What is the Burden of Shame?
I saw a woman in her sixties in the office who told me through gritted teeth and many tears how she grew up in a very religious family. She had become pregnant at 15 and did not tell her family she was pregnant until she went into labor at home. The family called an ambulance and she delivered a little girl. The family was embarrassed and mortified and let her know of the shame she had brought down on their good name. She regretfully gave her daughter up immediately for adoption and has lived with shame and implied dishonor. She spent her life feeling seriously flawed, without worth, and feeling there was nothing she could do to set things right. Something had shrunk her soul.
There is a burden to shame. At the core is a failure of self-esteem. As one feels dishonored and not belonging anywhere, then feeling good about oneself and confident in one’s abilities is inevitably lost. Shaming a person makes him as low as he can go.
A shame-bound person has difficulty with intimate relationships. Feeling so bad about herself, she does not wish another to know her, expecting for sure that he will see what a shameful creature she is. So she puts up a false front, she pretends and postures, and does all the things she believes others will be impressed by, but she can never do that which is the essence of intimacy, reveal herself to another in open risk-taking.
Depression is a consequence of being stuck between anger and grief. The depression is marked by alienation and no real opportunity to bring things back together. At the center of depression is a sense of loss – the loss of caring, respect, and nurturing.
Clinging to one’s image is the most positive thing she has going for her. She believes that within she has no real self, that she is not loved, or respected, or needed, so she must make herself loveable, appear respectable, and create the illusion of being indispensable to others. She works hard at it. She lives by her false self, often bouncing between an over and under-inflated presentation of herself.
How do You Heal from The Burden of Shame?
It doesn’t fix easily. I read a article by Robert D. Caldwell, M.Div who had some suggestions with which I agree.
- Let yourself learn through and through that your shame is not your fault. Most of your shame-inducing experiences happened to you early in your life – when you were young. Sometimes parents believe that making you ashamed would motivate you to behave as they wished, or that shaming you was for your own good. However, what happened was that they only succeeded in making you feel bad about being yourself and you did not have the power to change yourself to get in their good graces. It was not your fault.
- Face shame, experience it, incorporate it. They are only painful memories; they cannot hurt you like they did before, because you are not as vulnerable as you were when you were young. As an adult, you have the perspective and position to confront and not to be done in by the shaming experiences the world offers you. There is no more powerful bond than talking to someone about your experience. Shared shame can transform into a bond of understanding and mutual support for healing.
- Replace shame with mature guilt. Guilt lets you know what is unacceptable and offers you an opportunity to do something about it. Shame, on the other hand, comes to you as a feeling so deep and so incapable of your getting a grasp on it that it seems there is nothing you can do. Any time my client had a negative interaction whether at work or in her personal life, she felt inadequate. To ameliorate these feelings, my client drank to excess, slept a lot, and used food to feel better. We worked on setting standards and goals that she could achieve, or if she failed, she could increase her efforts or redefine her goals. This gave her the ability to define realistic possibilities, not unfocused, hidden demands of shame making expectations.
- Make new parents. You are not unworthy of belonging to the human community and in order to heal your shame, you must create a healthy family for yourself – clubs, churches, professional societies, friends, marriage. The success or failure of your journey to heal your shame will be crucially influenced by your ability to surround yourself with those who think you are loveable, who support you, who back you up in a the way you lead your life, who can convey to you that they are for you even when they don’t like your behavior.
You are not a bad, shame-deserving person. Perhaps you have been mistaken, insensitive, unethical, self-critical, negligent, stupid, depressed – states of mind you can do something about; but you have never been bad, never deserving of not belonging. Always you have been just an ordinary struggling person and can join with others to make your inner and outer life work better. Sharing your struggles with a professional can be a healing experience and help you experience life joyfully.