Reflections on Shame

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I’d like to share here some things I have been reading and discovering about the role of shame in co-dependency, addiction and recovery.

Discovering the role of shame in my own life and its relationship to my addiction was a turning point for me. This discovery came several years into recovery and sobriety when I read John Bradshaw’s book : Healing the Shame that Binds You.  In that book John gave words to the feeling that had dogged me, especially during adolescence, that I was somehow defective as a person, not quite able to measure up.  This perspective led me to feel insecure and quite unsure of myself, it led me to hide and it also led me to my addictions, although I was not fully conscious of this at the time.

Shame was particularly associated with my Catholic upbringing. I learned to be ashamed of my body and my sexuality. It didn’t help being tall, I was often called names for being tall, skinny and gangly with did nothing to enhance my self esteem. Was I aware of this at the tender age of 18 when I started my first intimate relationship with my first boyfriend? No way. Hiding is a key aspect in shame and my shame and other feelings were repressed. I just wasn’t aware of the way they were driving me unconsciously.

There is a difference between guilt and shame but both can be used by parents and other caregivers who may want to induce in us, certain behaviours.  I recently read the following which explains something of how this happens:

These same useful (if painful) mechanisms can be turned against us by others who know (usually unconsciously) how to exploit them, and serve to drain off our own energy for their use. Guilt can be, then, inauthentic, like a computer virus, which hijacks our own circuitry for its purposes. Or shame becomes triggered not when we are doing something inherently anti-social, but rather when we are doing something that runs against the particular needs of an individual/group/family to have us hew to its rules, in order to have us accessible as an energy resource. In other words, the shame is not signaling that our behavior is anti-social (against social connectedness and cohesiveness), but rather is a chain that’s being yanked to keep us in line with another’s needs.

Source:  http://www.psychedinsanfrancisco.com/energy-theft

Guilt figured greatly in the creation of the inherent feeling of myself to be shameful. It was a huge part of what I was taught in my childhood.  I remember being guilted and shamed for taking initiative in my class one day, going to the cupboard and opening a new box of tissues for the class.  I had disobeyed (apparently??) some rule of which I was unconscious and got a roasting for it.

Reading John’s book I learned how, in childhood, we can be shamed for our very real and natural feelings. Anger is one feeling that is often shamed. Sadness too can be shamed, but so can excitement and joy. Once feelings become bound in shame we no longer feel safe enough to feel them and to be ourselves, thus the generation of narcissistic disturbances and the splitting off and hiding of the true self with a false mask.

It is recognised that shame plays a huge part in narcissism because to be human is to be vulnerable, but due to humiliation and shame narcissists no longer feel safe in being vulnerable, imperfect and human. Thus they can act shamelessly and they often put on a mask. To own their very real shame would make them human and open to being intimate and vulnerable.

With most narcissists their vulnerability can be projected and they can reject their very humanness and imperfection, if they were taught in childhood that they only way they could win love was to deny very human feelings.   Luckily when I got into AA at the age of 31 I could share about my shame, in rooms with others who did so too. I just had to be careful about not taking it on as an identity.

I no longer believe in original sin, but that is one of the tenants of Catholicism that I was taught. It’s a horrible and damaging idea, that our very instinctual childlikeness is something to be ashamed of. For as a child we have not yet developed a relationships with and insight into our feelings, these come with the help of healthy mirroring and empathy which teach us about boundaries and help us to come to terms with our feelings. I don’t believe we are born “evil”. I believe a lot of what is judged to be evil is a projection and yet there are people out there who act with no sense of healthy shame and they can be perhaps capable of evil things, in the way they hurt others.

I have just been rereading Terry Kellog’s book on co-dependency: Broken Toy Broken Dreams, Understanding and Healing Boundaries, Co-dependence, Compulsion and Family Relationships. When I read really insightful stuff I have the impulse to share it on line. So I am including here some of the very perceptive things he writes about shame.

In the meandering of a lost childhood, one can remain on the path of perpetual suffering and victimization or be motivated into a path of abusive and using destructiveness. The journeys both begin with the child’s loss of childness, with the internalizing of the natural response to abuse, which is to feel bad about oneself, ashamed. One child continues to receive and internalize: another learns to project and offend. One identifies with victimization and postures of the victim, the other with the aggression and postures of the aggressor. Some of us may shift back and forth between the two roles. Those who do the hurting in our culture are the siblings of those who get hurt – both began life without the protecting and affirmation needed for sensitivity and gentleness to self and others.

The path from the pain and destruction is to embrace, feel and share the sense of shame, to feel it, not repress it; to share it, not hide it, to embrace it, not get rid of it.   In the shame lies our vulnerability and in our vulnerability lies our path to intimacy. In our shame is the gate to our humanity, honour, guardianship, spirituality.

Shame is not the problem – it is a key part of the solution. We need our shame just as we need our anger, fear, sadness, guilt and joy. Our feelings are interwoven and to be rid of our feelings spells personal disaster. To not deal with each feeling affects our ability to deal with the others. It would be a strange child that would not feel shame when a parent hurts the child. It isn’t the hurt, the abuse or the shame that creates the lifelong problem. It is the denial of the hurt, the abuse, the repression of the shame.

When the shame is expressed, the child finds vulnerability, healthy dependency and healing. In expressing and sharing the shame and how bad we feel about ourselves, we are learning to depend on people. By expressing and embracing the shame, the child learns to act responsibly with a sense of shame, a sense of honour and a sense of guardianship.

You cannot have honour without shame. The larger problem in our culture is with shamelessness which may come from hidden repressed shame, but it is a denial of the shame and an inability to use it as a sense of guardianships.

Shame is the felt sense of capacity to do harm to others, to our planet, and to ourselves. Co-dependency is not shame and shame is not co-dependency. Shame is a feeling that most of us have a difficult time embracing or dealing with so we repress, ignore or detract from it. Some of us self judge through shame and others will act shamelessly and roll over others. The more power a person or group has in our culture, the more shameless they tend to be, the more likely they are to abuse other people or the planet.

Shame accesses our spirituality because it is a felt sense of our incompleteness, that we are not perfect. This felt sense of incompleteness creates a craving. When the shame is repressed, the craving becomes a need for a fix through addiction. In the embracing and sharing of our shame, the craving becomes a need for completeness through spirituality, through a sense of higher power, through meaning and the integration of our path in the process of creation.

One of the reasons I do believe groups such as AA offer healing is that they allow us to unmask our shame and deal with it. When we take the steps to heal in the 12 step programme a central part of the healing tasks centres around steps four and five, where we investigate the nature of our shame and share it with someone else who allows us not to be judged, but to learn from it. In the course of this step we separate out our healthy and unhealthy shame. In this way we learn that a lot of what we did in our active using or addiction was the outgrowth of having learned difficult and painful ways of getting our needs met, needs we may have been ashamed of. Taking the steps, reaching a place of insight and awareness, enables us to embrace our defects and celebrate our gifts.

I guess I am sharing about this at the moment, as over the past few days I have been experiencing some shame around certain things in my life. Voices of the last narcissist that made me bad and wrong still reverberate through my brain. At times I can separate from these voices but the inner critical shamer still gets some air time.

With the hindsight of 21 years of recovery I can see where I fell short of being a person who took steps to take care of herself, and that indeed this lack of self care, placed a burden on others, it also placed great expectations outside of myself. At the same time I realise that I really did need someone to depend upon in childhood and that person was not there.   I got to feel wrong for needing to depend and the need to depend got repressed and kept me stuck in an old pattern of looking in adulthood for what I didn’t get in childhood.  In the end the journey was to become aware of all of this.

Feeling the sense of shame and lack is okay, it shows me I am human. I certainly know I am far from perfect. I have been aware that I can react with anger when my shame gets triggered. I have also been on the receiving end of projected shame and guilt from certain people in my life over the past year. In sorting out my boundaries around this I guess I have learned a lot about others. I am more aware than I was a year ago and so I am growing. Most importantly I am glad that I have, over the past 21 years been able to unmask myself in a way that was not possible before. Certain people have seen this as a kind of weakness, this willingness to be vulnerable and open my feelings. Most importantly I have no longer had to participate in self shaming quite as much.

As I have shared in earlier blogs at times I have been shamed most especially for feeling sad. But I do agree with Terry Kellog when he says that our sadness and willingness to feel it is a form of self intimacy. That sadness enables us to do our grieving and move through our losses.

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Just this morning I felt really sad in response to something a relative had done in response to the wash up of my sister’s will and belongings. I expressed great sadness to my Mum who told me not to feel that way. This is not new for me. Later in the day we talked and she had exactly the same response to the issue last night when she had learned of the problem via my nephew. Mum couldn’t show compassion for me at that time but was distressed I was in pain.  Later in the day she called over to the house to see that I was okay..  I have to be careful where I go with this.  In the past my own distress sometimes does not allow me to see the blockages she has with feeling and accepting emotions.  This time I was not angry with her for not responding in the way I felt I needed. After all she is human, with her own limitations and defences. I brought the conversation to an end.

I know as a child and adolescent I was shamed for feelings, for being me, for being “too sensitive”. I no longer swallow that shame, just as I try to no longer swallow my feelings.

I know shame has been central to my journey and my ancestor’s journey.  My eldest sister who passed away earlier this year was crippled with shame, sadly.   I have the Saturn Moon legacy but I am beginning to see it is only a one part of who I am. These days I am a little more able to feel separate from the shame. It is no longer my central identity, masked through addiction and co-dependence. In being able to embrace true shame and less comfortable with acting shamelessly when I hurt others through my anger at this wound I have carried that has made life difficult, I can understand that often others can’t express their true feelings well, either. We are all human, we all carry wounds. In the end its about having manageable boundaries around feelings.

Often we learn to identify with the wounded self as being who we are, but this I believe is a mistake and core legacy of not having unmasked our true feelings and reaching an understanding around how these wounds which are the result of our past, re-enact, especially in relationships with others with narcissistic injuries. It took deeply painful relationships for me to reach these understandings. In the end the antidote was in the core of the wound, in allowing myself to feel it and in knowing that it was its own gift with lessons to teach me.

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