The Secret Power of Shame

The Secret Power of Shame

Hello Tribers,

We are so glad you are here. Now take a deep breath and let’s get real about shame.

Unhealthy shame is one of the most toxic parts of being human. If you’re human, you have shame.

We’ve all had the same thought before: “I am bad”, “I’m stupid”, or “I’m worthless”.

Guilt says “I did something wrong” and takes ownership. Shame says “I am what is wrong.”

When we are able to identify and finally understand our shame, we can start to have the power over how it affects us.

Yet shame cannot survive when we speak out, when we change the way we talk to ourselves.

Read below to learn about the toxicity of shame and how doing a simple but powerful exercise can help you recover from carrying the overwhelming weight of shame.

rTribe

 


The Secret Power of Shame

By RJ Handley 05/26/17

As a child, I couldn’t figure out a reason for my father’s rage, so what my mind couldn’t grasp, my soul embraced: I deserved it.

Shame is hate turned inward. It’s the factory of our character defects. It drives our addictions. Yet, very few of us in recovery know this. We are only as sick as our secrets, and the one that births the most suffering in our lives is shame.

Only recently have I discovered how shame has infected my life like a virus, furtively whispering its message that I am a bad person.

I grew up in a home with a rageaholic father and an enabling mother. They rarely drank. My dad was an emotional drunk. What would trigger my dad into an explosive rage was forever unpredictable. Every day, the hum of the bomber circled overhead, and the threat of bombardment hung in the air like toxic gas.

As a child, I breathed in his hate. And, like any child, I didn’t yet have the boundaries in place to deflect it. His hate became my own self-hate, and it lodged deep within my soul as shame. Rarely could I figure out the reason for his rage, so what my mind couldn’t grasp, my soul embraced: I deserved it.

Unfortunately, our endless capacity to adapt often has tragic consequences. Few of us escape unscarred from the battlefield of a dysfunctional home. My youngest sister died as a casualty of heavy smoking and drinking. Fragments of rage and anxiety have embedded themselves into the lives of my other two sisters. And I, 10 years in recovery, find myself surveying the devastation, hobbled by shame.

Sources of Shame

Shame is universal. Its seeds are sown in childhood. Whenever we are powerless to deflect another’s hate—whether in the form of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse—it becomes internalized deep within as shame. “We believe we ‘should have’ been able to defend ourselves. And because we weren’t able to do so, we feel helpless and powerless,” according to Beverly Engle, in her article “How Compassion Can Heal Shame from Childhood,” published in Psychology Today.

“This powerlessness causes us to feel humiliated—which leads to shame,” Engle says.

Shame can result from any situation that causes us to feel shunned by others. It can also be the by-product of regret, especially after hurting a loved one. If we fail to make amends to that person, regret often converts to shame.

The Secrecy of Shame

It’s mystifying to me that after years of working the program of AA, sponsoring, and pouring myself into recovery literature, that I have remained unaware of shame’s covert operations. But I don’t think I’m alone. Being unaware of shame is very understandable.

For many of us, our textbook for recovery has been the Big Book (BB). However, shame is not mentioned anywhere in its first 164 pages (containing the entire AA program as Bill W. first conceived it). For the ranks of us who are traumatized by shame, this is a critical omission.

I believe the BB is a masterpiece. Yet, as acutely attuned as Bill W. was to our malady, he was not yet aware when penning the BB that shame is the father of our character defects—resentment, selfishness, and unworthiness being its children.

We Climb to Recovery on the Rungs of Words

Words have the power of revelation. Think of the word “resentment” as Bill W. used it, and see how much light his discussion of that word brought to the understanding of our addiction. The same can be true for the word “shame.” Once we shine the light of awareness on it, we can identify it as the source of our character defects. We see it for what it is, and there is great power in naming. Mark Brackett of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence says labeling our emotions is key to their treatment. “If you can name it, you can tame it.”

As addicts we know there is something at the root of our addictions. In the hundreds of AA meetings I have attended over the years, the word “unworthiness” is frequently heard. What we call unworthiness, though, is really an expression of shame’s much deeper and darker domain. Other character defects—defensiveness, criticalness, anger, resentment, and emotional withdrawal—also bubble up from the depths of shame.

Amazingly, in the same day, shame has us toggling between feelings of inferiority and its paradoxical mask of superiority. It creates a pervasive feeling of inadequacy that resides in the background of all we do. It fuels our drinking.

Invariably, we cross the invisible threshold between heavy drinking and alcoholism. Drinking then becomes a desperate coping strategy, cycling back on itself. We drink to numb ourselves to the pain of shame and then we feel shame because we find ourselves drunk again. On and on, over and over, day after day.

Shame Versus Guilt

Shame is often confused with guilt. Brené Brown, a professor of research at the University of Houston, makes a critical distinction: “Guilt is I did something bad. Shame is I am something bad.” Guilt focuses on the behavior; shame focuses on the person. Brown’s research finds a high correlation between shame and addiction but virtually none between guilt and addiction. Providing the first link between shame and relapse is a 2013 study published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The study, conducted by Jessica Tracy and Daniel Randles of the University of British Columbia, involved 100 middle-aged men and women from the rooms of AA with less than six months sobriety. Tracy and Randles found that “people who feel shame may blame themselves for negative events and view their ‘bad’ behavior as an unchangeable part of who they are. Thus, shame may actually be a risk factor for certain behaviors rather than a deterrent. But this doesn’t seem to be the case for guilt.”

The study also found that “one reason that certain sobriety programs may be effective is because they encourage people to see their behaviors as something they should feel guilty, but not necessarily shameful, about.”

The amount of shame participants displayed strongly predicted not only whether they relapsed but also how many drinks they had if they did relapse.

Good News

We don’t have to remain shame sufferers. Recent scientific breakthroughs reveal that the brain has a nearly endless capacity to rewire itself. “Due to what we now know about the neural plasticity of the brain—the capacity of our brains to grow new neurons and new synaptic connections—we can proactively repair (and re-pair) the old shame memory with new experiences of self-empathy and self-compassion,” Engle says.

When treating shame, we must remember to be good to ourselves. After all, shame entered us through others’ hatred. Self-empathy and self-compassion are crucial in combating shame. In a 2012 TED Talk, Brené Brown said, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”

By employing the fearlessness and thoroughness that we used in our 4th Step, we can surface the pain of being hated that created our shame. Once we become aware of the source of our shame, we can grieve the pain and suffering it has produced. We can cry our response to the hatred, and we can cry about how unfair it is. Finally, we come to a place of peace and give shame back to its rightful owner.

I leave you with this self-compassion exercise, courtesy of Beverly Engle, in hopes that it helps you as it helped me:

Think of one of your most shaming experiences from childhood. Now think of what you wish someone had said to you right after that experience. What would have been the most helpful and healing for you to hear at the time? Write this statement down.

Imagine that someone you care very much about, someone you admire, is saying those words to you now. Hear those words in your ears. Take those words into your heart. Notice how those words make you feel.

Now say those words out loud to yourself. Take a deep breath and really take in those words. How does hearing yourself say those words out loud make you feel?

You might receive a real sense of healing and peace from the words that you hear while doing this exercise. Exploring shame can be a journey that requires courage and self-honesty, but the reward is recovery that goes beyond the mere absence of addiction—recovery that is a deep healing of your past and a life of real happiness and peace.

(used with permission from thefix.com)

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