A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to chair a session at the Women Of the World festival in Perth on Shame. Sitting next to three incredible women talking about their experiences of abortion, trolling, mental health and suicide, I was struck by the universal experience of shame for minoritised groups. Hearing their courageous vulnerability was inspiring. That hour was hopeful, compassionate, and open and it’s an experience that has hugely impacted on my practice.
Whether I’m putting together sessions on support needs for survivors, online abuse, wellbeing, or work/ life balance, shame is a theme that pops up again and again. Shame isn’t the embarrassment that you did something wrong, but fear that you, yourself, are inherently, deeply not right.
In my work on tackling tech abuse, practitioners and policy makers often want to know how to fix trauma, how to reach a solution right now to undo the pain that’s been inflicted. But there’s no one solution, rather there are a myriad of tools we can use to help survivors manage and thrive.
Shame is one of the biggest barriers to this process. When people feel like what happened to them was their fault, that they deserved it, that they should take responsibility for the trauma done to them, they are telling themselves that they are inherently deserving of pain. That something in their own make-up caused this violence to happen. And whether or not people disclose their experiences to others, the sound emanating from our cultural narrative means that they will hear yes, it is your fault. What where you wearing, what did you send, why did you do that. The cultural shaming of victims, and anyone struggling with pain, gives energy to shame, and limits survivor’s ability to thrive and move on.
This is why I’m pretty cynical about the growing emphasis on resilience. Resilience can help people to “bounce back”, but what are they bouncing back from? Trauma isn’t a individual bump in the road, it’s an experience of pain caused by others, reinforced by our society. Resilience as an individualised trait doesn’t go nearly far enough in creating the supportive, nurturing spaces and societies people need to truly recover and thrive. It keeps the focus on survivors ability to recover, not societies responsibility to nurture.
I return to the theme of empathy over and over again in my work, and how such a simple, and intentional approach to dig deep into kindness, can have revolutionary impacts. Because when we shift from shame to empathy, to intentional kindness in policy and practice, we become victim centered. We take collective responsibility for trauma and shame. We believe, we listen, we support. We destigmatise and open ourselves up to be vulnerable in our approach. We connect as human beings who are collectively responsible for the wellbeing of our communities, the shape and feel of our societies and the lives of individuals around us.
Shame can be a huge mental load to carry alone, but with empathy in mind, we can all lighten it, and truly support survivors to thrive within trauma.
Watch this for more on empathy