‘Unshame?’ says the therapist, checking that she’s heard me correctly.
I nod. ‘I don’t know what else to call it. Because, what’s the opposite of shame? There isn’t one really, is there? It’s not pride, because that’s all puffed up – the other end of the spectrum. What’s the position in the middle, where you’re not full of shame, and you’re not full of pride? Unshame is the only word I can think of. It’s where you’re just you and it’s okay to be you.’
She smiles encouragingly. Maybe it’s going to be one of those sessions where I just need her empathic supportiveness to contain me while I unfurl my thoughts from their tight little nest deep within my head. I need permission to challenge things. To feel things. To know things.
I need a safe space in which I can stand back from my life and rearrange its edges, like breaking up a jigsaw and starting again. I need to find the frame. I need to find some certainties. I need to be able to imagine what it will look like once complete. Because I realise that, so much of my life, I’ve been putting the pieces together upside down: a dull, pale blue cardboard life. But now, here in therapy, I’m going to jiggle the pieces around, turn them over, consider them. And start to construct a new picture. One full of life.
At least, that’s the plan. I’m not sure where my positivity has suddenly come from. I’m not sure if it will remain.
‘Shame stinks,’ I say at last, reinvolving the therapist in my thoughts. ‘It’s like a sulphurous fume that has followed me around all my life. I’m so used to it that I’ve become nose-blind to it. But other people notice it about me. And it makes them draw back.’
“Shame stinks. It’s like a sulphurous fume that has followed me around all my life. I’m so used to it that I’ve become nose-blind to it.”
The therapist’s eyes narrow and I wonder whether she’ll agree with me or disconfirm my perceptions. Either way, I will feel both worse and better. So I decide not to find out, and plough on.
‘But I want to live in clear air. I want the freshness of ozone, like by a waterfall. I want a different life.’
‘How are you going to create that different life?’ she asks.
She makes a light puffing noise through her nose, and her eyes are twinkly. ‘How do you mean?’ she asks.
‘I have no idea.’
I used to imagine that, at least part way through therapy I would suddenly grasp what it was all about, and I would have all the answers. I would know how to get ‘fixed’. I would know why I was messed up, and how to get unmessed up, and then a few weeks later (having only anticipated six sessions in total) all would be well.
Best laid plans, eh?
Although I’m yet to know it, at this point, six years in, I’m over halfway through my therapy process. I’ve made significant progress. I’m no longer regularly trying to kill myself. I’m no longer assaulted by flashbacks or nightmares. Although parts are still a reality, my switching is largely measured and controlled. Much of the trauma has been made conscious, and vocalised; it sits, albeit at times precariously, like a puffin on a cliff-edge, within some sort of narrative framework. I have developed numerous skills: grounding, mentalising, ‘noticing’, soothing. I know about my window of tolerance and how to manoeuvre back into it. I am developing ‘earned secure attachment’. I have, in fact, made huge strides forwards, despite on a weekly basis feeling that I am making none at all.
Still there is shame.
Still there is the enduring, eternal, stuckness of shame. The hatred of being me. The raw, putrefying revulsion of who and what I am. The feeling, on the inside, that I am immutably defective. That I am on the edge of society. That I don’t fit in, don’t belong, don’t deserve human companionship.
Will it ever move?
I burrow my eyes into my therapist’s to try to draw out of her the glimmer of insight I need to understand what ‘unshame’ is. Because I see it in her. She’s not perfect. She’s not ‘sorted’. But there’s something about her, something about the way she inhabits her skin, and converses easily with her feelings, that I know is alien to me. She exudes a confidence about her right to exist. Her body says, ‘I’m okay here. I’m okay being me. I have needs, and I deserve to have them met. When they’re not met, that’s not okay. But I am still okay, even when my needs go unanswered. Because when that happens, it’s not because of me. It is because life is imperfect. But I am okay, just as I am.’
“She exudes a confidence about her right to exist. Her body says, ‘I’m okay here. I’m okay being me. I have needs, and I deserve to have them met.”
It smells nice.
But how do I get there?
I have a queasy anxiety that part of me – or a part of me, at the very least – is holding onto shame because it’s familiar and comfortable. Because the alternative – any alternative, even a better alternative – is scary.
And maybe this part of me doesn’t want the responsibility of living in unshame – a place where I cannot shrink into the shadows. Because in daring to be me I will have to stand in the glare and declare, unashamedly, that I am okay as I am, that I have the right to exist, to be – and so risk rebuke from others who would pull me down. Do I lack the courage to stand tall and fight for myself, defend myself, assert the right to be who I am, what I am, even though – like every human being – I will never be perfect?
Living with shame is like being stuck in neutral, unable to engage the clutch to shift into gear. We idle, not moving forwards. Because then at least there’s no risk. At least we won’t crash. Just imagine what could go wrong if we stepped on the accelerator in life. Think of all the accidents waiting to happen. Shame says, ‘Let’s stay exactly where we are, so that we don’t risk dying.’ Unshame says, ‘But think of where we could go, the things we could do, the scenery we could see.’ Shame folds its arms in response. ‘No, it’s too dangerous,’ it says. And maybe it’s right. But maybe it’s not.
“Living with shame is like being stuck in neutral, unable to engage the clutch to shift into gear. We idle, not moving forwards. Because then at least there’s no risk.”
Shame is a powerful place to be: we are master of our destiny. It is a negative destiny, full of suffering and pain, but at least we are in control of it. Nothing can go wrong that we have not already anticipated and deserved. Unshame by contrast is slender and fragile. We don’t know what we are. We might succeed. But also we might fail.
“Shame is a powerful place to be: we are master of our destiny. It is a negative destiny, full of suffering and pain, but at least we are in control of it.”
Is it better to know that we are bad, to know that we are at fault, to always be in the wrong, in order to erase the anxiety of uncertainty? That is the temptation of shame. It is rigid with certainties and in a dangerous world I yearn for certainties. Shame can control where we come in the race if we pull out before the start; unshame has a thousand possibilities, and not all of them are rosy.
I remember that the therapist is there, and that she cannot read my thoughts. ‘I’m thinking about unshame,’ I explain. ‘I’m not sure I know what it’s like. I’m not sure I want it.’
I shrug. ‘Because it’s different. Because it’s scary. Because it doesn’t ‘fit’.’
‘Like someone else’s clothes?’ the therapist asks.
I nod. ‘Exactly like that. There’s that sense that I ought not to be doing this. I’m waiting to get caught out. I’m waiting for someone to say to me, ‘Oi! What are you doing? Who do you think you are, to wear the clothes of Unshame?’’
‘And whose voice is that, who will tell you off?’
‘Probably my mother’s,’ I admit and I smile sheepishly, because my mother spends far too much time in the room here with us.
‘What would it be like if in life nobody told you off?’ the therapist asks.
My eyebrows rise an inch up my forehead and my eyes ring wide. ‘I simply cannot imagine that,’ I say at last. I have always been in the wrong.
But I stop for a moment to think about it. What would that actually be like – to be okay? Not to be bad, not to be shameful, not to be evil, not to be wrong? Right at this moment I simply cannot conceptualise it. It’s like asking what the world would be like without air.
The therapist rocks forwards in her chair, leaning towards me. She waits until she has my full attention. ‘You’re not in the wrong,’ she says, solemnly, like a registrar.
And at one level – intellectually, cognitively – I know this to be true. I wouldn’t smear someone else with ineffable badness. I won’t even do it to my abusers. So why should I do it to myself?
‘But how do I believe that I’m not bad?’ I ask, plaintive and grumbly and slightly annoyed.
‘There’s a disconnect between what you know with your head to be true, and what you feel with your gut to be true, isn’t there?’ the therapist says.
‘Yes,’ I agree. ‘It’s exactly that. I want to believe I’m not bad, or always wrong. I don’t want this shame identity. But I can’t shake it off. I can’t just change it. It just is.’
She sighs and nods and compassion breaks out over her face. I feel, for that moment, understood.
‘So what are you going to do about it?’
I wasn’t expecting that. Suddenly I feel misunderstood. Has she heard nothing I’ve just said? If I could change it, I would. If I could feel differently, I would. If I could live in unshame, I’d be there in a flash …
I frown somewhat angrily and turn my gaze away from her, and sink away within myself. I feel hot and cold at the same time, and slightly fuzzy around my edges.
‘Just notice that a moment,’ says the therapist quickly, taking me by surprise. Notice what?
My eyes shoot back to her to try to make sense of her words.
‘Just notice how you’ve reacted out of shame to what I’ve just said.’
I don’t understand. I retreat further within myself, ashamed at being ashamed.
‘What do you mean?’ I say at last, feeling naked and sulky.
‘Shame arises in your back brain,’ she says. ‘The disconnect is between your thinking front brain, which knows theoretically that you’re not bad and wrong, and your back brain and body, which don’t. So when I ask you what you’re going to do about it, you feel shamed – as if I’m saying that you’re at fault and that you shouldn’t feel like this – and you become defensive and disconnect from me.’
I’m astonished that she can pick up so much from such a micro-moment between us. But she’s right that I’ve pulled back from her. Because I feel stuck in shame, and she’s asking me what I’m going to do about it. But surely, if I’m stuck, I’m stuck. What can I possibly do about it? Her question feels like an accusation, as if she’s saying that the shame is my fault. As if I am at fault: something else for me to be ashamed about. It’s a little bit too meta.
But, no, that’s not what she’s meaning, a voice within says, firmly and with a pointed stare. I force my brain through a tight sieve of mentalising. I’ve vocalised my desire to be free of shame. She’s merely encouraging me in that. My reaction is because of me, not because of what she’s said. My reaction is because shame is my default.
I can’t yet lift my eyes but I do readjust my position closer to her – imperceptibly closer, maybe, but it feels big to me. I try to take control of the urge within me to throw a sulk and coerce her into retracting her challenge. I realise, with sudden acuity, that I sometimes use shame to manipulate: don’t tell me that I can change; don’t tell me that I can be different. Just feel sorry for me that I’m stuck like this, and believe me when I say there is nothing that can be done.
It’s a constant conflict. I want things to be different. I want to live in ‘unshame’. But I’m also convinced that my place is in shame, and that I am its prisoner. That there is nothing at all that I can do about it – I am bad because I am bad, and because I am bad I will always be bad. What, then, is the point in trying to change? It is a fixed and immutable part of who I am as a human being – who I was born to be.
“It’s a constant conflict. I want things to be different. I want to live in ‘unshame’. But I’m also convinced that my place is in shame, and that I am its prisoner.”
She’s hunting me with her eyes.
‘Just notice it,’ she says again. ‘Notice the reaction.’
Now I’m irritated. ‘Why? What good will that do?’
She smiles at the corners of her mouth and looks down, as if to step away from my emotion. ‘Noticing helps to interrupt the automatic reactions of trauma,’ she says.
Now I really am lost. I signal so with a disgusted squint.
‘Shame is a habit,’ she explains, taking time between each word. ‘When certain things happen, like when I challenge you, it activates your shame. If I encourage you to think or behave in an ‘unshame’ way, it presses your shame button. And within the blink of an eye, you’re flooded with shame. You disconnect from me, get angry, or freeze, or shrink into yourself. It’s a back brain response.’
She pauses to let the words fall like silt into my head. I feel on guard still, as if about to be attacked.
‘You can’t stop yourself reacting, because it happens too quickly.’
Yes, exactly that. So what am I supposed to do?
‘The first step is simply to notice the reaction,’ she replies to my unspoken question. I look back at her, dubiously, so she continues. ‘There’s some clever brain science – which I don’t understand – that suggests that by focusing your attention on the reaction itself, it will begin to interrupt that reaction so that it won’t be so habitual or automatic any more. It brings the front brain online and switches the back brain off again.’
This sounds either like the stuff of mystic fairy dust, or psychobabble claptrap. I’m not sure which. Is she conning me?
My doubt etches over my face, causing the therapist to laugh almost explosively.
‘I know,’ she says, smiling broadly. ‘I know you don’t think I’m capable of understanding brain science. And I don’t. But I’ve grasped enough to understand this much. Noticing works. When you react, we just notice. That’s all. We don’t try to change it. We don’t judge it. We just notice.’
But noticing in that non-judgmental way is not what I do. Oh no. For me, noticing is about criticising, and pulling myself down. Noticing has a purpose: to blame, to berate, to shame, to hate.
Again, I feel ashamed of my reactions. Why do I always resort to beating myself up? Why can I not even simply notice, without it being a form of self-abuse? I say so.
‘Ouch,’ says the therapist, frowning. ‘You’re perpetuating the abuse.’
Hmm. I suppose I am. Abusing myself, beating myself up, playing my mother’s role for her, even in her absence. Damn.
‘Shame seems to engender shame,’ she says.
I frown a question at her.
‘But what would unshame be like?’ she asks, ignoring my query. ‘What would it be like if you didn’t have any shame, and you were just able to notice the way you react to trauma without judgement or condemnation?’
It’s like a thought experiment. What if? I realise that I don’t have any other model in my head for reacting, other than out of shame. So what would reacting out of unshame be like? The thought stirs a little vortex of curiosity on the inside of me.
‘You mean, even if I get triggered, I’m just able to step back and notice that I’m getting triggered but without feeling ashamed of it?’
She nods. ‘Yes. What would that be like?’
I stare away into the roses beyond the window to try to focus. ‘I would have one problem, rather than two,’ I say at last. ‘I would just have the triggering to deal with. But I wouldn’t be beating myself up for having been triggered. It would be a lot easier …’
The rose heads are bobbing in the breeze. I can’t quite make out their colour.
‘Unshame … it feels almost empty,’ I say.
‘Yes, like clean. Uncluttered. Uncomplicated. Like a surface that’s just been dusted and everything put away. No sticky stains. Just a smooth area that you could cook on.’
I’m not sure I’m making any sense, but I think she’s used to that.
‘With unshame,’ I say, glimpsing something inchoate and labile, but significant, ‘it’s like there’s just the reaction. It just is. There’s not the reaction to the reaction. With unshame, I can respond calmly. Not react, but respond. I can choose what to do. Shame whooshes down on me and I’ve reacted before I know it. That’s the back brain, isn’t it? But with unshame, it’s like the surfaces are clear and there’s no mess and I’ve got time to think about what’s being said or done.’
“Shame whooshes down on me and I’ve reacted before I know it. That’s the back brain.”
My words are inadequate to describe the insight I’ve just had. It’s like peering into a room and opening the curtains and everything suddenly is bright, and in view. Like the roses are suddenly aromatic in my hand.
‘But I can’t force unshame, can I?’ I say, reinvolving the therapist in my train of thought, and looking at her full on in a fantastically-present ‘I’m here and I’m me’ kind of a way.
She tilts her head quizzically.
‘I mean, that’s what I’ve been frustrated about all along. I’ve wanted to just push a button and move from shame to unshame. But it doesn’t work like that, does it?’
‘How does it work?’ she says.
‘I don’t know. It feels like it’s a gradual process, of just noticing – like you say. Just noticing every time I’m reacting out of shame, and then drawing myself back to a position of unshame. That I’m okay just as I am. Being kind towards myself. A bit like in mindfulness meditation when you notice that your attention has wandered from your breath. You don’t force the breath. You don’t beat yourself up for it. You just go back to doing it. And over time it becomes easier, more natural, and your focus gets stronger, a bit like a muscle.’
She is nodding slowly, waiting to see if there’s more. There is.
‘So the move from shame to unshame isn’t some big momentous occasion,’ I continue. ‘Is it instead a process, like of learning to focus on the breath? – I have to learn to focus on the unshame? Until it breaks the habit of shame?’
‘That sounds very feasible,’ she agrees.
There’s a flicker of disappointment on the inside of me. I’ve spent six years waiting for the aha! moment. I’ve turned up each week hoping that this is the week that the magic wand will be waved and tada! I’ll be free of shame. What I’m suggesting – and it helps that I’m proposing it, rather than the therapist – is that the journey towards unshame is a process, and a practice. That it will take time.
‘I guess I had to learn to see shame first,’ I add. ‘It was so normal that I didn’t even notice it. Like our breathing. We breathe 24 hours a day but it’s only occasionally that we stop and actually notice it. And then when we notice it, we can change it. It might speed up again when we’re not looking, but as soon as we notice it, we can slow it. So, like in learning to breathe deeply, from the belly, rather than with short, shallow breaths, learning to live in unshame is a constant practice rather than a one-off. It’s a new habit that needs to be set in muscle memory, in habit memory.’
She’s smiling at me.
And there it comes again – uprush, thrumming, thud in my tummy: the feeling of shame. That I must have said something wrong, got something wrong. That I’ve become unacceptable by what I’ve just uttered. Because I can’t prove that I’m right. It’s just a theory. And maybe it’s wrong. Maybe she knows it. And maybe she’s smiling at me in a patronising way. Maybe she’s going to ridicule me now …
‘Just notice,’ she says, the smile fading. I have no idea how she manages to mind-read me like this.
I take a breath. Yes, being smiled at can be a trigger sometimes. Non-traumatised people react unconsciously to a smile with a release of oxytocin, the so-called ‘cuddle hormone’, which promotes social bonding. Traumatised people often react instead instinctively, automatically with a rush of cortisol, the stress hormone, as I have just done. People are dangerous; a smile is dangerous. I have no control over my reaction. But I do have control over my response.
“I have no control over my reaction. But I do have control over my response.”
‘Unshame,’ I say to myself, as a mantra, and focus on my breathing – because even though I meant it as only a simile, they are linked now in my thinking, so I might as well use it. In with the unshame; out with the shame.
She waits until I’m settled and then she speaks. ‘I guess when you start to see your shame reaction, you’ll start to see it everywhere,’ she says. ‘It might be a bit overwhelming to start with. But stick with it. Breathe through it.’
She looks at me, making sure I’ve heard. I have. I nod.
‘Unshame is where you belong,’ she says.
Unshame. That’s where she lives. And that’s where she says I can live too. It is a delicious thought and I want to lick my lips in anticipation of it.
You don’t belong in unshame, says a voice inside, almost immediately.
Unshame, I respond, silently, internally. And breathe.
It’s a start.
A word of explanation
I had therapy mainly between 2006 and 2015. These blog posts are not verbatim accounts of sessions, but rather the client equivalent of ‘case studies’ - amalgamations of various sessions, ‘narratively true’ rather than ‘historically true’. Although often written for stylistic purposes in the present tense, they are very much from a past period of my life. Ideally they should be read within the wider context of other blog posts, articles and my book, to give a more integrated and rounded sense of where I was at, where I’m at now, and the process that took place between those two points. I have been on a journey of recovery, and the difference in me from when I was in therapy (especially at the beginning) to now is testament to the brain’s ability to recover from even the most appalling suffering.
My primary work now is writing, followed closely by training therapists, counsellors and other professionals to support survivors of trauma. Regrettably I cannot provide one-to-one support but our charity framework PODS (Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors) provides a helpline and a range of other services: please go to www.pods-online.org.uk for more information, and https://support.pods-online.org.uk/start-here if you are looking for support.
For training, please see our range of live courses at www.carolynspring.com/live-training, and our online courses at www.carolynspring.com/online-training. We also publish a range of resources to support recovery from trauma, which you can see at www.carolynspring.com/shop. My first book, Recovery is my best revenge, is available to buy at https://www.carolynspring.com/shop/recovery-is-my-best-revenge-paperback/