My husband is standing at the sink, drying dishes, while I sit in one of our hand-me-down recliners, scrolling through social media as we mindlessly discuss my incessant need to be liked.
“Hey, my parents made it clear that their opinions always mattered more than mine, and I was just a kid. You can’t blame me for believing them,” I say, half joking, half enraged, and half deeply sad.
“Yeah,” I hear him say, “but you aren’t a kid anymore. You’re in your 20s. Now it’s your fault.”
My heart shatters.
That’s one of my biggest fears, that my flaws exist not because of some mental illness or any actual, real struggle, but because that’s just who I am. I am just a fundamentally bad person. My flaws are my fault, and my self-awareness only makes me even worse because I know all about my flaws, meaning I have a responsibility to fix them.
I don’t think my husband was saying that I’m a bad person. I think he was trying to convey a common bit of wisdom: our trauma is not our fault, but our lives after trauma are our responsibility.
But what does that mean? What exactly are we responsible for? Our actions? Our feelings? Our personalities? And speaking of personality, how is our responsibility affected when our personalities were shaped and molded by trauma?
My trauma was growing up in an environment that consistently led me to feel ashamed about who I was as a person, even as a child. It wasn’t intentional, and despite being traumatized by my upbringing, I also know I was (and still am) very dearly loved. But that love didn’t stop the constant shame from leaving its mark on my life and my personhood. I developed a “shame-based personality.” This isn’t an official mental illness or personality disorder, but it is painful and affects pretty much every aspect of my life. Having a shame-based personality means that, at my core, I truly believe that I am a bad, unlovable person.
Over the years, I’ve done a lot of work in therapy to fix the issues that result from having a shame-based personality, like short but intense periods of depression, constant indecision, an overactive fight/flight/freeze response, and more. But all of that work is kind of like pruning a dying plant without addressing its withering roots. It’s not until recently that I started to get at the reason behind all of my problems: growing up shrouded in shame, and the scars that has left on my personality.
And now that I’m in my 20s and no longer in the environment that reinforced these messages, those scars are my fault. Not just my responsibility, but my fault. It’s not just my emotions or actions that are problematic, but my entire self-conception and relationship with the world around me. Because I’m out of that environment and I know better now, it’s my fault that I still feel inferior and ashamed and broken. I am not responsible for the trauma that made me feel this way, but I am responsible for outgrowing these issues, and if I fail to do so, I’m letting my past hold me back.
Maybe now you can see how I came to the conclusion that I am simply a bad person. If I have a responsibility to fundamentally change myself in order to be better, then doesn’t that make who I am now bad? And if I fail to make those changes, doesn’t that make me even worse?
I’m not sure what my responsibility is. I understand that I’m responsible for my life, that I can’t just blame my trauma for all of my shortcomings or failures, but I also refuse to let shame rule my adulthood the way it ruled my childhood. My personality has been shaped by shame, and even though I don’t love how it has made me defensive and lonely and filled with rage, I also refuse to accept blame for those things. They are not my fault, even if I am aware of them. They are the byproduct of pain.
But even if they aren’t my fault, even if I’m not to blame, do I still have a responsibility to heal my scars, to become less defensive and lonely and angry? Maybe it’s not so much a responsibility to others, but rather a responsibility to myself. I have the right to have flaws just like anyone else, regardless of where they came from, but the thing is, I don’t want to be like this forever. I want my scars to heal and my real, good personality to emerge. The personality that would have formed if I hadn’t spent most of my life drowning in shame. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen though. I think wounds can heal, and scars can fade, but if they’re deep enough, they are there forever. And mine run deep.
My personality is what it is, to a certain degree, and the idea of finally healing and becoming the “real” me is another byproduct of the trauma of shame. I am ashamed of who I am. All I want is to become the “real” me, the “good” me, because the person I am now isn’t good enough.
It should be possible to want to improve myself without being ashamed of who I am, right? There’s a middle ground in there somewhere, I just know it. But as usual, I can’t seem to find my footing there. I’m just hopping back and forth between “I’m the worst pile of human garbage worthy of a thousand deaths” and “I’m completely fine the way I am and fuck you for suggesting otherwise.”
I know these thoughts are scattered and contradictory and inconclusive, but by simply allowing my feelings to take up space in the form of this article is a huge step for anyone whose personality has been shaped by shame. Shame is the great silencer, and when who you are has always been defined by that silence, any time you speak your mind, no matter how jumbled, it is a victory. This is my voice, my heart, choosing to exist in defiance of my shame, and encouraging you to do the same.