Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Shame and How it Immobilizes You

Shame, what is it? How does it immobilize you?

Shame is an interesting creature that moves into our souls unannounced at a very young age. Shame begins early in our lives creating feelings that hurt, ache and scream messages like, “Something is incredibly wrong with me.”

Do you remember the first time that you accidently broke something?

Do remember when you spilled your milk on the floor or soiled your pants when you were supposed to be potty trained?

Do you remember how sad you felt when kids made fun of you at school or on the playground?

Do you remember how red your face turned when a teacher attacked you for answering a question wrong?

All of us have experienced situations like these plus many more. In addition, all of those experiences have one thing in common. Each of those experiences was events that interrupted our positive joy or interest. These experiences are the beginning of shame, toxic shame. None of the above experiences is enough in and of itself, severe enough to create toxic shame, but all of that depends on what type of environment we had consistently at home or at school.

If our home environment was safe, then we learned we could survive just about anything that happens to us, because we know what to expect. One of the definitions of a safe environment is knowing what to expect, a consistent environment. An environment where we can depend on our parents or caregivers to be there for us when the chips are down, even when it is our fault. We knew we could count on mom or dad to get over their anger with us and be okay with us again. Alternatively, we could tell our safe caregiver how awful it was at school when the other kids made fun of us or that we didn't have someone to sit with at lunchtime. In addition, we could depend on our parents to stick up for us when a teacher or other adult treated us unfairly. Those are healthy experiences and we learn to develop inner confidence when we have a dependable and safe environment.

However, if our environment was not dependable or if it was consistently chaotic or abusive then what we learn from the above situations, is that there really is something incredibly wrong with us. We learn that when accidents happen it is our fault and that something bad is going to happen to us because of the accident. We learn we to hide our feelings and never tell anyone at home how it felt at school today. We learn that people don't like us or love us and we believe that is because we are bad and unlovable. As those things happen and pile on, one after another, we develop an open wound in our soul, a place where it aches all of the time and where hateful messages are stored. Those messages turn into scripts and then we act them out in "bad" ways in our daily adult lives.

When we have internalized our shame, it becomes toxic to us, just like living in a house full of mold, or sewage seeping into our drinking water. It effects us all of the time and we don't even know it until the symptoms become severe. We act our internalized shame in one of four ways. We attack our self (self-hatred); we attack others (hurt someone else); we avoid (addictions) or we withdraw (atypical depression). By adapting to our shame by doing any of the above, we become immobilized into our little quadrant of the world all by ourselves. Our resources rot around us and we develop a lifestyle that in every way is keeping us bound by scripts, messages, and behavior that keep us repeating old destructive patterns.

So what do we do? That answer of course, is too long for this article, but here are some starting points. First, write down your childhood story in journal form. Look for the times that you cut-off from yourself because it became too painful to by you. We call those cut-offs, parts, disowned parts. Sometimes those cut-off parts are complete developmental stages that we just by-pass and then end up in our adult lives wondering why everyone else seems so confident, and we feel so insecure. Thus, the first step is to identify our cut-off parts.

Second, we find creative ways to work with those cut off parts. We can journal to those young parts of ourselves; we can have those parts journal back to us. Sometimes it is a good exercise to write with our non-dominant hand. It is not important that we are able to read it later, it is important to write with our non-dominant hand because feelings come up that won’t come up otherwise. If journaling is not your gig, you can use guided imagery and internal dialogue to talk to those parts that are cut-off.

Third it is important to find someone to tell your story too, so that you don’t have to keep hiding. It is imperative that the person you tell your story to is safe or you risk re-traumatizing yourself. It is usually best that the person has training, like a psychotherapist, social worker, or a clergy trained in psychotherapy.

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