Don't Give Up on Defending Yourself Against Shame

The Soul of Therapy

Don't Give Up on Defending Yourself Against Shame

“I Had a Great Life Going. What Happened?”


Our life is our story, and we can’t rip out any of the chapters. “Each of us is on a hero’s journey.”

When I met Julie for the first time she greeted me with more bubbliness than most patients. I felt a beautiful childlike presence in her within the first few seconds. I soon learned she was 29. When I heard her life story it was full of one trauma after another. Her mother had abandoned the family when she was not yet a year old. In a short stretch in her adolescence there was incest, acquaintance rape, a pregnancy, and an abortion. And after all that, a child by a man twice her age before she was out of her teens.

We talked for a while about her current life. I was struck by what a compassionate, service-oriented woman Julie was. Her work involved caring for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. At one point she looked straight at me and said, “Before I turned 15 I had a great life going. I was a good student, I had friends, I was a talented athlete. What happened to me?”

I felt instantly that, like so many people, in describing her very personal, soulful entanglement with life, Julie was speaking for millions. We all come into this world with a sacredness as yet untouched by what psychologist Carl Rogers called “conditions of worth.” Eventually, love’s inevitable imperfections make us lose our sense of unconditional worth.

Sometimes when I ask patients to tell me what is sacred to them, they say, “I don’t really use that word or know what you mean.” If they have children, I ask, “Do you see your children as sacred?” I always get the same answer: “Of course, how could they not be?” But so many people have forgotten that they too are that sacred. By the time I meet them, the child’s inborn sense of “I’m sacred, how could I not be?” has been replaced by something like “I’m messed up, how could I not be?”

Years ago I developed a simple image for how I want to practice psychotherapy. I call it the double-headed flashlight. I want to shine my attention on the person in front of me as best I can, and I want to simultaneously shine a light on my inner world to see what’s showing up there. That day when Julie asked what had happened to her, I found myself thinking of a painting by William Bouguereau called “Young Girl Defending Herself Against Eros.” I asked Julie if she could search for the painting on her phone.

She found it, and together we looked at the depiction of Cupid getting ready to push his arrow into a young woman, who is trying to push Cupid away. I told Julie that I’d first encountered the painting in a book by the late art historian Sister Wendy Beckett. Her interpretation of Bouguereau’s painting was that the young woman knew that love and sexuality would alter the course of her life drastically and she was not yet ready to give up the relatively carefree days of her childhood.

Julie and I talked about the shame she carried about her life, how it had all turned in a dark direction when sexuality, both forced and chosen, had entered her experience. We talked about what a powerful force sexuality is, and how it does not help us to hold our experience of it with shame.

Shame is a sense not that I made a mistake, but I am a mistake. People who have been through lots of brokenness have often given up on defending themselves against shame. Its arrows pierce the heart and spirit again and again, pinning people to their traumas and failures like a dried butterfly in an insect display case.

Letting go of shame involves seeing our life as a story in which each chapter, peaceful or difficult, belongs. We don’t get to rip out the chapters that we wish were not part of the story. It is our story, and it’s a good story. Each of us is on a hero’s journey, but heroes only earn that designation after they have persevered through hardship and suffering. For Julie and the rest of us, regaining our sense of innate sacredness comes by seeing our whole story, accepting it as it has unfolded, and committing to transforming it into a gift of compassion and service for the world.

Read more: “Is Shame Keeping Your Partner From Healing?”

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