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.

Internal Parts

When your voice grows quiet what does your mind say? Do you sense a recurring tone or message from within, or do you experience a variety of internal processing content and intensity? I imagine for most, internal dialogue depends on situational factors. Yet the voices that rise up in these instances are uniquely their own. What do you hear in your own stillness?

Some of my internal voices were born from childhood sexual abuse. They seem to be the loudest and strongest voices, often muting others that may exist. Yet even though decades have passed and I am safely away from abuse now, these parts are still on heightened alert maintaining their dutiful roles. Only now these roles no longer serve me. Instead they are often a hindrance to feelings of safety and security and developing healing connection in my life.

My efforts to identify and untangle these various internal parts that live deep within me has proven to be a difficult task. It feels like these parts wish to exist independently and without my awareness. When I try to shine a light on them they retreat – like cockroaches they scatter and flee into hiding. Approaching these parts with words often leaves me empty handed. They don’t seem to communicate with words. So recently I ventured into the task of attempting to communicate with them in a different way – expressing what they feel in images that they could visually present to me.

I held a pencil in my hand and without deliberate effort I let it move across the page, sketching what each of these parts felt like inside of me. Before long my page began to fill with grayscale images. Then color emerged as I sunk deeper into this exercise. When the images and colors stopped freely moving across my page I set my pencils down, understanding that although my drawing was not complete four distinct parts showed up for me that day.

The curled up grey figure at the bottom is shame. I have been drawing different versions of her since I was a child (see My Shame is a Shapeshifter for more drawings of shame). She feels the need to hold herself desperately together, shrinking into the smallest space that she can occupy. Shame is so powerful and pervasive that she feels it consuming her, changing her in a way that will make her unrecognizable – losing her form – blurring the lines between who she is and who she fears to be.

The fiery figure above her is anger. Anger conveniently positions itself over shame for a reason. Anger is fueled and intensified by feelings of shrinking cowering weakness. Anger lashes its fury outward at times, directing focus and blame on those that hurt us or left us susceptible to harm. Yet it is often an inward path that anger chooses – fueling thoughts of self blame and self loathing as its weapon of choice.

The dark hooded figure turns its back on everyone else. She outwardly projects that she doesn’t want to see nor does she want to be seen. Yet she stands nearby, quietly wrestling with what she feels as a need to be noticed – a need to be seen – a need to be saved. This one feels like a teenager inside of me.

The purple figure feels heavy and desperate. The heavy weight of what she carries is dripping and oozing out of her. She looks and feels like pain to me – a frightening and messy kind of pain.

Four parts showed up in this first attempt at visually meeting my internal parts. I know there are more – I can feel that there are more parts within me. They just need patience and safety before they will step forward and present themselves to me. Drawing these figures does not rid me of their powerful presence. My goal is not to erase them (even though at times I wish to do so). Instead I am learning that I need to understand them. I need to build a bridge between my current self and each of these parts. I need to learn to work with them instead of against them. They were created out of necessity. They were created in me and for me. Learning to build new connections with them might allow me to help redefine their roles in my life to better suit my current needs. It feels like a daunting task ahead of me, but it is also one that I recognize as necessary.

What has helped you to identify and connect with your internal parts?

The Lion’s Den

She enters, inching her way forward into the darkness, unsure of what she will encounter. She is here fueled with purpose and armed with selflessness. Routinely she will remind herself of this in an effort to remain focused on her mission, knowing that any deviation may lead her into the grip of what she fears most.

One small step at a time she creeps, grasping tightly onto the cloak she is draped in. This cloak offers her protection – her armor – her shield. It conceals all of the parts that exist inside of her, providing shelter and safety from the elements that exist here.

She feels these parts shiver as she ventures deeper into this place. Each step awakens a different part, sending small electrical impulses creeping, jolting, and flashing their way through her.

She wishes to peek beneath the cloak to settle all of these disrupted parts. Yet she fears that unbuttoning her shield will expose them to unimaginable harm. They must be protected, and this place is not safe for them to emerge.

Instead she holds tightly onto her cloak, wrapping it fully around herself, hoping that the parts underneath can also feel this firm embrace. Gripping, squeezing, and inching along she continues – one tiny step at a time. This is her responsibility. This is what she needs. All she can do is hold herself tightly together until she exits the lion’s den.

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.

Message to My Armor

You are my trusted companion. You keep me composed – buttoned up – sealed off from harmful intrusions. Your presence allows me to appear calm and confident. You are my protector – my shield. You contain all of me in a way that makes others unable to notice the turbulence beneath the surface. When other parts of me are screaming for attention in moments where I cannot tend to them, I can feel you quietly shushing, assuring, and nudging them aside.

You were created out of necessity, and I am grateful for your presence.

I ask a lot from you. I place us into settings that demand you to work overtime. I feel the strain this places on you. I feel your exhaustion in the way this leads to physical ailments and urges. I feel your need for relief – your need to come up for air.

How can I offer you a break? What can I do for you now to let you know that it is safe to relax a little?

I am not asking you to leave. Trust that I recognize my need for you. Instead I wish to grant you a healthy release. I need to find a way to let you rest and recover after placing these persistent demands on you. We are safe now. You can rest. We can let the other parts that you have fiercely and effectively protected come forward a bit. It is time to lean into what they need to share with us now. Can you soften a bit and let them step forward? Can you drape yourself around them like a warm blanket, letting them know that you can hold, protect, and support them while also letting them carefully creep forward to whisper their messages? They need your support. They need your protection. They just need you to loosen your grip ever so slightly so they can climb up out of the darkness. You can still be their shield while also allowing them to peek out into the light.

At First Glance

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.

Melancholy

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.

Sunshower by Chris Cornell – one the most frequently played songs on my Melancholy playlist

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

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.

Buttoned Up

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.

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.