Hello shame, old friend
This essay deals with the results of emotional child abuse. There is only a brief and nongraphic reference to the abuse itself.
I’ve spent 7 years in therapy, trying to heal old trauma wounds. This is childhood abuse shit, which means it’s not about external danger as much as internal danger: internalized worthlessness, brutal shame, and a host of desperately flawed coping mechanisms.
Recently, I talked to a friend who also had a shitty childhood. They were just starting to allow themself to name their shame, to allow in the possibility of a reality different than the “I’m a piece of shit” tape that’s on repeat. I saw myself in them. And as we commiserated about secretly being awful human beings who had tricked the world into thinking that we were actually good people, I remembered the first time I discovered that other people felt that way, too.
Seven years ago, group therapy saved my soul.
I don’t say it saved my life, because I wasn’t in immediate danger of physical death. Instead, I was in the process of destroying my spirit (not to mention my mental and physical health). I was in graduate school, working myself to the bone, with an anxiety disorder that had finally shifted into panic attacks when I tried to work, instead of motivating me to escape reality by burying myself in work.
My entire life was ruled by shame — and then panic, too. I knew I was not okay. Like, really not okay. But I didn’t know what else to do, except keep going. Work harder. Maybe add more intensity to the panic… because if I panic hard enough and often enough, I’ll figure out how to fix everything?
The metaphor I like to use is a rocket ship. It’s like, I know that more fuel gives more power to the rocket, and you need power to get into the air. But my rocket was pointed at the ground. Every time I looked around and saw that I wasn’t flying, I gave it more gas — digging myself deeper and deeper into the dirt. I was trying so hard, and in fact I had a lot of power (facts that shame loves to use against me). But the only strategies I knew just made my problems worse.
What do you do when the harder you try, the more excruciating everything becomes?
One answer is to numb. That was my primary coping mechanism, along with workaholism, for more than two decades. But when I started having panic attacks every time I tried to do research, it was obvious that my old coping mechanisms were no longer up to the job.
Group therapy with other existentially insecure graduate students was a lifeline to a completely new way of existing in the world. Suddenly, I was not alone. There were other people who regularly drowned in shame, and they allowed me to see them, and to feel compassion for them. Oh! I have never been given a more precious gift.
Watching a friend’s downcast eyes as he talks about “not deserving” a partner who doesn’t cheat on him, or hearing another friend reveal how inadequate she felt because she “only” spent 10 hours in lab today, I was filled with angry, protective energy. “You deserve to be treated well!” I would tell them. “You are good enough,” I’d insist.
And then I would cry because I, too, didn’t believe I deserved to be treated well, and I, too, didn’t believe I was good enough.
When you grow up being told that your best is still not cutting it, that you need to do better than your best, the impossibility of that task becomes irrelevant. The rational parts of ourselves, which might say, “every person deserves to be treated well, and I’m a person, so I deserve to be treated well,” make no dent whatsoever in the power that shame holds over us. Because the shame was never rational to begin with.
Together in group therapy, we witness and care for one another. Recognizing ourselves in each other, we allow the seed of self-compassion to be exposed to sunlight. We water it. And it grows the way any living thing does: slowly, unevenly, with setbacks and a gritty persistence.
Shame, and hope, and what comes next
Shame breaks connection. But it works the other way around, too: connection can help us let go of shame. Fundamentally, shame is a social feeling, and it cannot be eradicated by an individual on our own.
We need others to witness the things we are ashamed of, and to respond with kindness or neutrality, instead of the disgust we expect.
Many of us have too deeply internalized our shame to just start sharing it directly (hah! before I started therapy, this was light-years away from the realm of possibility for me). But my hope is that by writing about my experiences of shame, and healing from shame, you might see your shames here, too. I hope to insist that our shame is not shameful, that we are all deserving of kindness, and that we have the possibility of finding another way to exist in the world, where shame is no longer the driving force in our lives. Honestly I’m just starting to believe this all myself, and I hope that writing about it will help my body-intuition recognize these things as true.
Take a deep breath. Let the air be a resource for you. Let your lungs and belly connect you to this world as much as they can. Breathe.
This is the beginning.