Healing Your Shame Though Compassion
“Compassion is the radicalism of our time.”
If you were to ask any group of people what they think the most destructive human emotion is, most would either say it is anger or fear. But in actuality, shame is the most destructive of human emotions. It is the source of cruelty, violence, and destructive relationships, and can be at the core of many addictions. It can damage a person’s image of themselves in ways that no other emotion can, causing a person to feel deeply flawed, inferior, worthless and unlovable. If someone experiences enough shame he can become self-loathing to the point that he becomes self-destructive or even suicidal.
Shame is responsible for a myriad of problems, including but not limited to: Self-criticism; self-blame; self-neglect; the belief that one does not deserve good things; self-destructive behaviors (cutting, alcohol and drug abuse); self-sabotaging behavior (starting fights with loved one, sabotaging jobs); perfectionism; and most important, continuing to repeat the cycle of abuse through either victim behavior or abusive behavior.
While anyone can suffer from lingering shame, those who were abused in childhood tend to carry the most shame. Emotional, physical and sexual child abuse can cause a victim to become so overwhelmed with shame that it can actually come to define the person and prevent her from reaching her full potential. It can cause someone to remain fixated at the age her was at the time of the victimization and it can motivate a person to repeat the abuse over and over in her lifetime.
Typically, victims of child abuse are changed by the experience, not only because they were traumatized, but because of the loss of innocence they feel and the amount of shame they carry from that day forward. Sadly, shame from childhood abuse almost always manifests itself in one of three major ways:
- It causes the person to abuse themselves in various ways such as: critical self-talk, alcohol or drug abuse, destructive eating patterns, and self-harm.
- It causes the person to develop “victim-like” behavior and put up with unacceptable behavior.
- It causes the person to become an abuser themselves.
Those who work to help victims of childhood abuse heal know that recovery from the abuse always involves helping their client address and decrease their shame. But this is easier said than done. While a victim may understand, on an intellectual level, that he or she did not cause the victimization, he or she will nevertheless continue to blame themselves for it. For example, survivors of childhood sexual abuse can be told over and over that they were not to blame for the abuse and yet will continue to believe that they somehow caused the abuse to occur.
While childhood sexual abuse is particularly shaming, it is not the only form of childhood abuse that shames a child. Many parents use shaming and humiliation to discipline their children, and emotional and physical abuse shame children as well. In fact, anytime a child is victimized in any way, he or she feels shame. This is because being victimized causes us to feel helpless, and this helplessness causes us to feel shame.
In spite of the fact that I had, at the time, been a therapist for twenty-five years, several years ago I became frustrated because I continued to struggle to find effective ways to help my clients eliminate the shame they suffered due to childhood abuse. To make matters worse, I also struggled with debilitating shame due to childhood sexual and emotional abuse, even after many years of therapy. And so I set out to find the “cure” for shame.
After extensive study and research, I found it. I discovered that compassion is the antidote to shame. As it is with most poisons, the toxicity of shame needs to be neutralized by another substance if we are truly going to save the patient. Compassion is the only thing that can neutralize shame.
The Healing Power of Compassion
The healing properties of compassion have been written about for centuries. For more than 3,000 years, compassion has been understood to be one of the most important and distinctive qualities of the human mind. The Buddhist definition of compassion is the desire to alleviate suffering and it has been a key component of the Buddhist religion. Not only has compassion been encouraged as a spiritual and moral pursuit in many religions, but compassion has also been seen as a major healing process for our turbulent minds and relationships. In this regard, compassion has been defined as behavior that aims to nurture, look after, teach, guide, mentor, soothe, protect, offer feelings of acceptance and belonging—in order to benefit another person (Paul Gilbert).
Until relatively recently, the impetus for developing compassion and the way of doing it came primarily from spiritual and religious traditions. Although most religions recognize its power, it was within the Eastern traditions—and especially Mahayana Buddhism, the school of the Dalai Lama—that exercises and mental practices were developed to train the mind in compassion.
In the last 30 years we have seen the science of psychology and studies of the human brain begin to put compassion, caring, and pro-social behavior center stage in the development of well-being, mental health and our capacity to foster harmonious relationships with each other and the world we live in. Quite recently, the components of compassion have been looked at through the lens of Western psychological science and research (Gilbert 2000, 2005a, 2009; Davidson 2002; Neff 2003a,b). Compassion is now thought of as a skill that one can train in, with increasing evidence that focusing on and practicing compassion can influence neuro-physiological and immune systems (Davidson 2003; Lutz 2008).
It’s only been relatively recently that researchers have found out just how compassion exerts its beneficial effects. One way they’ve used to discover that compassion is good for us is by studying the brains of people who either are very well practiced at compassion or engage in compassionate thoughts and fantasies. What was found is that focusing on kindness, both to ourselves and to other people, stimulates areas of the brain and body in ways that are conducive to health and well-being.
Although I was well-versed concerning the power of compassion to heal individuals, I was unaware of some of the most recent research in the neurobiology of compassion—namely that we now know some of the neurobiological correlates of feeling unlovable and how shame gets stuck in our neural circuitry. Moreover, I discovered that due to what we now know about the neural plasticity of the brain—the capacity of our brains to grow new neurons and new synaptic connections—we can proactively repair (and re-pair) the old shame memory with new experiences of self-empathy and self-compassion.
The Importance of Self-Compassion in Healing Shame
Even more significantly, I had not recognized the importance of self-compassion in healing shame. In fact, until a few years ago, the subject of self-compassion had never been formally studied. As it turned out, as far as alleviating shame, self-compassion was the missing key. For example, I discovered research suggesting that self-compassion can act as an antidote to self-criticism—a major characteristic of those who experience intense shame. It was found that self-compassion is a powerful trigger for the release of oxytocin, the hormone that increases feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness. Self-criticism, on the other hand, has a very different effect on our body. The amygdala, the oldest part of the brain, is designed to quickly detect threats in the environment. When we experience a threatening situation, the fight-or-flight response is triggered and the amygdala sends signals that increase blood pressure, adrenaline, and the hormone cortisol, mobilizing the strength and energy needed to confront or avoid the treat. Although this system was designed by evolution to deal with physical attacks, it is activated just as readily by emotional attacks—from ourselves and others. Over time increased cortisol levels lead to depression by depleting the various neurotransmitters involved in the ability to experience pleasure.
There is also neurological evidence showing that self-kindness (a major component of self-compassion) and self-criticism operate quite differently in terms of brain function. A recent study examined reactions to personal failure using fMRI (functioning magnetic resonance imaging) technology. While in a brain scanner, participants were presented with hypothetical situations such as “A third job rejection latter in a row arrives in the post.” They were then told to imagine reacting to the situation in either a kind or a self-critical way. Self-criticism was associated with activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex and dorsal anterior cingulated—areas of the brain associated with error processing and problem solving. Being kind and reassuring toward oneself was associated with left temporal pole and insula activation—areas of the brain associated with positive emotions and compassion. Instead of seeing ourselves as a problem to be fixed, therefore, self-kindness allows us to see ourselves as valuable human beings who are worthy of care.
Most important as far as I was concerned, self-compassion was found to act as a buffer against negative self-feeling following distressing events (Leary et al 2007). Gilbert and Proctor (2006) developed a program aimed at fostering compassion and decreasing shame and self-criticism in patients with personality and/or mood disorders attending a hospital day treatment program.
Through new research, it has been shown that learning and practicing self-compassion can decrease self-criticism and self-judgment, reduce depression and anxiety, decrease the tendency to ruminate, and generally increase a person’s feeling of psychological well-being. Studies have shown that self-compassion provides a feeling of greater life satisfaction and an increase in feeling interpersonally connected to others.
Research results show that trauma survivors, particularly those with PTSD, benefit from incorporating elements of self-compassion into treatment. The practice of self-compassion has been shown to decrease posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, including, self-criticism, thought suppression, and rumination– phenomena associated with trauma and PTSD. (There are three symptom clusters associated with PTSD: re-experiencing, reactions to internal or external cues of the trauma; avoidance, which includes persistent avoidance of trauma-related stimuli and emotional numbing; and hyperarousal, which includes insomnia, anger, concentration difficulties, and an exaggerated startle response (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). A large majority of both victims and abusers of intimate partner abuse and family violence were emotionally, physically, or sexually abused in childhood and consequently, many suffer from PTSD.
In terms of continuing the cycle of abuse it has been found that early trauma, such as abuse and neglect, bullying or parental/peer criticism can cause a person to be self-critical. As a result of such early trauma, people may try to avoid harm from others by being overly submissive and non-assertive, blaming self, silencing the self, always putting the needs of others first, not trusting others and keeping them at a distance, or working excessively hard to make themselves desirable to others—all typical victim behavior. On the other hand, they may use avoidant strategies such as bullying others or keeping others at a distance and avoiding intimacy—typical behavior of abusers.
In light of all this research, I determined that in addition to offering my clients compassion for their suffering, I needed to teach them how to practice self-compassion on an ongoing basis in order to heal the layers and layers of shame they experienced.
Trading Self-Compassion for Self-Esteem
Self-compassion is so important that it will soon replace self-esteem as a focus for measuring a person’s potential for happiness and success. The truth is, all our focus on raising our self-esteem and the self-esteem of our children has not been very fruitful. Instead of helping people to genuinely feel better about themselves, “raising their self-esteem” has created a generation of kids who think they are more talented than they really are and adults who pretend to feel good about themselves when they are secretly filled with self-criticism and even self-loathing. Self-compassion, on the other hand, encourages people to accept themselves as they are, warts and all. Instead of covering up their defects with false bravado, they work on accepting themselves unconditionally. Paradoxically, once the person has accepted their defects, they actually have more strength and motivation to work on actually changing them.
“What is the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion?” Unlike self-esteem, the good feelings associated with self-compassion do not depend on being special and above average, or on meeting ideal goals. Instead, they come from caring about ourselves—fragile and imperfect yet magnificent as we are. Rather than pitting ourselves against other people in an endless comparison game, we embrace what we share with others and feel more connected and whole in the process. And the good feelings of self-compassion don’t go away when we mess up or things go wrong. In fact, self-compassion steps in precisely where self-esteem lets us down—whenever we fail or feel inadequate.
Our focus on raising a person’s self-esteem simply has not been that successful. And it doesn’t get to the core of the problem, especially when it comes to anyone with a traumatic background. We do, however, know that low self-esteem can be problematic and in extreme cases leads to suicidal ideation. So what is the alternative? Current research suggests that self-compassion offers most of the benefits of high self-esteem, with fewer downsides. For example, Neff and Vonk (2009) found that when compared to trait levels of self-esteem, self-compassion was associated with more non-contingent and stable feelings of self worth over time, while also offering stronger protection against social comparison, public self-consciousness, self-rumination, anger and closed mindedness. And in direct contrast to self-esteem, self-compassion was found to have no association with narcissism.
How Childhood Abuse Creates Shame
As mentioned above, anytime a child is victimized in any way, they feel shamed. In fact, the very act of being victimized causes a person to feel shame for the following reasons:
Abuse, by its very nature, is humiliating and dehumanizing. The natural reaction to abuse is a feeling of shame. Judith Herman described how childhood trauma creates a “damaged self”: “Traumatic events violate the autonomy of the person at the level of bodily integrity. The body is invaded, injured, defiled…Shame is a response to helplessness, the violation of bodily integrity, and the indignity suffered in the eyes of another person.” (p.53).
As human beings we want to believe that we have control over what happens to us. When that personal power is challenged by a victimization of any kind, we feel humiliated. We believe we “should have” been able to defend ourselves. And because we weren’t able to do so, we feel helpless and powerless. This powerlessness causes us to feel humiliated—which leads to shame.
Survivor self-blame is also reinforced by our culture’s tendency to blame the victim.
Many survivors of childhood abuse become what has been called “shame-bound”—meaning that shame has become a dominant factor in the formation of their personality. When this happens, their lives become characterized by shame. They either live their lives in a constant state of self-criticism and self-blame or they become exquisitely sensitive to criticism from others and defend against it at every turn. Those who are prone to self-criticism often have a powerful critical inner voice that berates them constantly for imagined or real mistakes and demands that they be perfect. They set unreasonable expectations for themselves and are never satisfied with their performance or achievements. They find it impossible to take in compliments or even to take in positive expressions of love or admiration from others.
Those who defend against shame build up a protective wall with the goal of keeping any hint of criticism from others out. Strategies used for this purpose can include: being critical of others before they have a chance to criticize you, refusing to talk about any of your shortcomings, turning criticism around on the other person, accusing the other person of lying or exaggerating about their complaints about you.
How the Self-Compassion Can Remove Shame
It has been said that all abuse is a failure of compassion for self and others
Self-Compassion teaches those who are shame-bound and self-critical specific compassionate attitudes and skills that can reverse the tendency to view themselves in a blaming, condemning and self-critical way. It teaches them to develop an internal compassionate relationship with themselves.
I Start By Offering Compassion
Many victims of child abuse have never received the healing power of compassion. This is true for several reasons. First of all, abusive and neglectful families are often devoid of compassion. Because abusive parents were so often victimized themselves, they can be oblivious to their own children’s pain and suffering. Second, because of the secrecy and shame that characterizes childhood abuse, many have never told anyone about their victimization and so never had the chance of having someone feel compassion toward them for their suffering. And third, even those who have told often receive more blame than compassion.
In my work with clients I provide some of the much-needed compassion that victims so desperately need. I acknowledge their suffering and let them know that I feel badly for them. I let them know that I understand what they are going through, that they are not alone, or as the famous German psychoanalyst, Alice Miller described it, I become a “Compassionate Witness.” Last, but certainly not least, I provide unconditional support by providing compassionate, caring and encouraging statements.
Because of their overwhelming shame and self-blame, many survivors have never told their story to anyone. This is particularly true of male survivors of childhood sexual abuse who probably feel more shame than any other type of victim. Socialized to be “big and strong” and to “act like a man,” even small boys hold the belief that they should have been able to defend themselves from their abuser and that because they did not stop the abuse they are either a poor excuse for a male or a homosexual who either enticed the offender or enjoyed it. I experience it as a great honor when a client tells me his or her story.
Fortunately, survivors don’t have to rely solely on others (not even a therapist) to help them change their view of themselves and to heal their shame. Although it is important for survivors of abuse to receive compassion from others, it is even more important that they learn how to practice self-compassion. Self-compassion will help them to give themselves the nurturance and understanding they so desperately need in order to feel worthy of care and acceptance. In fact, when survivors give themselves empathy and support, they learn to trust that help is always at hand. When they wrap themselves in the warm embrace of self-kindness, they begin to feel safe and secure.
For survivors of childhood abuse, self-compassion is in shorter supply than compassion from others—in fact, most are glaringly devoid of self-compassion. Few victims are able to feel compassion for their own pain and suffering since their shame and self-blame block them from feeling it. They continue to blame themselves for their abuse, they minimize the pain they experience, as well as the damage that the abuse created in their lives.
But encouraging survivors to practice self-compassion is easier said than done. Many survivors of childhood abuse also have a strong belief that to stop to acknowledge their pain and suffering is to “feel sorry for themselves,” or “have a pity party.” But self-compassion is radically different from self-pity is that self-pity keeps us stuck, while self-compassion leads to proactive behavior to better one’s situation.
Self-compassion encourages victims to begin to treat themselves and talk to themselves with the same kindness, caring and compassion they would show a good friend or a beloved child. In addition, it helps victims to feel less isolated and alienated due to their suffering. The more shame we feel, the more deficient we feel and in turn, the more separate we feel from others. Self-compassion, on the other hand, helps us to recognize our common humanity—the fact that we all experience the same pain in difficult times.
Self-compassion as a healing tool is a relatively new concept. Therapists have taught victims how to nurture “their inner child” and this therapeutic strategy has been successful in many ways. But teaching self-compassion goes one step further. It helps victims to connect with their childhood suffering on a much deeper level. Most significantly, it allows them to connect with the memories of their abuse—but to do so at a distance—not actually re-experiencing the abuse but remembering it as if they have become their own compassionate witness. In other words, they can develop compassion for the child they once were without becoming the child. This method is far less traumatic and it allows the person to become the loving guardian and protector they so longed for as a child. In essence, it provides them a way to heal themselves. It also helps them to learn to treat themselves today in a more loving and kind way.
In addition to healing the shame caused by their victimization, self-compassion can help survivors to heal the shame surrounding the ways they have coped with their victimization. In fact, until they can forgive themselves for the negative ways they have coped and the people they have hurt along the way, they will not be willing or able to practice self-kindness.
By learning how to practice self-compassion survivors of child abuse become able to do the following:
- Truly acknowledge the pain they suffered and in so doing, begin to heal
- Begin to take in compassion from others
- Reconnect with themselves, including reconnecting with their emotions
- Gain an understanding as to why they have acted out in negative and/or unhealthy ways
- Stop blaming themselves for their victimization
- Forgive themselves for ways they attempted to cope with the abuse
- Learn to be deeply kind toward themselves
- Create a nurturing inner voice to replace their critical inner voice
- Reconnect with others and become less isolated.
This is the first article in a series on Self-Compassion. If you are not already a subscriber, I encourage you to become one in order to continue receiving this e-zine.
I hope you enjoyed this issue of Working Together to Create an Abuse-Free Future.
Copyright, Beverly Engel. All rights reserved.
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