Shame and guilt are enormous barriers to connection.
One of the many extraordinary things I’ve experienced among people in early recovery is sitting with a dozen people, each of whom is convinced that they’re the worst person in the room. These assumptions show how powerful shame is and the ways in which our disease will use that are endless.
When we talk about our “trust issues” we’re often referring to our fears of judgment and rejection. Our experiences both in growing up and in active use taught us to expect it. It’s a hard piece to reconcile. The people in our lives today are very different than those who gave us a distorted sense of self.
They don’t know how to think poorly of us and we don’t have to teach them. Yet, we fear that if they knew the worst things we’ve done, they would shun us. We’re quick to identify and relate. Some of us will even chide a newcomer by asking, “Have you invented some new sin that the rest of us have not committed?”
Guilt is, “I did bad” and shame is “I am bad.” There’s no such thing as a bad child and the person we were in active addiction is not who we truly are. Healthy people don’t judge others by their past. We value who they are in the present and who they’re becoming.
In early recovery, we tend to project our insecurities. We expect that others will see us as we see ourselves. But as Anais Nin wrote:
“We see things (and people) not as they are, but as we are.”Anaïs Nin
When we see someone entering recovery, we see a person who is like us, not a person who is less than us.
We see a good person who’s trying to get better. We’re quick to remind folks that doing bad things doesn’t make one a bad person.
Sadly, my experience is that the things we’re most ashamed of are not anything we did, but rather, what was done to us. That is a fundamental injustice but it is unlikely to change within a person until it is exposed.
It takes enormous courage to share our stories and we are unlikely to do so if we expect to be shamed or rejected. Even in long -term recovery, many of us struggle with deeper wounds. Childhood abuse and other forms of trauma limit us. Some of us take those secrets to the grave and we are sad for them. Some of us struggle daily with PTSD.
Part of the cost to repressing (stuffing) a traumatic memory is that it remains unexamined. The abuse we told ourselves to forget as children tends to remain within us as a child would see it. When we share those experiences with a therapist or other kindred spirit, we begin a process of becoming more free. We often find that what we were ashamed of was never our fault.
This is a slow and incremental journey. It hurts, it’s scary, and it’s worth it.