I had a mind-blowing epiphany recently.
First the back story:
Shame has been ever-present in my life. It's part of my maternal lineage. The story goes that my great grandmother shamed my grandmother, my grandmother shamed my mother, and my mother shamed me.
And then I shamed myself.
If I'd had a daughter I am sure I would have tried to shame her.
Women who struggle in their relationships with their mothers experience shame, for a variety of reasons, more often than women who have healthy relationships with their mothers.
I've been aware of this for years. I've worked with my shame. I've practiced feeling it. I've looked at it every which way. I've even learned that shame has gifts.
After my mother's visit, shame seemingly came out of nowhere and parked itself in my solar plexus. It sucked the life out of me. At times it felt like I was barely able to maintain a facade of normalcy. My shame had me finding evidence all over the damned place for how I am, truly, a bad-to-the-bone person. I wondered if anyone could possibly feel as much shame as I did and then I'd tell myself, "No, of course not, because no one is as bad as you."
It's why, in part, I wrote this: Shame Does Not Become You.
I had the presence of mind to be able to see this from a place outside of myself and it helped.
I also knew (thank you Brené Brown) that shame can't survive in the presence of empathy so I sought that out and found it in the presence of my husband, a couple of good friends, and my therapist.
And finally, I did some shadow work around the concept that "having is evidence of wanting" (thank you Christie Inge) and that if I feel shame then I must want to feel it. And yeah, this was super confronting but also super helpful.
"I want to feel shame because it keeps me connected to my mother. In fact, it may be the last vestige of connection between us. I find ways to keep myself ashamed so I can stay connected to her. It's something we share...it's how we bonded. Being a bad girl and being ashamed keeps me in a familiar pattern, whether it's with my mother or someone else. When I am bad, she/they/I punish me, and I feel shame, and then comes the "love." I love to feel shame because it proves I am bad and bad people never worry about taking care of others or pleasing others. I can be selfish and not have to take responsibility for anything. When I feel shame I am off the hook. I get to be weak and pathetic and have other people take care of me. If there's no one around to punish me, I punish myself, harshly, because that’s the only way to get love. I have to feel shame in order receive love. Shame = 'love'."
Shame is not love, it's Traumatic Bonding.
That was the epiphany.
So what to do about shame?
Here are some suggestions, things I practice regularly, to unshame myself:
Interrupt the pattern, physically. When I experience shame, I contract. My body folds in on itself. I feel a heavy weight in my solar plexus. My face feels hot, my breathing becomes shallow, and I crumple.
One way I can interrupt the physical pattern is to not allow myself to crumple. I straighten myself, throw back my shoulders, open my arms wide, and lift my face. This comes from the practice of Somatic Experiencing.
How does shame show up for you, physically? Is there an image? A physical state of being? How might you interrupt it?
Speak it out loud, to someone you trust. Shame comes from myriad beliefs about ourselves, especially that we are isolated, alone, and that no one else could possibly understand us or feel what we are feeling. One antidote is to reach out, connect, and state it to someone who will listen and empathize.
Do the shadow work. Consider that having is evidence of wanting. Take a deep dive into your shame and ask yourself how you might be secretly wanting it. Journal on it for five or 10 minutes.
Love yourself through it. Before I understood shame, I tended to let it spiral out of control and then engage in self-destructive behaviors to mask and repress it. Now I try to simply love the part of myself that feels ashamed (for more, check out Chapter 19, Taking Yourself Onto Your Own Lap, In Difficult Mothers, Adult Daughters). In so doing, I am able to also truly love the part of myself that is bold and unshamed.
Consider that no one can shame you without your permission. Unhealthy people like to project their discomfort and dysfunction onto others. When we're little, and the unhealthy person is our mother, we can't do anything about it. Chapter 21 in Difficult Mothers, Adult Daughters includes an exercise created by Dr. Mario Martinez, author The Mind-Body Code.
I will include an abbreviated version here:
Step 1: Sit quietly and allow your mind and your breathing to settle. Acknowledge in your mind that you need(ed) to abandon your shamer in order to live your life the way you want. Acknowledge that they felt/will feel betrayed.
Step 2: Say, aloud: “[Insert their name here], I am going to abandon you now. I am going to betray you now.”
Step 3: Become the other person (in your mind). Say to yourself (in their voice) these words: “I completely understand. I forgive you. All I want is for you to be happy.” It’s important that you hold both sides of this imagined conversation.
Step 4: Rebuild what Dr. Martinez calls your own “field of honor.” Make a list of all the times you have been honorable, starting as young as you can remember. What was the first honorable act of your life? Go from there and write down all the ways in which you have been honorable.
Step 5: Feel righteous anger (and note here that I am not suggesting that you act on it…just feel it). You will know that you are standing in your field of honor when your first reaction to attempts to shaming you are righteous anger. You will know that you are on the road to emotional health and recovery when [your shamer] tries to shame you, and rather than absorb that shame, you instead react with righteous anger.
Repeat after me: “I DO NOT DESERVE TO BE SHAMED!”
With honesty and transparency...
And much, much love,