Edith was 54 when she came to see me to get help with her depression. She was a frustrated artist and had suffered two nervous breakdowns in her early twenties which she described as periods of being incapacitated by fear. She was treated with electroshock therapy from which she had never recovered. She told me with great resentment how she had been held down by the nurses and treated like “a piece of beef”. The main theme of Edith’s life, she felt, was a loss of identity. Nobody had ever cared about her. She had never felt valued as a human being. She had always been alone. Her childhood was terrible. Both parents were alcoholics and beat her until the age of l3. Her father was cruel, sadistic, and took out his anger by kicking her pet bulldog. At age 9 the boys she was playing with urinated on her. As an adult, she was deeply disillusioned by a charismatic Christian church of which she was a member for five years. She described herself as feeling hollow, as if everything had fallen out of her world. She referred to herself as “the one
who God urinated on”. Her response was to withdraw and to suppress her
tremendous rage and having been “thrown in a trash can” by life. She had daily thoughts of suicide, but would never kill herself because she believed God would punish her if she did. She never cried, but resigned herself to a life
of hopelessness and of “no more tomorrows”. Her only reason for living was her interest in “good books”, the theater and opera, her painting, and in rescuing cats. She told me she had never experienced God’s love and that God had betrayed her. Despite her fear of God’s punishment, she loathed and cursed God for having ignored her. Her life was the epitome of humiliation.
There was something about Edith’s awful life that drew me to try to help
her. I gave her a homeopathic remedy which helps those who loathe their lives and feel utter despair and hopelessness. When Edith called a month later, she admitted , though reluctantly, that she was feeling considerably better about herself and her life. She subsequently quit taking the remedy, said she did not wish to continue with treatment even though I “actually treated her like a human being”. I have been told that Edith has rejected not only my help, but that of a number of others who have tried to help her out of the deeply depressing pit of her life.
A second patient, Roberta, age 30, came to me complaining of constant
bladder pain, painful vaginal burning, terrible ovarian cramping with her
periods, and genital herpes. She told me she felt sick all the time and never
felt refreshed after sleeping. She de-scribed herself as shy, withdrawn,
introverted, fearful, anxious, and nervous. She re-ported fearing everything,
including life, death, crowds, the dark, and something bad happening. She would suffer from panic attacks in groups of people where she would stiffen, feel faint, breathe shallowly, be unable to talk, and feel like she was emotionally “breaking into a million pieces”. She was raised in an authoritarian household
where she had to sit quietly with her arms folded. She never said anything,
behaved sweetly in order to please her parents and everyone else, and became
extremely fearful, withdrawn, and avoided risks at all costs. She described
herself as being in a state of permanent “major” depression since the 6th
grade, which had left her debilitated. During counseling, I asked her to connect with her frightened child part which said she felt smaller than everyone else, considered all people scary, and would prefer that Roberta live alone in the country on a farm with lots of animals where she could be safe.
Carol is 27 and a twin. Her reason for coming to see me was her eating
disorder which began when she and her twin sister decided to become anorexic together.
She always prided herself on being thin, at least since she went down from l63 pounds to 65. She told herself, “Maybe if I lose more weight, people will love me more.” She became bulimic, took diuretics, and ended up being hospitalized twice. Even with antidepressants, Carol complained of impatience, irritability, mood swings, and intense lows. She told me how she would repeatedly pour her heart and soul into relationships with me in an effort to gain her father’s love. She would put all her effort into trying to win others’ approval and would lose herself in the process. When I explored with Carol the issue of her self image, she told me about the birthmark on her face. Despite the fact that she always had good friends, got pretty good grades, was nominated for the student council, and had supportive parents, Carol always was terribly self-conscious and painfully shy. Even though her birthmark was barely noticeable to others, the tape which constantly replayed in her mind was “What would people think if they found out about my face?” She even developed the habit of sleeping on the right side to cover her birthmark while she slept. Having been raised in a Catholic family where guilt was the norm, masturbation had been out of the question. Her mother always told her “Don’t put your hands down there. It’s a dirty place.” and “We don’t talk about those things .” During a very powerful hyp-nosis session, Carol remembered that she was born without the birthmark. She had enjoyed the comfort of her mother’s womb and had picked up on her mother’s fears about taking care of twins. She was scared to be born, to face the cold world outside.
During our session together, she realized that the birthmark had become
apparent several months after she was born. She and her twin sister had agreed to be born as twins and to allow each other to be themselves. She chose the birthmark in order to be different from her twin sister and to be loved completely for who she was. This memory led to a remarkable breakthrough in Carol’s self-confidence and self-acceptance. She feels a growing sense of self-awareness, understanding, and love.
What these different women have in common, each with their own unique
story, is a profound sense of shame. Each had experienced deep embarrassment and humiliation which left a lasting scar on their lives. All three experienced tremendous guilt, self-loathing, and a lack of self-love. This led Edith to totally reject anyone who tried to help alleviate her pain and suffering, resulted in significant physical and emotional pain for Roberta, and to Carol nearly killing herself through her extreme anorexia. Working with these and other women inspired me to consider deeply the subject of shame in order to better help and understand them, hopefully with the goal of transforming their self-denial and rejection into self-acceptance and love. This clinical experience has led me to begin to understand this complex subject. I hope the following insights are helpful to you. I would also recommend Bradshaw On: Healing the Shame That Binds You . His descriptions confirm much of what I have found to be true and offer a clear and comprehensive understanding of what shame is all about, include a differentiation between healthy and what he calls “toxic shame”.
Where does shame come from? Shame often arises, as you can see from
the above stories, in the context of a dysfunctional family. The parents are
generally highly critical and demeaning, offering little or no positive feedback or support of the child’s expressiveness, creativity, and emotions. The child is repeatedly ridiculed and humiliated, by the family and often by his or her peers. There may be a history of abandonment, physical or sexual abuse, and broken promises. The healthy needs for love and acceptance are usually unmet, resulting often in addictions in later life. The family settings, as in all three stories above, are usually filled with guilt and a sense that the person is inherently bad. As a result, the person feels helpless, powerless, worthless, and, overall, less than human. There is a profound feeling of being undeserving of anything better and of being incapable of attracting loving, caring partners, which often dooms the person to a life of unhappiness, suffering, and self-condemnation. Having been profoundly criticized throughout one’s childhood usually leads to an exaggerated striving for perfection. In Carol’s case, for example, the goal of the perfectionism was to be as thin as possible, even if it killed her, which it almost did.
What is the shame response? There are a number of ways in which a
person deals with a shame-inducing environment. It is important first to
understand that each of us has a variety of sub-personalities or parts, such as
our frightened child, our merciless critic, our tireless pusher, etc. Each of
these parts has a common goal-to help us deal with our life circumstances in
ways that seem adaptive at the time and allow us to survive. Therefore, all of
the following responses to shame are an attempt, successful or not, at coping
and healing. One of the most common responses I see is the suppression of
emotions, particularly anger. The woman is afraid to make waves for fear of
punishment, further guilt-induction, or other repercussions and decides to
react to life passively, even invisibly. She is often meek, does not stand up
for herself, and is continually taken advantage of by others. She often chooses alcoholic or abusive relationships which she may stay in, even if she is battered or incessantly verbally abused. A second response is dissociation.
This is a form of the woman leaving her body, such as in the case of repeated
sexual abuse. It’s too painful to continue to experience the suffering, so she exits. Another alternative is for the woman to become a child abuser herself, no longer willing to be a victim. Another common reaction is self-punishment in the form of addiction, whether it be to drugs, alcohol, binge eating, anorexia or bulimia, or anything else. Still another response is to convert the pain into physical illness as a form of self-punishment.
How can you overcome shame? Let me say first that we’re talking about a pro-found imbalance, usually beginning with childhood. It is usually important to seek some type of supportive, experienced professional help. All of the following techniques can be assisted, enhanced, and made more quickly effective by the type of therapist who recognizes the depth of your suffering,
is familiar with effective therapeutic techniques, but also holds you in your
perfection, wholeness, and light. I have seen too many clients who have spent four or five years in therapy dredging up all the garbage of their past without feeling that their lives have been significantly improved or transformed by the insights.
Here are some practical suggestions for releasing shame and embracing love and wholeness. l) Feel your pain. This is an essential step in understanding where you’ve been and what you’ve experienced. You need to recognize the suffering that you’ve felt or you’ve denied in order to move beyond it. Through hypnosis, for example, it’s possible to re-experience old pain in a safe, gentle atmosphere. Once you have truly gotten in touch with your pain, then you can begin to release it, not before. 2) Re- connect with your inner child. If you have experienced deep shame, your inner child has likely been traumatized and terrified. It is extremely beneficial to befriend, nurture, and heal the child within you and to create an atmosphere of safety so that this part of you can experience the freedom and acceptance which it was denied in the past. 3) Learn to love yourself. This is obviously not an overnight process. By surrounding yourself with supportive friends, family members, and professionals who continually validate you for who you are, you will gradually learn to appreciate your talents and positive attributes and eventually learn to embrace yourself as a unique, valuable, and lovable human being. Reading Louise Hay and other such books may be helpful. 4) Integrate your parts. I have found specific techniques such a Voice Dialogue and conscious or hypnotic parts therapy to be of tremendous useful- ness in increasing awareness of the various, often conflict- ing, parts of you with the goal of establishing wholeness and integration. 5) Support groups . It is often comforting and growth-producing to share your pain as well as your insights and awarenesses with others who have also been through similar experiences. Choose a group that both feels comfortable and stimulates your
evolution and don’t be afraid to leave when you’ve learned all that you can from it. 6) Finding your spiritual home . Whether it be a l2-step program, a New Thought church, a yoga class, Native American healing circle, guru, or your own spirit guide, connect as deeply as possible with Source. There is no better way to heal shame than to recognize the true perfection and purity that you are, to release all that prevents you from being whole, and to embrace the Holy Spirit which fills your being.
Drs. Judyth Reichenberg-Ullman and Robert Ullman is a naturopathic and
homeopathic physician and cofounder of the Northwest Center for Homeopathic Medicine in Edmonds, WA. She is coauthor of The Patient’s Guide to Homeopathic Medicine and Beyond Ritalin: Homeopathic Treatment of ADD and Other Behavioral and Learning Problems.