Shame so often has been conceptualised as a belief in the badness of the self, a construct of faulty cognitions. But if it serves a self-protective purpose, of acting as a handbrake on anger to keep us safe from further harm?
I want to fight her, I really do. She’s just not rising to it. ‘I see your suffering,’ she says, the words melodic and gentle. Now she’s looking at me, and she’s evidently not scared of me. She’s wiping down the space between us with tenderness. ‘Tell me about your suffering.’ Something about her softness breaks my aggression and I look down, and sigh. There’s pain in that sigh. It burns to breathe in again.
‘How can I help you?’ the therapist asks me. ‘What do you need from me?’ I look at her closely, examining her features, whilst also looking through her, to make sure I don’t connect too closely. First the fear: Is this a trick? What does she mean? What does she want? Why is she saying this? Then the shame: What right have I to be helped? And afterwards, the sadness: No-one has ever offered to help me. Three emotions in three seconds.
Shame. It’s a familiar word and yet the more I think about it, the stranger it becomes. What does it mean? Where does it come from? How does it go? What is the point of it? Why does it even exist? I’d never even considered it before therapy. It was just a run-of-the-mill emotion: one that I’d heard about, but never (so I thought) really experienced.
Stigma is the double-whammy of life after trauma. Not only do we suffer abuse in childhood, perhaps resulting in a post traumatic or dissociative disorder in adulthood, but then we are stigmatised, shunned and shamed for it too. How can that be right?
What if shame is nothing to be ashamed of … but instead is the hero in our story? Even as I write it, my head is twisting inside-out, upside-down to get used to the idea. But it’s something I’ve come to firmly believe is true, no matter how counter-intuitive it may feel.
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