So this is fun: today I learned that adult survivors of child abuse tend to have more deeply embedded messages of shame than others.
Moving through shame has always been a monumental task. For me, it isn’t a warm wash, as Brene Brown describes it. For me, it’s a sucker punch. Even with the much healthier and more self-loving life I am living now. So, what gives this seeming permanence to messages of shame for abuse victims?
Several musicians, who I respect and admire, privately messaged me personal stories of childhood abuse after I posted my last article. I was heartbroken to hear about other people’s hurt, slightly relieved that I wasn’t alone, but also perplexed. How come these musicians are capable of performing anywhere with relative freedom and I can’t? Is this perceived? Are they struggling like me and am I unaware? Does it depend on the day or the environment like it does for me? Why does it seem some abuse victims are more capable of functioning than others?
Random physical abuse in my childhood jacked with the autonomy I needed to grow normally. I was not given any real protection or compassion in the aftermath, and I was also told not to talk about what happens at home…I learned that the lack of care following the abuse may have been more damaging than the trauma itself.
I was left on my own to figure out a way to protect myself, and at the same time I was regularly giving my father and mother the benefit of the doubt. I thought that was a character strength of mine (born of abuse), but the truth is it allowed me to prolong relationships that were no longer healthy for me. It was a weakness. I would hang on, give the benefit of the doubt again and again, then resent the person while patiently waiting until he or she improved. Did I just describe my love/hate relationship with my own trumpet playing?
Well, studying the trumpet, playing in band/orchestra, and working on my music degree? For the first 10 years, that was the safest place I had ever known. I had my character flaws, but that was a safe place. I couldn’t be hit. That is, until I experienced my first playing disaster: a callus on my top lip in the week of an audition. That’s when I first learned that my trumpet playing can betray me too. I handled that betrayal in the only way I knew: negative self talk and self-destruction, and a never ending hustle to make up for that awful audition.
My abuser was out of control and discharging the unresolved pain of his childhood abuse on me and my brothers. That and he was disciplined this way by adults in his life, part of the cycle of abuse. Since the abuse occurred at random when I was young, it contaminated developmental skills and life experiences. On top of that, denial and requests for silence and cooperation (from my mom) doubled down my hurt. This is where I alienated myself from my own reality and experience, instead of alienating myself from my abuser (due to dependency).
I believe this is where my trauma-related shame became deeply sewn into the fiber of my being. I wasn’t simply hijacked by shame, I was convinced that the message of shame can’t be wrong, that I need to do differently, instead of knowing deep down that I never deserved any of this.
I think this is why it’s so easy for me, when performing, to be ensnared by the shame tape “I’m not good enough”. If I believe that is true, I may have a false sense of power (cultivated by self blame in response to abuse) and I will hustle to fix things that would already naturally be working if it weren’t for the shame that jumpstarts the fear response. With trumpet being a low flow rate/high air pressure instrument, the added tension of the fear response is the flipping worst.
For a few moments of experimentation, my sound becomes freed and there is a glimmer of hope. That hope goes away because I do not have control over something that is out of control. My obsession with perfecting my playing is likely a coping mechanism for my trauma. When I don’t care about playing well, I always play well. When I’m in a safe environment like a pit orchestra with my friends or a big band with my friends, I am great. Totally fine. This coping mechanism only ever kicks into high gear in classical playing, my absolute favorite music to play.
I would sooner believe that I’m not playing well because of this or that. Some of my practice sessions that went on for hours (past the point of being useful/helpful) were not for the purpose of actually playing well but for the purpose of avoiding pain, pain avoidant practice as a coping mechanism for pain from my past.
About those other musicians, it could all be perception. My perception of self vs my perception of them. Maybe they had amazing teachers in the beginning. Maybe they had support somewhere in their families. In any case, the truth is that none of us had it good.
The more days of love and protection a child has growing up before experiencing abuse, the higher the chance for quick recovery. The quicker that loved ones are to providing compassion, care, and support for children who experience trauma, the quicker the recovery (possibly). I wasn’t so lucky.
Still, I do not have all of the pieces to my story. With an awesome, carefully picked support system, a new environment, iron clad boundaries with my parents, continued perspective, and power via acts of self-love, I will be able to recall more memories and collect my story as it reveals itself. Then I will be able to grieve. Then I will be able to move on, having separated this trauma from my self-worth and my self image.
I know this will not blow over quickly, but I’m still young. I believe things will get better.
Healing the Shame of Child Abuse Through Self Compassion (Psychology Today), Beverly Engel, L.M.F.T.
National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse, naasca.org
The Power of Vulnerability, Brene Brown