Shame as Self-Care
Gudrun Zomerland, MFT
The implication of this title is an odd and seemingly unbridgeable contradiction.
I recently heard the phrase at a professional workshop given by a Jungian analyst. I don't know
who originated it; otherwise I would gladly attribute it to the owner. I say "gladly", because
the phrase has given me plenty to think about.
Shame as Self-Defense:
I had already started an article on shame before I went to the workshop. I was very well aware
that shame sets in during childhood as a defense against parents who are failing us but whom we
have to continue to look up to for our survival. If they think we are bad, we must be. If they
think their needs are more important than ours, then they must be. If they let us know through
their behavior that we are unimportant, we must be. If our physical and/or sexual boundaries are
violated, it must mean that we are not worthy of having them. In that way we can keep our parents
as the omnipotent beings we need when young.
Other causes of shame are less generational and more social in nature. If our family was exposed
to disaster, poverty, war or other hardships and was left alone with these struggles without help
from the rest of society or the world, we internalize messages that are similar to the ones above.
We must not be worthy; we must be unimportant.
Shame is a Form of Fear:
At the core of shame is the fear that we are fundamentally not OK, that God (if we believe in God)
made a mistake and left us wanting, that others seem to be able to cope with life but we can not.
It is the sense that something is wrong with us, that we should not have particular feelings or
thoughts. We are sure that other people would loath us if they really knew our inner world or
some of the things we have done in life.
Shame and Consequent Coping Mechanisms:
As we grow into teenage years, shame leads to numerous coping mechanisms. We may identify with
our parents and lead similar lives. We may become more successful than they are in order to
hopefully make them proud and finally gain the approval we have been missing. Or we may rebel and
make contrary choices in an attempt to distance ourselves from the poison we inherited. In all
scenarios we most likely will employ some strategy that helps us numb the effects of shame.
If you have been around AA for a time you may have heard the saying that "alcohol saved me from
suicide". Shame is so devastating to our soul that we try to avoid this demon at all costs. Any
addiction will do. Any preoccupation helps. Busyness is a welcome relief.
Of course, these strategies, born out of the desire to survive, just continue to pile up more
shame and therefore increase the need for more numbing. They ultimately hasten the death of our
soul if not our actual body.
Taking the Shame out of Shame:
If we want to survive we must stop the run-away train of numbing at some point and face the demon
shame. We have to realize that this demon was conceived as a helper, a crooked little angel that
enabled us to survive. And here is where the phrase I heard at the workshop mentioned above really
made sense. We developed shame as a way of caring for ourselves! At the time when we invented
this way of self-care we were too young to have the resources to move away from our parents or
from a world without support.
However, as adults we can move away from any generational dysfunction we inherited and we can get
support in the world. When we do, we find that we can finally move into the realm this crooked
little angel protected us from: GRIEF!
If we had known how devastating our lives really were we might not have gotten up out of bed, we
might have folded, we might have given up, and we might not be. Wouldn't it be great if we who
carry shame could come together and celebrate our shame thoughts, honor them for what they did for
us, really delve into them, bring them out of the shadow of our psyche, compare them, and laugh
about them? We could and can celebrate our innate human creativity that will do absolutely
anything to survive. What a blessing.
The pain underneath shame is pure, unadulterated, and totally understandable. Yes, grieving
hurts. Yes, it might be a bumpy road at times, but it is a road worth traveling.
Please give me a call if you need support on your journey of recovery or if you have questions:
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