The tentacles of shame can reach through decades of a person’s life, wrapping around seemingly unconnected events and wrenching the joy from life. I have friends whose shame originated in childhoods in which they never felt up to grade. They always felt deficient in some significant and identity shaping way. For some it was a constant stream of criticism. For others it was as seemingly benign as a home focus on appearances rather than on the truth, subtly but unmistakably suggesting that the truth is never good enough.
I also have friends whose shame reaches up out of childhood trauma. That trauma might have been the sudden loss of a parent or, as the Penn State abuse scandal tragically highlights, more often than we want to acknowledge it is child sexual abuse. The child is made to feel that he is in some way culpable for his own abuse, or in an insidious distortion of logic, the child believes the fact that the trauma happened stands as proof that it was deserved.
The truth, though, is that shame has little to do with the bad things that happened to someone or the bad things someone did. It has everything to do with the lies that someone started believing about himself when he tried to make sense of a bad situation. Believing a lie—that the truth is never good enough or that children are responsible for adult actions against them or that you are not credible and no one will believe you—keeps the tentacles of shame alive and strong. Even incredibly successful people suffer from shame. In fact, it is their unending need to prove to themselves that they are good enough that propels their success.
While some lies are memories from a long past childhood, or “childhood tapes,” other lies get constant reinforcement. Many messages propagated in our media, particularly those that connect one’s worth to appearance or wealth, are lies. Anyone with a TV is constantly exposed to them. When thinking about parents who won’t forgive, I realized that elderly parents can perpetuate shame lies also. In the case of forgiveness, people may hold on to resentment because it is the only connection to another person they think they need in their lives. Paradoxically, the resentment is rooted in intense desire—not rejection.
Similarly, disapproving parents might ache for the time when their kids prized their parents’ approval. As kids grow up, they find their satisfaction not from parent approval but from the mark they are leaving on the world—in their careers, relationships or communities. Parents may perpetuate criticism hoping against hope that the adult child will respond by seeking the parent’s approval again. In any case, it is a lie. More specifically, it is a manipulation designed to elicit a certain response rather than an honest observation grounded in reality. The notion that one needs a parent’s approval is a lie as well. Is it nice to have? Certainly. Is it necessary for happiness and joy? By no means.
Healing from shame doesn’t happen magically when we recall the events that triggered it. It is when we call out those lies and speak the truth about ourselves to ourselves that true healing begins.
Join the conversation. Are there lies that you believe about yourself?
Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.