My Core of Shame
Greetings gentle readers,
I have been doing very intense work lately in therapy, mainly centered around shame. A deep, excoriating shame provoked when I go anywhere near talking about my body or my weight. In the midst of attempting to engage with the shame (which has been a slow, disjointed process because I just DO NOT WANT TO GO THERE), a situation occurred in my life that has triggered a massive amount of shame to be kicked up. One of those “coincidences” in therapy that neither BN or I believe in.
I have been back to weekly sessions (as schedules have permitted) and the last five or six months have been brutal. For a time, I was even dealing with flashbacks and dissociation, which happens very rarely these days and have found myself literally unable to remember what happened in sessions when I am in between them. The issues I have been dealing with, of my body, my weight, my overeating and my sexuality are kicking up a sense of shame that is agonizing to say the least. I have not really been talking about what has been going on, because it’s felt so raw and exposing that speaking of it to BN, in the utter safety of his office, has felt close to impossible, let alone talking about it anywhere else. The recent situation involves other people whose privacy I wish to protect and has been woven throughout most of my sessions for the last five months which has made it difficult to discuss therapy. Add this all up and the result is that I have been having a difficult time trying to write for the blog.
A while back during a couple’s session, BN made the very powerful connection between dieting and shame. That the instant I went anywhere near trying to discuss my body or weight, an enormous shame would erupt causing me to shy away. This insight helped me to understand why trying to eat right or exercise would so quickly derail. Trying to eat right or exercise would bring my body to my attention, but I am so ashamed of having a body, that it is too painful to concentrate on it for any length of time. As I have attempted to start tackling these topics in therapy, it has been quite astounding how unconsciously I shy away or change the subject or sometimes just…. stop. Totally forget what I was even trying to say. So I have been going in, having very intense sessions, then walking out and forgetting about them. I remember at one point approaching an upcoming session and was thinking back on the last session to figure out where I wanted to pick up and drew a complete blank. I had to think long and hard before I could remember the last session and was shocked to realize that it had been an intense session with important work; not the kind of thing you usually forget.
Shame has been, far and away, the hardest emotion I have attempted to regulate. First and foremost, because it feels like a state of being. “Being in a state of shithood” as BN so memorably, and accurately described it. 🙂 Shame doesn’t feel like a feeling; it just feels like the truth. And not a small truth, but a consuming truth, a truth that overshadows everything else you know. I have wrestled for years to gain a sense of my self-worth and would even say that I have made a huge amount of progress in being able to hang on to a sense of my own worth for longer and longer periods of time. So I have not been unaware that I carried shame with me. But I don’t think that I truly recognized the depth and intensity of the shame until I started to confront it.
BN has been doing a lot of reading about shame lately (go figure, another of those coincidences I don’t believe in! 😀 ) which has positioned him nicely to explain it to me. All human beings experience misattunements as children. When attunement is broken, we automatically assume we have done something wrong and a sense of shame arises. It is an emotion, but an intense one that affects us physiologically. So deeply that it interferes with our attachment mechanisms. So we turn away, trying not to be seen, because we feel unworthy and fear being sent away (a death sentence). If a child has “good enough” parents, their caregiver quickly moves to re-establish attunement, and restore relationship. The child is not left alone with their shame nor do they have to endure it for a long time. For that is the answer to shame: to be seen and have the other reflect that despite you feeling worthless, you matter to them and they can see and reflect your worth. When this happens consistently, a child experiences a background of being worthy, occasionally punctuated with moments of shame. They experience shame as something that doesn’t last, as a feeling they can turn to another to get help with.
On the other hand, a child who experiences neglect or abuse, has frequent experiences of missattunement and hence, shame. And because their caregiver is not focused on their needs, through inability or seeing the child as something to be used, misattunements are not noticed and repaired and the shame can go on for a long time. So they turn away from relationship, only to have no one come after them, which reinforces the feeling that they are not worthy nor do they matter. They have failed to measure up and are cast out. For the child with insecure attachment, this sense of shame, of defectiveness, of not being worthy, is taken in on the same deep level and integrated into their sense of self, in the same way that the child with secure attachment integrates their sense of worth.
It is this core sense of shame, this deep-seated belief that I am worthless, that I must turn away, that I will be outcast, that I have been confronting (well, ok whimpering in the face of, running away, freezing, occasionally taking tentative steps towards BN). I have learned a number of very important things by doing this, not the least of which is just how profoundly deep my sense of trust is with BN. Everything in me is screaming not to be seen, not to express this, to turn away. I have spent weeks at a time bereft of the sense of connection I worked so hard to earn, because my shame interfered with my sense of attachment. But the second thing I have learned is that the only way to break a sense of shame is to be seen, to connect, to allow another person to show you that when you look up, you do not see what you dread: confirmation of your worthlessness and rejection. You see acceptance and compassion. I am blessed in that when I can force myself to look up, I see BN, who has radiating compassion and acceptance down to a fine art. But the terror is there each time. So automatic and so unconscious, that often I turned away without making any conscious decision to do so. BN has spent a lot of time in the last five months watching me grope for words, any words, to express the feelings inside. He’s also spent a lot of time looking at the back of my hands, covering my face.
I remember one session discussing my sense of worthlessness. I truly believe, on a very deep level, that there is fundamentally something wrong with me. I think there has been a sense of dread in every significant relationship in my life, that it was only a matter of time until the person realized this and left me. So always I have hid myself, in dread of this truth being revealed. BN was telling me that my sense of shame was an emotion, a feeling that reflected lie I had learned to believe through repetition. I burst out in agony and asked him “But what if my feelings are right? How can you know it’s not true?” and he very calmly told me “Because it’s impossible for it to be true. You are worthwhile.” I literally rocked back in my chair, utterly stunned.
Shame is an emotion. It feels like a state of being, but it’s a feeling. This seems obvious in retrospect, but the first time BN said it to me (1st of 5,672 times at last count 🙂 ) it was like a lightning bolt struck. Realizing that shame is a feeling finally helped me to start to get a grip on it. For if shame is a feeling, then I can learn to regulate and integrate it. And that realization in turn gave me hope, because I can remember coming to terms with other feelings in the past and learning to tolerate them.
Feeling ashamed is part of me and it is safe to own that. Like all feelings, when you stop fighting it and allow yourself to feel it, it moves through you. Odd paradox that, the longer you fight a feeling in an attempt to not have it, the longer it sticks around. I often can feel ashamed of feeling ashamed and during one session expressed, quite vehemently, that I hated that I felt this way, that I reacted with shame, instead of calmly being able to own my stuff. And BN said something priceless to me. He told me I had to stop hating that part of myself. There were good reasons that I felt this way and I needed to stop cutting off that part of myself and instead treat it with compassion. And that is when I realized that this is just another stepping stone on the path of integration.
I am making slow progress. These days I am running parallel tracks. In one channel runs the excoriating shame and deep sense of my worthlessness. But alongside it runs a tender shoot of acceptance and compassion, of the realization that it’s ok to acknowledge when I mess up without having to believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with me. It is safe to recognize my humanity, without turning it into monstrosity. That my sense of wrongness is a lie I to which I no longer need to listen. I have hope that, eventually, after BN explains it to me 8,456 more times, the neuronal network carrying that belief will grow up and grow strong and be able to pulverize my sense of shame in shorter and shorter intervals of time.
On a side note, this has led to an interesting shift in my attitude about my weight and my body (OK, not so much a shift as a work in progress; I’m faking it until I make it right now). I started this by saying that attempting to lose weight and exercise reminded me of my body, which made me feel ashamed, which made me want to stop those activities. In reflecting on this, I realized that I was so ashamed of my body that it felt like I needed to be punished by not eating, that I was not worthwhile nor could I matter, until I reached an “acceptable” weight. BN has made it very clear, over and over, that my weight has nothing to do with my worth or acceptance with him. And you know, he really means it. I am truly ok with him just as I am. So I am trying to approach this a different way, which is that I am truly worthwhile and acceptable right now, at the weight I am. But it would be healthier and I would feel better if I was able to lose some weight and get in better shape. So not eating as much, and exercising, stop being punishments for my transgressions and shame, but instead are acts of love towards my body, which is me, the place I dwell, that deserves to be taken care of. While there is a strong need to turn away from shame being called up, there is no need to turn away from an act of love.
It’s scary to say the above, as I am just venturing out into changing my behavior and I have a long history of failing to stick with it behind me. But then I realize that is the old way of thinking, that failing to carry through will prove I am not acceptable and therefore will be scorned and rejected. The truth is that if I “succeed” or “fail” I am worthwhile and matter. So it’s ok to talk about these struggles.
Thanks for reading, it feels good to at last find my “voice” on this subject.
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