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In recovery circles of all kinds, there’s a sentiment that goes, “You’re as sick as your secrets.”
And, for many of us recovering, shame is the common issue impacting our lives, complicating our health, relationships, sobriety, and our sense of individual purpose.
Many of us eventually discover that therapy is the imperfect, yet healthier antidote to that shame. I say eventually because often, many of us are confronted by interventions and life circumstances that, in some way or another, dictate that, yeah, it’d maybe be a good idea to get some help. We’re not doing so hot, as we kick, scream, assert ourselves, and try to imitate an unaffected person.
Here’s a clue: we are not unaffected. It’d be great if we were. That’s not our story or our preference. Therefore: shame! And the consequences that we often learned a little too late.
Learning. Education. Being taught, and running with that until we run into a wall. It all comes down to learning shame, why we’ve learned it, and then, in response, learning how telling on that shame frees us.
One of the fundamental things that shame teaches us is that we are wrong, defective, unwanted, and unworthy.
Being shamed is a great way for an abuser/toxic person to establish our identity. We are informed by what others say about us, especially in our formative years. Some of us have been told we’re the “bad boy/girl,” the “stupid one,” and “the problem.”
It’s difficult enough to hear those things as “adults who know better.” How hard is it, then, to be a child, without armor, to absorb those harsh decrees about our identities?
Most of us, who have come away from those realities, simply accept shame as who we are.
We believe it’s our fault; we believe it’s the truth that cannot—and should not—ever be challenged.
Bumping along in life with those wrong identity messages only gets us so far before a big crisis point gets our attention. Getting arrested, drunk driving, domestic violence, divorce, illness, and financial problems are a few possible attention-getting flashpoints that can prompt us to accept the fact that, yes, indeed, therapy might be a good idea here. Some of us even got out of some severe jail time because we opted for counseling instead.
(Let’s hear it for proper motivation, huh?)
Anyway, many of us, within a therapy context, often, for the first time, hear, confront, explore, and start to, perhaps, accept that the things we were told and taught as gospel are inaccurate, untrue, and abusive. We hash out how “they” were wrong for instructing us on such messages and labels. We learn, perhaps, that we are “not that.”
“Telling,” on our part, is powerful because it is now our actions and words that have power, instead of the abuser’s harsh dictates. We couldn’t control our lives when we were under their influence.
But now, it is about our influence on ourselves, shame issues included.
When we are assigned a certain identity and believe a harmful message, often, it comes with the mandate of silence. We hear “shut up” literally, sometimes, daily. The emphasis is on secrecy, on deceit, on keeping an image. The silence often gets tied to us somehow, some way, being shameful. The shame, like that of identity, is often assigned to us by others. We may not be a planned pregnancy, the right gender, or attractive enough. Therefore, we deserve to be ashamed of ourselves by others.
And while we are living this reality, we had better not disclose or complain about it. “Put up” with being shameful and “shut up” about it.
Sounds like a happy life, doesn’t it?
Within the bounds of professional therapy, telling illuminates what happened. Perspective, therefore, from an outside source, can then weigh in.
And that is what the abusive influencer does not want to occur. They want abnormal to be normalized. “Everyone is like this.”
Every home and family employ vicious roles, name calling, and messages attached to its members? That’s normal?
When we are in therapy, we often encounter, for the first time, how untrue and harmful our home lives have, indeed, been.
There is power and freedom in our “telling.”
We blow the whistle; we blow the abusive cover.
Aghast reactions, head nods, and validation from therapeutic people reinforces how we are not what’s wrong, the abusive system is.
Another fun manipulative tactic of shame? It controls us. Anyone who has been abused has encountered how freedom to be ourselves and make our own choices was forbidden! When shame is intertwined with silence and secrecy, we feel restricted, constricted, and strangled. We learn we need to be ashamed of ourselves, for the environments, actions, experiences, and people beyond our control. We learn that we had better keep a lid on that. It is shameful; we are shameful. Our only hope is to keep the secret, shut up, and deny that whatever happened to us didn’t happen, or, if it did, it “wasn’t that bad.”
Nah, just a little evisceration to our sense of self, our health, and our safety. It’s fine. Just walk it off like a Charley horse.
Get back in the game and be quiet about it!
When we make the decision to tell that first person, especially that first therapist, it’s a signal that we recognize our lost voice and make it a priority to reclaim it. It may not be articulate; it may not be pretty. It doesn’t need to be that. It just needs to be noise, our noise. Our voice, doing the speaking. It’s not easy. We often tend to swivel our heads around asking, “Is the coast clear? Is it safe?”
Telling, ideally in a healthy, safe therapy environment, asserts that, yes, indeed, we are safe, or at least, “safe enough.” It’s a start. And all healing has a start. We do ourselves well to never minimize our start. Or any trek down the healing road.
Telling is a declaration of independence, of noise, of us being who we are, freed up of condemnation.
We are who we are…and this is what that looked, sounded, felt, and tasted like. That was the shame, being imprisoned by that horror, and pain was the shame, not us.
And not us speaking about it.
When we have been exposed to shame via an abuser, we wrongly absorb the message that there is a hopeless finality to us, to our circumstances, and to our entire lives.
Shame is the tool used by an abuser to convince us that we are relegated to narrow definitions of who we are and what function we serve. And, concerning that definition and function, it’s fairly clear-cut. We are to be a slave to the abuser.
Shame has decided so. It has dictated those terms.
Our decision “to tell,” within the framework of therapy, challenges that false truth.
Yes, it’s scary, filled with insecurity and unpredictability to do so, but…
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” ~ Anais Nin
When we decide to tell our traumatic experiences, we force not only our ears to open, but our eyes as well. We choose to recount and share the ugly, the uncomfortable, the painful, the inconvenient because carrying the shame alone and silently becomes too burdensome. We reach a saturation point in our healing when we realize we no longer should be saddled with that toxic shame from someone else’s making. It is not right, fair, healthy, or doable to continually decide that we, alone, must endure this toxicity.
We finally make the decision to unburden ourselves, release the truth, and let some chips fall where they may.
It’s brave. It’s scary. It’s freeing. It’s redeeming. And redemption dissolves shame.
Redemption through such revelations as…
“It’s not my fault.”
“That should never have happened to me.”
“That did happen to me. I didn’t imagine it.”
“I am not alone. Others witness my experiences.”
“Other people have gone through what I have endured. They get it.”
A Matter of Life and Death:
“Shame dies when stories are told in safe places.” ~ Ann Voscamp
Shame not only kills, but its tentacles also create a life that’s harsh, harmful, and one that we do not deserve. Shame can create a life that only makes us want to die.
Telling, specifically our storytelling of that shame, can resuscitate the dying parts of who we are, while giving birth to new senses of ourselves and our wonderful, true identities.
Let’s start telling!