How I Healed Myself of Shame

By Beverly Engel, LMFT | Apr. 18, 2018

 

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel shame. But I do have evidence that there was once a time when I was shame free. I have a photograph of me as a little baby, smiling with a twinkle in my eye. I look radiant and filled with joy. I have another photo of me at four years old, in which I am frowning, and I look defiant and lost. The twinkle in my eye has been replaced with a dark, empty look.

What had occurred that had taken away the joyous smile on my face and replaced it with darkness, emptiness and hatred?

The answer: shame. Shame replaced my innocence, my joy, my exuberance for life. Shame caused me to build a wall of protection and defiance. Who was I defending myself against? My mother, a woman who was so full of shame herself that she couldn’t help but project it onto me.

After being neglected and emotionally abused by my mother, sexually abused at nine and raped at twelve, I found myself riddled with shame and the belief that I was unlovable and rotten inside. I began acting out by shoplifting. I was angry at my mother, the men who had abused me and at all authority figures. I wanted to get back at everyone who had taken advantage of me. After I was finally caught and brought home in a cop car, my mother gave up on me.

Fortunately, I didn’t give up on myself. I knew there was goodness in me and I fought to find it. I turned to solitude and introspection and began to find the pieces of myself I discarded when trying to shield myself from further harm.

Here’s how I worked to heal myself and combat my feelings of shame—and how you can, too:

  1. Stop blaming yourself for the abuse. There is absolutely nothing a child can do that warrants a parent emotionally or physically abusing them, and there is absolutely nothing a child can do to cause someone to sexually abuse them. You did not cause your abuser to mistreat you.

  2. Give your shame back to your abusers. Parents often project their own shame onto their children, as was the case with my mother, who had me out of wedlock and felt horrible shame because of it. The following exercise will help you give your shame back to your abuser:
    • Imagine “going inside your body” to look for shame. Some see shame as a cloud of blackness. Others, as an ache in their stomach or a pain in their heart. Wherever you sense shame, imagine taking it and throwing it back at your abuser(s).

  3. Gain an understanding as to why you behaved as you did. Instead of viewing yourself as “bad” for acting out (if you did), begin to view your negative behaviors as attempts to cope with the abuse. The following behaviors are some of the most common coping mechanisms in former victims of childhood abuse:
    • Eating disorders: bingeing, compulsive overeating and emotional eating.
    • Self-injury: cutting, burning, head banging or any other form of self-harm.
    • Difficulties with sexual adjustment: sexualizing relationships, becoming hypersexual, avoiding sexual contact or alternating between these two extremes.

  4. Show self-compassion. Compassion is the antidote to shame. It acts to neutralize the poison of shame, to remove the toxins created by shame. The goal is to treat yourself in a loving, kind and supportive way. Think of a phrase to soothe and encourage yourself, look at yourself in the mirror, make eye contact and say this phrase with certainty.

  5. Provide yourself with forgiveness. Self-forgiveness is different from letting yourself off the hook or making excuses for negative behavior. The more shame you heal, the more clearly you’ll be able to see yourself. Instead of hardening your heart and pushing people away, you’ll become more receptive to others. It’s important to work towards forgiving yourself for: the abuse itself, the ways you hurt others because of your own abusive experiences, and the ways you have harmed yourself.

Don’t let shame take over your life. It took me many years to rid myself of the shame that followed me nearly all my life. The important thing is that you just begin to heal your shame, so it doesn’t dictate your life.

 

Beverly Engel has been a practicing psychologist for 35 years and is an internationally recognized psychotherapist and acclaimed advocate for victims of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. She is the author of twenty-two self-help books and Raising Myself: A Memoir of Neglect, Shame, and Growing Up Too Soon. In addition to her professional work, Engel frequently lends her expertise to national television talk shows.

Comments
Angelonyc
My counselor mentioned 'shame' to me. I completely denied it. Reading up on it makes me realize how much shame, how many subtle variations. How the emotional abuse of others (with shame) affects us. My shame goes back as early as I can remember (before the so called age of reason) Where I recognized myself as individual. Being small, smart, not real masculine added to my shame in grammar school. My at first refusal to deal with my sexuality (gay). I hid myself in writing, playing music. Becoming quite good at it. Went a long way to make me feel better about myself. I became very popular, yet the shame was still there. I became very enamored with Black men (I'm White). There was a shame with that. (outright verbal and physical abuse actually). I ended up becoming my and my fathers biggest nightmare, a drug-addicted homosexual who liked Blacks. In another way, I saw it as a part of me always rebelled. I always did what I wanted, seemingly sometimes to inflame others..
Once I got past the heaviest of shame of drugs, it was easier to forgive myself, and reach sobriety. Society now tolerates gay, inter-racial relationships (in NYC anyways). Still there are little 'pockets and veins' of shame in me. which is work. At first some of it, I'm not even aware of the shame. I've perfected my act so well. Once I acknowledge that. it becomes easier to identify issues.. Life is a life long process. Still it's good to learn self-awarement, no matter what age.
8/6/2018 2:26:52 PM

Shannon Toops
Shame is catholic guilt and I no longer subscribe to it.
5/12/2018 12:29:50 PM

Robyn
Shame has definitely played a key role in my compulsive eating. I often remember things I did at the age of 15 (I'm 34yrs old) and feel shame about the situation. Silly part is that they are usually small small things that nobody else probably remembered or noticed.
4/28/2018 4:10:46 AM

Bridget
I am furious with my family for not acknowledging the fact that my father sexually abused me. Not only that, but abuse in my family continued until recently. I have now physically removed myself from them to the best of my ability. I still see people who know my mother unfortunately, because they do not have a clue about the reality of the situation. I pray to God my family stays away because my relationship with them was toxic too me. Thank God I am strong enough to break away and no longer be a victim.
4/25/2018 8:49:59 PM

Solaine
This piece was a much needed reminder of how much childhood abuse can continue to affect one throughout their entire life if not truly acknowledged and properly dealt with. Shame is something we often continue to inflict upon ourselves as adults. Forgiveness and humor are two of the most healing mindsets—we have to love ourselves and not take our day to day mistakes throughout the rest of our lives too seriously.
4/25/2018 8:55:15 AM

Lizanne Corbit
Thank you for sharing this truly beautiful read. Self-forgiveness is such a key piece of releasing shame. So much easier said than done, and that's where self-compassion and gentleness come into play. Give yourself time and space, and know that this burden is not yours to carry. Let yourself feel light.
4/23/2018 2:51:54 PM

Tom N
O.k.--THINK, iShared--Safely
4/18/2018 8:15:55 PM

Tom N
I,have found-_inMy experience; "shame", often being--the result of poorly-founded,beliefs_-"indoctrinated" inMY "personal being"& Image ofSelf...once I Analyzed& came"up-with": BETTER,truer-beliefs__I was able to "work",12steps…& heal myself--of theShame:)
4/18/2018 8:14:09 PM