I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel shame. But I have evidence that there was once a time when I was shame free. I have a photograph of me as a little baby. I am smiling with a twinkle in my eye. I look radiant and filled with joy.
I have another photo of me at four years old where I am frowning and look defiant and lost. The twinkle in my eye has been replaced with a dark, empty look.
What had occurred that had taken away the joyous smile on my face and replaced it with darkness, emptiness, and hatred?
The answer: shame. Shame had replaced my innocence, my joy, my exuberance for life. Shame had caused me to build up a wall—a wall of protection and defiance.
The person I was defending myself against? My mother, a woman who was so full of shame herself that she couldn’t help but project it onto me.
Most experts tell us that no one survives the devastation of severe childhood trauma unscathed, and that most end up facing one or more of what I call the “six paths of trauma”:
- Addiction (alcohol or drug addiction or an eating disorder),
- Sexual acting out (including promiscuity, prostitution and/or sexual addiction),
- Mental illness,
- Suicide ideology,
- Criminal or antisocial behavior,
- Becoming an abuser or perpetual victim.
In my upcoming memoir, Raising Myself: A Memoir of Neglect, Shame, and Growing Up Too Soon, I recount how I started down all six paths—and how I pulled myself away from the edge each time.
After being neglected and emotionally abused by my mother, then sexually abused and raped, I found myself riddled with shame and the belief that I was bad, unlovable, and rotten inside. After being sexually abused at nine, I began acting out.
After being raped at 12, I began to shoplift. I was angry at my mother, the men who had abused me and at all authority figures. I wanted to get back at everyone who had taken advantage of me. After I was finally caught and brought home in a cop car, my mother gave up on me.
Fortunately, I didn’t give up on myself. I knew there was goodness in me and I fought to find it. I turned to solitude and introspection and began to find the pieces of myself I discarded when attempting to shield myself from further harm.
Here’s how I learned how to combat my feelings of shame:
- Stop blaming yourself for the abuse. There is absolutely nothing a child can do that warrants a parent emotionally or physically abusing her or him, and there is absolutely nothing a child can do to cause someone to sexually abuse them. You did not cause the abuser to mistreat you.
- Give your shame back to your parents and/or abusers. Parents often project their own shame onto their children, as was the case with my mother, who had me out of wedlock and felt horrible shame because of it.The following exercise will help you give your shame back to your abuser:
- Imagine “going inside your body” to look for shame. Some see shame as a cloud of blackness. Others, as an ache in their stomach or a pain in their heart. Wherever you sense shame, imagine taking it and throwing it back at your abuser(s).
- Gain an understanding as to why you behaved as you did. Instead of viewing yourself as “bad” for acting out, begin to view yourself as wounded and your negative behaviors as attempts to cope with the abuse. Some of the problematic behaviors below are the most common in former victims of childhood abuse:
- Eating disorders. Bingeing, compulsive overeating, and emotional eating are especially common among those who were emotionally abused or neglected as a way to cope.
- Self-injurious behavior. Cutting, burning self with cigarettes, or head banging almost universally emerge as attempts to cope with severe abuse.
- Difficulties with sexual adjustment. A tendency to sexualize relationships, become hypersexual or avoiding sexual contact, or alternating between these two extremes usually stem from experiences of childhood sexual abuse.
- Provide yourself with self-compassion. Compassion is the antidote to shame. It acts to neutralize the poison of shame, to remove the toxins created by shame. The goal is to treat yourself in a loving, kind and supportive way. Think of a phrase to soothe and encourage yourself, look at yourself in the mirror, make eye contact and say this phrase with certainty.
- Provide yourself with self-forgiveness. Self-forgiveness is not the same as letting yourself off the hook or making excuses for negative behavior. The more shame you heal, the more you will be able to see yourself clearly. Instead of hardening your heart and pushing people away, you will become more receptive to others and their feedback. It is important to work towards forgiving yourself for: 1) the abuse itself, 2) the ways you hurt others as a result of your own abusive experiences, 3) the ways you have harmed yourself
Don’t let shame take over your life. It took me many years to rid myself of the shame that had followed me nearly all my life. The important thing is that you begin now to heal your shame so that it doesn’t dictate your life.