Step 5: Learned to share our self-parenting challenges with others without self-recrimination or shame.
—The 12 Steps to Self-Parenting for Adult Children
Shame is a burn that eats you from the inside. Shame makes you feel helpless while it devours you. For many, shame is an old feeling, a feeling brought into the present by their feelings and responses to COVID-19.
The Yellow Rubber Glove
I’m the clinical facilitator of a therapeutic improv group for veterans who have both addiction and PTSD, and who live in a long-term residential treatment facility where I consult. In this age of COVID-19 we are conducting our improv group via Zoom, which provides my vets with a window into my home where they met my new dog, a five-year-old rescue.
Last week she decided to make an appearance during our pre-group chat. She jumped up on her hind legs and began to tap my chest with her slender paws, kissing my face. I beamed, scratched her behind her ears, she panted. Love. My vets smiled but were curious. They have a house therapy dog and some even have their own personal therapy dogs. They knew I didn’t have a dog, until now.
“Is she new?” they asked, almost in unison.
“Yes” I answered, “part of my self-care,” offering that she was no substitute for my being with them in person; they laughed.
“Her coming to me this morning was a major step as she had avoided me most of yesterday, I added. The vets on the call were quiet, all eyes on me.
Now that I really had their attention, I decided to use this moment to reinforce some of the clinical work we had been doing. I shared that she had a medical condition that needed care. The day before, as I was about to treat her, she literally freaked out. I wondered if her panic was due to seeing a yellow rubber glove and associating this glove with my touching the painful part of her body she was protecting. Her eyes fixed on this glove; she froze, then ran.
“I think seeing the yellow rubber glove was a trauma trigger for her.” I added, “But I’m not sure, just like when you are triggered, you’re not always sure what it was that prompted the fear you felt.”
Shame Is Re-traumatizing
Our past does intrude upon the present, whether it was yesterday or thirty years ago. During times of intense stress, which currently we are all experiencing, it is important to remind yourself that part of what you are feeling, thinking, even experiencing, now, can be the result of past experiences, yes, just like for my dog. Our brains are all wired to detect threats and to immediately react to protect ourselves whether the threat has just occurred and is in front of us or is part of our past brought into the present by our inner alarm signaling danger.
Everyone in this, our new normal, is making real life-and-death decisions due to COVID-19, providing a ripe environment to re-experience old wounds. So, if you grew up in a home where you felt little support and concluded you had to go it alone, your compulsive self-reliance (Step 3) is now being pushed into high gear, triggering memories of the past where you fought against being overwhelmed. Socially isolating may be re-traumatizing you now in the present by triggering the feelings of panic you had as a child when perhaps you had to hide to be safe.
What fuels your re-traumatization is the use of old coping mechanisms, such as again blaming yourself, calling yourself weak, seeing yourself as somehow deficient, calling yourself stupid, just as you did as a child. The result is feeling shame. Shame is self-blame and self-punishment. Shame is being the problem instead of dealing with it. These feelings of shame are much more challenging than what my dog was experiencing, which was fear and avoidance.
Don’t you deserve better?
As painful as it is to relive old traumas, doing so represents an opening to grow.
In these painful moments when the past is felt in the present, there is an opportunity to have a healing moment. Yes, in pain there can be a gift.
You can use these moments where your inner child is speaking to you, sharing with you what life was like for you then, to understand and release yourself from part of the pain of your past. Instead of feeling ashamed for the child who you were, you can grow in compassion for your adult self. So if you wet the bed as a child, realize that this may have been less frightening than getting out of bed to go to the bathroom and facing what was happening in your family during the middle of the night; that decision makes wetting the bed a smart choice. If you ate to soothe the panic you felt, realize that this may have been a better choice than asking for comfort from a parent who couldn’t give it.
Rather than berating yourself for being a child when you were a child, you can use these moments of remembrance to examine how you protected yourself then. Using this lens, you can notice how you are currently protecting yourself, asking yourself what is working, what is not working, (Step 4), and freeing yourself from the burden of shame so you can build new ways to take care of yourself today.
Exercise for Today
You can begin by recognizing your need for reassurance, and giving yourself hope and self-love, now, instead of feeling shameful for being needy!
First, begin by parsing out your feelings. Tell yourself: that was then, this is now. This will decrease the intensity of what you are feeling now by focusing your emotions on what is in the present, instead of layering it with what emotional memories pulled up from the past.
Next, do one of my favorite things to do in painful moments like this: give yourself a one-armed hug while you tell yourself It will be OK. I love to do this because it is private, it’s just me and me, and it’s normal; everyone touches themselves, except now for our faces (which I’m still working on learning). And simple action works because it is comforting and reassuring.
If you want to really do self-care, also say That was then, this is now. Now I am an adult who can take care of myself. (By the way, this works well to do in public, not that we’re in public much, but at some point, we all will be.)
When you are alone, you can also enhance this process of reducing your shame by grabbing a pillow, hugging it, naming this pain of the past, allowing yourself to have this as a past memory. But don’t stop there. Use this remembrance as a springboard to be sweet to yourself as you reassure yourself that yes, this happened, and you survived it, by taking care of yourself, even though you were a child. Giving yourself recognition for your accomplishments helps to reduce your shame!
Make a note in your journal about how this works for you, and feel free to share it on my new Facebook Group, Self-Parenting in the Age of COVID, which I invite you to join by clicking on the link. There you can post your struggles and solutions as we create community. And, I invite you to share the blogs and posts you find on the Facebook Group by tagging those you know and care about, whether they are in recovery or just loved by you.
This is the fifth of a twelve-part series based on The 12 Steps to Self-Parenting. More tips are available on my blog, The Powerful Woman.net, and in my books: Healing Trauma Through Self-Parenting, The 12 Steps to Self-Parenting for Adult Children, and The Resilient Woman. Learn more Learn more about my work as a consulting psychologist and speaker at www.patriciaogorman.com.