It’s Monday, January 4. I’m happy to see E. again after the holidays. We quickly turn to what’s been our topic for weeks, the shame I carry from my past. It’s primal; it’s highly reactive. Barely touching it makes me very sick. E. asks me how I did after our last session, did I work on soothing and protecting the earlier self who was assaulted?
“I did,” I tell her. “But the thing that affected me the most was something we only spent a minute or two on.”
Her eyebrows go up.
“We were talking about a cleansing ritual for this wounded woman, and I said, maybe we can’t clean it up, because that muck, the horrible stuff, that just keeps bubbling up from the inside. And you said no, it’s not her; it’s external. But that image resonated and stayed with me. It felt like it was the truth about her, that woman. Well, about me, actually.” I couldn’t even look at her while I was saying this.
E. waits a moment and asks, “And what is that muck?”
“Shame, of course.”
This set her talking a bit about how everyone struggles with shame. It’s the root of the concept of original sin. She’s said something to that effect before, and I know it’s meaningful to her. I know from a few things she’s said over the years that she grew up in a fundamentalist family in which sin and shame were frequent topics. She mentions the idea of being born sinful every now and then, and I know it’s a really powerful issue for her.But that’s her issue, not mine, and it’s just not meaningful to me. She sees that and shifts the focus.
“Shame comes from a story that we tell ourselves, a story that says we are bad. But that’s the wrong story put on top of a useful feeling. The feeling is that something is wrong, something is out of alignment with instinctual sense of what is right. It is a good, healthy message saying this is not how you want to live. But our stories layered on top of that message often translate ‘this is not right’ into ‘I am not right.'”
She goes on, “We want to change the narrative you tell yourself about that feeling.We want to help the woman who was assault develop and trust her own sense of knowing, without shaming her. She felt that her experiences were not acceptable, but from girlhood she had a whole history of having repressed a lot of bad feelings, pretended they weren’t there. She didn’t know how to name or trust her sense of what had happened to her.”
We talked about what the wise woman could say to the young child. It would be something like, “My little one, if you feel in your body that something is wrong, a feeling of shame or discomfort, that doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. It means something that is happening around you is not right. This is a natural signal from your authentic self that knows what is right for you. You can trust that feeling.”
It’s helped me in the past–a lot–to talk to a vulnerable younger version of myself in this way. It’s helped me to talk to Anxiety about toning down her helpful warnings, if I promise to pay more attention to her. But something here doesn’t feel right. At the end of the session, I still felt stuck.
“It makes sense to my head,” I tell E., “but it’s not touching my heart.” I leave the session feeling a little sad. All that time waiting impatiently to talk to her, and then what? I can see she’s trying to help me, but we just aren’t connecting. Maybe, I fear, some things can’t be healed.
I go home, I eat dinner, I think about shame. Is there really no better way to address it? After dinner, I get online and watch a TED talk by Brene Brown and read reviews of her books. I find messages such as “it’s okay to try something and fail because eventually you will succeed” and “allowing yourself to be vulnerable is a brave thing to do.” I don’t find anything that speaks to my current dilemma.
I cast a wider net. And it’s when I read about meditation as a way to heal from toxic shame that I feel the first stirring of hope. I find an article by Linda Graham that breaks it into a multi-step process. Maybe I can do something like this, I think. I print out the article to read more thoughtfully. In the middle of reading it, I realize I am saying out loud, “I’m so bad. I’m so bad.” That’s how strong it is; even reading about how to heal shame, I’m triggering that shame.
Later I send an email:
I mean it about you being a wonderful therapist. I feel lucky to work with you. — Q.
(I know, I know, it’s funny that I feel this need to reassure her that she’s wonderful even though I’m looking outside of therapy for some relief. I think it’s part of something else that’s emerging in our relationship, a topic I’ll need to think more deeply about at another time.)
She writes back to me a day or two later:
WOW! What a powerful article. This is really helpful. Thank you so much for sharing it with me. I learned a lot and appreciated her clear and grounded strategies. I can see how this would be helpful for you. I think we (I) got lost in intellectualizing the shame dilemma because I didn’t have any other place to go at the time. I’ll be curious to hear what you did with the suggestions in this article. I so appreciate your diligence and investment in being whole.
I don’t know how to end this post. This is just where I am right now, carrying powerful shame and trying to find a way to reduce its hold on me.