The most difficult part of my recovery is working with Shame. Multiple times a year, these feelings sneak up on me when I have flashbacks and linger in the unconscious part of my mind. They spread out, overpowering my logic and current perspectives of self and life until I start acting out my shame without even realizing it. The alters who still struggle with the difference between now and then, who have difficulty separating past from present are the most affected and easily triggered by these feelings. My child alters, adolescent alters, and protective alters are members of the internal family system who prefer not to interact with “outside people” often so are not noticed as much at work or out with friends.
But they are always with me. We communicate inside, sometimes with words, sometimes with images or sensations. And when I am struggling internally trying to work with different alters to help the ones in distress cope while maintaining a balance, I withdraw from friends and co-workers. I start over-explaining and apologizing. My appetite disappears. I feel like crying all the time. I wear shapeless, baggy clothes in the wrong colors for my skin tone. I feel worthless, guilty, embarrassed. My stomach hurts. Talking past the lump in my throat becomes impossible. I feel tired all the time. My sleeping habits become irregular. I get food cravings. I feel angry with myself. The flashbacks get worse. My mind gets draped in a suffocating fog to the point where I feel lost and lonely and helpless.
Sound familiar? LIke maybe depression? For me, this is the first step into depression. And I keep spiraling down, turning the negative emotions inside, hurting myself, until something jolts me out of the fog.
Facing Facts: acknowledging the downward spiral
Something like an interaction with a person; an experience surrounded by strangers; an expedition through my coping strategies tool box while at home; a flashback; a comment from one of my alters. Something pulls me out of the sensation of overwhelming feelings and turmoil inside and back to reality. That’s when I realize what is happening. That’s when the guilt and a different kind of shame flood my mind and body triggering other memories and feelings. All have to be acknowledged before I and my parts can free ourselves from the tangled web of shame and guilt to figure out and work through the source.
I know it’s not my fault. My past is my past. I did what I had to do to survive. And remembering now means I am in a better place and that much closer to recovery. But here and now, in this present time, I still have to figure out how to cope with the craziness inside of me. And by craziness, I mean acknowledging that some of my alters are keeping to my present timeline while others are stuck in the past and some are caught in transition, not here and not there. Not everyone is ready to remember. Not everyone feels safe enough to remember. Not everyone can share the memories yet. But we all share the same body and have to work together in order to cope effectively.
So before I can untangle those connections, I have to figure out what triggered the shame this time. Is it fear from my protective parts? Or did a memory surface and send some parts back in time? Or is being in transition where nothing quite looks, feels, and works like before the trigger? Because once those triggers are acknowledge and brought into the light, the memories and feelings honored, the shame will go away on its own.
How I Cope
How does that happen? To be honest, I am not sure. Brene Brown’s research promotes compassion, empathy, resilience, and radical acceptance as the antidotes to shame. I tend to agree, though implementing this antidote requires experimentation of different coping strategies. For me, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) (Wise Mind, Emotion Regulation), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and positive mantras of compassion & safety tend to work the best. Creative and alternative forms of journaling or talking to a counselor help a lot too. An objective third-party helps me reality test my feelings and perspective when I am lost and confused. My resource page has links to Pinterest boards with my favorite books about coping strategies and shame.
Here are some examples of how I adapt these coping strategies to my life:
- DBT Wise Mind: pro and con list; discuss with an objective 3rd party; separate feelings and thoughts, then use logic to ask questions and get perspective
- DBT emotion regulation: identify and describe feelings; acknowledge feelings without fighting them; do the opposite of what I am feeling; distract myself with self-soothing or practice self-care
- CBT: reality testing and challenging my feelings, thoughts, and behavior; self-reflection; making connections between how I feel and how I react; identify patterns, then changes my thoughts about my feelings to change how I react to those feelings; challenging my beliefs about myself with reality testing and facts
- Self-compassion: not punishing myself, getting angry with myself, hurting myself whenever I make a mistake or have a hard time coping with flashbacks
- Grounding: using mantras, the senses, temperature, or facts to remind me of where and when I am in the present. i.e. reminding myself how old I am, my name, birth date, where I live, today’s date, finding all of a single color in the room I am in, reciting mantras to myself, eating something sour or sweet, hugging a stuffed animal, stroking a brush against my skin, listening to white noise, tensing and relaxing muscles
- Self Care or Self Soothing: engaging in activities that help me feel safe, comforted, happy, relaxed, etc. i.e. a bubble bath, shopping without buying anything, reading a favorite book, participating in sports, volunteering, going out with friends, meditation
Here is the TED Talk that introduced me to Brene’s work:
Here is the TED Talk about shame specifically:
Shame is a difficult feeling to experience and cope with. Growing up, I was constantly shamed for being alive and blamed for anything and everything that happened. As an adult in recovery, I realize that what happened then is not my fault; that I have nothing to be ashamed of. In parts of my unconscious mind, I still believe that I deserve the shame. As a child, adolescent, and young adult I did not learn how to recognize and cope with feelings. That education came after I started therapy, aka counseling. Those individuals and programs taught me the strategies above to help me learn how to recognize shame and other feelings that are difficult for me to cope with. The examples above are techniques and strategies I use currently and have used in the past. My hope is that you consider trying some of the strategies if your existing ones aren’t working.
Have you tried any of these before? Do you have any suggestions? What works or doesn’t work for you? I love learning new strategies or finding out ways other people use the ones on my list.