Shame and guilt are two incredibly powerful and debilitating emotions for trauma survivors. Are you feeling guilty for something you did or didn’t do in the past? Do you feel ashamed about the things that you have experienced throughout your life? Have other people blamed you (either directly or indirectly) for terrible things that happened to you?
As a trauma survivor myself, I can relate with these emotions. Guilt and shame are two of the toughest emotions to work through and many people encounter deep personal resistance in trying to let go of self-blame and unhelpful thought patterns of being “less than.” In addition, for many trauma survivors, this shame begins to intrude on every other area of their lives. For me, it showed up by creating a pervasive feeling that I was never enough and I constantly had an internal list of should statements running through my head. Imagine being emotionally attacked every minute of every day – having someone following you around telling you that you are not good enough and that you’ll never be enough. That’s emotional abuse – and I was doing that to myself! This kind of self-abuse is exhausting.
About ten years ago, I completed one of the most excruciating, but also most helpful exercises I’ve ever done to let go of this shame and guilt. My therapist recommended I write a list of my “shoulds” that fell into different areas of my life (i.e. school, work, relationships, health, finances, etc.) Some examples of these statements are as follows: “I should get straight A’s.” “I should be the perfect child/sibling/parent/spouse.” “I should eat healthier.” “I should be able to pay off my debt.” “I should be happy.” “I should just get over it.”
I was surprised by how many "shoulds" I was holding onto and an amazing thing happened as I read through my list. I recognized the pressure that this internal dialogue was putting on my life – and could see how impossible it would be for me to let go of the shame if I was constantly berating myself like this on a daily basis. I took that list back in to my therapist and we worked together to identify believable alternatives to the unhealthy thought patterns and practiced letting go of ones that were completely off the mark.
Over the course of several weeks, I was able to start identifying and challenging the should statements as they came up. I was able to let go of the unhealthy expectations I had for myself and my perception of the expectations others were putting on me, which were completely off the mark.
Slowly, the guilt began to fall away. I started recognizing my worth as an individual and I actually believed it! My relationships improved and I was more productive in school and at work. I started to sleep better. Physical pain that went unexplained for several years started to dissipate. I felt human again.
I’d love to help you achieve the same kind of freedom from your own unhelpful self-talk. Please e-mail me to schedule a free 20 minute phone consultation to learn how I can help. It’s okay if you’re not ready to take that step yet. In the meantime, I encourage you to become more aware of your own internal dialogue. Listen to the way you speak to yourself. Would you tolerate it if someone else was speaking to you that way? If not, I urge you to consciously practice being more kind and gentle with yourself.
For more helpful tips, check out my other blog posts here.