Feeling shame, a sense that you are shameful and not worthy, is a terrible, painful way to live your life, and unfortunately all too common. It can pop up when you least expect it and sabotage your attempts to achieve your goals, have the healthy relationships you desire, and can even affect how you parent your own children.
The first step to healing is to understand the different levels of experience -why you are left feeling ‘ashamed’ when your mind knows better!
There are three kinds of shame: as a secondary response to trauma, as a result of being shamed as a child, and because of intergenerational & collective shame.
1. SHAME AS A SECONDARY RESPONSE TO TRAUMA
Feeling shame and low self-worth can be a secondary response to trauma, such as when you feel ashamed of not coping and because of your symptoms.
In this sense, shame is about our logical, rational minds attempting to make sense of the body’s instinctual defensive reactions!
In some cases, we create stories in an attempt to have rational explanations for behaviours like sadness, panic, night terrors, and so on … and unfortunately, we can trigger our ‘inner critic’ in the process!
This inner critic is merely attempting to make sense of unwelcome reactions, but alas, it can lead us to feel shame.
This is why in my client sessions we work with the critic to create, in its place, an inner ally who is making compassionate sense of the body’s reactions!
Don’t forget, the body is reacting NORMALLY given your trauma – the inner critic just doesn’t get it! But, with the right support, the inner ally will.
The problem is, shame is an identity-level problem. It’s when your mind shifts from ‘I don’t like this part of myself (your reactions/body responses/emotions/memories),’ to ‘I must not be worthy because of this part of myself’ or worse ‘maybe I did something wrong to make this trauma occur.’
It’s so vital here to remember that a trauma-affected nervous system will react because of the trauma, not because of your worth as a human. Recognizing this, even it means telling yourself this truth when you would rather hide under a rock, is the beginning of self-compassion.
And self-compassion leads to healing!
2. DEVELOPMENTAL SHAME
There can be an additional complexity and what I call ‘stickiness’ to beliefs of low self-worth if you were told over the course of your early years that you were ‘less than.’
They are sticky because insults can stick with us!
This is a form of abuse in itself, of course, and can become part of your self-concept: “I am someone to be ashamed of.”
In other words, your rational mind can adopt your low self-worth as a belief, and you then look out at the world seeking proof.
This is called confirmation bias, and it means that your mind holds a belief as central to its identity, overriding logic. Your rational mind simply seeks proof for what you already believe. If you believe that you are dumb and useless, for example, because your caregivers told you so, you will ONLY see evidence for that as you live your life.
This is made worse by intergenerational trauma, where over generations, families pass on the torch of criticism and shaming – as I talk about next.
3. INTERGENERATIONAL AND COLLECTIVE TRAUMA AND SHAME
You may not even realize that shaming is actually a family pattern for you.
For example, women in your family may always have been told as girls that they are ‘stupid and ugly,’ and this shaming may have been passed onto you when you were a girl. You know the expression – “hurt people hurt people.”
Shame travels family lines in even more dark and twisted ways, however, when it comes to collective trauma and the resulting collective shame.
There is a cultural-social component, especially when it comes to scapegoating ethnic, racial or religious groups.
Stereotypes thrive in cultures that normalize treating certain people as ‘less than worthy.’
There is then a collective story, not just an individual’s story, and the individual bears the cost.
In this way, entire groups of people can carry shame or low self worth. For example, the legacy of slavery and centuries of institutionalized racism mean that there are stereotypes about people of colour, and even in healthy family dynamics, there can be an internal sense of low self-worth that adds another unwelcome dimension of healing.
As I often say in my work with clients, the pain you carry may not even be yours. It could be a memory from an ancestor, a genetic trauma that you carry in your very DNA.
We all bear responsibility for this, to some extent. In our day to day life, we should remember that how we relate to people who are different matters collectively (and I include how we relate to non-able bodied people).
The assumptions we make and the stereotypes we hold do affect our behaviour, and we know from studies of descendants of the Holocaust that pain travels through family lines for as much as 7 generations!
Self-Love as the Antidote
Self-love is possible for all, but the journey it takes will be different depending on whether it’s a personal trauma or part of a larger, collective trauma.
I won’t lie – this is a huge conversation and a key aspect of many of my therapeutic sessions – but I am writing to help as much as I can with the understanding of it.
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- 3 Common mistakes people make when embarking on a healing journey;
- 3 essential components of an effective treatment plan;
- Appendix of common trauma symptoms, and what no one tells you about the reason behind common symptoms (from panic, to memory problems, from depression to insomnia);