Part IV of a Six-part Trauma Series. Trigger warning: This is a difficult topic. Some examples of trauma with depression will be eluded to without details in order to set a scene for clarity and relatability.
This is personal.
No anonymous stories this time. This one is deep and hard and about as personal as it gets. This is the scraggly gremlin just about every trauma survivor can relate to: Shame.
Shame is a terribly destructive force that keeps its captives hidden in plain sight. Whenever I think of shame, I imagine a person drowning; arms flailing, frantic, calling out, but no one comes. Or, if they do, it is to tell the engulfed and ensnared person to calm down the ruckus already. You see, unless the one pursuing knows what to look for, shame is an ocean that only the one floating in it can see.
At thirteen years old, I went to a friend’s church to have a “Get Well” card signed for him. The people were so nice. The murky life I had lived until then had never exposed me to anything like them. Enamored with the initial benevolence, I was overwhelmed and taken off guard. The brightness of their care and devotion blinded me to all the little incongruencies and inconsistencies. By the time I realized things were not as they appeared, it was too late. I was in; hook, line, and sinker – and sink, I did. It took the better part of fifteen years to break free from the clutches of what turned out to be a very abusive cult.
You read that right. Fifteen years. That made me twenty-eight years old before I escaped. “Hindsight is twenty-twenty,” the old saying goes. Hindsight just about did me in as I emerged from the fog and surveyed my life. I was a smart child. How could I possibly have been sucked into such a thing? I knew. Deep down, I knew something was not right, and yet I stayed. Maybe I could have excused that as an early teenager, but at twenty-eight? How could I have been so stupid? I should have known!
Have you ever said those words to yourself about a trauma you experienced? If you can relate to my story, then take solace in knowing you are not alone. The truth is, I was set up from day one to be mentally and emotionally vulnerable to such a situation. Years of abuse had already eaten away at my self-worth and trust. The things they said “made sense” to me. The fear they instilled and the limitations they set on contact with “outsiders” were the turned key in the door of my prison.
Being in the cult was not the worst part. Leaving it, leaving everyone and everything I knew, though necessary, brought me face-to-face with all the radically wrong choices I had made over the years. That felt infinitely more difficult at first. I had no idea how to order my day. I was clearly an oddball and it showed. Shame engulfed me and hurled me into a life filled with self-destructive actions and relationships. For years, I could not tell anyone anything about it. Words would literally become stuck in my throat.
But then things began to change.
Thankfully, God never left me alone and He guided me to people who helped me learn how to tell and own my story. We have all heard that shame only has strength when it remains in the dark – that is true. It is just that simple. However, simple does not mean easy. Healing took many years of patient work with support, and many instances of two steps forward, five steps back. I wanted to scream sometimes. It was hard – but so worth it.
I know now that I was not stupid, worthless, or deserving of the treatment I received. I was a desperately lonely, frightened child who was never given the chance to grow and learn properly. What happened to me had nothing to do with intelligence. While still in the cult, I earned degrees in Applied Math and Physics! No. It wasn’t that. My brain and body aged, but my mind and heart were stuck.
That was my story. Yours will be different. No matter what your experience, though, be aware that whenever we look back, it is with eyes of understanding that we did not have at the time of the experience. We struggle to remember and understand all the whys and wherefores and therefore do not give ourselves grace.
My life is amazing now. Shame has no more hold on me. Even if I goof up, I know who I am. I have chosen to believe what God says about me and I have learned how to get back up and keep on moving in dignity. Once you’ve been rescued from the undertow of shame, life has a new shine. How did I get to this place, you ask? That is a very long story – for now, I will share a few things that helped me along the way.
I Got Rid of the Shoulds! Whenever we say, “I should have known,” what we are really saying is, “even though it made perfect sense to me to do it at the time, I should have chosen to do something else.” Think about it. Maybe you are the person who walked down the dark alley to get to your car quickly when you were mugged. Ask yourself why you made that choice? Was it cold? Were you in a hurry? Had you walked there a hundred times before with no problem? It may not have been the best choice, but in the moment that you made it, you were either being impulsive (not thinking), or you had a reason. If you had to do it again, you would do differently, granted – that is called growth. Rather than saying, “should”, try, “Next time (if there is one), it will be more beneficial to…”
I Called It What It Truly Is. Shame is a lie. Healthy guilt is uncomfortable, but it is a positive emotion. Healthy guilt occurs when we objectively offend against others or our value system. Unhealthy guilt is when we offend against an unreasonable set of standards. Shame comes from excessive, unhealthy guilt, poor modeling, and thought errors (to name a few). Call shame what it is: A liar! You are not all bad. You are not a failure. Guilt talk in the brain says, “I did wrong.” Shame talk says, “I am wrong.” If you fear you have done something wrong, do a self-check. However, if you ever fear that you are wrong, that you can reject outright. Don’t let a lie run your life.
Told a Safe Someone My Shame Story. Shame thrives in the dark. Find a healthy person who will not judge but will genuinely listen to what you have done with love and acceptance. Problem solving and advice can come later. You just need to be heard and see that you are not the green bug on the wall you think you are. If you think about the people in your life and cannot determine who is safe, then find a caring counselor, pastor, or mentor. Start small, go slow, but let the light in over time.
Get Angry and “Act as If”. Yes, you read that right. Get angry. Trade that shame energy in for anger. Notice: Anger and rage are two different things (See Edition III; Taming the Fire). Anger tells us when we have been wronged in some way and gives energy to work toward resolution. If you feel shame, you have been wronged. Perhaps it was you who chose to take a dive in the shame ocean. However, you got there, you do not belong; you were wronged. Anger is the appropriate response. Shame says, “I do not deserve to say no,” but Anger says, “No more!” Shame says, “This is just how I am,” but Anger says, “I can grow and change!” Once you find your Anger voice, ask yourself what a person without shame would think like, talk like, and act like – and try out some of those thoughts and behaviors!
Guilt is a positive emotion. When accurate, guilt can keep us from hurting ourselves and others. Shame, though, is a distortion of healthy guilt. Its undertow can be fierce – but it is also always wrong, and you can fight it. If you feel overwhelmed and flooded with unhealthy guilt and shame, reach out. Doing so is never weakness. By its very nature, shame cannot be overcome alone. You, your abundant life, is worth the effort and time it takes to conquer this beast. If unsure of what to do, consider reaching out to The Center. The caring staff will help you shine a healing light on your aching heart so you can see the brilliant and beautiful person you are! Don’t wait. You’re worth it!
Written by Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP, Group Therapy Training & Curriculum Consultant for The Center • A Place of HOPE. As a Neuroscience-informed, Licensed Therapist and International Board-certified Group Psychotherapist, Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. The Center is located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington. It creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and more.