Earlier this morning, I told a very distressed client that shame counteracts healing. Thus, to foster the process of healing, one must express the shame. One must become familiar, attack, and confront it. Shame keeps us sick. Toxic, stuck, hurting. Shame penetrates into every fear and robs us of our ability to be genuine with ourselves and others.
The antithesis of shame is acceptance. And that’s why recovery, recovery from anything, is hard. Because we don’t want to accept ourselves. We don’t want to accept our self-perceived flaws, and we don’t want to accept the elements that are simply and painfully out of our control.
Shame is deeply entrenched in any mental illness, but I only recognized my own roots of it this year. I think of mental illness as a tree. The leaves embody the outward manifestations we call symptoms. The branches represent triggers that exacerbate the symptoms. The trunk is the history that develops the branches. The roots signify perceptions we hold about ourselves and the world, which, in turn, make the trunk grow.
I couldn’t talk about my eating disorder. Whatsoever. I still struggle with open disclosure of my distorted thoughts and difficult feelings, simply because I often think I’m crazy, irrational, stupid, incompetent, etc. etc. etc. The list of negative adjectives could go on forever. Before this year, I couldn’t even identify my feelings. Imagine that. If someone had asked me how I was really feeling, I couldn’t tell them. Because I didn’t know.
I would minimize, lie, exaggerate…I was essentially wrapped in a choke-hold of shame. I wouldn’t tell people when I began slipping back into old behaviors. I wouldn’t tell people if I was bingeing. Weighing myself. Getting obsessive with food counts. Checking calories. Overdoing my exercise. And so forth. I would smile and say, everything was fine. Because that’s what I thought people wanted to hear, and that’s what I wanted to believe. And the more you lie, the more bitter the taste…but that taste becomes familiar, and eventually you are all but desensitized to it. I’ve been working with the same therapist for a year, and I still find myself occasionally being deceitful in session! This just shows how painstakingly uncomfortable it can be to express utmost honesty. I have a hard time letting people believe I am anything less than perfect. I still sometimes feel weak asking for help. In turn, I do not like being vulnerable. Because it triggers the shame, and sitting in shame is like sitting on a bed of nails.
Face the vulnerability. Relish in it. Accept it. If shame is Trainstop A, vulnerability is the train that takes us to Health, Trainstop B.
Bee is a voice that thrives in the name of shame. Even through recovery, you do all you can to keep yourself hidden, concealed, and protected from the world. You want me all to yourself. You absolutely recognize that healing comes from expressing, which is why you do all that you can to prevent yourself from being talked about. You’re a smart and powerful voice. It’s taken several years, books, individual and group therapy sessions, and support teams to start using MY voice, rather than yours.
You kept me in deep pain and turmoil, and I now recognize that same deep resentment in my clients. Their struggles may be starkly contrast from my own, but each person I work with desperately wants to remedy his or her distress. They want that sense of normalcy and health we all crave. Shame, however, often prevents them from believing they are truly worthy and deserving of those gifts.
Shame may manifest in different ways through different illnesses, but the feeling is universal: sheer humiliation, self-loathing, disgust with oneself, the disbelief that others can possibly accept or tolerate the particular circumstance. Shame is dangerous; shame keeps us isolated and afraid.
The process of healing shame takes time. It involves forgiveness and a willingness to examine inner turmoil. Ultimately, it also boils down to finding a place of acceptance: acceptance of past, present, and future. This is not an easy task. Not by any means. We are constantly bombarded with reasons not to accept ourselves or our realities. We are constantly receiving messages that tell us we are not worthy of health, respect, or dignity. When we feel broken in some way, we often think we are doomed.
I know I did.
I didn’t think I deserved help for my eating disorder until I finally felt so frustrated that I walked into my college counseling center and asked to talk to a professional. I didn’t think I deserved to be honest until I met a supportive treatment team who promised that I could not let them down, no matter how many times I believed I failed.
Tackle the shame. Even though it may put up a tough and scary front, you will overcome it if you are willing to put forth the fight.