The response most needed by those in a downward shame spiral is empathy.
As a survivor of childhood abuse, even at my old age, I still get new, devastating memories that show up sometimes, seemingly out of the proverbial blue. I know, from my own personal experience, from my hypnotherapy training, and from working with clients, that the subconscious will only serve up what the conscious mind is ready to know, deal with, and heal.
I’ve seen it time and again with clients. It’s just how the subconscious works. The client and I talk awhile and then agree on their healing path. I hypnotize them and start down that agreed-upon path, and then their subconscious will take us down another path, expertly and easily—with perfect timing and to a perfect “ending” (which is really a beginning)—circumventing our original path.
The subconscious always knows what it’s doing and where it’s going. I have learned to simply trust the client’s subconscious and follow where it wants to lead, letting it reveal itself and its secrets in exactly the perfect way. I am just the mental Sherpa, in a way, outside the client’s mind and able to keep them moving toward their own resolution.
It is a fascinating journey—always—and I have the utmost respect and admiration for the subconscious and the pathways it takes to healing.
So I must respect my own subconscious’ journeys too—even when those journeys are seemingly unexpected and initially seem way too difficult to be navigated, even when I don’t want to respect them, and even when I am dragging my proverbial mental heels, the brakes fully on.
Every memory that has presented itself this way—seemingly spontaneously—is more than difficult. When first presented, they are overwhelmingly devastating. The shame they produce feels like more than I am able to shoulder.
Afterward, I usually spend the first day or two in hiding, too ashamed to speak, wondering if I can live with the shame of it. Yes, I know the shame is not really mine—that it belongs to the abuser. Nevertheless, there it is, and shame is shame, no matter its origins.
This last memory was no different for me. It seems to be the worst memory I’ve ever recovered, but they all seem like that to me. I suppose my subconscious is slicing off and serving up the really bad ones—now that I’ve years of coping skills and tools to heal myself at their appearance. The subconscious is brilliant like that.
This time, however, instead of swallowing and holding on to the shame, I took Dr. Brené Brown’s advice, and a few minutes after the memory’s surface, I called a trusted girlfriend.
Brené Brown compiled a shame resilience model that she learned from years of interviewing people that handle shame well.
The first task is to recognize shame. Hopefully, I will have done my homework ahead of time and know what shame looks and feels like for me. I need to know what my personal shame triggers are. Most importantly, I need to recognize my own shame signs, so that when it happens, I can get myself back down into my body and start moving through it by saying to myself something like, “This is shame. It hurts. It is horrible.”
The second step is to not react, in that moment, toward the person or incident that started my spiral down into shame. It does not matter, at this point, whether they deliberately tried to shame me or not—just get away from them. Don’t stay in the conversation. Don’t make that call. Don’t send that email. Don’t allow the instant reaction. Don’t let the shame talk me into blasting someone with a shame screen: anger, rage, guilt, posturing. Walk away.
The next step is to share the shame. From her research/interviews, she found that shame thrives in an environment of secrecy and judgment. So call a trusted friend and confide in them.
Only share shame stories with someone you trust completely, those who have earned the right to hear your shame. Hopefully you have this someone. If you are blessed/lucky, you have more than one person you could call.
Brené stresses that there are six types of folks to not confide in:
- The friend who actually feels shame for you, gasps and confirms how horrified you should be.
- The friend who responds with sympathy (“I feel so sorry for you.”) rather than empathy. (“I get it, I feel with you and I’ve been there.”)
- The friend who needs you to be the pillar of worthiness and authenticity, who can’t help because she’s too disappointed in your imperfections.
- The friend who is so uncomfortable with vulnerability that she scolds, “How did you let this happen?”
- The friend who is all about making it better and, out of her own discomfort, refuses to acknowledge that you can actually make terrible choices. (“You’re exaggerating. It wasn’t that bad.”)
- The friend who confuses connection with the opportunity to one-up you. (“Well, that’s nothing. Listen what happened to me…”)
And if you are the recipient of a shame call from a friend? The response most needed by those in shame is empathy: “I feel you. I’ve been there too. I’m here for you. Let’s get through this together.” And those comments like, “Well at least… ” don’t help at all. In fact, those type of comments shut people down rather than help.
So, at 6:30 a.m. in the morning, I called a trusted friend—and barely able to get out the words because of the crying and extreme shame, I began, “I don’t want to be talking about this at all, but I know that shame thrives in an environment of secrecy and that I should tell someone, so here it is…”
The elephant journal version.