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Healing Out Loud – Article Excerpt
Excerpted from “Healing Out Loud” by Sandi Brown and Michelle Caulk (Copyright 2021). Used with permission from Dexterity. dexteritybooks.com
I didn’t realize it at the time, but counseling was an invitation. An open door into discovery. Isn’t it ironic that on one hand we know ourselves better than anyone else, but on the other, we often can’t see what is right in front (or inside) of us? I reached out to Dr. Michelle Caulk because I was at a loss. I knew something was wrong, but I had no idea what it was or what to do about it.
It didn’t take long for a complete stranger to identify shame as one of my warning lights. I had no idea. Then all of a sudden, hidden pain and shame, tucked deep into the crevasses of my heart, were being invited into the light to explore, understand, and challenge with the truth. If shame hides in the dark, it was time to turn on the light and usher in some honest reflection. Easier said than done, by the way.
Michelle said my visceral reaction to what she wrote about shame meant we were getting somewhere. Little did I know that “getting somewhere,” in counselor code, means “you’re just scratching the surface.” She could have just as easily said, “Buckle up, it’s about to get bumpy.”
At the center of the page Michelle had handed me, she wrote my name: SANDI. Around my name (like a triangle) she wrote three words: trauma, abuse, abandonment. She explained that I am who God created me to be (at the core), but I have also been shaped by my past experiences. These events cause imprints of shame on my life. Because of our pasts, we learn defenses, cover-ups, and masks that work their way out into behaviors.
Below the “triangle of shame” she jotted down:
• Stuffed feelings
• Humor to cover up problems
• Problem-fixing behavior
• Approval seeking
• Feelings of inadequacy
• Drive to perform
• Living constantly on guard
• Waiting for the betrayal that is sure to come
“Does any of that sound familiar?” she asked. I remember thinking, How does she know me so well? We just met! Yet she described me with 100 percent accuracy.
While discussing the sheet of paper in her office, I felt exposed and confused. It made me feel a bit uncomfortable. I couldn’t sit still. I fidgeted with a tissue in my hand. Moved my feet. Readjusted my position, crossed my legs. Perhaps I kept squirming because it felt like she was hunting, searching for something, and I hoped she couldn’t zero in if the target kept moving. I didn’t like the words shame, trauma, abuse, abandonment. I had never thought of my life in those terms. I didn’t like the idea that any of those were part of my past or still having an impact on my life today. I wanted to deny it, but we both knew it was true.
I wanted to quit and not talk about it anymore, but I knew that wouldn’t help. So instead, I sat there and cried.
Michelle asked why talking about shame caused such a strong reaction. I didn’t know the answer. But I said the first thing that came to mind: “Shame sounds awful, and I don’t want to admit that it’s part of my life. If shame is bad and I am dealing with shame, then we both know what that means. Now you know what I’ve known all along. That’s why I don’t like myself.”
Her response stunned me. She could have preached to me, reminding me that God loves me and I need to love myself, too, or agreed with me that I was a lost cause (which was a distinct possibility in my mind). Instead she said, “Sandi, what if the conclusions you’ve drawn about yourself aren’t rooted in truth? Wouldn’t you want to know? Is it possible that you’ve latched on to something that isn’t true, but you believe it is?”
That got my attention for two reasons. First, I value truth, and the thought that I had believed a lie for so long was unsettling. Second, her strategic question left no space for shame to chime in. It wasn’t about what I felt. It was about seeking truth. She was challenging my negative thoughts but was also inviting me into the process. I didn’t feel like she was on one side and I was on the other. She invited me into the journey of discovery. And her question lingered with me. Was it possible?
Part of me wanted to believe it was possible, part of me doubted, and part of me was curious. What if she’s right? What is shame? Where does it come from? Will it always whisper or shout at me? How can I tell the difference between shame and truth? Have I latched on to the wrong one?
With all of this swirling around in my mind, I said, “Michelle, I guess it is possible that my conclusions about myself aren’t truthful. But I’m not convinced you’re right. I know what I know.” The evidence seemed clear and convincing. Even though my mind knew otherwise, in my heart the verdict had already been rendered: I was worthless.
As I look back at that conversation with Michelle, it was as if she had declared a retrial on my behalf. She wanted me to take an objective look at the evidence. This time, there would be no shameful prosecutor taking the lead. We were going to go back and look at everything with a new lens. It seemed like a tall mountain to climb. The thought of it was overwhelming. And the mere thought of something in my past still wreaking havoc in my life today angered me. I believed I was stronger than that. More resilient. In frustration, I said, “How lame is that? I’ve got a great life. I never think about my past. I’m mad at myself for letting anything in my past disrupt the good things in my life today. I’m so stupid.”
Yes, stupid. That was a pet word of mine that I uttered a lot in counseling. I would never call someone else stupid. Yet it rolled so easily off of my tongue as I described myself. Time and time again. Why is it that we say things to ourselves that we would never say to anyone else? Because shame convinces us of things that aren’t true—that’s why. And shame was speaking clearly and loudly that day. What I heard from shame was, “You’re stupid.”
Thankfully, what I heard from Michelle was, “You’re carrying both pain and shame. You know one as fact but believe the other to be true. And that’s something we can work on.”
Find out more about “Healing Out Loud” by visiting healingoutloud.com