Your system holds a lot of shame. There is shame about who you are as a person. You feel that you do not belong and are unloveable. You have been rejected by others. There’s no way you’ll put yourself out there again. You carry shame about earlier decisions. Because you acted this way, you feel raw and exposed. There is a constant sense of dread that reminds you, “Never again will I make that mistake.” You hold a lot of shame about failures. You’ve messed up, said the wrong thing, wrote the wrong answer. Your stomach goes in knots just thinking about it. You feel ashamed about inaction. It repeats incessantly that you should have done something, acted differently, or reacted faster. You feel ashamed about who you are as a parent. You keep thinking your kids would do better with someone else. When all of this is hurtling towards you, how do you overcome shame?
Dealing with Shame
It’s hard to acknowledge our shame. We worry that others will judge and reject us for our deepest insecurities, so we don’t speak up. Because shame is so uncomfortable, we tend to push it away. We avoid addressing it, only to have it repeatedly show up. We feel awful, alone, and hopeless in this pattern.
Thanks to Brené Brown, most of us have are familiar with the benefits of addressing shame and vulnerability. In theory, we know one of the best ways out of shame is to be nice to ourselves and accept that we are imperfect human beings. Dealing with shame involves validation, self-compassion and seeking connection with others. That’s the simpler answer. The more complicated answer involves addressing all of the parts of us that block this work. To overcome shame, we have to deal with many other internal layers (e.g. our inner critics, our avoidant parts, our self-hatred, our panic, and other struggling emotions).
Getting to know our parts:
Internal Family Systems therapy recognizes that our mind is compartmentalized into protective categories or “parts”. There are three different parts inside of us: Managers, Firefighters and Exiles. In order to overcome shame, we need to understand how these parts play a unique role in improving and delaying our healing.
During traumatic and painful events, our minds suffer. We struggle to get through these horrible events. As time goes on, we start to carry negative beliefs about ourselves based on what we experienced. We suddenly feel we are insignificant, weak, unattractive, incompetent and don’t belong. These wounded parts of our personality are what IFS refers to as “exiles.” Exiles absorb the impact of traumatic and difficult events. Exiled parts carry our vulnerable emotions and beliefs. They learn to feel ashamed of themselves, that there is something fundamentally bad and flawed about them. Shame is not an innate feeling. We are not born feeling ashamed of ourselves. It is something we’ve learned based on our environment and experiences.
Sitting with our shameful exiles can feel unbearable, so we form some protection. We do whatever we can to prevent these parts from becoming triggered. We do whatever we can to shut them down quickly if they are triggered.
“Managers” are the first layer of protection. These parts help us stay safe by doing whatever is possible to stop our exiled parts from getting triggered. For example, if your exiles believe that you are unattractive, your manager parts may pester you to work out daily or wear makeup. If your exiles cannot trust your own judgement, then you may have manager parts that constantly seek reassurance from others. Worried about being stupid? Your manager parts prevent you from every trying or moving up the career path so your intelligence will never be assessed.
Manager parts focus on preventing us from feeling hurt, wounded, ashamed, or any other exiled emotion. They do this by pushing us, criticizing us, reminding us to keep going, doing more and never becoming vulnerable again.
The second layer of protection is referred to as “firefighters.” When our exiled parts are freaking out inside, our firefighters know it’s important to contain that flame. So they react. They work on quick fixes to settle the fire down. They use distractions and various forms of self-soothing when our system gets triggered. For example: someone calls you unattractive, your firefighters seek comfort in a nice bottle or three of wine. You realize you made a mistake at work, your firefighter parts draw attention away by yelling at other colleagues. Your exiled part is triggered for overeating, your firefighters compensate by purging and over-exercise. Firefighter parts are aware that the pain has come up, and they focus on getting rid of that pain as quickly as possible through any means possible.
Shame Starts Young
When we are young, we long to be loved and accepted. We want to belong and feel significant. When our parents meet these needs, we’ve struck gold. Our system can relax when we make mistakes. We don’t personalize it, and we move on fairly quickly.
For those of us who have not “struck gold”, our system gets hijacked following a mistake. We fear reproach, criticism, disappointment, anger, or any form of negative feedback from our caregivers. As kids, we don’t have a whole lot of resources, so we internalize these messages. We start to believe that there is something wrong with us: We are a screw up, we are incompetent, we do not deserve good things. This moment creates our exiled parts.
How our parts become intertwined in the shame pattern
Despite knowing that we will continue to be hurt and rejected, we can’t help but reach out to our caregivers. What other choice do we have at a young age? Our exiled parts are always looking for a better ending. They want redemption. They want our parents to somehow stop their patterns of anger and criticism, and instead, turn to us with love and warmth.
Our manager parts are also paying attention to these attempts. Our managers learn what is and is not effective in keeping your exiled parts from getting in trouble and feeling ashamed. They are aware of what pisses off your parents, and triggers your exiles to feel ashamed once again. For example, if you know that being slim and attractive gets your mom’s approval, your managers will continue to berate you to go to the gym and start another diet. Ironically, these managers shame us for making the wrong choices in order to get us to learn. You don’t need your mom to continue to shame you, your manager parts will repeat her words for you.
Unfortunately, our exiled parts keep trying. Your mother may present as biting and cold, but this doesn’t stop your exiled part. You continue to invite her to outings, provide thoughtful mother’s day gifts and call every Sunday. When you are hurt and rejected by her lack of interest, your firefighters come in trying to extinguish the pain. They encourage you to drink, hook up with a random person, lash out at your partner, or any other means in hopes of releasing this shame. And, once again, our managers (e.g. that harsh inner critic) attack for making poor decisions.
Working with our protective parts to overcome shame
Forgive me for using a Shrek reference here. IFS reminds me of Shrek’s comments that ogres are like onions: we all have layers. There are layers and layers of protection we use to keep our exiled parts safe. We can’t deal with shame if we do not address the managers and firefighters that maintain our shame cycle. As Donkey wisely reminds Shrek: “”You’re so wrapped up in layers, onion boy, you’re afraid of your own feelings!” We get so caught in protecting ourselves, we get scared to actually help our exiled parts.
To overcome shame, we have to first work with our protective parts. It’s hard to show love and self-compassion if a harsh critical voice keeps dismissing your kindness. You may have difficulty forgiving yourself if a firefighter part continues to binge drink. Shame rarely works alone; it always come with protection. So to overcome shame, we have to work with your entire system. We have to gain trust and permission from these protective parts to give you some space so that you can work with your exiles.
Internal Family Systems Therapy and your shame
In therapy, I focus on creating a safe space for your entire system to show up. This includes all the parts of you that are eager to get started, as well as the parts of you that dread working on these issues. This is normal. When we have experienced shame or been shamed by others, our system launches into a protective stance. It’s braced for rejection and judgement, even in the context of a safe therapy setting. It’s important to take the time to build that therapeutic trust before launching in to your most vulnerable concerns.
Shame deserves self-compassion, belonging and validation. Healing comes from witnessing these painful moments, learning to see the safety in today, and trust in your own capacity to handle things differently. The resources you had back then are not what you have available today. Your exiles and protective layers aren’t always aware of that. They often see you still stuck in that place of trauma, and react accordingly.
If you are struggling with shame, and would like to work with your internal system, reach out. Schedule a free consult to see if this is a good fit for you.
All the best,
One of the biggest aversions to attending postpartum therapy is shame. You feel ashamed that your emotions are messy. This isn’t like you. Normally, you’re calm and cool. But, suddenly your hormones are all over the place, your hair is a mess and you can’t remember the last time you showered. There hasn’t been a single day where you haven’t burst into tears or rage.
You feel ashamed about your relationships. It feels like a huge risk to acknowledge how you truly act around your family. What would the other person say if you admit you don’t really like your baby? What if you told them you sometimes screamed at your children? Are they going to judge you if you tell them you’ve stopped breastfeeding? Would you get mocked for admitting you haven’t had sex in months? What if you revealed that you suddenly can’t stand your spouse? How will the other person react?
It’s incredibly vulnerable to open up to a stranger, especially if you worry how he or she will respond. So rather than talk, you stay silent. Shame feels awful, but it protects you. It keeps you safe from being judged. But it also means you are stuck with all these difficult thoughts and feelings bubbling inside.
The shame of mental health
Despite all of the social media posts, campaigns, and recognition about mental health today, there is still a stigma in admitting we are struggling with mental illness. You may worry about what it means to be attending therapy or starting medication. Does it make you incompetent? Are you still able to say you are a good parent if you also admit you are mentally unwell? How do you cope with your family members telling you to “suck it up” or “get it together?” All of these shameful questions and thoughts prevent you from admitting that you need help.
Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are genuine illnesses. During pregnancy and postpartum months, an individual could live with anxiety, depression, OCD, bipolar disorder, or PTSD. The chance of experiencing any one of these illnesses is not uncommon (e.g. approximately 1 in 4 Canadian mothers reported experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression or anxiety).
As with any illness, you deserve appropriate treatment and care. It is not a matter of will power. We cannot wish it away. My favourite recommendation is to consider how you’d talk to a friend in a similar position. Chances are you would be more compassionate and open-hearted. For example, following a surgery, you would encourage said friend to attend medical appointments, take prescribed medications, and follow their health team’s recommendations. In the same way, would you be able to give yourself the permission to seek the treatment and attention that your mental health needs?
What if the therapist judges me?
Every therapist claims they are nice and nonjudgmental. That doesn’t mean you truly believe it. For those cautious and skeptical parts of you, I want you to know, that’s okay. It’s absolutely okay to have your guard up. Starting therapy feels awkward. As with every relationship, it takes time to build trust.
Take the time to share slowly, if that is what your system needs. Watch how your therapist responds to your words and concerns. You will notice that you either feel more settled and at peace, or if your shame increases. Trust this internal feedback. If you are comfortable, let your therapists know you feel this way, and see how they respond to your words.
Will I get in trouble?
One of the biggest fears that pushes clients away from voicing their experiences is the fear of how others will react. In prenatal and postpartum therapy, I see many clients hesitate to talk about how they truly are with their children and relationships. Not only are they managing their internal shame, but they are weary of judgement and negative consequences. Clients are often fearful because they fear the truth will lead to the therapist ending the relationship, calling the Children’s Aid Society or disliking the person. So let’s address these fears:
1) If I am truthful, my therapist will end the relationship:
In most cases, therapists will only end the relationship if they are outside of their clinical scope or the treatment goals have been met. If you have met your treatment goals, that’s wonderful! Celebrate all of your hard work. You don’t necessarily have to end your relationship with your therapist, but you can talk about tapering off sessions or increasing the time in between appointments. If it’s loneliness that drives you to stay, your therapist will support you in exploring how to improve outside relationships. It is not okay that the therapy room is the only space where you are heard, validated and supported.
If your counselling goals are beyond your therapist’s knowledge and skills, they will admit this to you. It isn’t personal. Consider your experiences with other specialists. You may really love your hairdresser, but this is not the person who can necessarily answer your medical concerns. You connect with the clinician who is best able to meet each of your needs. If you keep asking your hairdresser for advice on all things medical, neither of you will leave satisfied or confident that your goals can be achieved.
2) What if they call the Children’s Aid Society (CAS)?
This is a common myth that prevents parents from reaching out for postpartum therapy. Postpartum depression often shows up as rage, anger, outbursts and distress. I see many parents who are frustrated with themselves and with others, but are too scared to ask for help in fear of being reported. Postpartum depression deserves respect, compassion and appropriate support. The only reason to reach out to CAS is if there is a genuine concern about a child’s physical or emotional safety. If there is a worry about abuse or neglect, your therapist will ask you directly. However, yelling at your child does not mean an automatic phone call for outside authorities. Having negative or intrusive thoughts does not mean we are automatically contacting outside authorities.
3) What if my therapist dislikes me?
I can’t speak for other therapists, but I can speak for myself about this worry. The beauty of Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy is that IFS therapists are always looking for positive intentions. This means, irrespective of the behaviour, words, or emotion (anger, infidelity, jealousy, disgust, etc), your IFS therapist is always trying to understand how there are parts of you trying to get you through a difficult moment. It’s not about assessing whether the outcome is successful or whether the efforts are worth it. It’s about understanding the actual intention.
IFS therapists go to their own therapy. It’s how we do the work we do. If I feel triggered in a session, that’s an indicator that there is some part inside of me needing support and attention. It has nothing to do with you; it has to do with my own history and experiences. That part, similar to yours, will need support and processing. I take it to my own session or my supervisor. IFS therapists’ intentions are always to keep our parts out of the session, because in therapy, it really is about the client. It’s not about my agenda or my needs; it’s about yours.
The shame of not meeting our own expectations:
You had lots of hopes and dreams of how your pregnancy or postpartum months would turn out. Chances are you did not wish for mental illness.
Many of us struggle when our expectations are not met. We feel a sense of shame and inadequacy in falling short. You may have hoped to be a Pinterest-parent, and realized you have zero interest in arts and crafts. Perhaps you thought you’d enjoy spending days with the baby, and found you were bored out of your mind by week 4. Maybe you thought you’d ace the whole sleep training thing, only to be struggling 15 months later with a toddler who refuses to go to bed. Somehow these results create a sense of failure that we equate into our self worth.
For any parent who struggles with this sense of “inadequacy”, please know that you are not alone. We all have moments where we worry about being good enough parents. Remember that you have so many years ahead of you to figure this out. We often label ourselves as success or failures, but we fail to pay attention to all the efforts and practice we need to improve our skills. We will screw up many times, and we will learn constantly. In this way, there is always space for us to grow.
It isn’t fair to assume we’ll be great at parenting from day one. Think about how it was like when you first learned to drive. In the start, you were in the “conscious incompetent” stage where are very aware that you have no idea what you are doing. However, with time, you get to a place where you can automatically drive your car. Unfortunately, when we are at this place of “unconscious competence” (a.k.a. “I don’t have to think about it, I can do it in my sleep”), we forget how much we initially struggled. We forget the intensity and shame of not doing well.
Make it safe
We can all play a role in reducing the shame of mental illness and perinatal mental health. Talk about your experiences openly with safe others. Offer validation and compassion to those who are in this phase of life. Reach out to a therapist that you can trust. We can work to shift away from judgment, and instead, appreciate that we are all doing our very best.