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Doused with Empathy

Updated: Aug 6, 2020

When you were a child and misbehaved or got caught doing something naughty, do you remember feeling shameful? In fact, when I was growing up, it would be common to hear adults tell children, and even children repeating these words to other children: “Shame on you!”

For survivors of abuse, and by de facto, as supporters of survivors, there can be a lot of shame associated with incest and childhood sexual abuse. Shame is toxic and demoralizing. Dr. Brené Brown describes shame as an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” If you haven’t heard her speak about shame, I recommend it. You can find her TEDtalks on shame (and vulnerability) on YouTube. Here’s a snippet of a conversation she had with Oprah where they talk about shame, and specifically reference past abuse and resulting feelings of shame.

I read somewhere that the average length of time of incest abuse is four years (!!). That is a tremendous amount of time for shame to intensify and build. And when shame is wrapped in secrecy, which incest and childhood sexual abuse usually is, it becomes even more insidious. I’ve always described the effects of abuse as "tentacles" and believe it can run wide and deep, winding its way through and impacting a survivor's emotional, physical, and psychological health, as well as their interpersonal relationships (and depending on your situation, as a supporter you may also feel shame). Low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, shame — these can have a lasting, negative influence on a person's life. Unless...

One of the key points Dr. Brown, as well as most psychologists and spiritual leaders, makes is that the way to free yourself from the shackles of shame is to not only treat yourself with compassion, but to douse it with the attention and intention of truth-speaking and empathy.

When we reach out to someone we trust, tell our stories, and are met with empathy and compassion — shame cannot survive. Again, here's a short video of Dr. Brown on how to stop the shame spiral.

Shame needs three things to keep growing: silence, secrecy, and judgement. So intentionally meet it with expression, illumination, and empathy.

Every person has to come to their own place and decide how what healing and moving forward looks like for themselves (and maybe also their family). I would advocate that part of that healing should include acknowledging what happened (some form of speaking the truth), and then embracing it with compassion. One of the most important things anyone can do for their survivor is to believe, stand by, and support them when they tell you what happened. I've been told by several therapists that the single act of saying, "I believe you" can have a tremendous healing effect. I also think modeling behavior for the survivor that you are not ashamed of what happened may also be healing for them. That could mean something as simple as being able to speak of it openly, honestly, and empathically between you and the survivor. For me it meant also sharing what happened with a few, trusted others, while being respectful of my survivor's privacy.

I mentioned in another post that when I first learned of my daughter’s abuse, I shared my story with a couple of friends. Without even hearing Dr. Brown’s talk yet or even reading up on shame, I knew in my heart that I needed to share my story. I knew that I was not going to continue living my live, seeing and hanging out with friends and not have them know of the pain and trauma I, and my family were experiencing.

I’ll never forget the day I shared my story with my friend. I cried. She cried. We both sat there in shock and pain. She held that space for me to speak a terrible, awful truth and with no judgement or criticism, she doused me with compassion, empathy, and love. That was the beginning of annihilating shame.

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