Every so often a book comes along that really shifts something for me, and I feel compelled to share some of its contents. Having just read Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw, now is one of those times.
To sensitive people in the world like me, the ones who feel emotion and energy around them, the ones who have likely battled against low self esteem, the ones who have had to work hard on their relationships with themselves; this book is one I highly recommend reading.
Shame as a word may feel a little triggering, but ultimately it’s the thing that drives people around the world to both overachieve and underachieve. It is the thing that drives the majority of our toxic behaviours.
We are likely, for a time at least, resolute in those behaviours, thinking that if we can just keep working super humanly hard then we won’t be found out, or on the flip side, no thank you, I don’t want to be part of your society because it is easier this way.
Either way we are working ridiculously hard to make sure we don’t have to experience shame.
We learn this really early on, often through our experiences of otherwise loving adults. As children we study the eyes of those around us for acceptance and learn to clip ourselves in a way that we feel meets everyone else’s needs. We learn what it means to be bad and what it means to be good.
Whichever adult we are in contact with as children, our survival is dependent on them, so we have to believe that they are good. That means that if there is even a sniff of disdain sensed, the child will often form the hard view that they are indeed the bad one, and frankly lucky to be tolerated at all.
This is where a low self esteem creeps in. This is also where the shrinking creeps in, namely that you don’t want to be too big for the folks around you, because you need them to love you and keep you safe, so you cover up who you really are.
It happens at school also and I can see how that was the case for me, when my imagination and ideas were a little too ‘out there’ for the adult I was dealing with. They trigger your shame with their disgust at your work and perhaps you, like me, tried to become something else or create something else in order to meet their needs.
I also lived out a full scale teenage rebellion at around this time, and looking back I can see how at my core I was simply seeking belonging and acceptance in the eyes of others.
Cool and rebellious was a badge I was happy to wear, no matter what that meant for my future, and I tried to infiltrate many different groups that had their own identity, in the hope that I would feel a sense of belonging.
To develop strong ego boundaries, children need parents with strong boundaries, so if a parent hasn’t managed to develop their own, the children are unlikely to be able to do so by design.
When you have damaged boundaries, like I had for much of my adult life, you don’t really have a clear sense of self.
You have existed in the world in a way that means you survive.
What that means is that you are likely prone to love too hard, too quickly (I’ve definitely done my fair share of that) and become dependent entirely on other beings, and pretty much codependent by design. You’ve also likely learnt to stifle your real feelings to be more palatable for the people around you and cling on for dear life in those doomed relationships, romantic or otherwise.
You are also extremely likely to attract and seek people who are perhaps a different side of the same coin, perhaps narcissistic or similar. You then may find yourself in a relationship which is shaming on a daily basis and therefore continues to lower your value within yourself. Side note: if we do not grow because of someone else’s ‘love’, it’s generally because it is not legit.
You’ve also probably learnt that kindness is better than honestly, so you have extended and distorted yourself in all kinds of ways to meet the needs of others. You’ve perhaps also been super judgemental of others and perhaps envious, which may show up in a ‘nice’ way in the form of a barbed compliment. Top tip: if you find someone triggers you in that way, it’s worth sitting with that and looking at the emotion that they have brought up in you, there is likely to be a major learning opportunity hidden in there somewhere.
You’ve also likely been extremely prone to addictions whether big or small. For clarity, in the book he cites Pia Mellody’s definition of addiction as: “any process used to avoid or take away intolerable reality.”
I’ve always been someone who jumps into things, constantly seeking, constantly looking to fill what was missing inside me and make the world love me more. When I managed to overcome one addiction, a new one would creep in. I simply got lucky that my addictions didn’t involve drugs and alcohol, but the energy driving the behaviour is the same.
In my childhood world there was no big thing, no big incident, my parents were just two wonderful humans doing the best with what they had. In a recent conversation with my Mum she shared some of the guilt she felt watching her own children on their healing journeys.
The way I see it is as simple as this; we can only operate in the world based on our own lived experiences. My parents came into the world and were influenced by their own experiences, they stood on the shoulders of their ancestors and have evolved based on the platform they were standing on. All I am doing is that; standing on my parents shoulders and evolving based on the platform I am standing on. I also benefit from many positive things I have learnt from them, the resourcefulness to find the means to put myself onto a more expansive path being one.
I appreciate that doesn’t even scratch the surface of a parents guilt on this stuff, but I also must point out that much of these things happens due to the nature of who we are as creatures and our drive for survival. Emotion is quite literally there to drive us to get what we need to survive.
I am sure you are thinking by now, okay Penfold, enough. What do we do about this?
Well you could read John’s book for a start, as there are a tonne of great practical exercises in there to support you with developing self awareness. The truth is there is no quick path to your own evolution, there is just the long road of life long commitment to keep expanding and evolving. Each persons path is individual to them and completely unique, which I can appreciate makes things even harder.
What we can do though is be inspired by others, and pay attention to what they have learnt, in the hope that we might learn something too.
I’ve written many blogs on all of this over the years, but some of the other things that have helped me on my path have been:
- To start to make decisions for myself that truly served me, whether big or small.
- To start to monitor my emotions and pay attention to what they are telling me.
- To learn how to get still within myself through meditation, and learn that there’s nothing in there I need to run away from.
- By learning how to meditate, to give myself the space to create a greater awareness of myself and the nuances that drive my behaviour throughout a day.
- To build a trusted, non shaming team around me that I trusted enough to believe it when they told me I was loveable.
- To put in the work to become vulnerable, to allow space for the love of other people to come in.
- And right now, my new one is to give the negative voice inside myself a voice so that I can love and accept my dark parts as well as my light ones.
I will leave you with some commandments from John:
- You have the right to judge your own behaviour, thoughts and emotions, and to take responsibility for their initiation and consequences.
- You have the right to offer no reasons or excuses for justifying your behaviour.
- You have the right to judge if you are responsible for judging other people’s problems.
- You have the right to change your mind.
- You have the right to make mistakes and be responsible for them.
- You have the right to say, “I don’t know.”
- You have the right to be independent of the goodwill of others before coping with them. You have the right to be illogical in making decisions.
- You have the right to say, “I don’t understand.”
- You have the right to say, “I don’t care.”
If any of this piece resonates with you and you are feeling a little flummoxed about where to go from here, reach out to me and let’s have a conversation and hack it together. My own healing journey is supported by sharing both what I have learnt and what I am learning in the support of others.
With special thanks to Josh Connolly for recommending the book and more broadly for his work in creating awareness of this area.