On Shame and vulnerability

I am half way through Brene Brown`s wonderful book Daring Greatly : How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead.  It is resonating with me so deeply and making me so much more aware how defences against shame and vulnerability underlie so many of our challenges in life.

When I got sober in 1993 I was introduced to the work of John Bradshaw.  For those of you who dont know John is a recovering alcoholic who was one of the first to address the issue of toxic shame in his book Healing the Shame That Binds You.  Some of the most enlightening points in that book concerned so called religious addiction and poisonous pedagogy​ Inherent to both is the idea that who we are is intrinsically flawed and that the only way we can over come this flawed condition is to seek perfection or correction of the beastly, sinful parts of us.  While it is true that we do develop flaws and vulnerabilities growing up, associating such with toxic shame leaves a lasting legacy and burden it can be hard to get out from under.   Shame concerns the feeling that who we are is flawed.  We loose a sense that who we are is actually good at the core and then we learn to engage in all kinds of behaviours where we learn to try to either deflect the hot shame potato to others or deflect the blows of projected shame coming at as.  Some of us who become scapegoat or shame identified take on the mantle of shameful one and seek to attone in all kinds of ways.

In order to deflect shame Brene explains we respond in one of three ways :

  1. We move away by withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, and keeping secrets;
  2. We move toward by seeking to appease and please;
  3. We move against by trying to gain power over others, by being aggressive and by using shame to fight shame…..

According to Brene all of these defences actually move us away from connection both with ourselves and others.  They lead us to disconnect from our deny or bury the true source of shame which lies within.

The alternative (which is not very attractive to some) is to keep our heart open when we may feel the hot shame potato being lobbed at us.  This is what happens with bullies or critics when they seek to attack us or bring us down (often projecting their own shadow onto us).  We need a deeper understanding of the other person`s defences against experiencing and taking on board their own shame.   This takes a of work most especially if as children we were shamed for feeling natural feelings (this leads to what John Bradshaw calls shame bound feelings.)

I know I most certainly entered the rooms of Alcoholic’s Anonymous just under 24 years ago all of my feelings were bound in shame.  I had gone through so much in my life and like Brene learned to use alcohol and drugs as coping mechanisms.  I did not know anything about shame.  I did not understand how much it had been a part of my life post particularly having gone through a Catholic education and in this way I fared even better than my two sisters who went to school during the 1950s and 1960s.

As I read Brene`s book I am becoming also very aware of how even years into recovery shame played a huge part in the last dysfunctional relationships I entered.  By that stage I had so much to grieve and had aborted several therapies.   I did not have any form of trust in people and in my family I watched grief being buried or deflected.  I was aware at that point that grief work was a big part of recovery, but I was not aware that the energetic lively self that got buried was also wearing a huge overcoat of shame as I carried a fear if I ever got too happy things would decombust.

Now I see how much shame and fear of vulnerablity ruled my own life, I am also developing a lot more compassion for others, most especially members of my family.  If we get raised never feeling good enough we do begin to adopt some of the armouring defences Brene discusses in Chapter 4 of her book.  We feel scared of risking expressing who we really are and can begin to put on masks.  In my own case from early days on in AA I was committed to taking the mask down.  I heard deeply with my heart as others shared of their own feelings of being exiles and aliens in a strange world and I cried so much at meetings hearing these stories.  Eventually I moved away from meetings to pursue therapy in the UK after my husband and I moved there in my 6th year of sobriety.  Understanding the roots of shame and vulnerability has been a far longer journey.

Today I was listening to the breakfast programme on our national radio station in Australia where the sexual abuse case against producer Harvey Weinstein was being discussed.  The commentators where saying how the revelations of those abused by Weinstein were awakening revelations of abuse for many women and how some of these women were being publically shamed by men on social media.  Oh, I thought, here goes the hot shame potato again.  Why is it so hard for us to have compassion for a person`s vulnerability?   (Often because those people judging and defending have not one clue of what it feels like to be violated in such a way.)  It saddened me while I also realised this is really just human nature, the sad state we find ourselves in collectively at present.

In my own life I am very glad that over time I have been able to open up my vulnerability.  That said opening up my vulnerability to shame bound or defended persons was not only not helpful, but down right damaging.  In that last relationship I was shut out and shamed so often for genuinely expressing my feelings.  It took me so long to understand that the partner I had chosen was so defended because his own pain was so huge and his own fear of vulnerability and his true feelings so powerful.

Today I can be honest most of the time.  I still engage in a lot of perfection seeking behaviours around my home which as so deep rooted I despair sometimes of ever fully overcoming them but I always draw comfort from the AA idea that we seek progress rather than perfection.   Perfection is an ideal perhaps never to be fully realised.  That said I keep striving for wholeness, to take on board my own shadow and defences a d olf fears against opening up and being emotional vulnerability.   It is a work in progress and along the way I am so so grateful for those people such as John Bradshaw and Brene Brown who are engaged in working to unmask and enlighten the powerful role shame and perfectionism play in our lives and world presently.   What a gift to have this knowledge and understanding.

The mother wound we carry

I wanted to share the following excerpt from Mark Wolynn’s excellent book on inherited family trauma : It Didn’t Start With You.   It is one of the most important books I have ever read, just sad I heard about it over 2 years ago and only just bought it.  What he shares of his own experience and understanding with healing multigenerational trauma in both his own life and lives of his clients is nothing short of remarkable.  He also uses the latest research conducted into epigenetics to support his claims showing how early stress and lack of nurture affects our neurological structure even in the womb, as well as how inherited trauma of a grandparent or great grandparent can be carried and communicated even along paternal (as well as maternal) streams of inheritance.  It is changing the way I am thinking about my own mother nurturance wound and the addiction that grew out of it.

To put it simply, we receive aspects of our grandmother’s mothering through our own mother.  The traumas our grandmothers endured, her pains and sorrows, her difficulties in childhood or with our grandfather, the losses of those she loved who died early – these filter, to some degree, into the mothering she gave our mother.  If we look back another generation, the same would likely be true about the mothering our grandmother received.

The particulars of the events that shaped their lives may be obscured from our vision, but nevertheless, the impact of those particulars can be deeply felt.  It’s not only what we inherit from our parents but also how they were parented that influences how we relate to a partner, how we relate to ourselves, and how we nurture our children.  For better or worse, parents tend to pass on the parenting they themselves received.

These patterns appear to be hardwired into the brain, and begin to be formed before we’re even born  How our mother bonds with us in the womb is instrumental in the development of our neural circuitry.  Thomas Verney says, “From the moment of our conception, the experience in the womb shapes the brain and lays the groundwork for personaltity, emotional temperament, and the power of higher thought.”  Like a blueprint, these patterns are transmitted more than learned.

The first nine months outside the womb function as a continuation of the neural development that occurs within the womb.  Which neural circuits remain, which are discarded, and how the remaining circuits will be organised depend on how the infant experiences and interacts with the mother or caregiver.  It’s through these early reactions that a child continues to establish a blueprint for managing emotions, thoughts and behaviours.

When a mother (or father) carried inherited trauma, or has experienced a break in the bond with her mother (or father), it can affect the tender bond that’s forming with her infant, and that bond is more likely to be interrupted.  The impact of an early break in the mother – child bond – an extended hospital stay, an ill timed vacation, a long term separation – can be devastating for an infant.  The deep, embodied familiarity of the mother’s smell, feel, touch, sound, and taste – everything the child has come to know and depend on – is suddenly gone.

“Mother and offspring live in a biological state that has much in common with addiction,” says behaviour science writer Winifred Gallagher.  “When they are parted, the infant does not just miss its’ mother, it experiences a physical and psychological withdrawal… not unlike the plight of a heroin addict that goes cold turkey.”  This analogy helps to explain why all newborn mammals, including humans protest with such vigour when they are separated from their mothers.  From an infant’s perspective, a separation from mother can be felt as “life threatening.” says Dr, Raylene Philips, a neonatologist at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital.   “If separation continues for a prolonged period,” she says, “the… response is despair….  The baby gives up.”

In my early life, I knew that feeling of giving up.  It came from my family.  What my mother didn’t get from her mother affected what she was able to give to me and to my sibling.  Although I could always feel her love shine through, much of her mothering was infused with the traumas in our family history – specifically the fact that her mother, Ida, lost both of her parents when she was two.

Orphaned at two, my grandmother was raised by her elderly grandparents, who earned a living peddling rags from a pushcart in the Hill District in Pittsburgh.  My grandmother adored her grand parents, and often lit up with she shared memories about how much they loved her.  But that was only part of the story – the part she could consciously remember.  A deeper story lay beneath her reach.

Before Ida was a toddler, perhaps even in the womb, she would have absorbed the sensations of her mother’s distress caused by the constant arguing, the tears and disappo8ntmets.  All this would have had a profound effect on the crucial neural development taking place in Ida’s brain.  Then, losing her mother at age two would leave her emotionally shattered.

It’s not only that my mother was raised by an orphan who couldn’t give her the nurturing she never got from her mother, my mother also inherited the visceral trauma of Ida’s separation from her mother at an early age.  Although Ida was present physically in my mother’s life, she was unable to express the depth of emotion that would support my mother’s life.  That missing emotional connection also became part of my mothers’ inheritance.

….

In order to end the cycle of inherited trauma in my family, and ultimately for my own healing, I realised that I needed to heal my relationship with my mother.  I knew I couldn’t change what had happened in the past, but I certainly could change the relationship we had now.

My mother had inherited her mother’s stress patterns, and so did I.  She would often clutch her chest and complain about feelings of agitation in her body.  I realise now that she was unconsciously reliving the fear and loneliness that rippled through our family, the terror of being separated from the one she needed most – her mother.

There is much more to the story of family patterns Mark inherited and finally uncovered and discovered after a long journey of seeking outside for answers to his own psychological anxiety and trauma issues.   Reading his account has made so much sense to me of the symptoms of separation anxiety I experience at exactly the time of day my own grandmother, widowed in her early 30s, left my own mother (aged 8) alone to go and clean offices.  The two times of day were 4 to 8 pm and in the early hours of the am.  These are the times of day I experience my own anxiety/panic issues.  I had a growing sense developing in later months that what I was experiencing at those times was not mine alone, that it didn’t start with me.  And that was the exact time of day I had my head trauma injury in 2005 a year after my husband and I separated as I ran from him and my mother out of fear they would not support me in my own deep grief which I now know relates to a mother separation wound going back 4 generations.

Mark’s evidence and experience of his own and in his clients life (which I will share more remarkable examples of in a following post) backs up my own.  His work with inherited family patterns is so important that I am going to make it focus of my following posts.  This is important knowledge so many of us need to have, in order to heal and end deeply entrenched patterns of emotional blindness, ignorance and blame that keep us separated from a profound psychological understanding.

Feeling my way into my heart

A truly heart centred life is not easy to live in this world.  So many claims are made upon our time and energy.  In many respects I am lucky not to be pulled on by a ‘day job’, as I have shared before I stopped work after two traumas and then I isolated alone for a few years before seeking release or ‘rescue’ through a new relationship, although I did not fully understand at the time that that was what I was doing. Instead this strong guy turned up at the units I was living in, in an semi isolated place on the coast and we were pulled into a relationship.

Our very first conversation was one in which I shared that I was a sober recovering alcoholic. Not that that is really who I AM but it was the space I was in at the point, abstinent from alcohol, trying to get a handle on the forces that had been pulling on my life and heart and struggling to see how I could find a new direction inward to my heart in order to know my way.   But I didn’t even know all of that at the time and I had been severely discombobulated by two accidents, the first of which happened overseas when I was trying to make a ‘break’ and move forward but also being impinged upon by other wills, other voices, others’ resistances.

I now see I was on the edge of my ‘grief work’.  The lost kid inside me was trying to find a way back to herself and if that lost kid lives anywhere, I believe he or she lives in both our gut and our heart.  We absolutely cannot know her ways until we can open the door and find a path inward to those true places of being and knowing inside of us, no matter how long barricaded or buried.

In many ways this guy I met was also a lost child. As I look back I see that at that point in 2007 we two lost kids found each other and then went to war with the barricaded places.  In my case I was sad a lot and angry when old wounds of lack of attention and abandonment were triggered.  In his case the way to his sadness was barricaded by an angry monster who had erected a sign on the door.  ‘Do not enter’.  So I was angry and sad a lot but also full of joy when our two little kids came out to play together at times and we touched base with a place of heart, being and may I say love.

The entire 4 and a half year story is too long to go into here.  We eventually split up and my heart was now not only trying to deal with the grief I took into that relationship but also the resonances of older griefs it had stirred up.  Overpowered I ran back to my home town after another aborted attempt to make a break in a new place.  And here over the past 6 years I have been trying to find my way to my heart, or rather the place in it that is not broken or shattered, the place within it which has a wellspring of hope, joy, promise, self expression and love.

Today I sat in my local shopping centre drinking my coffee at my favourite place, reading the biography of someone also in addiction recovery who eventually after finding sobriety made the decision to leave London and return to her home, Orkney an island in the Scottish Hebrides.  Here she touches base with nature and eventually takes on a position working in the Royal Society For the Preservation of Birds.   It is a biography tinged with isolation and aloneness but also with the courage of a woman trying to find a way forward from a destructive past. Sadly it doesn’t really go into the hidden pain in her heart. As a young child she watched her father flown away to a psychiatric unit after a ‘manic’ attack.   But it is still hauntingly beautiful and today as I read I felt tears in my eyes as I thought both of my self and this woman, two survivors trying to find a way forward after suffering the wreckage of a confused and lost past.

And those tears were a relief because those tears spoke to me of truths that I could never fully articulate in this blog where so much grief and pain lurks in unspoken spaces but also a winged bird of heart awakening to truths that in burgeoning there so long to arise and take flight.   So on a half used tissue I wrote these words, my meagre attempt to express this ;

I can cry,

no one can see me sitting here

silently

fissure deep broken open

to reveal a heart,

longing,

so long buried

forsaken

or denied

where could I find myself

under such barren skies

lost

wandering

artless

it seems so long since I ever had a home.

If home is where the heart is…

where is my heart?

Silently beating

between breathless fits and starts

it flutters in my chest

like a broken winged bird

who so long ago lost direction

finding itself in the middle of the flock

broke off

soared freely

captured by winds of desire and inward turning

it was lured to another destination

beyond the mainstream

Where storm filled skies and winds

Led it to crash amongst the rocks

Slipstream

carry my heart,

let it open its wings to the breeze,

let it surrender those defences

which arrest the flow of breath and blood

so that new life can enter

and that broken winged bird

can finally

gain enough strength

to fly again.

Decisions, boundaries and self care

It was a tough therapy appointment yesterday.  I am really regretting having my tooth out.  I don’t seem to feel any better at the moment and not being able to chew food well is really affecting me.  I am aware that I need to be patient as what I am going through is as huge adjustment but I just wish I had stuck with the crack in the tooth as I am not really sure it was giving me an infection, as my body is still full of phlegm and gunk.  I also felt very disappointed in my therapist and wanted to throw the whole therapy over yesterday but at the same time I was aware of the state of mind I am at and it was poisoning my right view of the value of what Katina does give to me.  So I just went to it and fully expressed all my feeling to her.

She was amazing, she sat there and empathised and then apologised for influencing me because she had said to me several times “if you do have an infection it is probably poisoning your entire body”.  I am not sure that is really what has been happening, the poison is the anger I sometimes feel that I don’t use effectively to assert boundaries at times.   Anyway we discussed it all and I left the session feeling a whole lot calmer basically because of the empathy Kat showed to me.  And I am adult enough to know no one has the answers always for me.  They may be able to understand or empathise but they may not know how things will turn out for me if I make a decision and they can advise but they don’t have to live with the consequences which is something my niece and I were discussing the other day.

Have you ever decided you wanted to do something that may be good for you, but when you mention it to others, they try to dissuade you or pour cold water over your decision?  I think it happens a lot and its something we were also discussing in therapy yesterday, how do we know who to truly trust with our decisions?  After all no one else has to live our lives.

I have been on the end of discouragement when I have asked for advice on doing what would have ultimately been good things for me.  I look back to those times and see I didn’t stay strong and own my own power.  And afterwards I felt resentment but also had to accept I was responsible for the decisions and choices I make.  As a people pleaser it is sometimes hard for me to say I wont do something that I think may bring joy to another person or to take care of me when you are hurting or in need.  As I shared the other day, when I have the energy to give to others, I will give it, naturally it is what I want to do as an empathic person.  But there are times I just need to take care of me.  And I guess that is where discrimination comes in as well as a good sense of connection to my inner energy levels, feelings and needs.   What I am talking about here are boundaries and on some level we can say that on the spiritual plane boundaries don’t fully exist as we all come from the source, that grander sphere where we are connected to each other beyond words and other human constructs and as our egos form we learn what is ours and what is not ours if we are lucky enough to have good help to build healthy egos but if not we can be in trouble.

And that is why empaths and highly sensitive people can struggle a lot.  We instinctively feel the feelings of others and want to reach out and to do so is natural and good most of the time.  When others have defences against us though we suffer.   I heard a saying a long while back and its a major lesson that I learned in my last intimate relationship that a person can never reject you, just a part of themselves they see in you that they have not befriended in themselves.   This is the defensive ego that may want to reject you if you are feeling sick or vulnerable.  This is the protective ego that doesn’t want to see that you may have hurt and a deep longing for love hidden beneath anger. For if you think about it if we get rejected for anger the person is not seeing that on some level we felt hurt and are trying to get that hurt addressed.  Then the hurt has no where to go,  and we are left holding it and then as someone asked me the other day “where do I put this anger?”.  I responded by suggesting prayer.  It seems to me the only thing I can do when my anger gets too much, I pray to my higher power for help with it.  And if someone won’t address it with me and I see that my anger is justified I have to beware of how I relate with that person in future.  I may need to forgive so I don’t keep holding onto the pain and hurt myself more, but I may be better off not having that much to do with them if they express no concern for how their actions affect me.

It can take a long time for some of us (like me) to see we have the right to set this kind of boundary if people have blown us off before for expressing how we feel.  And we also don’t have to take every hurt we feel to someone else, for in the end its really up to us to care for ourselves and protect ourselves and we all have the right to do this .

If we were sensitive and hurt a lot in childhood.  If we were teased, humiliated, made to feel small, gaslighted or invalidated developing the wisdom and power to develop and set boundaries may be a process fraught with peril.  If we were led to believe that emotional abuse was not emotional abuse we may be very confused as to our boundaries.  That is why we absolutely need an empathic person to go to, to express our truth with and get a reality check.  And we need power and strength to know we have the right to take care of ourselves and that we are not bad or wrong or selfish for doing so.   And some of us can keep chosing to love even when on the end of shitty behaviour from others once we have learned to practice self care, we can learn to positively detach not with hatred and anger but with love, a true honest love that comes out of respect, maturity and a deeper empathy for suffering.

I held your hand

Child

Alone here today

I held your little hand in mine

Debs I travelled so far

In forgetting the way home to you

I lost and buried you

In the deep

And forgot for so many years

That you were always so close by

Waiting for me to wake up to you

Crying all alone in the dark

How hard it must have been for you

To see the larger me go deaf and numb to you

Pouring down my gullet

Things to shut you up

But now

The healing miracle that took years

You are here with me

We have found each other

Or I have found the way back to you

I will never leave you darling

And though we should never deny

How much we long

For another human hand to hold

Know this

That for as long as I am alive

You will never be alone again

I will always be here

Tears of becoming

1-1

This will just be brief as I have to go to an appointment soon but I wanted to get this down as lately I have been crying so deeply and sharing with my therapist yesterday, after reading a blog I wrote yesterday but did not post to her she said to me.

Deborah, I think these tears you are crying are actually tears of becoming, they are the soul’s expression of grief for your lost self, sadness from the real self that never got to fully birth but is birthing now.

WOW!   It made so much sense for me, yesterday the post I wrote and will post today was about the missed opportunities and how disappointed I am in myself but in the session we spoke of how the second accident coming at a pivotal time when I was trying to emerge at the end of my marriage echoed the earlier one that happened when I was on the brink of opening to my being and sexuality and self.  It was a full scale onslaught that tore my flesh apart and ruptured me, taking me into hospital, an enclosed womb attached by pins to a pully and bed for three months.  I carry the deep echo imprint of that.

Katina said to me.  I want to say this, please take care now as you are on the brink of emerging again and the traumatic imprint could be retriggered.  It scares me but birth is also a kind of death a death of the old self we have to shed like a skin that has grown too tight for us.  Shedding it leaves us open, raw, vulnerable and naked for a time very exposed, shedding so many tears.  Tears of becoming.