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The Many Faces Of Shame
Written By: Mark Smith


Healing Toxic Shame Through Recovery
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My experiences through the years as a therapist have taught me clearly and
without a doubt that our society's mental health public enemy number
one is SHAME.  Shame has many faces-self-loathing, never feeling
good enough, having an inward sense of being dirty, feeling the need to
be perfect at all times, feeling evil to the point of knowing that you
will certainly be damned to hell forever, being shy, needing compulsive
rituals in an attempt to cleanse the conscience, being overly sensitive
to criticism, feeling completely unlovable, an unbelievably heavy and
oppressive force that drags you down with every step you take, an out
of control spiral that can spin a life out of control, and a dreary
life-long companion for many people.  Does this sound familiar to
any of you?  Shame drives people relentlessly to drink, use drugs,
numb out on addictive sex, over-work, sabotage themselves, cut
themselves off from relationships, and even to take their own
lives.  If you have struggled with it, you know exactly what I'm
writing about; you could write a book about yourself.   I am
going to attempt to unmask the many faces of shame.  I will write
about what causes it, how it can affect your life, and how it can be
successfully resolved
as an issue in your life.


Shame grows like the plague in closed, non-nurturing, rigid, abusive,
critical, secretive families.  Children desperately need
unconditional love.  They need to be constantly bathed in the
life-giving loving embraces of both of their parents.  As is our
practice here at Family Tree Counseling Associates, I will share about
my own personal struggles with and recovery from shame in an effort to
shed more light on the subject.  I grew up in a wonderful,
"normal," highly dysfunctional family.  My father was never
present to help me to feel loved or special.  I felt abandoned by
him.  To me it felt that if my own father didn't have the time of
day for me then how could I really be all that special?  My
mother, who was a delightful person by nature, was overwhelmed with the
responsibilities of six children.  In her overwhelm and her
frustration with my father and with the world in general, she became a
rager.  She could yell, scream, and cuss at the drop of a
hat.  That really kept all of us kids constantly on pins and
needles.  In a rage she once said to me that she thought I would
grow up to be a murderer.  I haven't bumped anybody off yet, but
you might want to sort of watch yourself around me if we get a chance
to interact.  Through the years I took in many negative messages
about myself.  In my young adulthood after a conversion to
Christianity, I loved all the hard, tough, black-and-white Bible
verses.  I had no use whatsoever for all that love and grace
stuff.  I would internally pound myself with critical, aggressive,
unmerciful messages "from God" as I read through the scriptures. 
I was equally harsh and critical on everyone around me.  I fancied
myself somewhat of a modern day prophet, but actually I was just acting
like a jerk.  Internally I felt that I was unworthy.  My
parents did not have the money to buy me very many things as I was
growing up and as a young adult I lived a very spartan life.  I
did not feel good enough to have nice things.  I remember visiting
friends during that timespan that enjoyed the incredible luxury of
having five or six different types of cereal in their cabinet.  At
the time I remember being in awe of such decadence.  I'm sort of
ashamed still to admit it, but many of my "prayers" were compulsive
rituals said over and over again in an effort to try to win a brief
moment or two of tolerance from the mean-spirited "God" who bullied my
life.  I was a mess but I didn't know it.  Shame was
dominating my life in the form of an addiction to a very rigid and
unloving form of religion.  I wasn't very happy at all.



My recovery from shame began when my graduate school staff at Michigan
State "invited" (read required) me to go to therapy.  I logged a
lot of hours on the couch crying from deep in my soul about the
poverty, abandonment, abuse, and neglect of my childhood.  I
remember leaving a session fairly early in the process and the sky
seeming literally bluer, the grass greener, and the air fresher. 
Going to therapy felt like going to a spa for my soul.  I felt
nurtured, listened to, cared for, parented, respected, and treated
special.  I became less angry and less critical of others and
myself.  Over time I learned how to be very gracious and
understanding with myself.  I saw myself as the good person that I
was and am.  I was able to let the love and grace of God into my
life for the first time really. I learned how to nurture myself by
spending appropriate amounts of money on myself.  I learned how to
relax and enjoy myself a lot more.  The spiraling negative thought
patterns which compulsively dominated my days, went away almost
completely.  I became a nicer and a more accepting person. When I
worked at an agency early in my recovery I was given an assignment at a
conference, which entailed making an exhaustive list of all of my
strengths and positive attributes.  With my shame shrinking and my
self-esteem growing, I put together a long list of strengths and
positives.  It was soon after that assignment that I had enough
confidence to start Family Tree Counseling Associates.   I
still struggle with a lot of issues to this day, as my wife could
attest, but thankfully, shame isn't one of them.  Guilt, which is
healthy, can gently tap me on the shoulder to inform me that I have
goofed up without me taking a beating from shame.  It really feels
good to not have to battle it any longer at this point.

With couples, shame presents a massive obstacle in the communication
process.  For example, there might be one member of the couple who
struggles with shame due to an overly critical parent.  Then, when
their spouse critiques them, which is healthy and is part of the whole
marriage thing, they become way overly sensitive to the feedback. 
They don't hear, "Honey, I think that it would work better if you tried
it this way."  They hear, "You are so stupid for trying to do it
that way."  Frequently, individuals with shame issues are also
ragers.  As they are encountering their critical spouse, who they
are really hearing is their raging, critical, non-nurturing
father.  In such cases, the therapist becomes an interpreter of
sorts for the couple.  A couple who has developed enough trust in
a therapist who can accurately read them, aid them in gaining
objectivity, and thus defuse major conflicts, has a tremendous asset,
an asset that many times can be the difference between a divorce and
what ultimately develops into a healthy marriage.



I want to share Dave and Susan's story here.  Dave and Susan were
a very shame-based, emotionally reactive couple.  They both would
hear and react to shame directed at the other that clearly wasn't there
at all in reality.  On several occasions, when the therapeutic
interpreting wasn't particularly going his way, Dave would storm out of
sessions enraged with not only Susan but with me.  However, this
couple worked long and hard on their recovery issues in group,
individual, and couple's therapy.  They hardly ever come in for
sessions anymore, but on the few occasions that they have, Susan has
confronted Dave rigorously about whatever issue they are working
on.  Dave doesn't even flinch.  There have been no knee-jerk
reactions of being reactive or defensive.  Instead, he is able to
joke with her, reach over and touch her, and calmly address the issues,
which are being placed in front of him.  It is as startling as it
is beautiful.  Dave's shame trigger, which once served about the
same purpose as a ring does in a bull's nose, has been slowly but quite
effectively deactivated.  They now have a solid, stable and loving
marriage.

I have suffered from the overly sensitive-to-criticism aspect of shame
in my life and marriage as well.  Years before I got into recovery
I remember being completely devastated each week as I received memos
from my female boss.  The memos were appropriate and professional,
but they felt to me as if my mother was yelling at me and I reacted
accordingly.  In conflicts with my wife, she would objectively
assure me that I was hearing things that she neither said nor
meant.  That seemed strange to me because it seemed so real to me
at the time.  Shame actually alters the messages that we take in
and does so without us noticing it happening.  I have seen many
marriages end because one partner could not overcome their
over-sensitivity to criticism.  Ask your spouse how well you are
able to hear criticism and how well you can then apologize.  

I would like to invite you and your spouse to involve yourselves in the
recovery process.  You have no doubt heard about being in recovery
for alcoholism.  However, people with shame issues need to be in
recovery as well.  Recovery is simply knowing what your issues are
and then working on them openly, with accountability, and with
enthusiasm in a proven and effective program for change.  Shame
lives and breeds in the darkness of secrecy and isolation.  If you
have been haunted by the damaging critical voices of shame in your
life, give yourself a tremendous gift; give us a call.  Therapy is
wonderful.  People don't understand that enough.  It really
does work.  Your childhood is the very foundation of your adult
life.  If there are wounds from parental rage, criticism, abuse,
neglect or abandonment, it is necessary to uncover them and heal them
for the shame symptoms to improve.  Therapy is like opening the
windows and doors to the house of your soul and giving it a good fresh
spring cleaning.  Safe, powerful, effective therapy is very much
like a fresh start in your life.  It will give you a clear, crisp
sense of direction unhindered by the negative influences of
shame.  Our therapists are trained to reach past your defenses in
order to touch that child within you who still deserves unconditional
love, nurturing, and acceptance.  You will notice the darkness of
your shame and fears give way to the light of balance, reality, and
positive self-assessment.  The world really is a less scary and
more positive place than we shame-based folks could ever have imagined
before recovery.  Give us a call right away; you are really in
need of a major break from your shame.





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This article was authored by Family Tree Counseling Associates, a marriage, individual and family counseling center serving the Indianapolis, Carmel, Fishers, Westfield and Noblesville communities in Indiana. If you would like to contact us, please fill out a contact us form or call us at 317-844-2442.
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