Decide to Heal

Healing the Shame Within


My shame is a cloud prison
My soul cries for something it cannot see
It hungers to suck love’s milk and drink music
A longing too deep to fill
I want to cut thru these black and red clouds
And breathe every bit of life lost

God, open your blue and green door
Let me rest my darkness in your open fields
let me rock in your ocean’s cradle
let me leap with your grey dolphins
Let your sun burn my shame to whiteness

By Lori Golden, self portrait of my shame

When I got into Narcotics Anonymous, I got in touch with shame. I felt it in my pores, under layers of skin and bone, in the deepest part of me. I didn’t have the words then, but I heard John Bradshaw describe shame as a “soul wound.” This resonated with me 31 years ago when I began my recovery from addiction and childhood sexual abuse.

Whether you have scars on the inside from sexual, emotional, or physical abuse or whether you have scars on the outside from trauma inflicted by burns or disfigurement, it is common to experience shame. It is a feeling that makes you vulnerable, wanting to hide and not be seen, and seeking to protect yourself.

When I work with burn survivors or survivors of abuse, the wounds lead to deeply-held negative beliefs about oneself such as “I’m not good enough, I am worthless, or I am unlovable.” These beliefs do not originate in the present and are not beliefs that come from scars. They begin in childhood, at home, at school, and with friends.

When I sit with a burn survivor who is afraid of people seeing their scars or abuse survivors, I often witness the wounded child within. I always ask people how old they feel when they feel ashamed and want to hide. It is never the adult who comes to the foreground but the little girl or boy, and always a much younger age that creates these feelings and negative beliefs.

Often when I work with people, they describe situations in their current life that do not make sense. For instance, they make a mistake at work. Their boss brings it to their attention. Even though their work is often exemplary deep down they think I am stupid or I’m not good enough to do this which leaves them feeling shame regardless of their position in their company. They go home and obsess about it.

In describing the situation, they say, “I know I do a good job, but I feel awful, like I have been signaled out and exposed.” I fear losing my job.” Following with a statement “I can’t make sense of this. I know I’m good enough. I have an important position yet I feel worthless.” This discrepancy is the result of deeper emotional wounds suffered in childhood, not today. The age needs to be identified and who you are interacting with. For example, you may say “I feel like I am 7 and being scolded by my boss.” This leads to the question, who is scolding the 7-year old?  Is it dad, mom, an older sibling or a teacher to name a few? What are they saying; how are they saying it?  Are they harsh? Are they abusive in scolding? What happens after you are scolded? How are you left feeling?

Clients will say I can’t remember that far back, and I will say that little 7-year old boy or girl is sitting in this room right now feeling the wounds of being scolded. Your experience of this is alive in the present. Wounds that have never had a chance to heal surfacing in your adult experiences. Wounds that have led to negative beliefs such as I’m not good enough, I am shameful. What your inner child needs is a different message.

Even though we cannot go back to childhood, we can still learn to heal these wounds. If you picture your little self, the adult part of you can think of healthier ways to respond to these past experiences.

In my abuse recovery I often saw myself as alone, terrified, ashamed and full of self-hate. I had to learn how to nurture myself back to health. This meant seeing myself at different ages and being a different kind of parent to myself. When I closed my eyes I pictured the adult me rescuing my little girl. I did not want the little me to be alone at night waiting for the bedroom door to open. I created a different scene through therapies, visualization, art, and journaling. I went to her bedroom, picked up little Lori, and carried her out to a safe place that I created in my visualization, a room that was free from shame and terror. I had a guard dog at this time in my recovery, so I always pictured my guard dog guarding this room. Deep down I held the negative belief that I am unsafe, and I am shameful. This needed healing. Often, I would hold a weighted stuffed animal, close my eyes and imagine little Lori in my arms. Just an innocent child who was forced to do shameful things. She was not bad, daddy was.

We can think bad thoughts, visualize scary things and we also could visualize safety, nurturing and loving scenes as well. As I reached out for help from other professionals, my spirituality, people in recovery, and my closest friends I was able to create safety. It did not happen all at once, but as I let people in to nurture me, I came to believe that I could heal my wounded child.  And I did. I let go of the shame that was created by abuse and learned to nurture myself.

There are many ways to go about this, and there are different kinds of therapies to help to access what needs healing. Regardless of the approach, the child within you needs your attention. Healing requires commitment and a desire to identify your earlier wounds, and a willingness to heal them. Only then can you truly live differently then you did in your abuse.

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