Working with Shame is a High Altitude Climb

The last 300 feet to the summit you would think is only 300 feet but at these altitudes (28,700 ft) the amount of effort that you need is exponentially increasing in difficulty. It is not a gradual increase in difficulty. It is exponential. The last 300 feet takes one to two hours to climb….It doesn’t seem difficult, 300 feet. Down here it take 10 minutes to walk that, but up there it is a very slow and arduous process. You breathe six to eight times, and then you take a step and then you breathe six or eight times, often you just think about taking another step, you breathe six or eight times and then you finally take that step. It’s quite a physical or mental effort just to think about taking each individual step. That’s how you have to break the summit down. You can’t look at the whole ascent. You have to break it down into small sections and into tiny little steps.
— Ed Viesturs

There are times when you are healing when the hiking is okay—bumpy and rocky, but okay. And there are times when it is steep, both up and down. But trauma work is often a high altitude experience. The air is thin. You have to work very hard and not make it very far. You need an experienced guide and some strong ropes. And there are some places where you are working hard to just put one foot in front of the other.

Trauma work is almost always shame work. Trauma creates shame; if you have experienced trauma, you have experienced helplessness. You have experienced yourself at your worst. And shame is the painful experience of being seen at your worst, of feeling badly about yourself. People who have lived through trauma don’t get to have the illusion that in a bad situation they would be heroic: they have lived through a bad situation and they know what they did and how they responded—and most of what most of us do is survive. And survival is good. But we come out of it feeling bad because we weren’t who we would hope to be in that moment, we were people surviving trauma. And it can get us all, child or adult. It doesn’t matter if you were a child who witnessed domestic violence, or an Iraq veteran who had to shoot dogs.

Yes, trauma work is shame work and shame work is hard. But in trauma work, it is really a sign of success. Actually, if you hit shame in your life, even if you haven't experienced trauma, you can take it as a sign of success. If you are feeling shame, you are hitting the high altitude part of the climb. You are near the top of this particular mountain. If you are feeling shame--you are almost there! But there can feel so, very, far, away. Like the quote above, the last 300 feet on Everest takes two hours to climb. It is one step. Breathe six to eight times. Another step. Breathe six to eight times. Another step.

And this is just what it feels like when you have hit that place in your healing. When you have hit upon some part of your story where there is still shame, where you get dragged back in to the most painful part of yourself. You can feel everything get heavy. You can feel like it is a tremendous effort to get even one word out of your mouth. It can feel like even one word is dangerous or painful. You can feel the lack of oxygen and your own lack of energy. You look around wondering why you thought this climb was a good idea, you wonder if you will actually make it, you wish for a way out, any way out, other than going forward.

But you don’t realize, even in that moment, that the only way out of it is doing exactly what you are doing. The only way to the summit is putting one foot in front of the other. One step at a time. Slow, slow progression at a pace that allows you to breathe.

And the only way forward with shame is one word at a time. A slow, slow progression of words that allows you to keep moving, keep getting the story and feelings out, and keeps you connected to the person you are talking to. The thing about talking about shame is that you do actually move from one place to another. It is a small shift, like the 300 feet, but it can make all the difference in the world. When you climb that last 300 feet on Everest you have a 360 view of the world. You have perspective. You have your own view of the world. And that’s what you get when you talk about your shame.

Talking about your shame allows you to move from the story of shame to the whole story. Trauma isn’t just about what happened. A whole trauma story includes who you were before, the circumstances of the trauma, what happened, how you protected yourself and what didn’t happen—and what has happened since. All of that is your story. And when you move from shame, from just one part of the story, to the summit—to where you have a 360 view of your whole world, and not just your shame—then something in you gets transformed. You gain back some of your inner landscape.

It is so hard to remember, when you hit that tough place in the climb, that the summit is so near. That you need to keep heading toward it, and not run away from it, or simply flop down, giving up. It is so hard to remember that in your worst moments of climbing, your team is there for you, and is inspired by you. You feel slow and awkward. You feel like you are barely moving. You feel like you are letting them down. You can't believe that this far in to the climb you can feel this badly. But your team is also on the summit. They know how hard the terrain is. They have been with you for the whole climb. And they know that the summit of this climb isn’t as far away as you think it is.

This high up on the mountain you can forget that it was actually your hard work over a long period of time that got you to this conversation, that got you this close to your ability to see this whole thing from a new perspective. When you feel shame, you feel bad, and this can make you feel like you did something wrong—when nothing is further from the truth. When you feel shame in your healing work, take a deep breath and remember that you have worked hard to be right where you are. Take a deep breath and simply go one word at a time. Move at the pace that you can. You will get there. You have already survived the worst. Look around at the world beyond those difficult steps, a world you can see because of your hard work on this long journey. Look around. Your world is so much bigger than any one story. 

© 2015 Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD 

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