So my current thinking about shame is that it is emotional information that tells me I perceive I have done something wrong. The problem—one of many—is that I don’t know what I perceive to be wrong, because the patterns which my young mind formed in terms of what behaviour was punished were never articulated. By anyone. What has tended to happen in the past is that I cast shame into the mold of what, culturally, seemed to be likely. But my implicit understanding wasn’t formed by larger societal values. They were formed by the idiosyncratic behaviour of my parents, which really had to do with trying to cope in the midst of a lot of dysfunction and trauma both in the present and when they were children. I don’t think the patterns in my mind are unique, but I also do not think my shame is linked to actual morality. It has to do with pragmatically what my parents could not cope with or what my grandparents could not cope with or my great-grandparents could not cope with. It intersects with specific traumatic events, but the patterns which emerge are about what happened every day, things that might not have been traumatic, but which nonetheless had an effect.
When I feel awash in shame lately I try to think what just happened? This is information about what I perceive to be shameful. What is this telling me about myself?
I was taking a walk and suddenly had self-hating thoughts. Okay, what just what happened? What was I thinking? What did I just see?
I had walked past a nail salon and a florist. I looked at the nail salon again. Nothing pinged. Okay, the florist? It’s January. The place was full of teddy bears and red hearts. Valentine’s Day seems to have a meaning for me.
The thing is that I think families where people are overwhelmed by their emotional reactions to what is happening and do not have the coping skills to calm down is that they learn not to transmit their emotional upset to one another by avoiding emotionally painful topics. I have learned that generally it makes things worse for me to talk to my friends about topics that upset me. Their reactions to my upset wind me up further. So I have stopped trying and I reach inward. I have the tools to calm myself, but I can imagine even without the tools to cope inwardly, a family with unavoidable trauma might work out that lacking the tools to help each other calm down might mean that you don’t try. You retreat and you don’t talk about sensitive topics.
So I have a lot of pain about Valentine’s Day, and my self-hate is about shame, and that might be because in my family I learned we don’t talk about pain or about abuse. If that were the case, it would explain a lot, because the typical way of understanding this shame is to think the child feels ashamed that the abuse happened. And I am not sure that’s necessarily the case. The Valentine’s Day stuff is linked in my mind to trafficking, and if someone tells me I am not to blame for that, it’s very mystifying to me. It doesn’t in any way resonate.
But it makes a lot of sense to me to think the little child me would have learned we don’t talk about it and we don’t acknowledge it and we pretend it didn’t happen. It also makes sense this rule-don’t talk about it—would be communicated in indirect ways which would make it hard to articulate later. It would be communicated by simply not talking about it or by changing the subject.
In many ways, I think how society constructs abuse makes it very difficult for children in abusive families to make any sense of what is happening to them. Society constructs perpetrators as “bad,” and yet the child being abused is not going to see their parent as bad. Their parent cares for them, feeds them, nurtures them, plays games with them, at least some of the time. A child being victimized by a parent has a mental image of that parent which makes no sense at all. Abusers are bad. My daddy must not be abusing me, because my daddy is not bad.
I don’t have a solution to that, but I do have compassion for the child I was trying to make sense of my dad’s behaviour.
Anyway, I think I have internalized the “rule” of not talking about the past or my family’s abuse, and I have coped with this in a variety of grownup-feeling ways. The hard part about this is I think I am just going to need to cope with feeling ashamed every time I do engage with my past until it finally gets better. I did, for a long time, just shut off my feelings of shame and I can’t do that anymore. I need to be a whole person with all of my feelings. I can’t just chop off the parts of me that seem “damaged” by the abuse. I don’t want to feel ashamed forever, but shutting down my feelings isn’t going to make that happen faster. Reversing the process—taking baby steps of violating that “rule” and then holding myself gently so that I can see I am not being punished for it and it is safe—is what will diminish the shame.
The other thing I think I have internalized is that I cannot be seen. I think this probably happened with a mother overwhelmed by her own issues, by both of her children’s attachment problems, and by my dad’s insanity. It had nothing to do with me. I needed attention and connection, and she couldn’t do one more thing. As a parent, we’ve all been in that situation, but when you think of the insanity in my family, it becomes multiplied by about 1000. Instead of the occasional over-wrought day, it was every day that she didn’t have the emotional energy for me.
But I would have also happened because my mother was sensitized to rejection, because of her own history of misattunement with her mother, so every time I got her attention, it was likely to be in a way she didn’t happen to want at that particular moment, and she would have reacted to that in a negative way.
It’s all very complicated to think about, but I think I face that all the time. I buy a pair of pants, and I have to think about what I like and whether they fit. I have to look at my body, and it’s going to feel shameful to me, because my mom had no attention to give me. You have to give yourself attention to do anything, to get any kind of personal fulfillment out of life or to present yourself as a decent human being to others. It’s inescapable. And if I have learned it’s wrong for there to be attention on me then I’m going to feel shame doing very normal things, and that’s something else that will only get better with time and with repeatedly trying to cope with shame as it comes up.
I think this would also happen—this idea that I can’t have attention on me—if someone I lived with was hypervigilant and constantly alert to problems, because then when someone’s attention was on me, that person would have found a problem to point out. I was thinking about this in terms of VP ma’am and her random criticism: she reached out and was nice to me and gave me positive attention, and then she felt anxious about connection, and her anxiety would have led her to locate a problem. I don’t really have any doubt that this happened in my family. Probably someone did that, and it would have meant any attention on me could only lead to rejection, because children are never perfect. There is always something wrong with them that you can point out if you are attentive to that. It would make attention feel dangerous, like a thing which you are inevitably seduced by and then betrayed by.
But I am trying to get at this other think: it is not and never has been about what I think. It has been about regulating my emotions so that I can think. What I learned, first and foremost, is that I should not pay attention to the emotions as I felt in my body. I have said this multiple times on here, but it bears saying (for my sake) again. It was never that it was “wrong” in my family to feel sadness, for example. It was wrong to experience sadness as a felt sensation in my body. Trying not to feel that sensation of sensation means that I cannot be attentive to regulating my emotional arousal, and all kinds of things happen because of that.