By Beverly Engel, LMFT
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel shame. But I do have evidence that there was once a time when I was shame free. I have a photograph of me as a little baby, smiling with a twinkle in my eye. I look radiant and filled with joy. I have another photo of me at four years old, in which I am frowning, and I look defiant and lost. The twinkle in my eye has been replaced with a dark, empty look.
What had occurred that had taken away the joyous smile on my face and replaced it with darkness, emptiness and hatred?
The answer: shame. Shame replaced my innocence, my joy, my exuberance for life. Shame caused me to build a wall of protection and defiance. Who was I defending myself against? My mother, a woman who was so full of shame herself that she couldn’t help but project it onto me.
After being neglected and emotionally abused by my mother, sexually abused at nine and raped at twelve, I found myself riddled with shame and the belief that I was unlovable and rotten inside. I began acting out by shoplifting. I was angry at my mother, the men who had abused me and at all authority figures. I wanted to get back at everyone who had taken advantage of me. After I was finally caught and brought home in a cop car, my mother gave up on me.
Fortunately, I didn’t give up on myself. I knew there was goodness in me and I fought to find it. I turned to solitude and introspection and began to find the pieces of myself I discarded when trying to shield myself from further harm.
Here’s how I worked to heal myself and combat my feelings of shame—and how you can, too:
Don’t let shame take over your life. It took me many years to rid myself of the shame that followed me nearly all my life. The important thing is that you just begin to heal your shame, so it doesn’t dictate your life.
Beverly Engel has been a practicing psychologist for 35 years and is an internationally recognized psychotherapist and acclaimed advocate for victims of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. She is the author of twenty-two self-help books and Raising Myself: A Memoir of Neglect, Shame, and Growing Up Too Soon. In addition to her professional work, Engel frequently lends her expertise to national television talk shows.
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