Brene Brown spoke this of shame in her TED talk, “Listening to Shame:”
“If we’re going to find our way back to each other, we have to understand and know empathy, because empathy’s the antidote to shame. If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment.”
Secrecy, silence, and judgment-these are at the root of all dysfunction, and are inextricably tied to our emotional life. Shame is a poison to our emotions, and tells us to rearrange what we know in our hearts to be real and true and place it into someone else’s contorted box. Often, that box is the one that says “don’t feel.”
Because we live in a culture that doesn’t know what to do with feelings, that has deeply gendered messages about feelings, and because we have so much shame that underscores our social systems, it makes sense that finding our way to wholeness and healing means we learn how to deal with our emotional lives. It also means that we will need to use our new-found intelligence to connect with others who can bring more health and less shame into our lives.
Peggy Stephens, M.Ed., is a therapist who has organized a beautiful way of healing your emotional life. She teaches that there are two kinds of people: Haves and Have Nots. The Haves make a decision to have their feelings just like the Have Nots decide NOT to have their feelings. In my experience, feelings can bring up ancient fears for some people, and they simply decide it is less painful to have their feelings. Unfortunately, this perpetuates a cycle of shame for them and those in their lives. Peggy writes, “If you have been taught to be ashamed of or are avoidant or uncomfortable processing your feelings, or just don’t know how, then set a goal in your mind right now: “I will become an expert at understanding and expressing my feelings.”
Being a Have in a largely Have Not world requires first of all, giving yourself full, 100% permission to express your feelings. And if like me, you’ve spent a lifetime numbing your feelings and dissociating, it’s especially important that you not only give yourself permission to express, but that you validate the importance of your feelings. Emotions make our lives infinitely rich. As Peggy writes, they “contain messages, insight, healing, protection, balance, wisdom, intimacy, truth, and an overall sense of well-being when used properly for the purpose for which they can serve you.” Feelings are not bad!
To begin, self-awareness is key. There are many tools to allow you to become an expert on your feelings, and the one that has helped me the most is Internal Family Systems. Your self-esteem and confidence can grow when you validate your humanity and express your needs and feelings out of who you really are. So knowing and validating yourself while acting out of congruence with your inner values is step one.
Step two is gathering support. This is where being able to identify Have-Nots comes in. If you were raised by Have-Nots or within any system of shame, you are gong to have to deal with your own issues of trauma bonding, repetition compulsion, and re-enactment of trauma. Trauma inevitably involves not being seen, not being heard, and not being taken into account- that’s shame. Shame feels familiar to us as long as we still practice and hold on to its false messages within ourselves.
Connection is vital. The people we invite into our lives can make our time here on this earth a place of peace and healing. Lately, that study that says “the root of all addiction is lack of connection with others” has been popping up everywhere. We are literally wired to love and support each other, and rest in the love and support of others. Shame takes away our ability to experience trust and support from other people. This is because often, other people have shown us that they are not supportive or trustworthy, and are sometimes even hostile. These are the Have-Nots.
Learning to identify Have-Nots becomes crucial and vital to your healing. There are Have-Nots who are open to learning about becoming a Have and Have-Nots who choose not to. These are, as Peggy calls them, “Defensive Have-Nots.” The Defensive Have Nots are completely dismissive of feelings and will actually become harmful to your healing if you let them, or you can use them to strengthen your self-worth. Defensive Have-Nots can be useful in that they give you ample opportunities to speak up for yourself. Any time you take care of your feelings by expressing them truthfully and without shaming the other person, you add notches to your self-esteem and self-worth. Eventually, in your healing, you will decide that Defensive Have-Nots are not worth the effort and you will be spending so much time with Haves who validate and appreciate you, the Have-Nots will become less important to you in your life.
If, like me, Defensive Have-Nots were your normal reality, your ability to recognize when you are in a Have-Not situation is skewed. Learning to embrace the good feelings of love Haves give you can be a challenge! Yet it is important to bring your thinking, rational self into healing and loving your feelings. Peggy offers a simple test for knowing if a person is workable in the feeling realm. She advises,
“If you want to know if a person is a Have or a Have Not you can perform small tests and see how they respond. Start with a topic of conversation that has a little feeling but is a feeling you are not overly concerned about. Try something like, “My friend hasn’t been calling me as much lately and it hurts my feelings.” A Have will ask questions and delve into the topic with sincere interest. A Have Not’s response will be different (such as, ‘Must not be much of a friend-I need to stop at the store after we eat.’)”
Peggy suggests that several tests are needed before you really know if the person you are with is a Have Not, then you have to decide if you want to invest your time in teaching this person about feelings. If you have prioritized this person and you think that going to that level in the relationship would be of benefit, then by all means, you can choose to do that. But if your healing is a priority and this person would eventually drag you down, then it is time to choose differently.
Once you have weeded out or made decisions about the Have-Nots in your life, based on whether they are Hostile or Defensive, you can fill your time with more Haves who will truly love and validate you.
The more you experience of being seen, being heard, and being taken into account by deliberately choosing people in your life who have those capacities and skills, the more you can heal and create a life rich in growth and love.