortunately, it’s one that most of us love to bottle up. I know I used to. The deep feelings of shame that I used to feel and hold deep inside impacted my ability to interact with others for decades. As a child, it stunted my interaction with other children, it made me a fearful and painfully shy teenager and well into my adulthood, it destroyed my confidence. In many ways, it destroyed me.
It took many years for me to be able to share what happened to me. It was just too, too horrifying. I was too young to know how to express what happened or to know how to get the help I so desperately needed. So I held on to my devastating secret and tried to manage the oversized feelings on my own. Years of personal development and a burning desire to overcome the negativity propelled me to find a way through the grief, to be able to stop suffering, to find the relief and to begin to live a fulfilling life. I wanted to thrive. It was during this process that I was able to finally tell my authentic story.
This is the abbreviated version:
When I was 5-years old, several teenage boys tied me up and gagged me. They then proceeded to take turns raping me. Fearing that I would tell someone, one of the boys came back pressed a knife to my throat and held a BB gun to my chest, and he threatened to kill me if I told anyone. I was terrified. I didn’t know the difference between a BB gun or a regular gun. I was in so much pain and even though I was scared to die, part of me wanted to die. After promising that I would not tell anyone, he cut the ropes from around my wrists and freed me.
As a victim of childhood sexual abuse, I held a lot of shame around this horrific experience and I lived with feeling constant fear and concerns for my safety. I believed I was damaged and that nobody would ever be able to really love me. I feared for my life. Before I began thriving, I used to think about those shaming experiences of my childhood – and the pain was so real, it felt as if it was happening in the present moment. Holding on to my horrific secret was getting harder and harder. I was always afraid of being exposed. I never felt worthy. I spent my life trying to hide. I just wanted to be invisible - to disappear.
Do you still feel shameful feelings when you think about your trauma? Do you get that sinking feeling in your stomach when something reminds you of that experience? Do you suddenly feel small, inadequate or even “less than” others? Do you feel embarrassed and simply want to hide?
If you answered “yes” to any of those questions - you’re not alone.
Shame from experiences we had in childhood can be triggered in our adult lives. The feelings stay with us, but are just neatly tucked away. Some of us are better at compartmentalizing than others. Then, one day, the picture-perfect life can come tumbling down with something as simple as a thought, a phrase, a song, a store, a smell, or a sound. Something that reminds you of those childhood experiences can appear in your life and in an instant it takes you back to that moment. And, yes, it brings with it the shame.
This can all happen so quickly and you are transported back in time – you feel as though it is happening right now, in this moment, rather than all those years ago.
THIS IS WHAT SHAME CAN DO.
Shame can… make you feel inferior to others, worthless and unlovable.
Shame can… manifest into self-loathing behavior.
Shame can… result in self-destructive behavior, such as cutting or hair pulling.
Shame can… lead to drug and/or substance abuse.
Shame can… end in suicide.
Shame can… leave you with feelings of self-criticism, self-blame, and self-neglect.
Shame can… cause you to repeat the cycle of abuse through victim behavior – or abusive behavior.
The shaming experiences you have been through can feel so overwhelming that it can actually define you – preventing you from reaching your full potential. Shame is that powerful. And those of us that were sexually abused in childhood tend to carry the most shame.
So, if you were abused in childhood you tend to carry the most shame. Why?
THE DAMAGED SELF
As humans we naturally want to believe we have control over what happens to us. Even though we experienced this trauma as a child, somehow we still believe we should have been able to protect ourselves. And, because we couldn’t, we feel helpless and powerless. Our powerlessness causes us to feel humiliated and that leads to feelings of shame. What a self-damaging cycle, right?!
Many of us who survived childhood abuse also live in a constant state of self-criticism and self-blame. We may even become overly sensitive to criticism from those around us and try to defend ourselves.
One’s self-criticism can have a pretty powerful inner voice. It can manifest by constantly asking ourselves, “Why me?”
I am very familiar with this voice, are you? You may find that voice constantly berates you for imagined or real mistakes. You may find that you set such high expectations for yourself that you can never be satisfied with any of your achievements. You may even find it difficult when someone compliments you or find it uncomfortable to accept expressions of love or kind comments from others.
For those of us that defend against shame, we are doing so in order to build a protective barrier around ourselves to ward off criticism from others. This can show up as you being critical of others in anticipation of their criticisms of you, refusing to talk about your shortcomings, turning the criticism around on another person, accusing others of lying or even exaggerating about the other person's complaints about you and projecting your shame on others.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Healing will come. But before you can overcome your childhood trauma, learn to provide yourself nurturing, kind, and encouraging words to override any negative chatter.
You can experience feelings of shame and grief while moving through your shame and grief. Shame can affect you for the rest of your life – or until you take the steps to begin the healing process. It can hold you back from a life you love. In my Stop Suffering Now and Make Peace With Your Past group program, we focus on helping you to move through grief to a place of hope where you can feel excited for the future and learn to trust people (and yourself) once again. Get on my calendar to schedule your free 30-minute Healing Discovery Session call.