The first thought I have is that, perhaps—just my musing here—childhood trauma survivors (in part) work really hard at “putting the past behind” them and “letting go of the past” because the person in the past—the child—felt ashamed. During abuse from your parents, you usually feel ashamed. Very, very ashamed. And you feel you are bad. It is not clear when you are 3 or 5 or maybe even 10 that there is a difference between perception and fact, or that it is possible to feel you are bad and have this feeling of shame inside you and have that be merely a feeling and not a reality.
Because of that, it can seem that letting yourself feel what it was to be this child and to be ashamed and to feel you are bad to the very core means that you are bad or were bad. It can still not be entirely clear to a survivor that shame is an emotion and the badness is a remembered perception and not a fact. It can feel that letting in those memories of feeling bad means you are bad or were bad.
If it helps you, you can tell that little child you are not bad and you didn’t deserve that treatment, but it isn’t going to change the memory. It has already happened—it’s over. And what you felt—I felt—as a neglected and abused child was bad. I felt ashamed and I felt lonely and I felt like I was very, very bad. I might not have felt that way all the time, but in those experiences when I felt neglected and abused, that is how I felt. It doesn’t mean I lost the struggle to survive or I was defending myself against the harsh reality that my main source of support were depraved lunatics. It means my mind was a recorder.
My parents’ behaviour communicated that I was worthless and bad, and that entered my mind as a felt sense, as an emotion. Just like I might remember the scratchiness of the carpet or the pain of a blow, I remember I felt ashamed. My mind recorded the emotions of the experience, and one of them was shame. So the reality that the emotion was trying to communicate to me is that my parents were treating me like shit.
And this is fine. It is fine for me to remember this. My brain, actually, is trying to do something important. It is trying to integrate that feeling of shame with the rest of the experience so that in the present, when faced with a situation which might seem similar, it can see that the present situation is somewhat different and might not be life-threatening. When the pieces of the memory are not integrated, my mind cannot do that. It cannot find the other bits that might distinguish it from those childhood experiences and so I keep responding to the same bits that suggest my life is at stake as though it really is at stake.
So, maybe surprisingly, when I embrace (okay, tolerate, but let’s be positive about this) the feeling of shame I end up feeling better later, after the shame shower has passed on. Because the feeling of shame is something that happened, and I am starting to be able to contextualize it, and I can feel a little bit better that feeling ashamed does not mean I am bad or that I will be hurt. Sometimes I am reminded of the feeling of shame of the past because I have done something wrong in the present, or it seems to me that someone else might be perceiving I have done something wrong.
Then I can say, “Oh, yeah, they didn’t like that” or even “I don’t like that” and make constructive decisions about how to respond to that. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel shame or even that I don’t meander down memory lane into briefly hating myself and wanting to die. But it’s shorter and it also leads somewhere. It leads into something productive. Someday, I might even be able to skip the trip down memory lane, because I’ve been there so many times before, and I have seen everything there is to see.