As you look back on your childhood, it is not difficult to remember a time when you felt red and hot with shame. You are surprised by the blurry face of the shame giver(s) as you are out on a solitary walk. Perhaps today, there is someone whom you recognize as a shame giver and you want to call them out for their harmful words or actions? Let me give you a few identifiers.
- A boss has labelled you incompetent or lazy.
- Someone you value consistently treats you like you are a bother.
- Your input on a situation is dismissed or even mocked.
- You are falsely accused!
- Maybe your spouse, parent or best friend is emotionally shut down.
- You are criticized for feeling a certain way.
- You are stonewalled with another’s un-forgiveness.
- Underhanded jokes, lewd looks or cursing are directed at you.
- Someone disrespectfully touches you.
- Your spouse betrays you by having an affair or divorcing you.
All these can bring on shame, pain and feelings of inadequacy. But do those feelings have to linger? Do you have to live a life that is cautious in order to avoid any future threats? When shame or loyalty prevents talking about what happened, finally finding words can be incredibly liberating. On the other hand, talk therapy may not be enough for people who have poor attachment or repeated trauma in their lives.
In her book Shame Lifter (2009), Marilyn Hontz peels off the layers of shame in her life to ultimately an incident of sexual abuse as a three year old. This deep, dark secret emotionally wounded her until decades later she was able to cry out to God about her repressed memories and face what had happened. Marilyn believes that her memories were used by God for her transformation. Initially, just recognizing that she was an innocent victim allowed her to feel free to be angry, realize that her rights had been violated, and experience healing. She overcame the paralysis of helplessness. She began to move.
People who have experienced trauma can have gut wrenching and heart breaking sensations in their body, or in some cases shut down and not feel anything (Treating Trauma Master Series, 2018). For some treatment strategies focus is on awareness of internal body sensations. For others it may be noting your posture, movements, breathing, tone of voice, face and hand color, or facial expressions. Your body is a window into how the past affects you in the present. Such therapy can help especially those who can’t verbalize the trauma or remember what happened.
Traumatized people may abandon the pushing movement and other defensive motions. Others cannot reach out and pull people to themselves. Yoga and or some type of organized movement allows you to become aware of your body and own it. Studies have shown yoga to be more effective than any other form of treatment when dealing with PTSD. Trauma sits in the limbic system, it inhabits our autonomic reactions and feelings. People must have experiences that allow them to take defensive actions, that contradict the helplessness your body has learned from trauma.
Creating a physical experience may be the first step towards integrating your body, emotions and mind. For Marilyn it was throwing herself face down in her closet on a fuzzy white rug, She began visualizing the event, feeling the fear and shame; she ran out of the room sobbing when the source of her shame-based perspective came to light. Then she returned to continue the conversation with the Lord. She admitted that she had felt powerless: Jesus empathized that he had felt powerless being crucified. He reminded her that his resurrection power was available to her through the Holy Spirit. She accepted that she had been sexually abused and then told her husband.
Marilyn speaks of forgiveness taking time, not only because of the emotional and thought processes to understand the past, but also because who wants to let off the offender too quickly? She realized that although she had been shamed, she did not have to keep living in that shame. Soon afterwards Marilyn went to a Christian conference on sexual abuse. The speaker gave her a visualization of filling a basket with all the shame she had experienced and handing it back to her abuser.
Now I realize that the claim to innocence is not always ours. Remember as a follower of Jesus Christ, we have the promise of forgiveness because in his justice God offered his Son to pay for our sin. Part of the forgiveness work when feeling myself to be the victim has been for my reaction to being wounded. Hiding from relationship with others and God, suppressing truth, and withholding love may work as a child. Seeking revenge or holding on to the grudge as an adult, an ongoing anger, keeps me living in the jail of disgust, hatred and distrust. For me it has been a story of extending forgiveness and alternating that with self-protection. I have learned to trust God – the God of all hope, love and joy – and his protection in order to open up. He really was there all along and he really does have good plans for those who love him.