Stepping Out of Shame, Into Home
The cure for shame is to be vulnerable with someone else who is equally vulnerable.
I’m writing this as an experiment in human connection. It’s about shame, the force that severs connection between me and other people, between me and the divine. It’s about my slow, aching turn toward home. Shame told me I didn’t have a spiritual home. Healing is leading me, slowly, hesitant step by misstep, by failure, by rising, by decades, to come out. To come out as myself. Home is found in the parts of “me” I long ago abandoned because of shame.
I write with respect for the sacredness of my own humanity, and I reach toward the hearts of those who’ll read it. Without ever meeting, we can resonate together through written language.
Shame is, oh, so human. We’ve all felt it scald us. Societally, it’s a kind of glue. The fear of ostracism serves as an ethical boundary, keeping us from hurting one another. For every person who actually attempts to pull of a Ponzi scheme, there are probably many more who dream of it, but the potential shame and harm to loved ones is enough to stop them, even without the threat of jail time.
For those of us who had to navigate growing up in traumatizing environments, internalized shame is a core experience. Home wasn’t really home, yet at least as small children, we clung to it. We made home, some of us, even out of being punched and kicked.
I assumed a cloak of shame to help me survive. I needed to see myself as shameful because the adults on whom I was completely dependent either abused me, or they pretended that the abuse had not happened, leaving me to deal with it alone. I needed to see them as good, and therefore, I was bad. Because I had been sexually assaulted by a man my family admired, I must have been responsible: Shame.
For trauma survivors, internalized shame is a core experience. When it’s extreme, it can lacerate one’s self-identity. “I am shameful: I am shame.” When I began to heal, I didn’t know that the horrible, withering feeling inside me had a name. It was just me. So I didn’t set out to heal shame. Over time, both therapy and spiritual practice have freed me to feel more comfortable in my own skin, and one day I realized: I don’t hate myself any more!
Still, certain situations trigger shame in me. It sometimes happens when I’m in a group that welcomes me. I very much want to take part, yet something about my relationship to the group calls up a feeling of shame — of being severed. I feel I’m on the outside of the circle even while acting like I belong, which only compounds the isolation. The shame.
Why do I feel like a Martian in my husband’s family? It’s similar to mine culturally, but I’ve never felt comfortable. They are a clan, and when the extended family gathers I can feel trapped. I don’t participate in the weekly Zoom calls they’ve adopted since the pandemic, but I don’t feel easy overhearing them.
It’s not that they criticize me. They don’t. It’s not that they don’t like me. Yet the feeling of not fitting in where I am ostensibly welcome and greeted with polite warmth is a huge shame trigger. What’s wrong with me?
The answer is, nothing. But I have a complex trauma history. Our strange shame reactions make sense given each person’s unique trajectory. A far more useful question is: What’s going on here?
What’s wrong with me? The answer is, nothing.
My family was highly dysfunctional. My husband’s family had its own dysfunction, but you wouldn’t know it from his family gatherings. The conversation stays light as the group gathers as a unit around a dining table. The conversation consists of anecdotes of the sort that no one could object to. Hints of tension are deflected by a rosy tide of words. When conversations begin to veer into potentially argumentative or touchy territory, say in regard to politics, I’ve counted the seconds before someone (sometimes my husband) cracks a joke that diffuses any potential tension, sending the ship back into safer waters.
There is occasional gentle laughter about someone’s foibles. Yet I’ve never experienced even tacit acknowledgement that my husband, who’s on the autism spectrum, was held to such high expectations as a child and adolescent that now, decades later, he still struggles with feelings of shame over not having achieved enough. It’s a lot to ask from a group family dinner, I realize. But I gave up long ago on trying to establish a more intimate, one-on-one connection with anyone that would allow me to put the family culture in a context of more depth. This kind of conversation feels taboo. Having such a connection might have softened the discomfort of those dinners.
The difficulty of personal connection may be due to one of his unspoken family rules: they never criticize one another. Criticizing other people’s families, okay. They aren’t gossipy, but the subtle message is Other families have problems, but not us. For my husband, there’s no disconnect between what he tells me in private and how he acts when he’s with them.
I sometimes feel like my husband is two different people.
Another realization just came to me: I am also two different people. I visit my mother in her assisted living facility as much as I can under Covid restrictions. In some ways, we are very close. In her eyes, I see a love that I longed to feel when I was growing up. At the same time, she is the most closed person I’ve ever met. She’s always been adept at living as though her inner life were as shallow as a raindrop. I’m less fearful of challenging her than I used to be, but her frailty, deafness, and dementia make it tricky. About a year and a half ago, I asked her if she had ever felt any guilt over how she handled my early abuse. “Oh, no,” she responded, as lightly as she might if asked whether she likes the taste of onions.
When I pressed her by saying that I’d been harmed by my parents’ inaction, she made the conversation about her. She collapsed a little. “I’m a terrible mother,” she said. I couldn’t see any point in continuing, especially since I’d have to keep repeating myself so she could hear. I felt angry and I left sooner than I’d planned.
Since that visit, we’ve gone back to what I regard as mystery: She and I have a profound closeness that is at once belied by her denial and celebrated in my heart.
I am like my husband. I speak very differently to people who aren’t my mother.
I tell myself that if he weren’t on the autism spectrum, if he were able to relate to me and his family simultaneously, integrating the more scripted family role into his intimate relationship with me, I could handle being with his family better. An eyeroll across the table; even a hint at a challenge to the family system; yes, I think these would help.
But I can’t change anyone else, and I’m only responsible for myself. I showed my husband an earlier draft of this piece. My heart pounded while he read it. “It’s nothing I haven’t heard before,” he said. “Maybe cut out a little bit so it’s not a litany of complaint.”
“Do you feel sad?” I asked.
“I do, too,” I responded.
He was okay with me publishing it. For this, I am extremely grateful. We have navigated rough waters in our marriage, and this is not going to tear us apart. In a way, this piece is a collaboration between us. I’m hopeful that my extreme reactions to his family will change.
Describing those reactions here, putting them in context of my history, makes them feel less shameful. I also know that as we both heal, our relationship will deepen the connection that already sustains us. And I send this out into the world in hope of creating connections with new people — those human connections by which we guide one another toward our spiritual home.