mental health

What It’s Like Living with an Internalized Shame Translator

I don’t always hear what you say. It’s not that I hear you and then proceed to overthink and twist your words into an anxiety-fueled nightmare scenario, it’s that everything that I take in automatically goes through my internalized shame translator, and sometimes I don’t hear what people actually say at all. All I hear what my internalized shame tells me they’re saying.

It’s taken me years to realize I even have this translator installed in my brain, and I’m sure it will be years before I figure out how to uninstall it, but for now it’s very helpful to remember that sometimes the negativity I perceive isn’t real. Usually I hate hearing that something I perceive might not be real because I already have such a hard time trusting myself (another symptom of internalized shame), but it’s nice to know that sometimes, the harshness I feel is coming from me rather than from people I love.

For instance, my husband often points out how much I’ve changed in the 8 years we’ve known each other. Until recently, what I heard when he made those comments was “Wow, you used to be the worst. I’ve really just been putting up with you this whole time, waiting and hoping you would change. Thank goodness you have, because you were terrible before.” It never occurred to me that he didn’t mean that. Even though I know my husband loves me, internalized shame has convinced me that I am bad by default and thus should be hated by default, so it doesn’t seem odd to me when my loved ones make comments about how horrible I am. They don’t mean it that way, but it’s an undeniable truth about me: I’m awful.

Recently when my husband said something about how I’ve changed, I apologized for being so terrible in the past. Utterly baffled, he asked what I was talking about. I explained to him what those comments sounded like to me, and he hurriedly assured me that’s not what he meant at all. “I love you,” he said, “why would I say something so mean?”

That’s when I realized I have a translator in my head, one that works all the time, and works so quickly that I hardly even notice the translation process if I’m not paying attention. At no point did my husband say or even imply anything judgmental or mean-spirited when he was commenting that I’d changed. After we talked, I realized he was actually trying to compliment me and express how much he will always love me, no matter how I change. But because I live with an absurd amount of internalized shame, that possibility simply never occurred to me.

The same thing happens in therapy a lot. My therapist has gotten good at spotting moments when my translator is in action, sometimes even when I don’t notice it. In those moments, she’ll ask me “Megan, what did you just hear me say?” That question has been so incredibly liberating, because it allows me to fully explore her words, my reaction, and the reality we’re discussing.

The more I learn about internalized shame, the more I realize that everything is real, even if it’s not. Sure, sometimes I hear something that the other person didn’t say at all, but that doesn’t make that message completely fake. After all, I still heard it. Denying the reality of my perception won’t change it, it simply forces me deeper into the cave of internalized shame. At the same time, taking my perception as fact when I know it has a tendency to be faulty isn’t a great idea either. That also reinforces my internalized shame and convinces me that others also believe the deeply flawed core beliefs I hold about myself. The only way out of internalized shame is to spot it, to make it external, and then to tear it down, lovingly. After all, you can’t hate yourself better.

That’s why it’s so great when my therapist asks what I heard her say. It gives me the opportunity to remove the shame from myself, to say it out loud, and start picking apart why that’s probably not what she really said. It acknowledges the pain of my emotions while engaging the logic of my intellect, without forcing me to live in solely one part of my brain or the other. In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) this is called wise mind, and it’s something I struggle with immensely. But finding wise mind takes my translator out of the question, or at least makes it harder for it to intervene again without my noticing.

Internalized shame has wreaked havoc on my life in so many ways, but I am learning to fight back, to love myself, to search for wise mind and accept both my perception and others’ as real in their own ways. Sometimes it feels like a never-ending battle, like every old issue I resolve is immediately replaced with a new one I didn’t even realize I had, but I’m so much happier with myself now than I ever have been before. I’ve changed. And that’s good.

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