Recovering from Shame

A few years ago an article on the front page of the Sunday Times caught my attention. It was about a bold journalistic step taken in a series published in the Des Moines Register. A woman, Nancy Ziegenmeyer, told the story of her rape, from the assault itself through her experiences with the police, the hospital, the prosecutors and the courtroom, as well as her recovery with her husband and three small children. The story minced no words, spared no details, told it straight. Ms. Ziegenmayer had been encouraged to come forward by a column written by the editor, who argued that the traditional news treatment of rape victims as anonymous creates a conspiracy of silence that isolates the victim.

The article went on to tell of the response to the series, largely positive, but with considerable debate about its propriety. I was struck by a portion of a letter from a 26 year old Des Moines woman who said she had been raped eleven years earlier. Prior to her letter she had told just one person of her ordeal. “I am in awe of your strength and courage,” she wrote to Ms. Ziegenmeyer. “I hope that you are the first link in a chain of recovery. I think I never really believed that other people like me existed. Rape victims never have a name or a face. You are helping me to find mine.”

The letter was her first step out of the pit of shame. The experience of shame is the fear that in being seen or known, one will be exposed to contempt and humiliation. The urge is to hide or isolate ourselves. Some of us turn on ourselves with self-contempt. We suffer the pain of feeling flawed, defective: something’s wrong with me; I’m bad, a disappointment, or a failure, or too much of a burden.

A young man I know, a competent professional, feels so painfully inadequate and flawed inside, that he goes to great lengths to gain the recognition from others, particularly superiors, that he denies himself. It’s as though he is on a perpetual search for a blessing. Yet he distrusts those who think highly of him, like the man who thinks that anyone who would have him for a friend is a fool.

Another man who has devoted much of his life to taking care of others is becoming aware of his own need: a deep yearning to feel special and cared about that has never been adequately met. He feels ashamed of his neediness when it shows, and has the urge to hide. He gives to others what he needs himself. He acts competent and self-sufficient, and hides his “secret” need.

Shame needs to be clearly distinguished from guilt. Guilt has to do with feelings I have about what I have done; shame is about who or what I am. I may feel and be guilty for something I have done or left undone which has hurt you. Shame is about my being. Something is wrong with me.

I suspect all of us have suffered abuse in our lives by people important to us – a teacher who humiliated you, a parent who wasn’t sufficiently there for you to convey to you enough good feeling and delight for you to develop a good sense of yourself. Or who violated your privacy by reading your private letters, or treated you with contempt, or was physically or sexually abusive.

All victims of abuse feel shame. Daddy is mistreating me, yells at me, or gets drunk: I must have done something bad. But I can’t think what it is; something must be wrong with me, or he wouldn’t do it. Mother never seems to have time to hear what’s going on with me: maybe I’m a disappointment to her. I’ll have to try harder. I want so much to feel special. But it seems like I’m not supposed to talk about it… Such are some of the reasonings of the child within us, who has tried for years to make sense of the ways important people have failed him by deciding that it’s something the matter with him.

Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we want to hide. Somehow it feels safer to present a false self to the world, a mask that conceals the terrible secret about ourselves.

As a therapist, I’ve become aware of another aspect of shame: not wanting to see, or hear or know. I’ve caught myself changing the subject rather than staying with an awful experience I’d rather not witness. While a healthy measure of shame is evident in modesty and respect for privacy, crippling shame can lead to a conspiracy of silence. So I learn to hold and listen to the intolerable, and a client gradually unfolds a painful story.

How to Get Over Crippling Shame

  • Embrace your shame. Try loving even the parts of yourself you find unacceptable.
  • Come out of hiding. Isolation helps perpetuate the shame.
  • Tell your story. A therapist can help you take that step. Psychotherapy is a journey that impacts both client and therapist: you risk letting yourself be seen and known; the therapist risks going into dark places with you.
  • Get into a support group with people with similar experiences. Or join a therapy group. Tell them about you. Discover that you are not alone.
  • Discover that you are acceptable. Repeated experiences of becoming aware of the gap between your internal experience and others’ feedback will begin to change your picture of yourself.
  • Get involved with others who value you.
  • Discover, as Peter did in his dream in the Acts of the Apostles, (chapter 10) that what God has made is clean. No one is excluded from God’s community because he or she is “unclean,” disfigured, handicapped or flawed or falls short. Being made welcome is a great antidote to shame.

Alan Chisholm, MDiv, is Director of PSI at St. Bartholomew’s and a member of the clinical staff of the Psychotherapy & Spirituality Institute. He is licensed in New York State as a psychoanalyst.

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