Emotional Trauma: Processing Vulnerability and Shame

I haven’t written in a while. It’s not that I don’t have things to say because believe me, I do, but I tend to think that other people’s voices are more animated, more amplified, more worthy than my own.

My head is swimming with thoughts, drowning in its own self preservation and sadness at the world we are currently living in. I almost feel wrong sitting down to write right now with the intention of talking about myself and not what’s going on with COVID, the upcoming election, the BLM Civil Rights Movement, systemic racism and police brutality. There will never be enough conversation about these topics but that’s not what my blog is for. Forgive me if you disagree with this but I need one place to call my own that isn’t flooded with the outside world. So consider this that place as you continue to read and believe me when I say I have done everything I can to protest, petition, donate and educate friends, family and strangers on all of these topics. But today, I need a place to unload.

I’ve been struggling a lot lately. Silently. And not because I don’t have people to confide in. More because I struggle with vulnerability, shame (I have two TedTalks to recommend at the end of this that I will link below if you’re someone who struggles with what I am going to write about), a bit of anger towards myself and resentment I’ve subconsciously held on to. These are all things we, as individuals, are too proud to discuss.

I wrote in January about starting therapy again. It was one of my many new years resolutions and honestly, long over due. I’m sure we are all like this one way or another but I am the type of person that thinks time heals everything. If enough time passes, surely the problems will just go away on their own. If I push things aside and bury them, they’ll dissolve. If I spend enough time pretending this didn’t happen to me, maybe I’ll forget it ever did. Wrong. 

I’ve spent 10 years trying to pretend.

I can’t do it anymore.

And this whole thing is so overplayed in my mind that I can barely even verbally acknowledge it to those I’m closest to. All because I’m so incredibly desperate to just forget, let it go and move on, but it’s been so glaringly obvious that I can’t do that. And it’s deafening. Even now, I’m struggling to write even though the words and the feelings are there.

I guess to start, I need to recap. I’m not going to go into detail, mainly because I’m writing this for myself as a sort of processing/release exercise, so if you want a refresher, read my post from February. 

Reading it back and refreshing myself, I’m realizing now that I am a total hypocrite. Who am I to encourage people to face their trauma and not let it define them when that’s what I’ve been doing the last 10 years? But I guess I should give myself a break because when that post was written, I really meant those words and I really had forgiven myself and those involved. It’s funny how resentment creeps back up on you.

The further I’ve delved into my sessions, the more I’ve realized I’ve been lying to myself and to my therapist (unintentionally). I have found that I am very good at putting on a brave face, convincing everyone (and myself) that I’m OK and moving on as if I’ve laid it to rest. We call that a defense mechanism. Pretend you’re OK and you’ll be OK. Act like you’re fine and deal with your emotions in private. This is what we call shame (I’ll get into this more later).

If I’ve learned anything through therapy thus far, it’s that, despite how badly I want to move forward and how hard I’ve tried to convince myself that I can move forward, I have to go backwards first and unravel everything. I haven’t done this yet. This is something I plan to work on in the coming months/years. I say years because it’s been 10 already and I feel like I haven’t even started.

I’ve gone over what happened but I haven’t gone over how it made me feel or the long term effects that I think I might be dealing with for the rest of my life. I wasn’t able to process my feelings when I was younger. Instead, survival mode took over and I did what I had to do to survive. I shut down. And the worst part about this entire fucking thing is that I am still entirely closed off, no matter how hard I fight or how badly I want to be able to open up to people. I have shut down emotionally and in turn, physically.

Opening up to people and feeling vulnerable is nearly impossible for me and for so long, I was made to feel like it was my fault. That this was just the way that I am when really, I was made to be this way. We mistake vulnerability as weakness and use our moments alone to give in to our emotions and the way we feel instead of letting people see us angry, in love, sad or overwhelmed. This is something that normal people do. 

For someone like me, for someone that was bullied and emotionally traumatized, the feelings that come with vulnerability are debilitating. I am met with fear, anger, anxiety, embarrassment and shame. All surrounding an emotion and a feeling that should be embraced because being vulnerable is beautiful.

I pride myself on being authentic, especially when I write and converse with others about my opinions and experiences, but how can I be authentic without being vulnerable?

I think part of this recovery process for me will have to be about embracing my discomfort and not running from the feelings that come with vulnerability. Unfortunately, we are inherently taught that being vulnerable is being weak and if you’re someone who thinks this, whether towards other people or towards yourself, I’m here to tell you that you are wrong. Reworking this and understanding this, even for someone who doesn’t suffer from emotional trauma, is extremely difficult.

So I encourage you, especially if you are someone who has not suffered from emotional trauma (this can go hand in hand with bullying, emotional abuse, mental illness, physical abuse, suicidal thoughts/tendencies and self harm), to think about your perceptions of vulnerability and how being vulnerable makes you feel. Are you uncomfortable? Now take that uncomfortably and amplify it to its most extreme.

I think the easiest way to help someone understand the way I feel would be to picture yourself naked on a stage with big, glaring lights in a room where every single person who has ever disliked you is holding a magnifying glass and looking at you through it, inspecting you, invading your space and your privacy, looking at every part of you that you’re insecure about and relishing in your discomfort. You know they’re going to tear you apart. Except the ones tearing me apart aren’t real people, they’re in my head. And they’re me.

My discomfort with vulnerability goes hand in hand with shame. This is probably the biggest and brightest emotion that comes through when I feel like I’m getting too angry or too sad or too passionate about something. I’m met with a wall of embarrassment and I shut down, even when I am doing nothing wrong. But the simplest laugh or the simplest glance in my direction will send me into a tailspin. Shame is one of those things that makes me feel like I’m too much but not enough at the same time. But shame with emotion is the hardest thing to process because although my head is telling me that I need to recede, it’s also telling me that I need to do more, feel more, be more. Yet, there’s a disconnect between these two parts that can’t seem to work it out.

Men and women process shame differently yet we are both taught from the same sources; our family/close friends and the media (social media, movies, TV shows, books, etc). I’m using binary terms here because this is where the difference is most profound. Of course, the feelings that come with shame and vulnerability can be processed interchangeably between all genders but almost all of the psychological studies surround men and women.

That said, women are inherently taught that a man should never see them cry. The public should never see them upset. They should always be cool, calm, collected and presentable at all times. If a woman lets her man see her cry, he won’t take her seriously. He’ll degrade her, take advantage of her emotions and deem her “too emotional” or “unstable.” If the public sees a woman cry, they’ll deem her “reckless” or “unhinged” or “not fit for a position of power because she is too emotional.” You can see how this will inherently effect young women. This is why having emotional women in our life is monumental for how we process and express emotion.

Take me for example; my mom has never expressed emotion in front of me. Anger, sure, but I have never seen her embarrassed and I have never seen her cry. In turn, I was brought up to think that emotion is processed in private. Did she ever verbalize this to me? Of course not, because she doesn’t feel that way towards other people, she only feels that way towards herself and this is what I saw. I don’t blame her, or any other women in my life, for this is how they were brought up, too. Except the difference between my mom and me is that her mother didn’t condone emotions where as my mother encouraged them. Still, she grieved in private and I learned to, too.

For men, and I don’t understand this even remotely as much as I understand women so please correct me if I’m wrong and feel free to share your own experiences, they are taught that they can never show emotion. Period. Vulnerability in men is immediately viewed as weakness by other men. It makes you less manly if you show emotion. They are expected to be the head of the household, the money maker, the bread winner, the stability and backbone for their women and their family.

But, as someone who has dated both men and women, women love when men are emotional and vulnerable in private but they get uncomfortable when men cry. It’s almost unheard of. If a man is crying, someone must have died. It can’t possibly be because he’s upset over an exam or a fight with his mom. If a man shows affection to his girlfriend/wife in front of other men, he’s a “whipped” or “soft.” Men are expected to be strong, stable and emotionless. And in turn, young men view their fathers, brothers, grandfathers and role models and see this type of behavior.

Regardless of gender, fear of vulnerability breeds fear of vulnerability. And we are all extreme examples of this. So how do we break it down? How do we debunk the myth that vulnerability equals weakness? The same way we teach our kids how to tie their shoes and brush their teeth. When they’re young. But what does that do for us who are already well into our lives and are struggling with this now? I guess that’s what I’m trying to figure out.

And the only thing I can do is look inward. Look at what has caused this shame and fear of being vulnerable and rework it. I was talking to my therapist yesterday and coming from an emotional trauma standpoint, this is how they (they’re non-binary) explained what I’ve endured. When you fire a shotgun, it breaks into hundreds of little pieces that are scattered throughout the area. When you experience repeated emotional traumas, your brain takes these pieces of information and stores them all over. Little triggers and reminders and memories stored in the most imperative and important part of your anatomy, your intellect and your life. In my case, they’re all negative.

As I move through this process with myself, I have to collect these pieces and dispose of them. This could take years. Seriously, imagine shooting a shot gun in your backyard, leaving for 10 years and coming back after it’s been overgrown and covered. But you can’t leave until all of the bullet fragments have been picked up and thrown away. How long do you think you’d stay there? I bet you’d wonder if you’d ever leave. If you’d ever find them all.

And all of this, it doesn’t even begin to touch on the genuine resentment and hatred I feel towards the people involved. But that’s on me. I have held on to that for years, to the point where I have avoided my home town since the day I graduated high school. I still go back, of course, to visit my parents but the lasting effects are still there. I tried really hard to forgive, I genuinely did. I gave myself the space I thought I needed, I removed these people from my life and from my social media so they could never know what I was doing, I spent time engulfed in another life entirely and only came back when I absolutely had to. I thought I was ready last year, when I went to my class reunion. And I think part of me was. I really enjoyed talking to people I unfortunately didn’t keep in touch with. But the second I heard their voices or felt their presence, I reverted back to my 16-year-old self and shut down.

Unfortunately, this feeling creeps up every time I go back to town. Even the other day, my parents and I went out to lunch after the beach at a local hangout that I know these people frequent and I was beyond relieved to have a hat, sunglasses and a mask on because I was so genuinely fearful that I would run into them. Quick glances over my shoulder, an unfortunate awareness of my surroundings, my ears ringing for their voices, my face buried in my phone if I thought I recognized someone, an inherent self consciousness that if I did see them, they’d judge me for wearing my beach clothes to a restaurant or not having my hair and make up done. And I hate them for that and for what they did to me. I thought I had forgiven them but I just can’t and I’m not sure I ever will, even though I really want to for my own peace of mind. I hate even admitting the power they still hold over me. It’s humiliating on a very large scale and that in itself is something I struggle to admit.

But despite their apologies and their outward recognition towards me (which has happened a handful of times), I have been conditioned to believe their words and their actions are to make themselves feel better. Because that’s just how they are and I didn’t see through it. I gave them the benefit of the doubt, thinking we had grown up and matured but people don’t change and I’m the fool who accepted their apologies and told them it was fine. But it’s not fine. And I wish I had the courage to tell them that when I saw them and tell them that I will never be able to forgive them and tell them that they will have to live their whole lives knowing that they’ve hurt someone so deeply for just existing.

Still, they kept their friends while I lost mine. They kept their reputations as fun and outgoing while mine turned to dramatic and sensitive. They made new friends in college while I turned inward and graduated with a few. They kept their memories of high school and their emotions in tact while I still flinch if I even drive through town or passed a car that looks like one of theirs. And I can’t help but wonder if they sit around drinking their coffees and their cocktails, talking about how terribly they treated me and how damaging it’s been on me since. I wonder if they know. I’m sure they do.

But the worst part of it all is that they went on with their lives, made new friends, and told their stories where I undoubtedly played the villain because they’ll always be too ignorant and self absorbed to admit their wrongdoings while their friends and families have no idea what absolute, monstrous, abusive people they truly were. All without consequence. That in itself is enraging to me.

And I am sure there are going to be some people who read this and think “just get over it” and I wish I could – believe me, I would do anything to get over this – but I was made to feel things about myself and my life that will take an entire lifetime to undo. I’ve spent years staying silent, trying to move on, protecting their names and identities to avoid backlash and repercussions when I use the truth to slander their names but I’m done. I’m still not going to give names to these people, mainly because they don’t deserve my recognition, but I will hold them accountable and I will continue to talk about bullying and the emotional impact it has on people. Their names are pointless to me, just like their existence, but I am still left picking up the pieces of my old self and hoping that I will one day even remotely resemble the person I was before I met them. And unfortunately, I am reminded of the way they made me feel, the words they used to purposely hurt me and the experiences and memories they took from me every single day because of that.

I guess I just want people to know that these are real, lived experiences for some people and the effects are monumental and long term. Words are extremely impactful on young adults and can stick with you into adulthood. Be mindful of how you treat people and if you have children, be mindful of how they treat people and how they’re treated. Young kids and young adults don’t like to ask for help but the signs are more obvious than you  might realize. Speak up for them. They might beg you not to intervene because it will most likely make things more difficult for them but find ways protect them, even if that means educating them on their self worth when they’re at home. If you see someone being bullied or being harassed, please speak up. You could save someones life.

And lastly, if you are someone who has been bullied or harassed and are suffering the long term effects of it, we’ll get through this. It’s OK to ask for help, it’s OK to resent the people involved no matter how much time has passed and it’s OK to be vulnerable. The shame that comes with your vulnerability is normal, especially after enduring something as severe as what we’ve gone through, but listening to our shame without letting it consume us or change us is monumental to our growth as individuals and our recovery just like understanding the power that being vulnerable has. Check out these TedTalks linked down below by Psychologist Brene Brown. It helped me to better understand what I am feeling and maybe it’ll help you, too.

The Power of Vulnerability
Listening to Shame

As always, thank you for reading and I am always here to listen to your stories and your experiences.