Why Understanding the Relationship Between Shame and Child Abuse Can Help You Feel Better About Yourself
Your nose is runny. You're hacking up a lung. Your temperature is 101 degrees Fahrenheit. You feel really, really bad. You know you have to take time out to heal in order to give yourself the best possible chance to get well. You certainly wouldn't feel like you're a terrible person or it's your fault you feel this way. But of course, you understand the connection between the effects your body is suffering from and the flu.
Now let's see if we can apply this concept to how you feel about yourself. Have you ever felt empty? Confused? Helpless? Alone? Bitter? Stupid? Worthless? Would you use words like this to describe yourself or your life? Psychologists and other mental health experts refer to the cause of these feelings as shame or toxic shame1.
Family therapists Merle Fossum and Marilyn Mason define it as "...a painful feeling about oneself as a person."2 You may know it intuitively. You don't feel good about who you are for some unexplainable reason. You feel empty. You feel hurt. But there is a perfectly good reason. And just like catching the flu, it isn't your fault.
As a child, you modeled yourself after your parents and caregivers. You came to know yourself through the way they related to you. So if the people who were supposed to love you showered you with affection, you would have grown up feeling really good about yourself. But if they abused you and didn't love you unconditionally, then you grew up without a healthy psychological foundation, and as a result, you may be plagued by feelings of emptiness and lack a strong sense of confidence.
You might even feel worthless. Confused. Helpless. Alone. Bitter. Hmm...There are those words again. Do they trigger certain memories of how you felt as a child? These memories are the connection between your past and how you currently feel today. They form the foundation of your feelings of shame.
How can something that happened a long time ago still be affecting me? The answer is that the way you were treated by your parents and caregivers became a part of your psychological makeup. If you were repeatedly abused and you could not acknowledge it in a safe place and take the time to heal, you are carrying the effects of the trauma with you. One of those effects is feeling bad about who you are.
The next time you're feeling bad, slow down. Take a breath. See if you can figure out the connection between your past treatment and your present feelings. Explore your childhood memories with a therapist that's right for you. Grieve. When you understand that the way you were treated back then and the way you're feeling today is not your fault, you're on the first step of the journey towards feeling better about yourself.
1. Bradshaw, John. Healing the Shame That Binds You. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 2005.
2.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shame (accessed 3/4/09).
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