[TRIGGER WARNING: This article discusses Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA).]
Shame and I go way back. I’m thinking, probably since the age of three. I didn’t have imaginary friends as a kid but I did have shame as an invisible companion from the start. Shame is a tough thing to pin down because it is a feeling that you have without ever putting a word to it. And for me, it was hard to spot because I built a coping mechanism that looked exactly opposite to shame – pride and rigid stoicism.
Another word for shame is worthlessness. To carry deep shame is to carry an unyielding sense of worthlessness. What makes shame so poisonous is that it is an attack on your sense of self by planting the thought ‘I am bad’. It’s not like guilt where you would think ‘I did something bad’. No, shame becomes your definition of yourself. The two most powerful words in the world are “I Am.” It’s a complete idea within itself and what you put after those two words defines you.
When shame is your life-long companion then whatever you do on the outside doesn’t matter; not status, money, prestige, beauty, or sex-appeal make a difference when underneath all that is the internal, subconscious reality that says, ‘I’m bad. I’m worthless.’
It is a massive and opaque wall that no good thing can penetrate when deep-seated lack of worth is present. And when that’s your foundation, like I said since the age of three, then that will shape your life in ways you could not foretell.
How Abuse Sets the Stage for Feeling Worthless
My earliest memory is a happy one of being on an airplane with my grandmother traveling from California to South Carolina to visit our family. I remember the shish-kababs we ate and being taken to the cockpit by one of the flight attendants (they were stewardesses back then) and being introduced to the pilots. One of them gave me that golden pin with the wings on it.
But on that trip, while visiting my great-grandmother I did something that angered my grandmother. I don’t remember what I did but whatever it was resulted in a whipping. It’s the south and switches were a handy tool of discipline, as you could strip one from the nearest tree. Like I said, I don’t remember what I did wrong but to my mind there is nothing on this earth that a three-year old could do that would merit being whipped with a switch.
Her fury left an indelible mark on my psyche and am implacable dislike of her on a deep level for the rest of my childhood. That is the first time I can recall being made to feel bad about myself and I can remember the quake of terror within my three-year old body.
When I was four years old my mother sent me and my brother to visit my father in New York. My parents divorced before I was even one-year old. Or I should say that my mother left my father before I was one. By the time I was eighteen months old she was moving us three kids and herself to California and getting as far away from him as she could.
Our visit with him went fine for the most part. He had a new woman in his life who was always kind to us. But things went south fast when the day came that we were supposed to go home to our mom and he put my brother on a plane but not me.
The events that followed amounted to abduction. He told my mother that she would never see me again, and during that time he sexually abused me. I can remember at the time it happened it was like an out of body experience and I was seeing it all take place from somewhere above and to the left of my body. There was no one there to protect me and no one there to soothe me afterwards. I remember crying for my mother.
The way I’ve come to understand how that impacted me is that when a parent abuses their child it causes cognitive-dissonance in the subconscious of the child. As children we come to understand that our parents are the people who take care of us and protect us. So when they not only fail in protecting us but are the perpetrators of violence against us, our psyches can’t compute that. We’re too small to say but it’s like our psyche’s go ‘WTF! This isn’t how this is supposed to go! You’re supposed to love and protect me. What’s going on here?!’
And when abuse shows up where love and protection should be most children – myself included – take that to mean that they did something wrong to deserve the abuse. That’s the only thing that makes sense to a kid. Because to a child’s mind the equation is simple: you’re my parent, you supposed to love and protect me. If you don’t love and protect me then I must have done something wrong.
That sets the stage for shame. The deeper interpretation a child draws from being abused is that they are worthless. If my parent could treat me like that then I don’t matter to them and if I don’t matter to them then I don’t matter at all. Feeling like I don’t matter is like feeling I shouldn’t even exist. That’s the core of feeling worthless: I shouldn’t even exist.
How Being Shamed as a Child Harmed me
There were two pivotal moments that happened during childhood that helped to settle shame deeper into my bones. The first one had to do with an incident where I was caught “playing doctor” with the boy who lived downstairs. We must have been around the ages of five and six. His mother found us and she reported it to my mom who, in turn, shamed and mocked me and then threatened to send me back to my father. That was her custom, whenever I was “bad” she would threaten to send me back to my father.
Mind you, at this point she has no idea what had happened to me. I didn’t tell her of the abuse until I was in my thirties and processing it in therapy. And to her credit she did apologize at some point for threatening to send me away, acknowledging that she was doing what had been done to her as a child: discipline through threat and coercion.
But, my god, the terror that would seize me whenever she threatened to send me back to my father. It sent me into a silent panic. One of the ways that shame can show up is in self-injurious behavior, like cutting, burning, and even suicide. By age eight I had attempted suicide several times. One time I remember I tried to overdose by taking a lot of children’s Aspirin. It just put me to sleep for long time.
Many years ago a woman made the news because she was being charged with killing her child. She claimed that the child committed suicide and no one believed her. People just could not be convinced that a child would try to kill themselves. But some children, children who feel unloved, unwanted, abused, and neglected do try to commit suicide. I did and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
The second incident happened in the fourth grade. I had an unstable childhood and was in a different school almost every year. So when I transferred to another new school three months into the new school year, I had a lot of catching up to do and I was struggling. Around that time I found out that I needed glasses. After getting glasses I was sitting in class and the teacher was giving a lesson in True/False statements.
She read the statement: All people who wear glasses are smart. I kid you not, every kid in that classroom turned toward me and said unanimously, “False.” I could have died. After that, my confidence went down the toilet. I remember purposefully failing Spelling Bee’s just to get out of doing them because I felt so inadequate.
Being shamed as a child has two components – there’s what happened and then there’s the meaning you give to what happened. When I internalized those situations and interpreted them to mean that I was bad and flawed that’s when I trapped shame inside.
Adulthood: Feeling Worthless on the Inside While Looking Fierce on the Outside
Feeling worthless was not something that I was actively conscious of. It’s not like I woke up each day thinking, ‘God, I’m worthless.’ It was deeper in my subconscious than that and because of that it had the power to shape my behavior in ways that I didn’t realize. There were times when I wouldn’t speak up for myself in situations where I knew I was right. But that underlying sense of worthlessness gave me the belief that my thoughts and opinions didn’t matter much even if they were right.
That belief system fueled a deluge of negative self-talk that went unchecked for far too long. It’s been so long now that I won the battle over negative self-talk that I can’t remember the types of things I said to myself. I just know they amounted to ‘You suck’ said in a variety of different ways.
My self-esteem was so low back then that when I was nineteen and started getting attention from men I took that attention to mean that I was worth something. So that by the age of twenty-two I had created an image for myself based on sexiness. Being desirable became my super power. I concentrated all my energy into my looks and drew satisfaction from knowing that all my friends were “hot”.
But on the inside I was numb. Completely numb. On one painfully bleak evening, when I just couldn’t stand the numbness any more (I was probably twenty-one), I decided on a whim to go to Hollywood and get my tongue pierced. Can you imagine? Just to feel something? I consider this part of the shame-induced self-injurious behavior carried over from childhood.
Another thing about shame is that it has a posture. You see it best in a dog that has disappointed its owner. They drop their head and shoulders and look down and away. People do the same thing when we feel ashamed. Our shoulders droop and we avoid eye contact.
One of reasons it was hard to spot shame for me was because I cultivated a posture that was opposite the norm. I was extremely rigid, keeping my shoulders back and my head high. Some would read my posture as proud, even arrogant. But what I came to learn in my graduate studies was that my posture was my defense mechanism against the helplessness of my abused child-self. I created an outer shell that said, ‘Don’t fuck with me.’ When I walked down the street everything about how I moved screamed, ‘Back off!’
How Oprah, Hypnotherapy, and Self-Love Helped me put Down my Shame
Getting over my feelings of worthlessness took some time and was a process. It began with taking a honest look at myself and seeing how shame had made me dislike myself. One of the things I disliked about myself was the emphasis I had put on my looks and seeking approval and acceptance from being wanted. I had gone from zero sense of self to having a self-image based on externals. I had grown to hate the attention I got from men and wished for invisibility.
I decided it was high time to start building my self-esteem based on something real, something that could not be removed with time (like one’s looks) and could not be taken from me, like a job or status. And I thought about what sorts of things gave me confidence when I was a little girl. It was the things I accomplished like my creative pursuits.
When I was growing up anything I did that had to do with writing or creativity garnered high marks. And I enjoyed those things above any other course of study. So I decided to create a new “Self” based on my passions, pursuits, and talents. It was also around that time that I found my life’s purpose in helping other survivors of childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault heal from their trauma. I became a support group facilitator and counselor to survivors.
Around the same time, I caught a segment of the Oprah Winfrey Show in which she was talking to a woman about loving ourselves. The woman described a practice that I found lovely and nourishing. She called it a Self-blessing. I don’t remember her exact words but the practice she described entailed blessing yourself each day by putting your hands on a part of your body and saying something like, “I bless my eyes for they give me sight and the ability to see truth.”
For me, one of the things about being a survivor of sexual violence, you know, unlike your house or car being broken into, your body is broken into. Your body becomes the crime scene. And after living for years not respecting my body and not having appropriate boundaries for my body, this practice of self-blessing felt like a divine thing, something that would restore a feeling of sacredness and value to my body.
I started doing the practice every morning in the shower. I would start at the top of my head and work down to my feet blessing each part, spending deliberate time blessing my pelvic area that had held the emotional trauma of the abuse for all those years. Some mornings I would cry as I moved through the practice because I had spent so much of my life hating my body. Eventually, though, by doing this regularly I developed deep love and appreciation for myself.
As much as I was helping the women in our support groups work through their healing process, they were also helping me by sharing their stories, particularly their journey through shame. I remember one woman who made us all burst out laughing when she admitted how for so long she hated her body but then concluded, “It took me a long time to love my tits. And now I REALLY love my tits!” It was a great moment in the circle.
Another thing that helped me was learning to reframe the things that happened to me as a child. I learned this during a training I attended to be certified in a process called Rapid Trauma Resolution (RTR). It’s a powerful hypnotherapy tool for working with anxiety, depression, and PTSD (Post-traumatic stress syndrome).
I was skeptical about it so I volunteered for one of the demos. It was about six of us counselors, social workers, and psychologists sitting with the trainer in a circle. He asked me what I wanted to work on. Immediately the memory of my mother shaming me over playing with the boy downstairs popped in my head. I told the group the story and the trainer began the process.
When they say Rapid Trauma Resolution they mean it. The steps involved in the hypnotherapy took a matter of minutes. He had me remember the incident fully before he began and I could feel the shame sitting in my chest. After the process he asked me to remember the incident again and when I did laughter broke free from my throat. Laughter and this feeling of lightness and joy. The shame was gone!
In its place was this new thought, ‘Of course you did that as a child! You were a child! You were curious!’ The group supported me through the process by reframing the situation and normalizing my behavior as “children’s exploratory play” – it’s what little kids do. And it was wrong for my mother to shame me for something as natural to children as exploring each other. I felt restored. And I was amazed that something so quick and easy as RTR could zap away the shame of that memory so completely.
I was able to reframe the shaming that happened in the classroom at age nine much the same way when I noticed how it was impacting me in graduate school. By that time I was in my thirties and my confidence had been so eroded by shame that for a while any time that I wanted to ask a question or make a comment my heart would start to race, tears would well in my eyes, and my voice would quiver when I spoke. But thank God I spoke! I’m grateful that I didn’t let the shame completely stop me; although I was taken aback by the physical manifestation of shame in those moments.
Reframing my childhood challenges in school meant acknowledging the extreme hardship of changing schools on a near yearly basis. Having to make friends all over again, learn the new “playground politics”, the new teacher’s expectations, and new curriculum were hard. Never feeling rooted anywhere was hardest. So of course I struggled in school sometimes to catch up. That didn’t mean I wasn’t smart.
By the time I completed my graduate program in which I studied Somatic Psychology, the study of the mind-body connection with a specialization in trauma, I had learned so much about how we hold shame in our bodies and ways to work it out. One of the tools I used to move shame out of my body was dance. For years I took various forms of dance from Afro-Haitian to Flamenco and each style of dance taught me a new way to feel my body, use my body, and feel competent in my body.
Undoing shame has been a process of unearthing long-held beliefs about my self-worth, cultivating a sense of self based on my competencies and talents, fostering self-love and appreciation, and reframing the things that happened to me in my childhood. It hasn’t been easy and it certainly wasn’t quick, apart from that RTR session. But it has been some of the most important self-growth work I’ve done.
I shudder to think where I would be if had not taken on the task of recovering from shame. I know that I would not have the relationship I now have because shame would have kept me feeling unworthy of love. And I know that I would not have had the courage to follow my dream of becoming a writer because I still would have carried the belief that everything inside me was worthless and that I had nothing of value to offer to the world.
That’s the thing with shame – it robs you of your chance to live. To fully live. With shame we only survive. Without shame we can thrive.