EXPERIENCING FEAR AND SHAME AS CHILDREN
As children our identity as well as our relationships with our Higher Power, ourselves and others were damaged each time we were abused or neglected. We felt shame and naturally feared its re-occurrence, yet we allowed our sense of self and well-being to be shaped by those who abused and neglected us. As children, we had no choice.
As we continued to experience abuse or neglect, our fear and shame intensified; we gave more of ourselves away. Over time, (most often without our knowing), our abusers became our Higher Power. We learned to fear their authority. As the abuse and neglect continued, the possibility of developing an emotionally fulfilling relationship with ourselves, others, and our Higher Power diminished.
We learned survival skills in order to cope. We controlled or avoided potentially volatile circumstances. We cast away our childhood, tried to become little adults or rebelled. Many of us didn’t understand our actions because they were often instinctive.
Over time, we learned how to alleviate our fear and shame by controlling and/or avoiding ourselves and others. When we felt overwhelmed or stressed out, we relied on what we knew best to survive. In this codependent cycle, we took greater control of life, allowing less room for a Power greater than ourselves to work through us.
CONTINUING THIS BEHAVIOR AS ADULTS
Without some form of help, we carry these emotional conflicts and survival patterns into our adult lives. We hope to find peace and happiness and leave the past behind; but instead, we recreate similar or opposite circumstances in our adult relationships. Neither extreme is healthy.
We unknowingly transfer the characteristics and power of our childhood abusers to significant people in our lives today. Sometimes we transfer abusive characteristics to our Higher Power, too.
In our adult relationships, we fearfully guard against any sign of shame, abuse or neglect. We become manipulative or avoid other people and circumstances. This fear can grow stronger than the shame itself. It forms a shaky foundation for relationships. We continue to draw others near us, (hoping for intimacy) but when they get too close, we push them away because of our fear of shame.
WHAT IS A SHAME SPIRAL?
We may have experienced overwhelming feelings of worthlessness, apathy or panic. We may feel there’s no solution or end to the pain; we feel isolated, rejected stupid or foolish. We call this a shame spiral. We may berate or push ourselves harder to meet someone else’s expectations, engage in unhealthy sexual behavior, compulsively eat or starve, or try to escape from a situation by avoiding others.
All of these behaviors cause us to feel more pain and confusion. If we don’t stop this cycle, our shame will spiral even worse and result in some form of crisis. At these times, it’s important to reach to our Higher Power for guidance and strength. We write about our thoughts and feelings, and more importantly, go to meetings and talk with our sponsor and recovery friends.
Many of us find that the intensity of our shame fades as we reach toward our Higher Power. We’re better able to focus on our choices and regain a sense of empowerment and self-esteem.
WHAT IS FEAR OF SHAME?
Fear of shame is our fear of being shamed again by our boss, mate, family members, friends or parents. It has much greater control of our lives than shame itself.
We may be afraid to hear about our mistakes or shortcomings, and in turn, become defensive or critical, possibly avoiding or lying about a situation. We become terrified of being discounted or abandoned. We control others out of fear of their disappointment of or anger with us. The shame we fear most is the same type of shame we experienced in our childhood.
Many of us find it helpful to share these fears with our sponsor or friends. When we confront
these original feelings and the resulting progressive fears, we’re able to soothe and possibly
eliminate their intensity.
FROM BLAME TO FORGIVENESS
It was difficult for some of us to let go of the past. We felt stuck with the desire to punish ourselves or others for the pain we had so long endured. Steps six and seven offered us the chance to release old ways of coping. We just needed a little help in order to “be entirely ready for God to remove all our defects of character.”
I make peace with myself as I practice forgiveness
I am accepting, loving and forgiving
I am filled with tolerance for myself and others
I trust God and release my fear of others
Making Choices p8.
SHAME AND STEP FOUR
For many of us self-abuse has been at the core of our disease. We made our abusers our Higher Power. We took on the abuser’s shame, blame, hostility and put downs often unconsciously. We became hostile to ourselves; we put ourselves down. There were “tapes in our heads” telling us we were less-than and worthless. Doing a searching moral inventory of ourselves includes seeking out our assets – our good points.
For many of us it is the hardest part of the inventory for it involves silencing the inner critic, reprogramming the “tapes” with positive affirmations, and slowly, with Higher Power’s help, learning to love ourselves.
As co-dependents shame has often been a large part of our unmanageability. Often our misguided attempts to be free of shame enhanced this defect instead of removing it. It can be helpful to remember that shame is the flip side of pride. Both stem from lack of self acceptance. The alternative to both is humility – healthy self-acceptance.
FROM SHAME TO ACCEPTANCE
Many of us have experienced life as a series of maneuvers to avoid feelings of shame. Even when we constructed elaborate walls to protect us from the scrutiny of others, an inadvertent slight by another could crush our defenses and send us into a tailspin of fear and shame. Working the first 5 Steps of the ACA program has helped us to see some of these patterns. Step Six offers us a beginning – to replace our “wall of shame” with the painless protection of acceptance.
I let go of all the negative thoughts I have held about my body. I feel at peace.
I forgive myself for judging my body as unworthy.
I accept, own and experience all my feelings
I have the ability to accept and give love
I think clearly and I determine what is right and wrong for me
I am entitled to my own opinions and can change them whenever I choose
I am grateful that God is always with me
I am an expression of my Higher Power
The following questions are intended to help identify how shame patterns might operate in your life.
Am I overly concerned with my appearance: face, hair, body size, skin color, age?
Do I judge others on how they look?
Do I try to control how others see me?
Do I try to control the appearances of those close to me?
Am I critical of my intellectual capacity?
Do I criticize myself or others for being “dumb”, “slow”, “boring”, “not with it”?
Do I always have to be right?
Do I habitually assume others are right and I must be wrong?
Is admitting I’m wrong a sign of weakness?
Do I believe I can’t or shouldn’t make mistakes?
Do I over-react if others make a mistake?
If I make a mistake, do I assume I am a mistake?
Am I touchy, easily hurt, quick to take offense, defensive?
Do I assume other people’s feelings (e.g. anger) are because of me?
Do I think my feelings are unimportant?
Am I emotionally needy and dependent?
Am I ashamed of my financial circumstances?
Do I value material goods as a way to fulfill my needs or as something to enhance my self worth?
What role does lack of self-acceptance play in my attitude to money and possessions?
When do I judge my behavior too harshly?
When do I feel “not-good-enough”
Do I find myself saying “well at least I’m not…”?
Do I put others down or gossip about their behavior?
Do I feel inferior/superior because of my gender?
Do I accept put downs about myself as a woman/man?
Do I put down others because of their gender?
Have I used sex to get love?
Have I used others sexually?
Do I avoid social situations?
Do I have difficulty taking the initiative in social situations?
Do I compare myself to others?
Am I ashamed of my family or background?
Am I ashamed to be seen with certain people?
Do I need a partner to feel acceptable?
Do I make the religious beliefs/values of others right or wrong?
Do I make others my Higher Power?
When have I played Higher Power to others?
Do I frequently seek assurance that I’m OK?
Do I need others to like me before I can like myself?
Do I manipulate others into bolstering my self esteem?
Am I numb to my needs?
Does shame prevent me from asking directly for my needs to be met?
Do I take comfort from the martyr role?
Do I consider the rights of others, including their right to have difficult experiences?
Do I interfere in the lives of others because I know best, or to ease my pain, or for any other pay-off?
Do I assume people won’t like me or want to be around me?
Do I believe I must be capable of everything?
Am I stingy with myself, not giving or sharing who I am?
Am I reluctant to reach out to others?
Am I unable to trust others?
Am I unable to receive?
Is my attitude closed and avoidance out of fear of being discovered?
Do I rebuff and avoid others?