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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.