Shame – It’s a Dead-end Street: 1in6 Thursdays on the Joyful Heart Foundation Blog
I can’t help but feel sometimes that everything negative leads back to shame.
Unloading shame seems like a necessary part of the healing process for most of us who’ve been sexually abused. Shame – which I’ve always equated with disgust with one’s core self, is the perfect companion to self-blame. It’s paralyzing. If that’s “just who I am,” change isn’t possible. Shame has to go in order to move forward!
It’s been nearly 30 years, but I still remember saying the words that I’ve heard from so many others: “the shame isn’t mine, it’s his,” referring to the man who abused me. It felt good, – like I’d flipped the table. I’d shifted the weight of this debilitating burden from my shoulders to his. And I’ll admit I got some momentary satisfaction from the feeling of payback.
Without a doubt, shedding shame was a positive healing step for me. Freed from it, I was able to finally understand that I’d been betrayed by a trusted mentor who had power over me, instead of the other way around. Then I could start reclaiming control of my own life.
But in the years since I uttered those words that shifted the shame to him, I’ve come to believe that only the first part of the iconic declaration – “the shame isn’t mine,” – was really necessary….or in the long-term, even useful. In my work, both with people who’ve have acted abusively, and with those who’ve suffered from abuse, I’ve learned that whether we’re feeling shame ourselves or imposing it on someone who has committed a terrible act, shame is always a dead-end street.
If my goal is to end sexual abuse by motivating those who commit abusive acts to change their behaviors, shame just isn’t the right tool.
Dr. Brene Brown is the latest in a long line of researchers and clinicians who’ve found that shame is “highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, violence, bullying and aggression.“
What I want to see in a person who’s behaved abusively is the ability to acknowledge the harm and to make a commitment to choose a different path in the future.
Rather than feel bad about an unchangeable, core identity, guilt encourages us to consider how we feel about the hurtful things we’ve done and how we might change our behavior.
Every week, I facilitate groups of men who have been arrested for violence against their intimate partners. Again and again I see the struggle between shame and guilt play out as they come to terms with their abusive acts against someone they love. Shame prompts defensiveness, justifications. Guilt enables them to feel empathy and a desire to change. Each time guilt wins, I’m deeply moved.
What I ultimately want from the man who abused me, and others like him, is that they evaluate their behavior, and develop a sense of responsibilty, which includes the potential for remorse, and a determination to change behavior, ideally even to make amends. I want their path to be clear.
Shame just gets in the way.
Peter Pollard is the Professional Relations & Communications Director for 1in6, Inc. Peter previously worked for 15 years as a state, child-protection social worker and was the Public Education director at Stop It Now! Since 2003, he has served as the Western Massachusetts coordinator for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and also does work for a Certified Batterers Intervention Program. See Peter’s portrait in The Bristlecone Project exhibit.
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