When Shame is Protective

Most of my life was spent marinating in shame. It felt like part of my genetic makeup. Shame held my head underwater and told me to resign to my fate, to stop fighting. Shame left me feeling my very personhood was flawed.

At a very young age, I remember telling an adult about the sexual abuse I was suffering. I didn’t know the words sexual or abuse but said what I could in my best seven-year-old language.

The person I told should have protected the very vulnerable little me. Instead, the look on the individual’s face said everything. The terrifying silence spoke louder than any words. At that moment, I remember the sensation of falling. The ground opening beneath me. I wanted the black hole below my chair to swallow me whole.

Suddenly, my need to disappear became stronger than my need to be safe. That’s what shame does.

In one instant, I knew I was bad. I knew I was the problem. I knew I was unlovable and not worthy of protection. That one moment gave me enough shame to last a lifetime.

The most important thing I learned through the healing is that it wasn’t my shame.

Neither the shameful behavior of the abuser nor the adult’s shameful reaction to it was mine to carry. But I did. So diligently and with great care, I carried the shame with me. The self-contempt was my most trusted ally. Shame was always by my side ready to remind me I was nothing.

After many years and lots of help on the healing journey, I can decipher why those old messages were so damaging:

Instead of believing something bad happened to me,

I believed I was bad.

Instead of believing they didn’t know how to love me,

I believed I was unlovable.

Instead of believing they made hurtful choices,

I believed something about me caused them to hurt me.

Instead of believing they needed help,

I believed I wasn’t deserving of help.

Instead of believing they had dark secrets,

I believe my heart had to be a secret.

Instead of believing they were taking out their pain on me,

I believed I was the source of their pain.

Instead of believing they didn’t know how to protect me,

I believed I was not worth protecting.

The hardest thing for me to understand over the years is that shame had become my protector. These messages all served me. In a way, they kept me safe.

The shame kept me from being overwhelmed by the tremendous anger or sadness that lived just under the surface. Shame was the cork that held the bubbling anger and pain contained. If I could keep believing I was the problem, I didn’t have to feel pain or anger.

I don’t have the right to feel sad if the experience is my fault, and shame allowed me to continue to believe it was my fault.

Shame gave me the sense of control. Looking the pain of abuse and betrayal right in the face would have left me emotionally overwhelmed. Shame kept pointing at me so I didn’t have to feel the even deeper hurt of betrayal.

Shame kept the more difficult feelings at bay until I had the skills on board to deal with those feelings safely.

Being able to peel away the shame, bit by bit slowly allowed me to deal with the scarier feelings in small doses over time rather than collapsing under the weight of them.

Does this mean we want to foster shame? Nope. But it does mean that we need to respect its role in protecting and healing the system for a time.

If we can find a safe place to give shame a reason to relax, she will. An excellent counselor, lots of tears, accepting friends, a little 12-step, and transformed faith can help shame ease. And oh how she wants to relax.

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