Few of us have come this far in life without experiencing some form of trauma. Many of us have suffered in silence due to the shame we feel. But, there is light on the other side of healing. And all it takes is vulnerability and self-compassion to learn how to release shame.
Sharing How to Heal After Child Abuse, was initially humiliating. I felt as though I had paraded my flawed, naked body through the town square to chants of “Shame, shame, shame…” (Any Game of Thrones fans out there?) As I mustered the courage to peek at feedback, I was lost for words. You guys showed up. You shared your painful stories with me. And slowly, my humilation waned and the swelter of disgrace lifted. I’m beyond grateful for your honesty, trust and vulnerability.
“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”
When Cadillac (my nickname for my mother) married the second of four husbands, we moved an hour away from my grandparents to a small town where I knew no one. Suddenly, I had two stepsisters and a stepbrother. The eldest stepsister ran away. The stepbrother lived with his mother and never visited us. And the second stepsister was abnormally obsessive with her dad, not wanting anyone to be near him.
I was eleven. Lonely, anxious, severely depressed and most likely anorexic, I ate one-half sandwich and drank one-half glass of 7-Up each day. Having lost control of my life, controlling food was twisted bliss.
Cadillac was not a particularly clean person. But, after we moved into the stepfather’s house, she suddenly became fixated on keeping things spic and span. Therefore, I was crowned housekeeper.
The stepfather’s master bathroom had a large mirror with a gilded frame over the sink. Its crevices were splattered with toothpaste. So, Cadillac provided a packaged toothbrush and a container of Comet and instructed me to scrub the frame. Being eleven, lonely, miserable, and malnourished, I rolled my eyes. And with that Cadillac death-gripped the base of my skull, shoved my face into the mirror causing it to distort, and with clenched teeth and a tone of insanity spewed, “Look at you. You look just like him.“
I resemble both my parents. Those who know Cadillac say I’m her spitting image. Those who know my dad, say I look just like him. Obviously, Cadillac believes the latter. “You could have accomplished so much more in life if you’d only gotten that nose job,” she’d torment. It’s valid to note, she’d gotten two.
When your parent judges you in disdain as a child, it’s humiliating. And you realize the person who is supposed to protect you is not on your side. Unbeknownst to you, this charts future relationships. And when society inevitably judges you as an adult, you feel even more deeply painted into the corner of self-preservation. Vulnerability and connection are approached with extreme caution.
GUILT AND SHAME
Most survivors of trauma lose reference of what normal means. We assume normal must equal perfection and anything less is unacceptable. We feel guilty about everything. If we show any level of self-care, we feel guilty. If someone trips over their own foot, we feel guilty. Our guilt and shame is on constant overdrive, pointing out how unworthy we are.
Adding an extra layer to an already complex internal dialogue, we project the shame we feel onto others. “They see I’m damaged. They recognize I don’t fit in. I could be their most loyal friend… but they think I’m a loser. Screw them.”
I never realized the intense weight of distrust I carried because of my own shame. I prided myself as hyper-intuitive when decoding another person’s character. My subconscious dilemma was the inability to distinguish between intuition guiding me and trauma misleading me. I’ve misread so many people’s behaviors, sadly robbing myself of much deeper connections.
I think most of us feel alone in our struggles. We form friendships at superficially comfortable depths, but few know us on a rough-hewn level. We scroll through shiny social media personas and dismiss any idea there could be cracks in each other’s carefully filtered and ostensibly charmed lives.
Sometimes I try to conceptualize an unmasked culture bathed in vulnerability. How refreshing would it be to mute the pretentious noise and validate how much we actually mirror one other’s perfectly flawed humanness?
My most cherished friendships developed with reciprocal vulnerability. Releasing shame, revealing the bruises, and being imperfect creates a space where we feel safe to be ourselves. I know this in my bones, but I sometimes find myself struggling to trust. It’s not my best look. It’s a hardwired challenge to trust a woman when the one woman I was born to trust wounded me so deeply.
It no longer matters what Cadillac thinks of me within her warped reality. Her venom has mostly neutralized since I’ve chosen to share my truth. And the compassion, trust and grace within the messages you wrote helped nurse the wounds, too. In gratitude and in hopes of connecting with yet another injured soul, I thought I’d share a few of your beautifully altrustic notes. Out of respect for privacy, identifiable details have been removed.
“I’m at a loss for words. I am truly blessed to have crossed paths with you. Your blog touched my soul. I never thought I would meet anyone who could truly know what I’ve been through and who would understand it. I feel so connected to you and your words. Thank you for being open and sharing your journey.”
“I cried as I read your story. Your truth. Tears for what you went through and because it resonated so loudly with me. I’ve never had the courage to write about mine. I suffer from chronic back and neck pain, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia. My trauma led to perfectionism, depression, suicidal thoughts, and a ten year battle with bulimia. Thank you for sharing and connecting dots.”
“I was married to a malignant narcissist for years. I still suffer from PTSD. Compassion is key. I think we’re all starving for it. Your timing couldn’t have been better to show what that looks like. Thank you, dear Julie, for your post, strength, compassion, and generous service to your friends and followers.”
“Your story should be told. Hopefully, you will have the will to write a book. We could spend weeks talking about all the things we were hiding [as kids] back then. You hid all of this perfectly. And I’m sorry for that. We were far more alike than we realized.”
“Your post was an incredible tour de force! It was inspiring and empowering to all of us who read it. Even those who didn’t have that sort of trauma and abuse. We love you for writing it and we support you!”
So, there it is. It’s ours for the taking. Raw vulnerability cultivates the trust, fellowship and respect necessary to teach us how to release shame. Some of us may be late to the vulnerability party, but we’re here. And this is one party we should allow ourselves to be the life of. —xo