The Process of Healing from Abuse is Long

It's been a while since I have felt compelled to blog about anything as a form of "processing" my thoughts. I'm sure that is partly due to being focused on writing a book and pouring myself into that. But yesterday I knew that I would be at my blog writing first thing this morning.

I thought my book was finished but, after this weekend, I realize there a couple of places in the book where I need to add a few sentences addressing my most recent epiphany. In the book, I will simply acknowledge something I've learned without all the details involved in the discovery. Here on my blog, I will elaborate. This is something big for me and hopefully a turning point in how I respond to criticism in the future. Where to start is my only dilemma. Be forewarned: this is going to be a lengthy post.

In my first book, Breaking the Chains, I wrote about feeling like a disappointment to others (as well as God) as far back as my early teens. "I spent much of my life, well into adulthood, believing that perhaps I was defective and not easy to love.... I believed my own parents had a difficult time loving me. This belief created within me a deep insecurity and fear that I was an unlovable person." A few pages further into that chapter, I wrote, "My early church environment also contributed greatly to my belief that I was defective and a disappointment to others.... I felt like I could never be good enough to please anyone."

In my second book, Through My Eyes, I wrote about my abusive marriage and the after-effects of having these same worthless feelings triggered whenever someone is upset with me or critical of me. The following is an excerpt from the new book:

"Although there are times when I stand strong in my convictions, I have moments of anxiety to this day when I second-guess every word that comes out of my mouth. My self-scrutiny takes on a life of its own, consuming my thoughts. And one of my biggest fears is being thought of as a bad person or having a bad motive. My anxiety is frequently triggered by criticism, especially criticism coming from someone I deeply love and value. Even when I believe I have done the right thing with the right motive, I can be quickly enveloped in a dark cloud of self-doubt. It’s not simply that I question my decision or motive. My self-doubt occasionally leaves me questioning me; what kind of person I am. I hate those fragile moments. I recognize why I have this struggle, but even that knowledge doesn’t seem to enable me completely to break free of it.

My abuser knew I was plagued with this self-doubt, and he used it to his advantage by attacking my character and motives."

I have been aware of this struggle for a long time. But I viewed it as self-doubt, insecurity and sensitivity. I realize that there is a part of me that is extremely fragile despite the perception most people have of me as being strong and confident. And I had written about that. But I hadn't fully understood that what I was describing -- the plague of my entire adult life -- was toxic shame. Ironically, the event that revealed my condition to me triggered that shame for about a day before I had the epiphany of what I was experiencing ... and why.

As I've previously shared, I submitted my manuscript to an organization which ministers to victims of abuse in the hope of receiving either a professional contribution to my book or an endorsement. I knew it was a long shot. I'm a self-published, unknown author. I don't have any backing or professional promotion behind me. Why would I think I could get a successful author and director of this organization to endorse me? I just thought it was worth a shot. Well, on Friday I received an email explaining to me that someone on staff had read and reviewed my book and had not recommended a contribution or endorsement. The email included a summary of her in-depth review and reasons for the determination. Although they thanked me for pouring my heart and story out on the pages of my book and assured me that they believed my book would be helpful to many in their desire to understand and connect with their own abuse, the reviewer's assessment of me was distressing to me. Here is the heart of the summary:

Overall, the book was compelling and accurately details the complexities of abuse and tactics of abusers.  It also describes the fog and confusion experienced by victims, especially when spiritual manipulation is in the arsenal of the abuser. This author is transparent regarding her own sins and perceived shortcomings, perhaps to an extreme of actually reflecting toxic shame for some things....  A few concerns regarding the book include whether the author has a healthy view of forgiveness ... and an over-emphasis on her complicity in allowing the abuse.

The reviewer also indicated she thought I had minimized abusive behavior in a specific relationship. I was most definitely intentional in writing with kindness and grace about that relationship. But the reviewer saw it as minimizing. I still want to be kind and I do not intend to rewrite those portions of the book, but I did add a bit to the preface explaining that although I choose to show grace to those who have wronged me, I don't ever want to minimize abuse.

The reviewer stated that her concern about whether I had a healthy view of forgiveness was due to inconsistencies in my writing. But it wasn't explained what those inconsistencies were. I'm hoping they will be shared with me. And I was surprised that the reviewer felt I had over-emphasized my complicity in allowing the abuse. That's something else I addressed in the rewritten preface. My intent was not to over-emphasize my complicity, but to confront my own toxicity and the enabling that contributed to being a victim for so long. I clearly stated that I didn't believe I caused the abuse. However, confronting my role in the abuse was what helped me make the difficult decision to change my unhealthy behavior and ultimately leave. I have always viewed that as personal growth and taking responsibility for my own choices and actions. In other words, positive things. I write about the mistakes I made in the hope that others can learn from them and not have to make the same mistakes themselves, not to over-emphasize my mistakes or reflect toxic shame.

Toxic shame. Those words were the most troubling of all. My first reaction was to reject that "diagnosis" and seek reassurance from others that the reviewer was wrong, didn't know me. I don't feel like I live with shame for the past at all. I feel like a survivor and an overcomer. I feel like I have healed tremendously over the last ten years, in spite of knowing I may always have a few triggers and experience the residue of having lived a life of abuse for so long. Am I proud of my mistakes? No. Are there things in the book that are embarrassing to share? Yes. Do I wish I hadn't done certain things? Absolutely. But my intent was merely to convey a repentant heart and the normal regret of knowing I could have done some things better; not toxic shame. How could I be unaware of reflecting toxic shame?

I read the review in John's office just after we finished shooting a commercial. The email left me so deflated, I was glad I hadn't read it prior to the commercial shoot. I don't have a poker face at all. I would not have been my usual bubbly self no matter how hard I tried. When John came up to his office, I read him the email and couldn't get through it without choking up. "Do you think I have toxic shame? I don't understand how she can see me that way." John said, "That is one person's opinion who doesn't know you. Don't let it tear you up. You don't need the endorsement." I couldn't dismiss it that easily. But I couldn't accept it either. John's attitude was to forget about it and move on. As I continued to want to talk about it on the way to Lowe's, his response felt dismissive. I told him later that I wished he could be a little more sensitive to my need to process it with him and he said, "You are so sensitive. Why do you care so much what that person thinks of you? This is your book and your story and so what if you aren't fully healed yet? I promise you, nobody who knows you perceives you that way." 

I sought feedback from a few others who know me personally and received comforting words of reassurance. It didn't seem like anybody viewed me this way. And I asked people who I knew would give me honest feedback, even someone with credentials! But I still kept wondering why the reviewer saw me that way. And then yesterday, it occurred to me to look up the definition of toxic shame on the Internet, thinking: Maybe I should make sure I have an accurate understanding of the term. I've heard the term toxic shame and maybe at some point I've even read about it. But maybe I've never fully understood it or I have forgotten what it actually is. Maybe I should look it up before I fully reject it as a misdiagnosis. Maybe there's something I can learn from this. Maybe I can improve the book before I publish it. If I still have this kind of shame ten years out of my abusive marriage, maybe others are struggling with it too.

 I had my iPad with me and I Googled toxic shame. Here's the link I landed on:

Abuse creates toxic shame - the feeling of being flawed and diminished and never measuring up. Toxic shame feels much worse than guilt. With guilt, you've done something wrong; but you can repair that - you can do something about it. With toxic shame there's something wrong with you and there's nothing you can do about it; you are inadequate and defective. Toxic shame is the core of the wounded child. (Leo Booth/John Bradshaw)

Wow. Eye-opening. As soon as I read it, I said to John (as we were on the road), "I do have toxic shame. She isn't wrong." And I read this definition to him. I realized as I read this that I had described toxic shame in both of my books. I just hadn't labeled it as toxic shame. So I wasn't completely unaware, I just wasn't using the term. The other realization that hit me was that I was carrying this shame long before I ever met Dennis. I first remember feeling this way at the age of thirteen. Dennis just capitalized on the wounds that were already there. 

Six-year-old me
A couple of months ago, we were visiting my family in TN. We were sitting in my dad's apartment with my dad and my brothers, telling old stories and laughing. We were reminiscing about Mom at some point and I shared that Danny has told me my mother used to tell him that when he did something bad, Jesus gave him a black mark in heaven. (That really affected him as a child.) Saying that resulted in a story being shared about me and black marks in heaven by my dad and my brother. In early childhood (probably first or second grade), I took the bus to school and I apparently liked the window seat. I don't remember this, but I did remember the story when I was reminded of it. As the story goes, I first just tried to pressure other kids into giving me the window seat. But when the bus driver put a stop to that by informing my parents of my behavior, I merely figured out a different way to get the seat I wanted. I started counting the line in threes and making sure I positioned myself at a point in the line where I would wind up by a window. I can't remember if this was also noted and reported or if I was asked about it. But when I confessed to doing this, my dad asked me, "Aren't you concerned about getting a black mark in heaven?" And I said, "No. I figure one black mark won't hurt me that much."

When I was reminded of this story, it made me wonder at what point my thinking so radically changed from being unconcerned about a black mark in heaven to being devastated by criticism. My personal theory is that it was around twelve or thirteen. I have vivid memories of words spoken to me that altered my self-image and self-worth. I remember being that age and feeling like I was born with a defective personality.

Though I don't know exactly when, this shame originated somewhere in my childhood or adolescence. And I don't even think of my childhood as a bad childhood. But I am well aware of childhood wounds that have resulted in years of feeling unlovable. I just thought I had overcome them because I don't feel unlovable anymore. But as soon as I read this definition, my mind went to a few very recent events where I experienced toxic shame.

John said, "Yeah, you kind of had a toxic shame reaction to reading her review, didn't you?" Yep. I sure did. I was devastated for several hours before I started to rebound. The encouraging thing is that I do rebound from these feelings much more quickly than I once did. I don't stay "in the weeds" for long. But this is still my typical initial reaction to an unexpected critique or someone being upset with me.

I will share an example to illustrate this reaction better. A couple of weeks ago I had an unpleasant experience at the hair salon. The person who has been doing my hair for the last year, ever since we moved to WV, reacted to me in a very unexpected and negative way. She'd had a difficult morning with a snow delay, getting kids to school, running late, having to delay my appointment (which I assured her was no problem for me). I was there waiting for her when she arrived. I greeted her warmly as I always do (believing we were good friends). And then I started asking about how we could do something different with my color. I have always had great relationships with my previous hair stylists. Lots of give and take, my input always welcomed, my preferences and opinions perfectly acceptable. My last stylist in Murfreesboro would tell me exactly how she was mixing my color to get the result I wanted, not using just one shade but combining two so I could get depth, warmth and enough gray coverage. I have never been the client who sits down in a chair and expects my stylist to figure it all out for me. And I was under the impression that I had that same kind of "give and take" relationship with my current stylist.

Well, I was wrong and very misinformed. As I started to share my thoughts with her about what we needed to do to warm my hair color up but still cover the gray roots, she started to show visible signs of irritation in her body language and countenance. I was clueless. So I asked, "Am I doing something to upset you? You seem annoyed with me." And she informed me that she didn't like me telling her how to do her job and felt that I wasn't showing respect for her as a professional. I was taken aback and started apologizing for offending her without knowing I was being offensive. She continued and said, "You do this every time and you've done it since the first day you came in. I just get tired of it. And I don't need this today of all days."

I think most customers would have walked out after being treated this way by someone who was being well paid for their professional services. At least, that's been the reaction of every friend I have shared this experience with. "Did you walk out? You mean you actually stayed and let her do your hair after that?" Yes, I did. But I not only stayed, I was in tears throughout the remainder of the appointment. I wasn't boo-hooing. But I was wiping tears from the corners of my eyes and even off my cheeks at times. I had to ask for a tissue. And all of this was said before my hair was ever touched. I asked the stylist if she would prefer me to find another stylist and she said yes, maybe I should. I could not believe she had been stifling these feelings for so long and didn't seem to appreciate my business at all. How could I be so completely oblivious to there being the slightest problem? I honestly believed I was a friend and not just a client. I wasn't mad. I was hurt. Truth is I was more than hurt. I was devastated and embarrassed. That's why I couldn't hold back the tears. I felt defective. I felt ... toxic shame. But I didn't know that's why I couldn't handle being rejected by a hair stylist with a bad attitude.

I apologized again and again, wanting to make sure she knew I had never intended to be offensive, wanting to make sure she knew that I was only going to go elsewhere because she was unhappy with me, not because I had ever been unhappy with her. The only apologetic thing she ever said was, "I'm sorry too." And then as I left, she said, "Sorry it didn't work out." She was cold and unfeeling in spite of my emotion and obvious remorse at my personality causing her this level of stress.

John was home sick that day and I told him, still fighting the tears, what had just happened. It made him mad. He said her employer should know she was treating a customer so disrespectfully and I said no, I didn't want to cause a problem for her. I just wish I had known she felt this way about me so I could have found someone else a long time ago. I still wasn't mad at her. I was turning it all on myself and wondering how many other people felt this way about me and I was equally clueless. I went back into those feelings of something must be wrong with me and my personality if I affect someone this way without even knowing it. And I verbalized those feelings to John, who responded, "Everyone loves you! You are a wonderful person! Why do you even care? The way she treated you reflects more about her than it does you. You are taking this much too hard."

A day later, I had rebounded from feeling defective. But only after reassurance from a handful of friends that the stylist was rude and out of line and there was nothing wrong with my personality. As more time passed and I began to see it through the eyes of John and close friends, I wondered, Why do I react this way? Why does it never occur to me that I am not the one in the wrong? Why do I instead cower and cry and apologize all over myself to someone who is cold and unfeeling toward me?

I have my answer. Toxic shame. It's still in me. I just didn't know it had a name.

So, I am now feeling grateful for the enlightenment of that review. I didn't get an endorsement. But I got something more. A tool to use in my continued efforts to overcome the damaging effects of abuse. When I feel this emotional devastation surge inside of me the next time, I'm going to be able to call it what it is. I'm going to ask John to remind me that I'm feeling toxic shame. Because I'm pretty sure it will happen again. I know I haven't conquered it. But the first step is always understanding what needs to change and wanting to change. I have both of those going for me now.

I intend to make a few more revisions to the book. I want it to be the best, the healthiest, and the most helpful it can be for the benefit of others who share the same struggles. But I also want it to be raw and honest. I don't want to be in denial of the wounds that aren't fully healed. 

At the end of the extremely kind and encouraging "rejection" email, were these words:
We do believe that your book will be helpful to many in their desire to understand and connect to their own abuse.  We pray that the Lord opens many doors for you to share your story.  We also pray for you as you continue your healing journey with Him.  We know it is a lifetime of healing until we are finally face to face with Our Maker and experience His perfect peace!

Such true and comforting words. 
It's a lifetime of healing. 

I'm thankful I'm as far down the road in my healing journey as I am and I look forward to the day when I shed the last painful remnants of toxic shame.


Anonymous said…
Well-I just tried twice and wrote a lengthy comment only to lose it! Sorry. I will try again tomorrow. Just for now I would say that the words "toxic shame" may be one person's definition. I don't know if it is an accurate psychological concept. It seems the cretique of the reviewer points to the concern of your taking responsibility on any level for abuse would be toxic to the reader because she isn't responsible. But accepting that one isn't responsible takes time (and very often there is shameful behavior by girls/women who have been sexually abused). Perhaps you can more accurately define your residual reactions after having been emotionally abused and abused in your first marriage. In other words: you may be too forgiving of others and not forgiving enough of yourself. Just saying.....
Shari said…
Bev, try writing your comment in a word.doc and then copying and pasting. Then if you lose it, you can just paste it a second time rather than having to try to type it all out. That is so frustrating.

I am actually in the process of doing exactly what you suggested. I'm going through the whole book and re-examining what I am conveying. I am to be true to my emotions, even if I'm not yet completely healthy. I don't want to misrepresent my ongoing struggle. But I don't want to cause any other victim to misunderstand what healthy forgiveness is, nor do I want my toxic shame to result in a reader feeling toxic shame. I just want to be very careful with my words. But the definition of toxic shame is diagnostic, not simply this reviewer's opinion. I understand it much better after reading and refreshing my understanding. I don't feel toxic shame about confronting my toxic shame (ha ha), if you know what I mean. I am, after all, a victim of decades of abuse. Of course there's residue. It's a long road to emotional health. I've come a long way. But I'm still a work in progress, as we all are in some area of our lives. Just gotta keep working on it. You're right about one thing; I have much more grace for other people than I have for myself. I don't look at it as not forgiving myself because some of these things are not a matter of needing to forgive. It has more to do with unrealistic expectations and perfectionism.
Shari said…
Should have said "I aim to be true to my emotions..." I hate when I don't notice a typo before I publish. ;P
Anonymous said…
I am grateful for your response. So good. Never having been physically abused, it took me half a lifetime to recognize the emotional abuse. I used to feel/visualize as if I were standing in quicksand and he was standing on my head. There was always the threat and anger which would push me under. Cursing, raising his voice, belittling, -- every day he. Was home during my married life. I was. 15 when i ommitted myself to marriage and was still 15 at forty emotionally even though I was doing gradated work. It's the Spirit which leads us to goodness.