Take a look at this drawing. What do you see? A child reaching and stretching to take a lollipop from a man’s coat pocket. Perhaps this man is the child’s father and her sneaky attempt to swipe the candy can be viewed as innocent or even cute. But what if I told you that the artist of this drawing was a child herself who was in the midst of silently suffering regular sexual abuse by a trusted man in her life. Does that make you view this drawing any differently?
For years I have overlooked this drawing as an insignificant part of my collection of adolescent art. For years I saw it as nothing more than what it depicts at first glance – a child stealing candy from an adult.
In recent years I have focused my attention to the artwork I created in my youth and the messages they can tell me about the injured girl that created them (see my Art page for more information). I have copies of many of those pieces and an old sketchbook as a part of this collection. These are the only possessions I still have from a period in my life I have often wished to forget. Recently this particular drawing caught my attention and after years of casting it aside it now demands more contemplation from me. This drawing that at first glance appears very simple and innocent is now uncovering something much deeper for me.
When I completed this drawing I was in high school in the midst of enduring regular sexual abuse by my trusted coach. His careful grooming followed by ongoing manipulative control kept me both silently compliant and simultaneously responsible for all of the pain and shame that he inflicted upon me. He had a careful way of crafting each encounter to make me feel as though I was making choices when in fact he was merely spinning and tangling me deeper and more fully under his control. It was so confusing for my adolescent brain to make sense of. I believed everything he trained me to believe about him, about others, and even myself. I was so driven to reach my fullest potential, and I looked up to him as the teacher/role model/coach to help me get there that I wasn’t able to see the situation he placed me into in any other way than how he presented it to me. How could I?
The last conversation I had with him when I was finally able to break free from his abusive grip occurred when I was in college. The words he said to me on that phone call I can still deeply feel. “You simply used me to get yourself a college scholarship.” When I hung up my phone that day I felt two distinct feelings. The first was an immense weight off of my shoulders – a sense of relief to finally be free from him. The second feeling was much different from the first and was the exact response I had been conditioned to feel – full of shame and an overwhelming weight of responsibility. This was a glaring sign of the wake of damage he left inside of me. His words sunk deep into the parts of me that believed I was to blame for what he did to me. I carried those words that he laid onto me that day – that I used him – and they became my deeply silent and shameful reminder that I was a dangerous and defective person.
Now as I look at this drawing decades after creating it I question what my child self was expressing. Is this merely an expression of childlike innocence and seizing a moment of candy temptation and opportunity? Or was she perhaps expressing something that was being deeply ingrained in her mind – that she is the dangerous thief – she is taking from an unsuspecting adult. Could this be an expression of shame, guilt, or wrongdoing? The entire drawing was completed in pencil, a grey scale image, with the exception of both the child’s shirt and the lollipop which are both a deep rich red. Does this red represent danger? Does she feel that she is the danger to others, or does she recognize that she is in danger? Perhaps her red shirt comes from a undying and alarming need to be seen – noticed – cared for. What if there is something significant in the matching reds? Perhaps the red candy that perfectly matches her red shirt represents part of her that was taken away. Maybe she is reaching to try to regain that part of herself. Maybe she was expressing a sense of confusion and overwhelm as the child in the drawing is so young and so small compared to the man towering before her. She strains to reach up onto her tip toes just to barely grab hold of this enticing object. Maybe she was expressing how small and defenseless she felt in the face of his dominance, control, and deception.
Perhaps I am overthinking and over analyzing this drawing. Maybe it is in fact nothing more than a mindless sketch of innocence. I don’t know what prompted the wounded girl inside of me to draw this years ago. But I suspect she is telling us more than what we see at first glance.
I have a music playlist on my phone called Melancholy. I think this fact makes my husband feel a little uneasy. After all, why would I seek out music that fuels my sadness? While perhaps this may be a misguided practice, when I feel an incoming heavy weight of hurt sometimes it helps me to sink into it in order to better understand where it came from and what it needs from me. Sometimes softening into my melancholy feels as though I am positioning myself in a place to better hear from my wounded parts.
There are certain song lyrics and melodies that allow me to sink into my hurt – not to get lost in it – although that does happen at times. But the dark places are where my greatest wounds exist, and from time to time I feel a pull to venture there.
My experiences with dark feelings often come without warning. They originate from every day circumstances that slyly connect themselves to something deeply painful within me. I can’t often make those connections in the moment. My nervous system is too activated to allow space for that. This is where music enters the equation. The music I am drawn to in these moments both allows me to deeply feel the rising heavy emotions while also offering a soothing and comforting release in the melody and lyrics expressed. This keeps me from avoiding or pushing away emotions that need to rise to the surface. It also feels as though the music gives me permission to feel and connect with my dark feelings. It allows me to feel while also gently reassuring and reminding me that I don’t need to live there – that I can and will rise from that dark place.
I think being open to my darkness helps to make me less afraid of it. I think this curiosity is a crucial part of my healing. The important thing for me to be mindful of is that my use of music to connect to these feelings can be productive as long as the feelings are temporary. Extended stays in darkness seem to require a different approach or intervention for me. But for my intermittent encounters with darkness I will continue to open my wounded heart to music and take solace in the sounds of my Melancholy.
Do songs of melancholy bring you comfort or distress when you are in struggle? What helps you connect to the parts of yourself that are calling out for attention in those moments?
Trust your gut is one of those phrases that feels so trite and dismissive to me. Yet we all use it on a regular basis – listen to, pay attention to, follow your gut. It seems very obvious, but to be honest, I don’t know what to make of this phrase. I don’t even know what to make of my gut. I don’t feel like I have a relationship with my gut. I am overflowing with internal voices. If my gut is supposed to represent some internal guiding voice, then which voice is it? Could it be that all of the noise I experience equally represents this voice, or is my gut somewhere buried beneath the barrage of noise? What does “trust your gut” even mean to a trauma survivor?
When I was a child and being routinely abused I was taught to accept the messages being spoon fed into my brain by my manipulative abuser. This was not a choice. It was a devastating reality. I was taught that my internal messages were to be dismissed and to instead accept all that was imposed upon me. This not only buried me under a mountain of silence and shame, but it also disconnected me from the ability to engage with and trust my own feelings.
I find myself decades later depending on outside voices to help guide my internal feelings about situations and circumstances that require reflection. It seems if someone else can validate a feeling, that allows a single voice to step forward inside of me. It gives that voice permission to feel and express. But what if I’m receiving the wrong input and igniting the wrong voice inside? What if this outward reliance is just feeding my maladaptive internal processing?
Much of my recent healing work has involved identifying and connecting to the various wounded and protective parts that exist within me. A friend recently described this so accurately for me as possessing a clown car of internal parts. Imagine a clown car of internal voices all jockeying for the driver’s seat. Who has the loudest voice? Who is in control? The answer to these questions seems dependent upon circumstances, triggers, and needs. If a situation triggers one part to step forward, that part rules my clown car and takes the wheel. I’ve got some loud and messy voices inside of me. I am trying to identify each one of them in an attempt to understand how they have served to help me in the past and what I can do to better integrate them into my present self. I am no longer in constant danger. My body is no longer under the regular threat of violation. Yet some of these internal parts don’t seem to know this, and they react to situations with such overwhelm that it sends all of me back into reflexive survival.
Wherever my gut is buried underneath all of this noise, I feel like I need to somehow uncover it. I need to find a way to build a relationship with that part – to give it the strength and confidence to step forward when I need it. The more I learn about myself, the more I have come to understand that all of my other internal voices are not going to simply step aside upon my request. They won’t be dismissed or bullied or cast aside. They require the same care and attention that was lacking when I was young. They need me to build a trusting connection with each one of them before they will let me even get close to my gut. They were born from my past experiences, and they have much to teach me before they will let me influence who gets to be in the driver’s seat of my clown car.
Writing helps me access that which I cannot speak. I write in order to release – to free myself of all that entraps me – to give a voice to all of the parts inside of me that cannot make a sound. Writing teaches me to listen to those muted parts and helps attach words to them. I work hard to uncover the words that best express what is deeply held within me. I sit with those words, formulate them, and then release them onto paper. My deepest wounds, questions, doubts, and fears are then in front of me – staring back at me and demanding attention. Sometimes those words don’t leave my grasp. Other times I send them out into the world.
I am often left unsure what to do with the words that I express. When I share I often wonder where or if they ever land – like sending a message in a bottle. Did my message make it across the ocean or get stuck on a submerged branch just beyond my reach? Why do I choose to share my writing if I struggle with the uncertainty of whether or not my words are ever seen or provide impact in any way? Why do I write if I do not often even speak of what I have written? This leaves me with the ongoing gut wrenching question, “what is the point of all of this?”
I don’t believe in the notion that all things happen for a reason. I don’t believe that my teenaged body was routinely abused by a trusted adult as a part of some master plan. My abuser’s own criminal choices combined with the absence of my family’s support led to a perfect storm of opportunity and misfortune. The moments of my abuse left me without choice. This seemingly simple statement took me a long time to understand and believe as fact. Yet while I was without choices back then I believe in my own lonely healing battle that choices lie before me now each and every day. With each day and each new challenge I have the choice to pick myself up and carry on or to lay down my fight and surrender. Life has tempted me to surrender before – that is a voice inside of me that I know all too well and fear greatly. But there is also a scrappy warrior inside of me that urges me to wrestle my way to find healing, direction, and purpose. I may not have had choices in the way I was treated as a child, but I have choices in how to respond today – even when life tries to convince me otherwise.
I am armed with the choice to use my experiences to create meaningful change in myself, in the confines of my family, or even for a broader community or societal impact. That choice has transformed into an automatic responsibility for me. I carry the weight of protecting my children as a badge of honor – a terrifying and overwhelming weight at times, but an ever present focus of attention that was not afforded to me as a child. I accept the responsibility of devoting my energy and using my voice in order to educate and make meaningful policy changes in sports to better protect children across the world.
My greatest daily struggle is not to find a reason to fight for others. That is an easy source of motivation. My greatest struggle lies in my own personal daily battle with feelings that haunt me – voices that try to convince me that I am not strong enough or capable enough or worthy enough – that my presence on this earth is inconsequential. I push back on those feelings every day to claw my way into some sense of a meaningful existence.
I write in order to better understand my experiences. I write to uncover and tend to the pieces of myself that require healing attention. I write in order to connect with others and feel the validating support of the shared impact of abuse. I write because sexual abuse is not something that a person simply leaves in their past. It changes a person and becomes entangled in how they relate to themselves and the world around them – and the world needs to understand that! I write because the days of swallowing down the aftermath of the hurt that was inflicted upon me are over. I am tired of feeling broken and beaten down and silenced. I am tired of feeling so alone in my daily battles. If my writing lands in the hands of just one person – if I have made an impact on just one soul, then my struggles with uncertainty and purpose in sharing are resolved.
A trusted friend recently shared her own personal experiences of reading the work of a writer when she was young and struggling with her own abuse. She expressed to me that the author of the words she read during that time will never know how impactful and healing they were for her as she sat in solitude and absorbed those meaningful messages long ago. While I may live with the uncertainty that my words have any meaning or impact outside of my own mind, it is my deep purpose fueled hope that drives me to share. It is that hope along with my promise to all of the wounded parts inside of me to never stop fighting for them. However alone and broken I feel, I have to keep fighting every single day. That is my choice today – a day where I want to lay down and quit. Today I choose to fight. Tomorrow I can only hope for the strength to make the same choice again.
I am honored to be a part of the Survivors Speak Series on survivingchildhoodtrauma.com where I share some of my experiences. Finding and giving a voice to all of the wounded parts that live deep inside is a tremendously healing gift for survivors. We may have vastly different experiences and struggles, but the lasting impacts of abuse are often quite relatable. Yet the isolating dynamics of abuse create this perpetual feeling of being alone in those deep struggles. I am wrestling with this exact lonely feeling as I write today. The timeliness of my story being published on Surviving Childhood Trauma is quite the profound reminder of the importance of the collective healing strength found in a community of survivors. I am on an ongoing healing journey. I experience moments of great strength and empowerment. I also struggle, fumble, and falter. While healing may not be a linear path, it is still the path I choose to pursue each day. I invite you to follow the link below and read more about my journey.
Today I am excited to share Sara’s story. Her’s is a story of amazing resilience, and desire to heal and live fully. She is a 41 year old mother of two children and she been married for 15 years to a caring and devoted husband. She is also a part time youth sports coach and…
There is this buttoned up and composed version of myself that I let the world see. It is the part of me that protectively works to keep my outward self appearing calm, safe, and secure. Underneath this facade lives a multitude of other parts, some healthier than others, that come together to make me who I am today. This buttoned up part of myself that I present to the world could not exist without a self imposed part designed as a pressure release valve. Both parts exist as a means of self protection. Both have been a critically necessary part of my survival. And both are creating a barrier to feeling, creating, and connecting to a whole-hearted approach to healing in my life. I wish to shed these parts through my healing process. Yet the desire to shed these internal parts of myself is perhaps a misguided goal. I cannot circumvent the very parts of me that were put in place to keep me safe. I need to instead somehow connect to these parts and learn to work collaboratively with them.
When I was seven years old my grandfather (Pop-Pop) died. I remember with such clarity several moments of the day of his funeral. I recall standing in line in a room that smelled of flowers. I remember watching his wife, my Mom-Mom, walk into the room quietly crying with two adult family members clutching her arms to keep her steady as she walked. I remember feeling uncomfortable and nervous because I had never before seen Mom-Mom cry, and this room full of quiet sad looking people dressed in dark clothes felt unsettling to me. I understood that my Pop-Pop died – as best as a seven year old can understand death. But I didn’t understand what we were doing there. What was this building we were in? What was this line of people we were standing in?
When the line inched forward I was suddenly scooped up off of the ground and found myself face to face with Pop-Pop’s lifeless body positioned in a casket. I wasn’t held in a comforting closely held manner with caring guidance to help me comprehend what I was experiencing. Instead I was perched up facing outward and away from my dad, who held me extended out in front of himself by my underarms. I dangled there and experienced my first view of death all alone. I didn’t understand what I was seeing. I didn’t understand why I was being held up and instructed to look at him in there. It didn’t even look like Pop-Pop. My Pop-Pop’s skin didn’t look like that. My Pop-Pop’s lips never rested tightly together quite like that. My Pop-Pop always had a crease across the bridge of his nose from his glasses. There were no glasses on his face and no crease marking where they normally rested. This didn’t look like my Pop-Pop. I looked directly at his face and immediately turned away. But I didn’t want to get in trouble for being disrespectful so although I wanted to jerk my head, squirm out of my dad’s hands and run away from this room in sadness and fear, I instead simply diverted my eyes away from Pop-Pop’s face. I focused on the edges of the casket and the flowers surrounding it – anywhere I could discretely look to help subside the fear, sadness, and confusion that swirled inside of me until at last my feet were brought back down to the ground.
I learned that day not to look directly into a casket. I learned in that moment that I needed to pretend to look. This would prove to become a lasting strategy, as my last living grandmother died nearly twenty years later. When faced with her funeral as an adult, I respectfully moved my way towards her body during the viewing, but I chose not to look directly at her face. Part of me didn’t want my last memory of her face to include a distorted image of what she looked like among all of my countless memories with her. But the stronger feeling inside of me was a need for self protection from the feelings rising inside of me. I didn’t feel confident to test the limits of my self composure in that moment. Instead, much like I did when I was seven years old, I looked at the edges of the casket and the pattern on the dress she wore and breathed slowly and deliberately, continuously swallowing down my feelings of grief until an acceptable amount of time passed and I could turn in a calmly composed manner and walk away.
I remember sitting with my family in our church during Pop-Pop’s funeral service. The same church that was typically full of people during our regular Sunday visits was eerily quiet and empty with just the front several pews filled with family and loved ones. Various people walked up to the alter and read words that I didn’t understand. A priest well known by my family spoke about heaven. All while that same box I saw Pop-Pop laying in earlier was positioned in front of the alter. I saw more tears that day than I had ever seen – from cousins, from aunts and uncles, and even strangers. But not one tear was spotted on my siblings or my parents faces.
At one point during the church service I went to the restroom with my mom. The restroom was near the front of the church behind several doors off to the side of the alter. I don’t remember the walk to the restroom, but what occurred both in the restroom as well as the walk back to our church pew left a lasting mark in my mind. While in the restroom I asked my mom why people have to die. I don’t remember how she answered, but I remember something about that brief conversation led to an overflowing of tears, sadness, and confusion pouring out of me. I missed my Pop-Pop, and I wept in that restroom over the loss of him. I’m sure my mom hugged me and comforted me. I don’t remember that part. Instead the lasting memory in my mind was standing before a mirror and desperately washing my face. With all of the emotions coursing through my young body at Pop-Pop’s funeral, my greatest concern in that moment was to wash away any evidence of my tears. I didn’t leave that restroom until I felt that I could walk back out into the church, facing all of the people in the church pews in front of me, feeling completely composed. At seven years old I had very carefully displayed an unspoken family rule that I must have learned long before that day. At seven years old I already knew that it was not okay to cry.
This buttoned up version of myself is exhausted from containing all that I experience. It needs healthy healing relief. It became a strong part of me at such a young age that simple expressions of feelings are often lost or muted by this ever present part. In my entire upbringing I never learned how to express my feelings. Instead I was taught that feelings were not welcome. I don’t want that for myself anymore, and I certainly don’t want that for my children. But I am scared and unsure of how to attempt to change something that is so deeply and fiercely a part of me. I feel myself often wishing and even envisioning a moment of releasing everything that feels bottled up inside of me – wishing to just let go and crumble in the comforting arms and safety of a loved one – wishing to fully release and express the depth of my feelings – to stop holding myself so desperately clenched together in my therapist’s office and just let go – to cry and unravel and release the overwhelming weight that I feel trapped in. But this buttoned up part is so strong and automatic inside of me that it prevents me from getting there. I don’t know how to turn it down. When I experience moments of being asked a question by my therapist that even remotely invokes a feeling of rising tears, this part reacts so quickly to either jump in with distracting sarcasm or worse, it creates an internal anger at my therapist for what feels like an attempt to make me cry. In an instant the flood of rising feelings subsides and composure remains in control.
The recent self realization and connection between this buttoned up part of myself and a release valve part that also exists within me is what draws my focus in very clearly on how important it is for me to carefully tend to and address these intertwined parts. Self harm is my release valve. These tendencies and urges have been a part of me since I was in the midst of abuse as a teenager. I am just realizing now how much my buttoned up self relies on self harm to maintain composure. Self harming for me is a means to release some of the overwhelm that exists within me. I can’t maintain a composed buttoned up facade without a place for my overwhelm to escape. The self harming part was created to help maintain the buttoned up part.
If I can learn to tend to and release the weight of responsibility that the buttoned up part feels, then perhaps my self harming urges will no longer feel necessary. But what does that look like and how do I even begin to try? This is where my mind resides at the moment – sensing an important need and struggling to determine just how to reach it.
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.
When I was a child I remember the simple fun of blowing up a balloon and then releasing it into the air to playfully watch it race all around in different directions as it made its erratic path to the ground. It was fast and unpredictable as it jumped, bolted, and zipped around me. I’d chase after the balloon as it quickly changed directions, unable to catch it on its unpredictable course. Once it landed on the ground I’d scoop it up and send it off flying again and again.
This childhood memory came to me late last night while lying in bed, flooded with thoughts from a counseling session I had earlier in the evening. I found myself in that moment strangely relating to that balloon. During my counseling sessions it often feels as though I am carefully stretching my inner limits much like a balloon – pushing, searching, and expanding myself towards deeper understanding and healing. There are injured parts of myself that I really struggle to connect with so it often feels like a bit of a tug of war, trying to stretch and compassionately connect with the various injured and protective parts that live deep within me. Each session is a dance – stretching and breathing air and life into one part and then feeling resistance and backing away from another part. Back and forth, expanding and retracting, stretching and retreating, always wishing to seek, understand, and further heal without breaking the balloon.
When this carefully guided therapeutic dance comes to an end I often find myself feeling flooded and exposed. Just like that inflated balloon being released into the air, I feel myself jumping from thought to thought, memories and emotions zipping around inside of me. I have learned to recognize this feeling enough to know that I can not simply switch gears after a counseling session and get behind the wheel of my car and carry on back into the world. Instead I often need to take a walk to try to let the injured parts that feel as though they are dangling out of me, half exposed and half processed, have the space to tell me more and to settle slightly before I have to pack them back up again. Sometimes this walk helps. Other times it isn’t enough.
Last night I found myself at home after my session surrounded by family, smiles, and conversation. I was with them. I was engaging – as best I could. But the feelings inside of me were still zipping uncontrollably all around and leading me increasingly drained and crashing towards the ground. I held on tight, trying to control and direct how I was feeling. This false sense of composure lasted for a little while. Then I felt my body give way to the emotional ride, and I couldn’t stay on my feet any longer. I excused myself after dinner and, without anger or judgment, I curled my depleted body up under a blanket to allow myself to fully unravel, release, and recover. I gave myself permission to let go – to allow the painfully erratic balloon to follow its own uncertain path.
As much as I dislike this feeling, this wild ride of post counseling emotions, I have come to learn a very important lesson. I think the uncomfortable unraveled exposure I experience at the end of a counseling session is the birthplace of healing progress. It is often that feeling that leads to deeper self reflection, awareness, and connection. Instead of tensing, bracing, and trying to dominate this unpleasant feeling, I want to curiously soften into it. I want to learn from it. If I can meet myself in these moments with open curiosity instead of the tempting guarded control that has for so long been my defensive posture, then I can inch my way forward towards building a healing connection with my injured inner parts.
The journey towards healing is clearly not linear. Sometimes it is slow and steady. It can present surges as well as setbacks. Other times it is a wild ride of a free flying and unpredictably racing balloon. The key for me is not only learning when to hang on and when to let go, but also learning that no matter the momentum or direction, I need to learn to keep my eyes and heart wide open throughout the process.
We have a complicated relationship, but overall I like you. You provide me with a strong facade when the world feels threatening. You help me armor up and face challenges that I don’t often feel strong enough to address on my own. You cover up all of the parts of me that wither in the face of adversity. You help to hide the parts of me that were broken long ago. You have stepped in to protect those parts from further harm. For that I thank you.
You represent the strength and fortitude I wish to always possess. You don’t hesitate. You don’t second guess. You rise up strong and fiercely determined – an impenetrable force to combat both my external and internal perceived threats. You come prepared for battle and do not back down. I am grateful for all of the times you have shielded me from pain.
Please hear me when I say this – I need your strength – I need your presence. But I also need you to share the weight of your responsibilities. You carry a heavy burden all alone. It’s time we find a way to help alleviate that load. I need to help give a voice to all of the other parts of me – the scared, injured, muted parts that are still bleeding on the inside. Can you help to make space for them to step forward? Can you offer them the guided support to speak up? Can you use your fiery strength to help light the way forward for those buried inside? Those parts are equally essential for our healing. They can help guide us to create new pathways towards a stronger healthier connection within our self as well as with others. As shattered pieces of the same soul we can use our strengths and the lessons we’ve learned to find a way to collaboratively come together in order to heal as one.
She speaks to me in dreams. She comes to me in waves of panic. She visits me without warning. I struggle to openly receive her messages without feeling flooded and retreating away from her. I wonder how I can learn from her without getting lost and overwhelmed by all she needs to share with me. How can I choose to carefully and safely venture into her pain? I begin to think that perhaps I need to stop bracing and shielding myself from her sudden incoming messages and instead find a way to compassionately build a bridge towards her. Perhaps if I could be curious and brave enough to approach her – to visit where she lives – that we could learn to soften our approach with one another.
Where does this child inside of me live? What does she experience? What can I learn from spending time with her where she resides?
I sit with these questions and begin to search within myself and ask her if she might invite me in. I ask her to help me understand – to help me see all that she needs to show me. My initial requests are met with nothing – silence. I keep trying. With each failed attempt I begin to ask more questions.
Why does she feel so far away from me? Will she not let me find her or is it that I am too scared and unwilling to see her?
I take breaks from my asking and searching with the hope that a fresh mind will bring clarity another day. Then I try again and again and again – each day coming up empty. Then one night while lying in bed, without conscious thought or awareness, I receive her answer. She tells me that she lives where she’s always been – in the place I created long ago.
Immediately an image appears in my mind. I know exactly where she is. When I was in high school I was assigned a self portrait project in my art class. Of all of the countless ways to best represent oneself, my wounded 17 year old self related most accurately to this self representation – desperate, terrified, and gripping helplessly onto the edge of darkness – looking up for light, life, any sign of hope. The fear in her eyes shows that help is not coming.
The child inside of me lives exactly where I painted her years ago in the midst of her suffering. She’s still there. She’s still hanging onto that ledge desperate for help.
I have shamefully hidden from this place that she resides for so long – denying its existence – denying her truth. I have lacked the understanding, strength, and courage to face her. I have felt too scared to look over the edge into her desperate eyes. In my bravest moments I have tried to reach for her and attempt to help her. But she cannot be convinced to let go of the ledge and reach for my hand. She doesn’t trust my hand to save her. I don’t blame her for that. My hand is the same one that has tried to pry her fingers from that ledge many times before to make her disappear – to make it all disappear. How can she know that it is safe to trust me now? And how do I know if I can be trusted? What if I try to reach for her and fail? What if I’m not strong enough to carry the weight of her hurt? What if my efforts to save her lead us both to a life ending fall?
Maybe my challenge is not to pull her out. Maybe instead of trying to lean over her and help her out of her darkness I need to climb down there with her – to listen to her – to really see her. Maybe we’re supposed to find our way out together.
I want to be strong for her. I want to courageously enter that endless shaft and join in close beside her feeling confident in our ability to navigate our way out. But the truth is that I’m scared. I’m afraid of failing her. I’m afraid of failing us – again.