The Voice of Shame & The Experience of Abuse

Shame is a concept that comes up a lot in the course of working with people in counselling. Shame is that little nagging voice in the back of one’s mind, constantly repeating variations of “I’m not good enough” and “I’m such a failure”. Shame itself is a fear-based emotion bringing with it a fundamental sense of inadequacy and lack of belonging. It is a sense that everyone can see our internal brokenness, our inherent flaws. Shame often carries with it a sense of being worthless, unredeemable, unlovable, humiliated, less than, smallness, and weakness. It creates a distress within us that can be so activating, making us feel a dissonance from our authentic self; making us question our very sense of self.

When working with individuals who have experienced abuse, there is a significant level of shame that often blocks healing and moving forward. While the feeling of shame can be debilitating and confusing, thanks to people like Brene Brown, there are now You Tube videos and books and workshops that can help us through the experience of shame. To take it one step further though, I’d like to write about how shame comes to bubbles up in the first place, specifically in the context of abuse. My intention is that with a little theory, we can normalize the experience of this insidious feeling, develop action steps to process it, and thus help to dilute shames’ otherwise pervasive effects.

To explain this pervasive sense of shame that can result from abuse experiences, we have to draw on learning theory. Specifically, classical conditioning (think Pavlov and his dogs!). In this case, we want to understand evaluative conditioning. Evaluative conditioning refers to “an attitude development or change toward an object as a result of that object’s co-occurrence with another object”. Complicated description, yes – but here is how it breaks down: when being abused, the abuse experience (which is recognized as “a very bad experience”) gets paired with the self, and the person thus (unconsciously) negatively evaluates themselves as “I am bad”. In other words, evaluative conditioning is an unconscious, automatic, and persistent transfer of one’s dislike for one stimulus to be transferred onto another.

In the case of sexual abuse, the disgust, shame, and fear associated with the abuse gets associated with physical touch, body odors, sex-related sounds, and even one’s own body; which in the language of shame says: “I am bad”. The disgust, shame, and fear associated with the sexual abuse can also come to be paired with physical touch and sex in general, which has the self-language of: “I am dirty and disgusting”. If the perpetrator was shaming during the abuse, one might come to pair the abuse with emotional experiences. This means feeling ashamed of your emotional experiences.

In summary, it is in this way that shame becomes a result of evaluative conditioning of the self. It is a voice within that quietly taints all daily experiences. The feeling of shame can be overwhelmingly debilitating at times, causing people to freeze or flee or become defensive in life and in relationships. Shame can create confusion, and fear, and anger. It it can inhibit joy, sexuality, sadness, and hurt. It can stop us from fully living life.

If you have experienced abuse and recognize these patterns as playing out in your life, please know that you are not alone and that there is help. Through counselling, which starts first with building trust and connecting with safety in the counselling relationship, you can develop new strategies for noticing and releasing shame. You can work on counter-conditioning the conditioned pairing (for example, unpairing self from disgust), and cultivating empathy and appreciation for all parts of self. That equals self-compassion.

Every single one of us is worth taking up a bit of space in this world – to live our life and fulfill our dreams. If shame is stopping you, please consider working with a Counsellor to heal.

References:

  • The Haunted Self: Structural Dissociation and the Treatment of Chronic Traumatization, by Otto van der Hart, Ellert Nijenhuis, and Kathy Steel
  • I thought it was just me (but it isn’t): Telling the truth about perfectionism, inadequacy, and power, by Brene Brown

Disclaimer:  This is a very simplified overview of evaluative conditioning / learning theory and the shame that stems from abuse experiences. 

Advertisements

Following a Dream: Animal-Assisted Therapy

The Beginnings of a Counsellor:
My burning desire when I entered the field of counselling was to be of service to people who felt stuck. The first job I had in the counselling field, when I was fresh out of university, was for an employment counselling agency. My role was to work with clients who were unemployed, and assist them in securing employment. Sounds straightforward enough, right? What I actually discovered very quickly was that my clients were without work for very significant reasons: depression, post-traumatic stress, and anxiety, to name a few. Many of my clients had immigrated to Canada from countries in war, extreme poverty, and chaos. These folks had witnessed and lived through horrors and tragedies beyond description. It didn’t feel right to keep the focus on work-related goals when their emotional life was in need of nurturing. It also didn’t feel right to refer them to someone else after they had already been bounced around to so many workers. But ethically, I didn’t have the skills to provide mental health counselling. An undergraduate degree in psychology doesn’t fully equip a person with the necessary skills to be a Counsellor. While I had a very good work relationship with my employer, she was constantly reminding me to keep my focus with clients on work-related goals, and to refer them out for everything else. Needless to say, employment counselling wasn’t the profession for me! I applied to the University of Calgary and after 3 brilliant-laborious-inspiring years I graduated with a Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology.

It’s hard to talk about the tough stuff!
It is so much easier to talk about the things that make us feel comfortable, to stay within our comfort zone and not push the limits of our window of tolerance. Suppression and denial can become habits and if we stay disconnected from our strong emotions for too long, eventually we start to fear having emotions. But connecting with emotions (in titrated ways) and pushing the limits of our comfort zone is exactly how healing, insight and awareness, and change start to happen.

My next burning desire as a Counsellor was to make it not so 12188172_10156137948155142_6567896615004368019_odamn hard for people to connect with the tough
stuff. I love animals, and animals have always been a source of comfort for me during difficult times. Perhaps an animal in the counselling room would be comforting to clients. Over the years that followed, I researched and learned about animal-assisted therapy, eventually concluding that a service dog would be the route to follow.

Enter 2015: the year of the dog
Okay, not really. In the Chinese zodiac it was actually the year of the sheep. But in my family, it was the year of the dog. I had decided on a breed and a trainer, and flew all the way across Canada to adopt Maven, a Shiloh Shepherd.

The adorable fluff-ball… with razor sharp teeth!
Maven was a super cute rambunctious ball of fluffy fur. But looks can be deceiving! At 3 months old, Maven nipped excessively, jumped up, and defecated in the house. Everyone wanted to cuddle her but no one dared get too close! I am FullSizeRenderpleased to say that by 4 months, Maven had settled down and was no longer nipping (and was successfully doing ‘her business’ outside). By 6 months, I began working with 2 fantastic trainers: Cheri Kolstad, a service dog trainer based out of Penticton, and Vernon’s own The Crate Escape obedience dog trainer Vanessa.

When Maven was 1 year old, I began taking her to work with me. While she was largely still in training, it was amazing how transformative sessions became with her present.

Training is still on-going, but at least 2 days a week Maven joins me at work. Having a dog in session isn’t for everyone, and I always ask a client’s permissions prior to bringing Maven in.

Stay posted for more details about Maven’s training, and about her (eventual) crisis dog testing.

 

What does Change mean to You?

If you are like most people, change can feel over-whelming. Change is about moving beyond the familiar, the predictable, the traversed terrain. And to be honest, that can evoke a little fear. And a whole lot of uncertainty. What do we most often do when we feel fearful and uncertain? We proceed with caution. In the face of change, that might look like vacillating between options with indecision; it might look like clinging to the past; or worse, seeing the past as all good through those delusory rose-colored glasses. Fear kicks our survival instincts into action, which might just leave us sticking with what we know, leaving us fleeing from change.

A sense of loss is another emotion that accompanies change. We often associate loss with emotional suffering. When we allow ourselves to fully experience and allow all of our emotions, we find that it’s less about ‘suffering’, and more about processing, letting go, and kindling hope. We need to feel our emotions, and allow ourselves to embrace the hard work of planning and implementing and revising that new life directions invite.

A Recent Big Change

After several years having an office at Arise Chiropractic, I found myself in for a change. I was in need of a new office location. And like so many of us, I experienced strong emotions as I encountered uncertainty, hesitance, and doubt. Eventually, uncertainty melted away as a new opportunity unfolded, and hope began to re-ignite. As the move became a reality I felt a bittersweet sadness: excitement for the new opportunity combined with loss as I said goodbye to the Team I’d spent the last 3 years being a part of. I took my time: having the important conversations with others but as well as with my own emotional processing. I do believe that change can make us stronger. We come face to face with our doubts. Moving out of our comfort zone challenges us to be braver, to be stronger, to be more self-aware, and maybe even a little more compassionate. I took the leap of faith and moved. I ordered new furniture, then cancelled the order and started over. I painted, then I re-painted. I moved in the furniture, only to move some out and re-arrange other pieces. I put art up. I took art down. I sat in the room and pondered the space. But in the end it all came together. And the creation is now a beautiful, comfortable, cozy, private space for the healing work of counselling to unfold.

When we embrace change, including all the emotions change evokes – anxiety, worry, frustration, and anger and sadness – we grow as people. Sometimes it’s about taking a leap of faith. And it is always about believing in yourself. Trusting that no matter how the cards fall, you won’t fall. Be open to change – you are capable of more than you know!

Check Live Happy Counselling out at my new location: The White House Wellness Centre. 

Featured image