Shame: what do we really need in order to heal?
The first thing that has to happen in order for a person to heal, is that they need to establish a feeling of safety and have access to support. The next stage involves gently shining a torch into the darkness of hidden emotions and finding ways to process them. Each person is different and needs to find what works for them – and to do the work at their own pace.
This is part 2 of a 3-part blog article on shame focusing on the healing and recovery process. Last week’s blog looked at the topic of shame and the long-lasting catastrophic effects it can have for individuals, families and society.
Make sure you are truly ready
Healing our shame is not a quick and easy process – it takes courage and determination. It also requires that we are in a secure place, physically and emotionally. We have to be ready to do the work. As toxic shame can be the result of having shame-based parents who were not dependable in terms of meeting our needs, in order to heal we have to face those needs and finally get them met. Therefore we need some kind of support system whether that’s a close friend, a partner, support group or a therapist capable of listening, giving you honest and non-shaming feedback, and unwavering support.
Come out of darkness into light
As long as our shame is hidden, there is nothing we can do about it. The more we avoid it, the worse it gets and we cannot change our “internalised” shame until we “externalise” it. This is far easier said than done – “internalised” means that the shame has become a part of you and been buried deep in the subconscious. So a major part of healing is to bring it back into the conscious, by becoming aware of the thinking patterns that rule your behaviour and induce your painful feelings. “Externalising” shame gives it a physical form with which you can do battle – but to do this is emotionally painful, because you are choosing to face feelings you’ve been trying to avoid for years. Although it seems impossible at the start, the only way out is through.
It’s important to stress that generally this process does not mean talking about all the traumatic memories in great detail. If you do this, you may end up re-traumatising yourself over and over. It is the emotions you are trying to access and release. Some people find that some of the body healing therapies such as reiki, shiatu or energy healing are very useful at this point. Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT or tapping as it’s sometimes called) can also be extremely helpful as it allows you to access those deep emotions in a gentle way without you needing to talk about them. The surfacing emotions, provided you are in a safe place, are generally not overwhelming even though anger, sadness, pain and shame may linger on for several months or longer.
It takes an incredible amount of courage to face the feelings as the primary drive of shame-based people is the desire to avoid feeling their shame. Half the battle is overcoming this drive, and getting to a point where you’re open and willing to do the work to heal.
The remainder of this blog looks at 2 different types of exercise that you may find useful but if at any time you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by your emotions, stop immediately. Some people need to do these kinds of exercises with a close friend or counsellor, at least at the start. Do what feels right for you and no more.
Much new and exciting research has been done in the healing power of compassion and in relation to the above paragraph, compassion might mean coming to terms with your parents as they are(or if they have passed on, as they were) – ordinary imperfect human beings who are or were simply doing the best that they could at the time.
Self-Compassion – an exercise
Until a few years ago, the subject of self-compassion had never been formally studied. Social psychologist Kristin Neff discovered that self-compassion can act as an antidote to self-criticism—a major characteristic of those who experience intense shame. Self-compassion is a powerful trigger for the release of oxytocin, the hormone that increases feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness. Self-criticism, on the other hand, has a very different effect on our body. The amygdala which is the oldest part of the brain, is designed to quickly detect threats in the environment. When we experience a threatening situation, the fight-or-flight response is triggered and the amygdala sends signals that increase blood pressure, adrenaline cortisol. This enables us to draw on the strength and energy we need to confront or avoid the treat. Although this system was designed by evolution to deal with physical attacks, it is activated just as readily by emotional attacks—from ourselves and others. Over time increased cortisol levels lead to depression by depleting the various neurotransmitters involved in the ability to experience pleasure. At the very basic physical level, your harmful talk is lowering the levels of good hormones and raising that levels of bad ones! The more shame we feel, the more deficient we feel and in turn, the more separate we feel from others. But self-compassion helps us to recognize our common humanity—the fact that we have all done things that we feel ashamed about and that we all experience the same pain in difficult times.
One exercise designed to increase self-compassion is as follows. Sit down in a comfortable chair where you won’t be disturbed for about 20 minutes and take a few slow gentle breaths. When you feel ready:
1. Think of one of your most shaming experiences from the past. Now think of what you wish someone had said to you right after that experience. What would have been the most helpful and healing for you to hear at that time? Write this statement down on a piece of paper.
2. Imagine that someone you care very much about is saying those words to you now. Hear those words in your ears. Take those words into your heart. Notice how those words make you feel.
3. Now say those words out loud to yourself. Take a deep breath and really take in those words. How does hearing yourself say those words out loud make you feel?
If you are like most people, hearing those words of compassion can be very healing. In some ways it doesn’t really matter that you are hearing them now rather than at the time. What matters is that you let the words in now—that you experience both the compassion from someone else and that you provide self-compassion toward yourself.
Access your Resources – an exercise
This is taken from NLP an approach to communication, personal development, and psychotherapy created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in California in the 1970s. If you have heard of Pavlov’s experiments with dogs, you will see the similarities with anchoring. Pavlov sounded a bell as the dog was shown food and the dogs salivated. After some parings of the bell and the food, the bell alone elicited salivation.
Anchors are stimuli that call forth states of mind – thoughts and emotions. For example, the smell of a cake baking may take you back to your childhood. A song on the radio may remind you of a certain person. These anchors work automatically and you may not be aware of the triggers. This exercise involves deliberately creating positive and powerful anchors:
In a quiet room, in a comfortable chair, simply relax and focus on your breathing for a couple of minutes. Think about an incident that happened in your past that still makes you feel shameful – not one of the worst memories, but still an uncomfortable feeling. Relive the memory and feel the emotions of it, still gently being aware of your breathing as you do. As you do, touch your left thumb to one of your left fingers and hold that contact for thirty seconds. What you’re doing is creating an anchor—a physical action that will trigger the memory and its associated emotions. Then, pull yourself out of the memory by thinking about something neutral and non-threatening and simply breathe gently.
Now ask yourself: what resource or skill do I have now that, if I’d had it then, would have enabled me to handle things differently? If it was something that happened in childhood one key difference is that you are now a fully grown adult with physical strength. But also you’re more articulate now, more assertive, more confident, perhaps. Think of a memory when you really showed one of those positive traits such as being strong and confident and remember the positive feelings associated with it. Focus on as many sensory details as you can – how you looked, sounded, felt, what was going on around you – you want the memory to be vivid and specific so as to harness the emotional power of the real event. Create an anchor by holding your right thumb to a finger on your right hand. This anchor will help you call your resource the next time you relive your shaming memory. Again, pull out by thinking of something neutral.
Now go back in time and redo the first shaming experience but this time, give yourself access to the positive resource or skill you’ve just practiced. You do this by sinking into the memory as you touch the anchors on both hands. The goal is to change what you feel while reliving the memory. Tell the shaming person in your memory how angry you are. Tell him that you know he’s trying to pass his shame to you, and you won’t take it, something like “I’m just a small child. How dare you take out your frustrations on me – I did absolutely nothing to deserve it.” Say whatever you feel, and feel free to say it out loud.
The final part of this blog article on healing shame will be published next week.
Need some more advice and support?
If you have been affected by shame and would like to talk it over with someone who understands, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.
Book a counselling session today!