The Grip of Betrayal

Acrylic painting – expression of a sexually abused teen – by Sara

They filled your mind with promises
An array of enticing colors
Leading you up a perilous climb
Achieving their desired seclusion

They lined your path with shackles
Disguised as your own choices
Led to a room with no exits, teetering
On a place demanding submission

Close enough to rescue that its light
Shines like a beacon upon you
Yet others cannot see what they do not wish to see
Leaving you doused in invisibility

They handed you poison dressed up as a toy
An undetectable trap
It feels heavy in your arms
Yet you dismiss its discomfort
Just as you were instructed

You were chosen
You were special
You stood out to them in some way

You hold their secrets
Quiet and steady
Not letting them see
How it makes you tremble

You were never meant to understand
The position they put you in
Blind obedience is the
Tower they constructed
In the labyrinth you now reside

This weight placed upon you
Was never your choice
Its ensnaring complexity
Contrived specifically for you
To lure you in and then slowly break
You into scattered pieces

I see your pain tucked in deep beneath your
Outward strength and courage
Far from their grip you stand frozen in time
Afraid to step down and see
The sight of your suffering
Might carry its own weight somehow worse than living in it

How can you know that it is safer below
Than the misery you are wrapped in
How can I ask more from you
Than what you have already given

Hidden Tears

I have held my children in my arms to comfort and soften their tears ever since the moment they were born. Their needs draw me in close – setting aside whatever was previously holding my attention – lowering my body to their level so my eyes can reach into theirs and connect with their hurt – scooping them up into my arms to let them feel safe enough to express whatever needs to pour out from them. As they get older the way they cry out for help is changing. Sometimes their needs ring out loudly for me. Other times it is in their silence that they call out for comfort and support. My job as their caregiver is to pay attention – to notice and tend to their needs however disguised their cries may be.

As a child I was not seen. My muted screams for help rang out, but they were not answered. My injuries were left bleeding without drawing the attention or concern from others that they required. Internal walls were erected to protect me from the pain that others failed to keep me from. These walls still exist decades later, providing safety and protection while also creating a barrier for connection. I can sit in solitude, accessing and deeply feeling my pain as I type these words. Yet when asked to speak of them out loud I feel much like a reporter, reciting a story to you from a safe distant corner of myself, absent of emotion. I desperately desire to be able to hold and connect to my feelings in front of others. I wish to be able to expose my pain in front of you and take solace in your protective and comforting presence.

I don’t know how to be sad in front of people. Young parts inside of me are holding in a lot of pain. They were never afforded the opportunity to express their hurt. They learned to pack it in and store it within them. Over time this hurt has not subsided. Instead it seems to find a way to attach itself to new experiences, spreading and growing inside. The child parts inside of me need to express their sadness, their fear, their deep hurt. They need to release what they were taught to bury long ago. But they are so scared. What if they do it wrong? What if you look at them sideways or judge them or laugh. They are afraid you will mock them for being too sensitive – too needy – too emotional – too much. Or even worse, you’ll take pride and victory in having cracked them open. They can’t give you that power over them. We can’t let you tower over us, using your caring support as a weapon to draw out our hidden vulnerabilities. Your gentle assurance that I can feel or express emotions in front of you feels like a trapdoor, and I’m afraid to risk falling in. So I get armored up. Anger sweeps in to push sadness aside and I get rigid and impenetrable. I don’t want this to happen. In fact I often dream of the idea of collapsing into a puddle of tears in front of you. Yet even though so much of me screams on the inside for the freeing relief of a cry in your comforting presence, I can’t seem to access those feelings in front of you.

Can you help me peel back my armor? Can you help me soften my shaky rigidity? Can I trust that you won’t leave me feeling worse for having let you see all of the hurting parts? Can I trust that my tears won’t be your victory?

Water’s Edge

Side by side we stand – our toes at the edge of the creeping shoreline. Her small hand rests inside of mine. She leans in, tugging at my arm and urging me to inch forward. I resist. “Come on! I need to show you,” she pleads. Her bright eyes look up into mine with hopeful longing. I look down into them. I want to be brave enough for her. Yet as I turn and look out into the turbulence that lies before us I feel frozen. “Can’t we just watch the waves from right here?” I ask. Her face tells me that we can’t. She pulls again at my arm, urging, pleading, begging. But I can feel my feet gripping into the soft sinking sand beneath me. “What if we get knocked down? What if I can’t hold us up? What if it takes hold of us and won’t let go? I’m afraid. I don’t want to go in. I don’t know what’s out there. What if I’m not strong enough? What if it breaks me?” Her wide eyes turn and then narrowly focus out towards the horizon, beyond the breaking waves and wild fury that rages right in front of us. Then in a voice so calm and self assured, she softly whispers, “But what if it shows us?”

Marble Jar

I have an unhealthy tendency to look for evidence to support my belief that I am alone and not cared for. Like an internal scorecard, I keep a tally of incidents to prove that others cannot be trusted. This is a highly effective tool for self protection, and it is also a guarantee for loneliness and isolation. Perhaps to counter this faulty pattern of mine I can try to infuse a more hopeful approach in building and developing relationships.

Trust is built over many tiny moments – our brains record and store these moments, building a case for growing safety and connection in relationships. The hope is that over time safe people emerge in your life that can hold space for all of you in a genuine and unconditional way. Each trust building interaction adds reinforcement and stability to the relationship, allowing for deeper and more meaningful connection while keeping small disruptions within this healthy environment from fracturing the relationship beyond repair.

Brene Brown uses the analogy of a marble jar to demonstrate this idea. Each time I show up for a friend in a meaningful way a marble is added to my jar, over time creating a solid foundation of trust in our relationship. Marble upon marble of fueling connection helps to build safety and stability. When, as a flawed human, I fall short of expectations and a marble is lost we still have a full jar to lean on and can continue to rebuild and grow from those small breaches.

Long ago, I was not seen and was consequently routinely abused in plain sight. Trust was used as a weapon against me. My high school coach carefully manipulated his way into the most trusted and valued position in my life. Over the course of a year of grooming he deliberately and methodically crafted moments to fill his marble jar and guided me into a position of complete trust and obedience. He then smashed the marble jar right over my head the day he first violated me. His actions over the course of the following several years deadened the parts of me that could soften in the safe presence of another person. And from those moments new internal protective parts were formed to try to keep harm away. Decades later I carry these protective parts into each new relationship I encounter. They have a keen sense of danger. They expect it, releasing warning signs to keep me at arms length from others at all times.

I have a new therapist. As with all new relationships I am guarded. Yet I show up to my appointments trying to let down this guard in order to seek help for the wounded parts that tremble inside of me. My rational brain tells me that I need to open up and let her in in order to receive her help. Yet the guarded parts of me will not be subverted. These parts try to convince me that she cannot be trusted. They reach and search for evidence to prove that her care is not real, trying to fill her scorecard with enough distrusting tally marks to keep me far from her. I know two things about this response in me – this was a very critical life saving protective defense that was created inside of me long ago, and it is no longer serving to help me but is in fact now a hindrance for me.

In one of my first appointments with my new therapist I brought with me a series of drawings and paintings that represent various internal parts of me. I did not hold expectations around what it would feel like to share these with her. In that moment I was merely trying to bring more of myself in front of her. As I sat across from her and opened the folder revealing each piece of artwork, she watched intently. After I held up and described each piece that I chose to share she then leaned in and asked if she could take a closer look. I reached across the space between us and handed them to her. Then I watched as she slid down from her chair onto the floor, carefully spreading these pieces of me all around her. She then picked them up one by one and studied them. I watched the way she held each piece, bringing a few of them in close to her as she described what she saw and felt in them. That moment left a mark on me that I could not identify in session but worked to unpack in solitude afterwards. The parts of me that I brought into her office that day had never been held that way by another person. She saw those wounded parts of me and offered comforting support in the attentive way she held and tended to each one of them.

I have since then been trying to understand how all of my internal parts feel about her and the help, care, and support she is offering. From the youngest parts I feel a hopeful longing. They want to crawl out of the darkness closer to her. They want her to see how much they hurt. They want her help. Other parts of me are harder to convince. They keep looking for the trapdoor. They are convinced that her words are hollow and will just lead us to more hurt and isolated misery. And then there is the adult me in the room – the one that carries around all of these fractured pieces that exist inside of me. I sit before her and wrestle with all of these conflicting thoughts and feelings and am often unable to make a sound. None of it makes sense. It’s a tangled mess of incomplete thoughts, layered with fragmented images and sensory experiences. In those moments I cannot answer how I am feeling. I’m not withholding. I simply can’t grab hold of anything. It’s all spinning, tumbling, and tangling around inside of me. I don’t have a voice in those moments. No one does. It feels like a crowded bus in an uproar with all passengers fighting for the drivers seat, but no one has control. The bus just gets jerked in different directions while moving at a higher and higher speed.

I keep coming back to that moment in her office with my artwork and checking in with all of my internal parts. How do they feel about the way she held us that day? The parts that want to lunge forward into the comfort of her arms believe in her. They are craving to be seen and cared for so badly that they are ready to trust her. This feels reckless and naive to other parts that struggle to believe. They impose a judging eye roll while they resume their scorecard tallies. These are the parts that need more time. These parts need more marbles added to the jar before they will soften in front of her. So that is precisely what I have decided to give them – more time and more opportunity to build trust. These parts prefer to hold onto questions and thoughts because they fear that releasing them gives another person power over them. But what if I can allow these thoughts and questions to emerge? What if I can lay down my scorecard for a moment and provide an opportunity to offer my therapist just one small marble at a time?

Anchor For My Dreams

Sometimes it feels heavy and huge – like a weight pressing firmly down on my chest. Sometimes I can pinpoint its location deep within me – like a small spinning fireball with enormous energy and strength bound in a very confined space. Sometimes it spreads like thick smoke throughout my chest, down into my stomach, and even up into my throat where it burns and aches. It pauses my breathing, triggering very shallow breaths with inadequate volume to supply my body with this very basic need. After several moments a huge breath is required to repay the debt for what has been withheld. This is what typically draws my awareness inward where I can recognize what is happening and can then begin to carefully focus on each breath – a slow deep inhale followed by a relaxing exhale. Then I tune into the pressure, the ache, the pain…whatever is restricting my breath and I try to slowly and deliberately breathe through it to restore balance to my activated nervous system.

Aside from the fact that these new moments I am experiencing of intense anxiety or panic are frightening, the problem I am noticing is that I have a very cerebral default response to these incidents. I tend to my physical cues by checking my pulse and reminding myself to slow down and breathe deeply. But I am learning that the parts of me that are triggering these anxious and panicky feelings are not calmed by these actions alone. These parts require more than reminders to breathe. These young parts are seeking comfort.

Recently I was tucking my daughter into bed for the night. As she laid on her side and clutched her stuffed puppy in her arms, resting her cheek upon the soft fabric of its head, she looked up at me with a slight smile. The words that flowed from her mouth in that moment have echoed in my brain ever since. “Stuffed animals are like an anchor for my dreams,” she said.

An anchor. This is exactly what I need in moments of panic. I need an anchor to help keep me grounded when parts of me are spinning out of control. So with the help of my therapist and these wise words from my child I have, among other self soothing strategies, taken up sleeping with a stuffed animal. I wrap my arms around a floppy stuffed moose and I can actually feel a momentary release of tension inside of me – just long enough to help me fall asleep.

I have since then been thinking more about this need, trying to resist self judgement that my adult self tries to impose about relying on a stuffed animal for sleep. I can feel the relief that this provides to some very young parts within me – parts that are desperate for comforting and protective care – begging for the embrace that I am giving to this moose each night. The slight relaxation that comes from cuddling this stuffed moose is enough evidence to prove to me that it is helping. Yet I find myself feeling somewhat defeated by this new daily ritual and can’t help but feel the desperate resignation that comes from this type of comfort. If the need to feel safe, comforted, and protected is strong enough for my adult self to feel overwhelmed by it on a daily basis, then how ironic is it that this need that was missed from others long ago is left for me to scramble to meet for myself in solitude today? To me this shouts a very loud and clear message – I was alone in my suffering, and now I’m alone in my healing.

I can’t be what others were not. I cannot fill the enormous void that my inner child parts need. And yet here I try because what other choice do I have? These injured parts live inside of me. Their unmet needs permeate from me with every feeling and interaction I have. They long for something that was absent long ago. They need something I cannot fully provide. I can’t fix what was injured no matter how tightly I cuddle my stuffed moose. All I can do is hope that my anchor holds for now.

Lighthouse

Your inviting light draws me in
My companion in the stormy darkness
You offer a passage to dull the ache
That simmers deep inside

I enter your embrace
Dismissive of its cost
Longing for sweet relief
A retreat within
To a place with no name
Draping me in your warm
Cloak of familiarity

Here the noise quiets
If only for a moment
Allowing breath to return
Foolishly refreshed
And unknowingly branded
This place feels like home
A home I must run from

Unpacking

A crying child seeks the comforting arms of her caregiver. Without judgement or minimizing, she needs to be safely held to calmly restore her activated nervous system. When this need is routinely and adequately met she can carry on, secure in the belief that each emotion she feels can be safely experienced. But what happens if the child’s emotions are not met with the safe protecting embrace that they require? What happens to her fear? What happens to her sadness or anger or hurt when there isn’t a safe place for it to land? Where do these feelings go when they are not welcomed?

I recently sat in my therapist’s office, fumbling through my effort to express a hurt that I had experienced. My therapist offered supportive and encouraging words and then asked if I could accept and feel the compassion she was providing in that moment. I told her I couldn’t. I could hear her words, but I could not absorb them in front of her. I told her I needed to take them with me – to pack them up into an imaginary backpack to be unloaded and experienced afterwards in private. And that is exactly what I did. Packing up my feelings is what I’ve done for as long as I can remember. It’s the intentional unpacking that has become a newer practice for me.

When a child isn’t offered the opportunity to feel, express, and regulate her emotions in a safe and supportive environment, those emotions never have the opportunity to be processed and released. Instead they are stuffed down and stored within the child. The meaning the child learns to assign to this experience is that those feelings are bad and must be repressed and ignored. One of the many problems with this is that, much like an overloaded backpack, the child grows up and becomes an adult with an overloaded and dysregulated emotional response system, overflowing with current struggles that attach themselves to stored unmet emotional needs from long ago. When situations arise that ignite these parts, the emotions that result do not feel like adult feelings. For me it feels as though a child has hijacked my nervous system and is on the brink of a full blown tantrum.

Recently my daughter was watching the movie, Matilda. This movie was created from Roald Dahl’s magical book where the main character, Matilda, finds clever and humorous ways to defend herself from her cruel parents and an evil school principal through her newly discovered power of telekinesis. My daughter thoroughly enjoyed the movie and giggled at Matilda’s inventive pranks. As I watched I was not as entertained. The cruel behavior of her parents and principal made it hard for me to appreciate the humor. Yet although these scenes agitated me, what I found myself most rattled by was something entirely different. As the story develops, a caregiving figure and soft place to land finds her way into Matilda’s life in the form of her teacher. While the viewer is intended to feel warm and comforted by Matilda receiving this kind of loving and attentive care, I was overcome with internal agitation in response to these scenes. I couldn’t assess what I was feeling in that moment as I sat in my parent’s family room alongside not only my children but my mother as well. Without awareness or planning, everything I was feeling in that moment got quickly stuffed into my backpack.

Hours later, when I created a moment to sit with my thoughts in solitude, I noticed that the discomfort and agitation that I felt earlier was still there. Something inside of me was screaming out for attention – something inside needed to be unpacked. This intentional act of creating space for whatever needed to surface revealed the source of my internal disturbances. What I experienced during that movie was the awakening of some deeply stored internal parts – very young and helpless parts. These parts felt shaken by the movie because they are desperately longing for the same attentive and nurturing care that Matilda received from her teacher. These young internal child parts were crying out. It felt incredibly unsettling to feel these parts internally squirm and reach for a need from long ago. And I don’t know if I am equipped to hold and help these parts – I don’t know how to give them what they need.

These feelings I resisted and stuffed away during Matilda are not new for me. The more I reflect upon it the more connections I am making from past experiences that have ignited the same flurry of feelings. When I witness someone attentively caring for and truly seeing the inner pain of another, the part of me that longs for that type of caring protector gets stirred up. This vulnerable exposure of feeling a need that can only be satisfied by someone else feels like the important need of a young child from their caregiver. Deep parts of me feel this need and long for this type of care. Yet attached to this need is a judgment that was imposed upon this feeling long ago, intertwining this need with shame. Shame tells me that my reaction to this movie is a stupid needy thought and wants me to retreat inward. But it isn’t a stupid needy thought. While my guarded adult self may have a hard time accepting these feelings, it is perfectly reasonable for a child to need the caring and protective attention of a trusted adult. I can’t even begin to imagine denying that need from my own children.

It feels rattling and crazy making when these feelings unexpectedly surface. But unless I can learn to safely and effectively unpack my emotional backpack, the same dysfunctional cycle of repression and overwhelm that was impressed upon me as a child will continue on, but not just within the confines of my own mind. My kids are watching and learning from me each and every day. If I wish for them to grow up possessing the ability to adequately identify and express their emotions, then I owe it to them to address my own deficiencies instead of carelessly passing them down to them. After all, how can I effectively tend to the needs of others if I am failing to address my own deeply felt needs?

If the process of repressing feelings was learned when I was a child then perhaps with a lot of focused effort it can be unlearned as an adult. I may not be able to physically hold the hurting child within me, but maybe allowing her the safety to express whatever she has been burdened with will be enough to comfort and calm her. Parts of me worry and fear that it will not be enough – that I am not equipped to tend to these internal wounded parts. But I have to hold onto hope as I search for a way to continue to safely unpack my heavy backpack.

The Journey of Seven Rocks

A few years ago while on a trip visiting my family in my hometown I scheduled an afternoon to myself. Typically these trips are consumed with scheduled gatherings and events as I come from a large family that has grown and spread out and isn’t often able to reunite. But on this particular visit I had something very important that I decided to create time for.

My hometown is a place full of all sorts of memories. There are places I remember fondly – my youth soccer fields, the creek that meanders near my childhood home, and the front yard of that same home where countless family baseball and football games were played. There are also places with memories attached to them that I wish to forget – places where pieces of me were taken.

The man who sexually abused me for over three years was my high school coach. After months of careful grooming he positioned himself as my designated ride home from practice each day. This became a carefully calculated daily opportunity for him to make a detour on the way to my house and violate my teenaged body. He developed an ongoing list of secluded places to take me – places that he could access easily to provide ample time to assess privacy, carefully maneuver and position his car for optimal shielding, and then take from me almost always within the confines of his car.

Each time I return to my hometown I am caught off guard by triggers that come up in conversations, places I visit, or places I simply drive past. My abuser took me to so many different places over those years that it is very hard to avoid encounters with these memories each time I visit. Yet on this particular trip I decided to face these memories in a different way.

I wanted to find a way to revisit some of the places that hold a tangled mess of painful, confusing, traumatizing, and shameful memories. I wanted to face these places to help release the painful grip they held on me. I wanted to face them to help make sense of the tornado of memories and feelings I carried. I wanted to redefine what those places meant to me – to be able to see a parking lot simply as a parking lot, instead of feeling overwhelmed by all that occurred there. Simply gathering the courage to return to these places seemed more than adequate to fulfill this need in me. But it felt symbolic to do even more. I chose to leave something behind at each location – a mark to signify that I came back and reclaimed the parts of me that were taken in those places.

Prior to my trip I gathered a handful of rocks from my home – small white rocks from a bucket I used for my physical training regimen. I lifted and carried this 50 pound bucket of rocks for strength training purposes to push myself physically and to prepare for obstacle races that I competed in. These rocks were a part of how I tested my physical limits in training. These rocks were a perfect simple representation of my personal determination, perseverance, and fighting spirit. These rocks were exactly what I needed to leave behind at each of the chosen locations – an acknowledgment of my determination to reclaim, reconnect, and refuel the parts of myself that were broken there. I scooped up a handful of the rocks and painted them blue so they could stand out among the surroundings where they would be placed. I packed the rocks in my luggage and took them with me for this planned day of reclamation.

On the day of my rock journey I ventured in solitude to a predetermined list of places from that area that carry the heaviest weight of memories inside of me. Once I reached each location I got out of my car and took a walk, quietly talking to myself about what happened there. Memories and feelings flowed out of me as I spoke of my experiences. I was alone and yet I found myself speaking out loud to various people. I spoke to the young girl inside of me that holds all of the torment from these moments within her. I calmly reassured her that she was safe, that I was with her, and that he could no longer hurt her. I spoke out loud to my abuser, expressing what I remembered and processing when, how, and why he took me to each place. When I felt ready to move on I placed a single blue rock on the ground and carried on to the next stop on my journey.

I visited seven locations that day – each one intertwined with its own unique and lasting impact on me. One place in particular led me to a great deal of internal dialogue and self reflection. It was a small college campus only about a mile away from my high school. I wondered out loud why he chose this place – a place that was never quiet – never empty. I walked around the parking lot where he often parked alongside the nearby train tracks, and I asked questions. “Why did you bring me here? Why did you choose this busy place?” As I replayed memories and thoughtfully processed out loud I began to understand exactly why he chose this bustling location. The first obvious answer was its proximity to my school and my home, which allowed for less travel time and therefore more time for him to be alone with me. He was always careful to avoid the watchful eyes of students and teachers at my high school. Although this campus was almost always full of people when he brought me there, it was full of different people. The people roaming around were students and staff at this small agricultural college. There were no familiar faces at this place. We were anonymous there, and he knew that. This campus was also just full enough that the surrounding parked cars allowed him to blend in among them. Unlike most of the other vacant places he took me, this one created a camouflage among the commotion. He could abuse me while students and teachers were walking to and from classes in nearby buildings, while sports teams were practicing on nearby fields, and while commuters waited at a train stop less than 100 yards away. He could discretely abuse me right there in the midst of all of the busy surroundings.

As I paced back and forth along that parking lot I felt my fearful and troubling overwhelm slowly become replaced with a feeling of confidence and strength. I grew less shaken by my surroundings. The more I began to understand and piece things together, the more I felt myself breathing easier and standing up straighter. For the first time I could separate the painful memories of this place from what it truly is – a college parking lot. This journey did not erase the memories that exist in this parking lot or in any other location I visited that day. But the overall weight of those places felt less imposing with each rock I left behind.

I did not know what to expect from this journey I set out on. While I was relieved to feel myself strengthened by facing these places, I also felt an impact in a much more unexpected way. Some of these places on the day of my rock journey were quiet and easy to discretely take the necessary time to feel and process what needed to rise up from within me. But a few of the places were less private, and I felt the watchful eyes of a neighbor or passerby. While this kept me from being able to fully connect in the moment, it strangely provided its own healing result. The eyes of these strangers were exactly what the girl inside of me needed at these locations years ago. The attentive suspicion of someone appearing out of place is precisely what could have saved her in any of the memories I visited that day. This prompted a mournful feeling that the wounded girl inside of me was never seen or protected by these watchful eyes. But at the same time it made me feel encouraged that more people are watching now. I can only hope that the eyes that watched me place rocks on the ground that day are the same watchful eyes capable of protecting young girls today.

As I continue to build a connection with the parts of myself that were injured back then I am curious to one day return for another rock journey – to visit these places again or to venture further to other places I have yet to return to. I wish to continue to close the gaps of disconnect with my wounded inner parts, to take further steps towards empowerment and healing strength, and to remind all of me just how far I have come. Until then I will hold onto the healing strength I gained on the day of my rock journey.

Understanding Shame

Shame is a topic that is at least as difficult to talk about as it is to experience. I find myself flooded with thoughts and emotions just contemplating this blog entry. I have so much to learn about my own shame – how I experience it – where my blind spots reside that make me susceptible to it – why at times I can move out of shame and other times feel endlessly consumed by it – and how I can work to build a stronger resilience in the face of shame. These are the thoughts that swirl in my mind as I work to better understand myself and all of my wounded inner parts that require my healing attention.

I am an avid follower of Brené Brown. I have found her work on shame particularly helpful in my own understanding and untangling of the lasting impact of my childhood abuse. So much of what she says and writes resonates on such a deep level that it inspires me to dig deeper within myself. I have come to understand that while we all experience our own unique triggers and set of underlying circumstances, shame is a universal experience. As we begin to understand and identify our own shame we can then begin to learn how to build a resilience that allows us to move out of shame when we experience it instead of feeling swallowed by it. Being able to identify it, for me, means that I need to wrap words or an image around it to help me recognize its presence. These words need to be carefully selected and specific to my experiences in order for them to be of use.

Nearly every word Brené writes resonates with me, however there is one description of shame that she often uses that I struggle with. She uses the phrase “warm wash of shame” to describe the feeling of shame taking over – being consumed by it. This is a phrase that from the very first time I heard it felt an immediate contrasting response to. A warm wash to me feels inviting, comfortable, and refreshing. There is nothing refreshing about being consumed by shame. This phrase feels both contradicting and unrelatable to me. Each time I hear or read these words I find myself getting stuck in resistance to them.

So I began to ask myself why. Why would Brené choose this wording? Perhaps she uses this phrase to signify how easily shame can unknowingly engulf us. If it were an icy cold or scalding hot wash we would be instantly alarmed and responsive to it. Maybe that warm wash represents shames cunning way of taking over beneath our radar – sneaking up on us to seize control. Shame can often be so automatic and feel so familiar that it covers us like a blanket. In that sense, her description begins to feel more palatable to me. Still overall I feel a resistance to this phrase, which inspires me to ask more questions.

Why does the description “warm wash of shame” not sit well with me? I believe this comes from my own personal struggles with shame. The feeling of its overwhelming power and seductive influence in my life demands stronger language around it. “Warm wash” feels too lighthearted and trivial to describe something with such life altering force. In some of my previous writing I have referred to shame as “a shapeshifter” – “changing its form at will to unsuspectingly inject its poison into my brain” (My Shame is a Shapeshifter). However inviting and familiar my shame feels, I feel as though I need adversarial language wrapped around it to remind me that its calculating company is something I wish to rid myself of.

My contemplation around Brene’s word choice brought my mind to a place of deep self reflection and even more questions. Brene describes the necessity of being able to recognize and name when we experience shame as being fundamentally important in moving through it. If moving out of shame requires us first to recognize that we are in it, then what cues do I feel in my body that indicate I am in shame? How do I viscerally experience shame? These questions leave me in a tough spot, as I struggle with disconnection and identifying where I feel any emotion is very difficult and often impossible for me. Yet I continued to sit with this question, searching within myself for answers.

The closest thing I can identify to a bodily sensation around shame is a feeling of an immense slowing down and engulfing weight all around me – like sinking into quicksand or freshly poured cement. In fact, as I think about that feeling I am reminded of a very frequent recurring dream I experience where I am trying to run away or towards something as fast as I can, but while everyone else is moving at full speed I am moving in slow motion – like trying to run in a neck deep pool of cement. As I write this my mind is making deeper connections and traveling back to when I was in high school, in the midst of enduring very regular sexual abuse. During that time I wrote a short story for a creative writing class about someone at a construction site falling to their slow, painfully engulfing and drowning death in a deep pool of cement. As a side note, this memory cannot resurface without an immediate angry and protective response from within me, screaming, “how can a child write such a story without drawing concern, inquiry, or intervention from an adult?” Yet, as I shift back into my self reflection on how my body physically experiences shame, I see how much both this writing from long ago as well as my recurring dreams reflect exactly what my body seems to tell me in current instances of shame – a heavy overwhelming weight all around that slows me down and consumes me.

I sense that there is much more for me to learn and unpack about how my body experiences shame which will help me better recognize and build a stronger resilience to it, but this provides a starting point for me to work from. As a person who is prone to feeling shame instead of guilt, undoubtedly tied to my past experiences, I want to learn how to better recognize my own personal warning signs. I want to teach myself to be able to step back from a moment of shame and be better equipped to identify and draw it out of me. I think that wish needs to go hand in hand with the desire to not feel as though I deserve shame, as there is no movement out of shame if you feel deserving of it.

This is a realization I am having about myself as I reflect upon two very recent shameful experiences that occurred just this past week. One involved a battle between self care and self harm and the other was a situation of perceived parenting failure. Both topics (likely to be addressed in a later blog post) are highly shame inducing for me so it is not a surprise that these particular situations created a downward spiral inside of me this week. In both situations I was slowly and eventually able to recognize what I was experiencing as shame. Yet, unlike some experiences of shame where the mere acknowledgment of it helps to release its grip on me, the weight of these shameful feelings did not subside upon my recognition of it. These two very separate instances tapped into a feeling of shame that I struggle to be able to separate from. I struggle to move out of these moments of shame because something deep down inside of me feels that it belongs to me – that I deserve it. I believe these moments of shame originated from a tangled connection to my past abuse. It took me a long time to begin to let go of the shame I felt for my abuse – for every memory, every interaction, and every feeling. But shame is so pervasive that it intertwines itself in past and present experiences to create a recurring and ever-changing struggle. The identification of shameful triggers and blind spots in one area does not clear away all of ones shame inducing moments. Shame is too sly and cunning to be eradicated. Instead it slithers its way through one’s psyche, constantly searching for vulnerabilities. It takes situational awareness and effort to both recognize and resist its luring ways.

My shame surrounding my own perceived parenting failures surely stems from unmet needs I faced as a child. Each moment I recognize even the slightest disconnect in my relationship with my children, my shame connects this to my own past disengaged parental relationships and tells me that I am not equipped to do any better – that I cannot protect them from the horrors I endured as a child – and that I am ultimately failing them. When shame creeps in over my mistakes in choosing self harm over self care, it reminds me of all of my past struggles in coping with my abuse and makes me believe that I am not strong enough to change these unhealthy patterns – and that I am not equipped to manage my emotions without this type of harmful intervention. In its worst form, it even tempts me to believe that hurting myself is what I truly deserve.

Learning about my shame will be an ongoing process for me. While it is certainly not a comfortable topic to address it is an incredibly necessary beast to venture into along my healing journey. I cannot expect to always learn to recognize and respond to my shame in real time. So for now I will continue to try to carefully back into it to learn from each experience in the hopes that what I uncover will help me better manage when shame returns the next time.

As Brene Brown writes, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgement. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” It is my hope that through sharing my experiences I can help to not only release some of my own deeply felt shame, but also perhaps inspire some self-reflective thoughts in your own heart as you read and soak this in.