Written by James Bosch on August 28, 2019
Joseph Campbell called shame a “toxic armor:” it protects you, but in hurtful ways. Like most outdated survival mechanisms, our job in healing is to find a way to set aside that heavy burden and move more lightly and freely through life.
There are many possible reasons a burn trauma survivor experiences shame. I was burned as an infant, and I carried a story of shame that I somehow caused the accident. I also felt the shame from being teased and feeling different from everyone around me. All around, there were societal images of perfection that reinforced those deep feelings that “something is wrong with me.”
My shame was unconsciously reinforced because no one was talking to me about my burns and my feelings. I didn’t develop the emotional intelligence – the language, if you will – to even identify that what I was experiencing was shame. Then you add other layers to the cake: alcoholism in the family, divorce, having a different sexual orientation from most around you, undiagnosed mental health issues…. The cake gets very lopsided and doesn’t taste very good — no matter how much protective frosting you pile on it.
For several years, I’ve worked with Megan Bronson to help members of the burn community break the cycle of shame and addiction. We strongly believe that if the core issues and causes of shame can be addressed, then we can break out of the shame spirals we are stuck in.
Because shame produces self-loathing and isolating feelings, common coping mechanisms for “numbing” these feelings include drugs, alcohol, or addictive behaviors like sex or gambling. Addiction itself is a shame producing act: we use to numb pain, we act in ways that create more shame, and then we medicate those feelings. The goal of this article is to offer some alternatives to get us out of these cycles.
In the world of psychology, most make a distinction between guilt and shame. Some healthy guilt is believed to be an important part of living in a communal society. Guilt produces “feeling bad” when doing things that hurt others, and that bad feeling will help you change your behavior.
Of course, guilt can also be used to control and hurt people, but the big difference between guilt and shame is that one is something you do and the other is a deep negative belief of who you are at your core. “I do bad things.” vs “I’m a bad person.” That deep feeling of being “a bad person” is often the root of the negative thoughts we use against ourselves. Shame eggs on that internal critic, blocking us from joy and expressing our true self to others.
Some neuropsychologists believe that there are similarities between the “freeze” or disassociated state some trauma survivors experience and the feeling of shame. They both hijack your nervous system and evoke a feeling of powerlessness. Trauma and shame also can inhibit our ability to feel accurately, trapping us in extreme “all or nothing” thinking states.
Therapy with a professional who understands trauma is often a first brave step toward healing shame as well. Here are three more steps you can take:
How do we start to break the pattern of shame in our lives? I believe the number one way is to talk about it. Start by finding someone you can trust. Tell them your feelings of shame and the stories about yourself that your brain is creating.
Brene Brown, a well-known researcher and writer on shame, believes: “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can't survive.” She often says that shame cannot survive in the daylight. Think of the feeling you get when you have been holding a shameful secret and you “finally get it off your chest.” That feeling of relief, a lighter step: shame dying in the light of day.
Shame is intricately fed by negative self-talk, which makes self-compassion a great healer of shame. This is a simple 3 step process, developed by Kristine Neff, is great for when you catch yourself judging or criticizing yourself.
Stop and say ouch!
Picture someone you love unconditionally and imagine what you would say to that person if they were talking about themselves in that way.
Say those same words to yourself.
It only takes one moment to do this in your head. Sometimes you’ll do it over and over again, but it can help you break the trance of negative self talk.
Peer support is another balm for shame. To be in safe groups of people such as a support group or a conference like Phoenix World Burn Congress and hear others speak about their struggles with similar issues and feelings. Just by being in this counter-shame environment can normalize your own shame. It can be the starting point to allow yourself to let go some of the stories that for so long you may have felt were uniquely your own. This is why 12 step and similar self help groups have been so successful. A safe place where people speak your shame language
However you decide to take that step toward healing the shame keeping you from living a happy and engaged life, be gentle to yourself. These patterns were often developed to protect you. Maybe they were instilled over long periods in your early life. Breaking the shame of asking for help is often the first step.
Burned as an infant, James Bosch has dedicated much of his professional life to helping other burn survivors and their families heal and find meaning after a burn. Acceptance of new life, new body, and finding new meaning are at the core of his work. James is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist practicing in California and a member of the Mental Health Support Team at Phoenix World Burn Congress. James is part of 1amainglife.com providing online trainings, tele-psychotherapy and life coaching.