Many people internalize shame and the effects of abuse, holding on to the perception that what they now feel, think, and remember is not right or somehow their fault. By and large, and sad to say, society tends to make this very easy for people by harboring and expressing their judgmental and insensitive thoughts about victims. They’re perceived as having been weak and vulnerable at the time of the incident, a state of being they should have been able to avoid had they been stronger emotionally or had they taken wiser action. Or, they’re perceived as being deluded or over-reactive, a state of being that says more about the victim’s mental health than the abuse they suffered from. Both of these viewpoints further cement the victim’s viewpoint of themselves—that something is wrong with them, the hallmark of shame.
A Different Understanding of Shame and Abuse From Conventional Ideas
Most people think of abuse, for example, as a bigger person hurting a smaller person. That smaller person gets hurt; it’s an assault. Dealing with the assault and the injury itself tends not to be so difficult. The person may be really badly hurt and need to go to the hospital. Nonetheless, psychologically, that's not such a big problem. The person comes to a therapist like me and says, "Somebody hurt me. Can we talk about that?"
Here's what makes my model different from the conventional idea and what complicates the issue. Let's say I hit you and you say, "Hey, that hurt," and I say, "I don't think that should hurt. What's wrong with you?" Another person present when I hit you, adds, "You're so sensitive. Come on. You did provoke that. Maybe you shouldn't have said that to David." Now I'm denying, dismissing, or blaming you.
The other person and I have witnessed the assault in a certain way; I call that a shaming witness. Then when you come to me for therapy, rather than saying, "Hey, I got hurt," you instead say, "Why am I so sensitive? Why do I provoke people? What is wrong with me?" This is the essential shaming question. This creates a much more complicated psychological problem: there’s now a part of you, an internal witness, who identifies with the external witness that originally shamed you. This is because you haven’t been presented with a healthy alternative perception—one that doesn’t imply that something is wrong with you. I call the totality of the event—the assault and the shaming witness—an abuse dynamic, an abuse problem.
This reminds me of a metaphor I sometimes use when I talk about shame and abuse.
Let’s say you show me a cut on your hand, and rather than my saying, "Oh, it looks like you cut yourself. Let's get that stitched up and bandaged. Let's tend this, give you some aspirin for the pain," I say, “There's nothing there. You're not bleeding. You shouldn't have stuck your hand in there.” Now I'm wrapping your injury in a belief system that shames you by dismissing, denying, and blaming, and you don't come to me, saying, "I hurt my hand. Help me, doctor." You say, "Why do I put my hands in the wrong places?" Again, that belief system is difficult to deprogram because the initial response from the witness shames you. If this is the only response you’re given in these circumstances, then you’re challenged to embrace a more loving view of yourself.
Video: The Roots of Shame
How Can We Heal From Shame?
If you've been hurt and shamed by a witness, somebody who looks at you in a certain way, then it has to be healed by the way someone else is going to witness what you’ve experienced. For me, that means I must: 1) not dismiss you, even if someone else convinces you it’s not a big deal. If you act like it’s a big deal, then I have to accept that, for you, it's a big deal. I have to believe you deeply; 2) not deny the assault or the feelings, pain, or injury that resulted from the assault; and 3) not ask you what you did to cause the problem. I have to function as a healing witness instead of a shaming witness. I have to look at you in a way that is not a shaming witness. It's a healing witness or loving witness that deeply believes you and supports your reactions, even encourages you to acknowledge your feelings, and express them at times, such as, “Oh, that hurts. That pisses me off." Modeling those appropriate feelings to your situation allows your inner witnesses to say, "Something really happened to me. Nothing's wrong with me. Somebody hurt me."
Is Shame Relevant to Everyone’s Healing?
Most people have some amount of shame in them. I witness this in my clients who regularly come to my practice with various shaming questions and attitudes: "Something's wrong with me. Can you help me with it? Why do I end up doing these things in relationships? Why am I using this substance, and it's bad? Please stop me from doing that. Help me not be that way. Why am I sensitive? Why do I get angry? Why do I get down and depressed?" Many say, “I've been to a healer. I've been to an acupuncturist. I've been to two therapists and still can’t figure out what’s wrong with me." It is clear that they’re walking around feeling shamed into thinking they’re damaged. That very attitude is part of the healing problem.
If I were a Dr. Phil type, I would be reinforcing their shame (I wrote about Dr. Phil in my first book, Talking Back to Dr. Phil) by asking, “What are you thinking?” or “How is that working for you?" These questions suggest that the problem is all in people’s heads, that the reason they are suffering is that something is wrong with them instead of a result of their actual experience. We can help a person with all those feelings, but the way to do that is not going to be by addressing the question, “What's wrong with you?” It’s going to be by first affirming and supporting their experience—their feelings, thoughts, reactions, and memories—by re-witnessing their experience in a healing way.
When we become more compassionate witnesses to people’s challenges and traumas, we not only open ourselves up to a better understanding of others and healthier relationships with them, but we also set ourselves up to receive that same compassion and understanding for, and relationship with, ourselves; and we then contribute to the growth of a society that makes validating and embracing our genuine experiences and feelings the new norm.
David is the author of Talking Back to Dr. Phil.