Self-care - moving past the shame
I never have time for myself!
One of the cornerstones of my relatively new lifestyle is the one called Self-Care.
It took me a while to even discover that I had a self to care for! Once I figured out that I had one, I wasn't too sure if I wanted to even get to know this person: I was convinced that I must be horrible if so many people shunned me. What I didn't understand was that (as I read on one of those inspirational posters recently) we treat ourselves the way we were treated, and others treat us the way we treat ourselves. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. In some circles, it's called a generational curse.
When that truth became clear to me, I started to understand why I very often felt so alone. I was hated as a child... and so I hated myself. Because I hated myself, it only followed that people stayed away from me.
One of the first things my therapist asked me, when I went into therapy about 3 and a half years ago (i.e.,February 2009), was this: "When was the last time you spent any time doing what YOU wanted to do? When was the last time you took care of yourself?"
After a lot of thinking, I did remember one time - in the early 1990s. And even at the time, a large part of me felt guilty for spending time and money on my own pleasure. Okay, it was riding lessons and I was nearly a hundred pounds lighter then.
I'd often bemoaned that (because of the kids, or work, or whatever) I never had time for myself. However, the truth was that I didn't believe that I was worth spending time on. So, I buried myself in looking after other people and left my self completely out of the picture. And slowly, steadily I emotionally starved myself. I, who had helped people to grow spiritually, who was involved in music ministry in my church, who could probably preach as well as the pastor could, and possibly even better than some I'd heard, was suffering from spiritual malnutrition. I was deeply, passionately ... unhappy.
How could that have happened?
Shame and guilt
I remembered that as a child, my mother was constantly - several times a day - taking me on what I called "guilt trips." She'd hold herself up as an example and try to manipulate me into doing what she wanted me to do. And she would succeed, every time. "When I was your age I was standing on the chair in front of the sink washing dishes so my poor mother wouldn't have to." (Shudder.) "Stand up, and show us the height of laziness." (Ughh.) What I didn't realize until I was in therapy was that those weren't guilt trips - they were shame trips.
A lot of people know this distinction, but to me it was so liberating to understand that there is a difference between guilt and shame.
Guilt is feeling bad about what you've done. Guilt is most definitely not a pleasant experience. It has the potential to crush, to depress, and to kill, if allowed to go unbridled. However, guilt - if allowed to bring someone to corrective action - can be a healthy thing; it can move a person to apologize and make things right, make amends for past wrong deeds. And once forgiveness has been sought and given, and accepted, that person can learn to let go of guilt and move on.
Shame is feeling bad about who you are. There is NOTHING redemptive about it. Wielding shame as a weapon to get someone else to behave will yield consequences that go far beyond the short-term results of compliance. Shame becomes a part of someone's identity, stays there for years, decades. Until it is exposed, it will lie beneath the surface and make a person absolutely miserable. And even once exposed, it sometimes takes years to let go of shame. It cripples the emotions and stunts spiritual growth.
Shame can be broken.
Shame systematically destroys the soul. The person one is inside will disguise itself so many times, change color, shape, and texture to lessen the impact that shame brings. There comes a point at which one completely loses touch with one's identity. That is the triumph of this monster.
One wonders whether the power of shame can truly be broken. Brute strength cannot do it. The mechanisms that people build up to protect themselves - and they are myriad - cannot make it go away. One young and very petite girl, beaten and belittled as a child, vowed that nobody would ever be bigger than her again. She became big - obese in fact - and found that not only did people continue to beat up on her verbally, she hated what she saw in the mirror and could do nothing to change it. Another young boy, bashed by both parents both physically and verbally, turned to alcohol to numb the pain of shame, only to have it turn on him and nearly kill him.
Those two people - I am happy to say - are on the road to breaking shame. It didn't take the form that they thought it would. In fact, it was the very little, simple, basic things that weakened its hold on them. Of course, there were the usual things you would expect, things like bringing all those painful memories to the surface and working through them. But it was the whispers of hope - the statements of truth repeated over and over again in spite of how little they believed them - that weakened the steel-fisted grip of shame. These are only a few:
- You are precious. You have great value.
- What happened to you was not your fault. It was the fault of those who committed those acts; it was their responsibility and not yours.
- You have much to contribute to the world. Your opinion, your feelings ... matter.
- You can let go of your need to make them pay for what they did. You can become willing to let go, to forgive.
- You can take responsibility for your own actions, and you can let others bear the natural consequences of their actions.
- You can live and enjoy today.
- You don't have to pretend to be someone you are not. You can get to know yourself, spend time on yourself, do things you like to do. You're worth it.
It's a work in progress. But as misery leaves and happiness starts to creep in, shame has no choice but to loosen its deathly grip.
I know because I was that little girl. My best friend was that little boy. And we are growing more healthy as we step more and more into the light of honesty and self-care.
That's the other key, the one on which I started this hub. Along the way, it's important to be kind to that inner child. Vulnerable, this wounded part of me looked for someone to love her, nourish her, tell her she was loveable. Having had no proper parenting, I had to parent her myself - and part of that was that we had to do things together, spend time together. As I looked after her, spent time with her, encouraged her - she started to come out of her shell. She learned that she could even reach out and ask for help from trustworthy people when she needed to. That was so huge.
And yes, there are days when it all comes back - but those days don't last as long as they used to. Now there are more happy days than there are sad or fearful or angry ones. And best of all, I got to know who the real me was, and even found that I liked that person.
Shame doesn't stand a chance in the face of unconditional love.