I wrote recently how a lot has changed for me, for the better, and those changes mean that I have a clearer path to achieve my goals. Some of those goals are lengthy. Like career goals and being physically healthy. But no matter what it is that I desire, I’m working toward it. What this means is that I have to let things go when they arise. I can’t hold onto things anymore. Whether that be fear, anger, sadness, shame… I need to let them surface and face things and work through them. I’ve been doing this but it was different before a month ago. It often took me many months, sometimes years, to work through bigger things. But that’s changed.
Now, when I become aware of something standing in my way, I deal that day. Period. I don’t have time to spend on spinning or holding onto things that keep me from the joy I experience so often now.
One area that I’m struggling to deal with right now is with shame. I didn’t realize how toxic it was. I knew some, as that’s a big reason why I’m getting into the field I am, but there’s so much I didn’t know until recently. Like how shame and guilt aren’t the same. How shame is responsible for feelings of worthlessness, depression, feeling powerless, unsafe, and people that are shamed are far more likely to develop PTSD.
When I was taking psych, I was so upset when we learned that the reason some folks develop PTSD is that they aren’t as resilient as others. At the time, I took offense to that. I felt I was very resilient, as well as a lot of others I knew with PTSD, but it was just an intro. We didn’t dive into the deeper aspects of this. Like when people are shamed, they become less resilient. It’s not that they aren’t resilient by nature, but instead, something that people break away. Some might do it with intent, others might not even realize what they’re doing. Shaming can come in small digs at others. Passive aggressive comments. Even looks of disgust. And these are at the lower levels. When children are shamed by their elders, it not only breaks away what little protective shield they’ve developed, but it prevents this shield from getting any stronger as they grow.
People aren’t less resilient by nature, they’re made to be less resilient through shaming.
When I began studying shame, I came across the differences between guilt and shame. Guilt, for example, isn’t bad at all. When we screw up, we feel guilty so we learn and don’t do that thing again. Guilt isn’t generally long-lasting. We feel it for a while, hopefully learn, and move on. Our actions might have cost us something or someone, and that still needs grieving, but shame is vastly different. Shame isn’t something we feel when we’ve messed up, it’s something others make us feel.
When I say ‘make us feel’, I know we are responsible for what we feel for the most part. One area I’ve never believed this applies is when it comes to abusers. It’s too easy for them to shirk responsibility by saying, “I didn’t make you feel that way” when their behavior was clearly the source. When we’re children and our parents shame us for something we do, that does damage. If teachers, neighbors, grandparents, whomever, say things like, “Toughen up, don’t cry,” “What are you thinking? You’re just too sensitive.” “Should you be eating that?” “Why can’t you be more like x sibling?” These things are all damaging and as humans, we have a surplus of these toxic statements. So when I say that being told these things by our elders creates this shame inside us, it’s because it does. And as we grow and learn this fact, that’s when it’s on us–as adults–to undo that damage and heal from that shame.
I’ve also learned that shame causes increased cortisol levels and proinflammatory cytokine. While I’ve discussed cortisol many times, I’ve not proinflammatory cytokine. Mostly because I didn’t know what that was until tonight. But shame causes increased levels and when that happens, our receptors can become damaged. This causes us inflammatory issues. Too many to name here. And it hangs out in adipose tissue. That’s right, fat cells. The fat cells constantly release proinflammatory cytokine and it causes inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Something I battle.
So getting rid of shame is pretty important.
While I was thinking of all of this, I was also thinking about how we lack empathy as a species. Sure there are those of us that understand and possess empathy, but so many do not. As an example, I watched a video that enraged me today. Several officers handcuffed a ten year old black boy playing in his grandmother’s yard over a case of mistaken identity. The little boy was so scared he peed his pants.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the video has gone viral. It’s all over the place. Guess whose face isn’t blurred out in the video? You’d think it’d be the cops, right? You know, those adults with all the power? But no, their faces were conveniently blurred out. But not the ten year old’s. He was left to be seen by everyone in his humiliation and terror as the cops questioned him. They tried to claim he ran away and that’s why they felt he was the person they were looking for, but really??? If these officers can’t tell the difference between a terrorized child and a criminal, they have no place in their positions. And every single place that played the video and blurred the officers’ faces and not the boys, fuck you.
What angered me most was that people were defending the cops being blurred and not the child, claiming that we couldn’t have empathy for the little boy if we weren’t able to see his face. You know what my thoughts are? If it takes you seeing a little boy’s eyes full of terror for you to see him as a human being, then you’re the problem. It should not take seeing his face for you to feel empathy for him.
This was one of many instances today that caused me this rage at our species. Why is it so hard for us to feel empathy for one another?
So I bounced back and forth on what to write tonight. About shame? Or empathy?
But as I was looking up shame and the toxic ways in which it slowly kills us, what I found was that people that are shamed tend to lack empathy. Not those of us working on and healing our shame, but those of us in denial about it. Those are the folks that can’t hold space for empathy because they’re so caught up in their own distress and need to live in denial all the time.
Now, this is not a catchall by any means. We are individuals and are capable of feeling shame and empathy. The thing is, when I really thought about all the people that I know personally that lack empathy, those are the same people that are drowning in shame. And most of them are completely unaware of just how much shame they possess. They’re people that think they’ve dealt with things when really all they’ve done was push it down and suppress the issues to the point that they are in complete denial. But that shame is still there, seeping out of their fat cells and wreaking havoc in their bodies and minds. It’s slowly killing them. Sucking their joy out of them. Creating zombies that can no longer feel because they’ve shut it all off and pushed it down.
For this reason, I’m going to share about the specific area of shame I’m still dealing with. I don’t know how to get past it either. Usually, D can help. But this isn’t really an area he can help with. This is on me to figure out. Becuase it’s about feeling dirty.
It’s no secret that victims of sexual abuse feel dirty. They feel deep shame around what happened to them even when they know it wasn’t their fault. And this is where I’m at. Even with my limited exposure, I still feel so dirty. I feel used. I’ve been working on the worthless part of that and I don’t feel worthless anymore, but this feeling of being dirty still lingers.
There are so many things that go into this feeling of dirtiness and shame around that. And others certainly don’t help. The moment someone looks at me differently, or is suddenly not interested in me anymore, that adds to this feeling. When those that claim to love me find out and rather than say, “I’m so sorry this happened, how can I support you in healing from this?” they say, “You have a sickness,” that adds to this feeling of shame. Of being marked, used, and dirty.
But I’m not dirty. I was used, yes, but I’m not now. And I can’t keep giving people that hurt me this power over me. I don’t want them having that power. If someone wants power over me, they’d better have earned that power.
Researching shame helped me to see that when people try to shame me, it’s their own shame they’re projecting onto me. It’s not mine. Nor do I want it. I’ve carried shame, yes, but it’s all things that others made me feel. When I was little and one of the men that violated me taught me what it meant to experience sexual pleasure, I thought it was the greatest thing ever. I wanted to experience orgasm all the time. I felt no shame in that. I felt no shame in him teaching me what my body could do. Was it still sexual abuse? Of course. But I wasn’t filled with shame about it.
When I felt shame was when I was taught that it was wrong to enjoy my body in such a way. The actual abuse was annoying. Painful physically at times. Scary at times. But it wasn’t shameful. I had no feelings about it. Those that weren’t the actual sexual abusers were the ones to inflict that shame upon me.
Understanding this has changed the way I see the shame I’ve carried. It was never my shame. And this goes for the feeling of being dirty too. I didn’t feel dirty on my own. Hurt yes, scared yes, but not dirty. That too came from people other than the ones doing the actual sexual abuse.
I don’t need to hold onto things that don’t belong to me. So now, I can let go of this shame and feeling of being dirty.
When we don’t face our shame and work to heal it, we pass it on to our kids, our friends, our coworkers, even complete strangers. But that shame we project is ours to deal with. Just as the shame I felt was projected onto me, I then projected onto others. And this is how this cycle continues. It’s the gift that keeps on giving that NO ONE actually wants. And it’s hard to see often times because while I was doing great in most areas, this is one area where I wasn’t. So it was easy to bypass it and not face these feelings.
But our shame, even if inflicted upon us by others, still is ours to heal and deal with.
The next time I feel ashamed, not guilty of wrongdoing, but shame, I’m going to ask myself why. I can’t think of a single time that I’ve felt ashamed because I–myself–thought something I was doing was shameful or wrong. It’s always others’ projections of shame, telling me I should be ashamed or something akin. And that means it’s not about me. I don’t need to do anything more with it aside from letting it roll right over my shoulder and plummet to the ground.
This has been a hard piece to write. It’s difficult to talk about these things. Just writing this will get me attacked by some, but that’s not going to stop me. Because this is an important topic. No matter who we are, at some point, we’ve carried shame. Even if it’s as simple as ‘I’m not good enough in bed’ or ‘why can’t I do that the way she does it?’. We all struggle with this subject in our own ways and this is a systemic issue. Finding ways to discuss shame without adding to it is something we can all benefit from.
Maybe the place to start is with empathy.