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The Excess Baggage of Shame

Dear Reader,

Welcome to Lentz Letters! Today I want to begin with a confession. It is true that the pandemic has left me with some extra baggage. Not being comfortable going to the gym, my mirror refuses to lie and reminds me daily there is more of me now with parts that I choose to label as an unwelcome visitor. I have been working hard to rid my body of the heavy cargo and wish it was possible to get stock in shed equity. I look forward to the day when I can say that I am travelling light without excess weight dragging me down. However, there is a different kind of baggage that many of us travel through life with it: shame. No matter how hard we try to ignore it it gets increasingly challenging to not let it interfere with our lives. But first, it is important to understand it. John Bradshaw tells us that healthy shame is the emotion which gives us permission to be human, informs us of our limits, and lets us know we can and will make mistakes, and that we may need help. It is the foundation of humility. Shame becomes toxic when it becomes internalized as part of one’s identity. Toxic shame is no longer an emotion that signals our limits, it is a state of being and becomes part of how you define yourself. A person who has toxic shame becomes haunted by an emptiness which creates an urge or desire to fill that void, usually with behaviors that result in less than satisfying outcomes, such as addiction or codependency. This is distinguished from guilt which is moral shame. Guilt implies there is a possibility of repair, growth, and change. Since toxic shame is a matter of identity rather than a behavioral wrong there is nothing to be learned from it and no growth opportunity. The shame- based mistake only confirms one’s negative feelings about oneself. Usually, the heavy burden of carry toxic shame begins early in life. This essentially important responsibility for care of a child is abandoned, violated, and sabotaged. The child, in attempts to bond with an unreliable source, begins to create the collage of shame with repeated memories, internalized emotion which yields to displaced identity. Carrying the burden of toxic shame takes on different forms. Filling voids with addiction, defiant behaviors, or excessive fear, or even racism. Feeling flawed and defective can cause some to act accordingly or attempt to mask these feelings by striving for perfection. Some may wear the mask of hopelessness by playing the victim role while others may be at the other end of the continuum, believing they are without fault, bullying their way through work and personal relationships.

The burden of shame can wreak havoc on families. Control is the major defense strategy for shame. Secrecy and unspoken rules guard the lingering dysfunction. Families that carry shame are driven by the unachievable and unrealistic measurement of perfection. Blame becomes the defensive cover-up for shame. When things do not turnout as planned, the child learns the answer is found in either blaming self or deflecting the responsibility onto another. Love is conditional. A child raised in a shame- based family is denied 5 freedoms: the power to perceive, to think and interpret, to feel, to want and have choice, and to imagine. Children are taught 4 rules: Don’t talk about your true feelings, needs and wants, Don’t listen to what is really is ungirding the other’s motives or rigid rules, Don’t make mistakes since mistakes reveal the flawed, vulnerable parts of yourself and Don’t trust so that you will never be disappointed.

How does shame show up in your life? Is it weighing you down? Healing from shame requires exploring how you speak to yourself. Do you find yourself saying “I am bad” or “I feel bad?” Identifying with the painful emotion is different from recognizing a feeling without being consumed by it. Are you able to practice self- acceptance and self -compassion? Or do you find that you tell yourself what you should be doing all the time? I encourage you to stop “shoulding “on yourself. Practice viewing shame as a bully. This may give you the freedom to stand up to the shame bully who puts you down. If this is difficult imagine choosing an ally, real or imagined, that you associate with nurture, protection, wisdom, and strength. This is an ally with a caring and strong presence that could help you to practice self-acceptance and stand up to the shame bully. Guard against projecting your feelings about yourself onto your ally. Remember, this ally has your back is will be there for you!

If you would like to explore more about ways to free yourself from the shame associated with trauma please contact me to discuss your interest in joining the next Circle of Hope group. In this group you will creating a healing space and grown your willingness to change the relationship with the pain of shame. The group work will include learning the value in reclaiming your body from shame. Our body tells the story of shame as noticeable through the physical discomforts that accompany shame. The group develops a safe confidential space for you to become stronger through the process of tolerating and expressing emotion.

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