Taking On Shame: How Healing Makes Us Whole


Taking On Shame: How Healing Makes Us Whole


Arrive everywhere loved.
--Mariah, wife of Ron Gladis, one of our 2009 Caregiver of the Year award winners

You probably have heard the expression: “You have to feel it to heal it.”

That, often, is easier said than done.

To feel our shame, we must feel safe. We might find that safety in a support group, in our journal or with a therapist or counselor (or all three). Whatever venues we pick, it’s important we choose to make the decision to heal. “In feeling it we give ourselves a fresh start to pull out our internal adult place,” says Dr. J. David Forbes, ABIHM, President-Elect, American Holistic Medical Association and founder/director, Nashville Integrated Medicine.

There’s an anger and grief attached to shame, which makes sense as I think about my father’s anger. Had he healed his shame, he would have tamed his rage. That old pain gets in our way of living a full life.

“Shame will only hurt you,” adds Dr. Eric Shapira, a clinical gerontologist. “Why pay rent to this stuff?”

We may believe that our parents, or our care recipients, hold the key to our healing. Didn’t they get us to this place? Often, though, that window of time has passed, Dr. Forbes says. We can grieve for the loss that our parents, or care recipients, can’t be an active part of our healing, that the time for them to fill our healing need has passed.

Instead, we can heal the kid inside us. “We are the parent for the kid inside us,” Dr. Forbes says.

We can get what we need from our own healing process, rather than holding out waiting for our care recipient’s approval or apology. The possibility exists that the approval or apology may come, but “the fact you want to feel better is your driving force,” says Anna Stookey, a psychotherapist specializing in health issues.

Everything is about doing something for ourselves, Dr. Forbes says, even as we may say we do so much for others. Sometimes the why behind doing for others actually serves something within ourselves. We may do so much for others, for instance, to avoid the conflict we imagine will develop if we say “no” to any and all requests for our time. By healing shame, we learn how to make better choices for ourselves, such as setting boundaries or making decisions based on our value systems, rather than someone else’s.

Laura B. Morse, a licensed therapist in private practice who works with African-Americans, often finds the biggest hurdle to healing is getting help. “Many have a strong allegiance to their parents and won’t talk about it. Out of loyalty, they feel they can’t disparage their parents. They also may say, 'We survived slavery, we don’t need therapy.'”

Because healing the shame can mean walking into unchartered waters, a therapist or counselor can provide the guidance needed to avoid drowning. And, because the impact of shame showed up over time, losing the shame will take time, too. A therapist can help you tread through the waters of shame, help you keep your head above water, and help you keep focused on your landing place (The Land of Whole).

As you work through your healing process, Morse recommends detaching with love. You stay engaged in your caregiving role, but you detach to better care for both of you. When you detach, you can say, "This isn't about me" which allows you to interact with your care recipient without playing the shame game. When you don't engage, you provide a healthy environment for both of you.

A helpful question to ask yourself, Morse says, is: How has loving this person benefited you as well as hurt you? The question helps you find a perspective that allows you the room to feel the pain, while respecting the positives of the relationship. (We’ve included more tools you can use, below.)

Taking a physical break from caregiving also provides a much-needed objective viewpoint. “You will break the bond and you will feel better,” Stookey says.

Compassion, which leads to forgiveness, frees the shame. When we understand that our care recipients also act from their own experiences of shame, we can view their actions more objectively. “We can see that all of us respond from something that’s not healthy,” she says. “Our parents were not acting out of conscious malice. They were unconscious.”

You can see shame in a greater context, Stookey says. “We can observe what happened with compassion, rather than reaction.”

Stookey worked with a client who cared for his mother. When his mother became incontinent, the son said he wanted to scream at his mother: “I’m going to rub your face in this!”

His mother’s incontinence brought back memories of difficult years during his childhood. With the eyes of an adult and the help of a therapist, the son was able to review his childhood and see a scared young mother with seven children, three of whom were bed-wetters. The perspective helped him manage his response to his mother’s incontinence.

Recognize that past experiences with your care recipient may make some caregiving duties difficult. For instance, your younger siblings may have had a very different experience with your parents and can better manage the more intimate aspects of caregiving. Delegating responsibilities that cause triggers for you, but not for other family members or health care professionals, helps you stay emotionally healthy in your role.

As a family caregiver, you have tremendous resilience, Morse says. “Take some of that, turn it inward to use for your own boundaries and self-care.”

“Once we’re full, it spills out to others,” Dr. Forbes says.

Wouldn’t that be awesome? To be so full we can’t help but overflow. And, just think: We can do that for ourselves when we live our lives from today, rather than yesterday.


Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo's IDEA
Karol Ward's Trigger Sheet

What’s your story of shame? Please feel free to share with us in our comments section.

Part I: The Genesis of Shame
Part II: When Shames Shows Up in Caregiving

We took our discussion about shame live on Your Caregiving Journey talk show. Listen to our interview with Anna Stookey, who shares the power of healing from shame.

Listen to internet radio with Denise Brown on Blog Talk Radio