For the past few days I’ve been preoccupied with the nature of shame– the kind of shame that makes an individual human being feel different and “less than”.
Like many adult children from dysfunctional families, I’ve struggled with this issue–and touched on it in other posts.
I googled shame and toxic shame and found many amazing things. I have wanted to understand the dynamics involved because I do believe that knowledge is power and that each of us has the ability to empower ourselves, to lay claim to all that we are.
Shame concerns self-perception, seeing oneself in negative, in a kind of inverted and dark self-awareness. Old tapes constantly run that say “You don’t matter,” “I don’t matter,” “It doesn’t matter– it’s only me”.
Those of us afflicted with shame are given to understand that our needs for affection, comforting, attention, are shameful. When I was lonely and at loose ends, needing the constancy of affection and guidance from my mother, I was criticized and sent away, left to fend. A child so abandoned tries to understand why that is the case and concludes that she must be unworthy and different. Along came abuse of varying stripes: an abused child is a child who has no self-esteem, whose fledgling identity has been utterly compromised–who begins to withdraw in shame.
A feature of shame is that one feels that one’s deepest vulnerabilities have been exposed, and that rings true to me. Things people have said to me and about me over the years have cut deeply and I find myself repeating them at times, shaming myself: “To leave her, ” one ex lover said, “You just have to go on to the next town.” “No one in their right mind,” a friend said, “takes a basketcase to Europe.” “She is stuck in childhood.” “You have so much wrong with you that…..” (fill in the blanks). “You go through animals like I go through toilet paper.” “You are a bottomless pit of emotional need” — a psychiatrist. And the most shaming of all: “You have X Disorder…in fact, to such a degree we can’t afford to have you around.”
In response to shaming, we can take ourselves hostage. In my case, I determined that I was such a failure as a human being, so unlovable that I fell into deep self-devaluation. I permitted others to shut me out and I shut me out. I surrendered to the idea that I should get used to a marginalized life, that I deserved it. I became alienated from whoever it was that had written those poems, published those things, taught scores of inner city children, earned an MFA, tried to save her parents, saved a host of baby animals, and held down a rigorous university teaching job in the face of grueling insomnia. Until recently, I didn’t see my survival of six months in a nursing home and a terrible injury, how I left that toxic environment, strengthened my leg and made it work for me, extricated myself from a viciously entrenched codependency and took action to get my own place and start writing again, as powerful indications of courage,and hallmarks of a strong and remarkable, worthy person and woman. !
I offer this as a mantra for all shame survivors: “I am not worthless. I am not crazy. I am not someone to fear. I am not a failure. I am not a mistake. I don’t deserve to be excluded, dissed, rejected or abandoned. It’s o.k. to love and value me, and live with shoulders squared, eyes to eyes with others of my species, in the whole world.”