Heartbroken Not Broken

Shame is often a placeholder for powerlessness and a protector against grief. Instead of feeling the rawness of grief, the mind latches onto a shame story that says, “I’m broken.” Instead of surrendering to the powerlessness of painful situations that had nothing to do with you, like your parents’ divorce or any other trauma, the shame story says, “It was all my fault.” Instead of leaping off the cliff of thoughts and diving into the sea of vulnerability that defines being human, the shame story says, “I don’t deserve love.”

These shame stories often arise in childhood as brilliant defense and survival mechanisms, for if children were to see the truth of their family, social, societal, or education situations and feel the corresponding feelings of loneliness and heartbreak they would crumble. Shame gives us an illusory sense of control: If it’s my fault, I can change it. If I’m doing something wrong, I’ll do better. We grow into adulthood with these outdated survival mechanisms and often don’t realize that we need a system update and reboot until anxiety comes knocking on our door.

Recently, two of my friends were struggling with ill parents. They both talked about how they felt like “bad daughters” because they weren’t able to help more, and I shared with them that perhaps the shame story of “I’m a bad daughter” was serving both as a way to try to control the situation – “If I’m a better daughter I can make the pain of the situation go away for everyone” – and as a placeholder for grief and vulnerability. When we touch down into the softer feelings, the armored protections soften as well.

This also came up a few weeks ago with a coaching client. She was talking about the pain of not being having a close group of female friends and the longing she feels when she sees her partner with his close-knit group of buddies.  She touched on the pain but then she said, through shame tears, “I feel so broken.”

Shame tears are different from grief tears. Shame tears are connected to the story that you’re not enough or that there’s something wrong with you. Clients often share their shame tears when they’re talking about their relationship anxiety and the belief they’re carrying that says, “There’s something wrong with me for feeling this way. I should be over this by now. All of this must mean that there’s something wrong with me.” While a significant part of my work with clients involves creating a safe space where all big and painful feelings are welcome, I’m also quick to name shame-tears when they arrive and try to encourage my clients to touch down into the raw pain instead. We aren’t served by indulging in tears that arise from shame, and when we do so we only encourage those pathways to strengthen.

So when she said, “I feel so broken” I said, “You’re heartbroken, not broken.” And as soon as I said those words, the tone of the session dropped out of head-space and into heart-space. She cried from a place of lifelong loneliness and longing, and without the shame story in the way the grief tears could flow without restriction.

I said to another client a few weeks ago, “If we knew we were truly loved, most of the stories and anxiety would fall away.” At the core of relationship, friendship, and social anxiety is the belief that you’re not enough, the story that you’re unlovable or undeserving of love. These stories project in a convoluted, backward way onto others in the form of, “You’re not enough in some way (not attractive, social, intelligent),” but when you peel back the projection the beliefs and stories around loveability and shame are at the core.

At this point we remember to regard our shame stories with reverence, as they were the ones who kept us emotionally safe growing up. I would postulate that there’s an evolutionary component to shame as well and in some ways has kept us safe for most of our history as humans. In times past, it wasn’t safe to show the softer feelings of grief and powerlessness; staying armored was necessary for survival. But as part of our evolution of consciousness we’re being asked to soften the armor and show the softer feelings. Because we haven’t seen this role-modeled we don’t know how to do this, and we likely still carry the generic memory that equates vulnerability with death. As we turn the light of curiosity toward shame we do so with a great deal of gentleness, keeping in mind that, on this threshold of consciousness, we’re all learning together how to live with vulnerability instead of protection.

We also remember to regard the healing process with a great deal of patience. My clients and course members long to break out of their anxiety and heal at the root, which means attending to their multiple sources of pain, grief, fear, loneliness, and vulnerability, but healing doesn’t happen in one magic Hollywood moment (nothing actually happens the way Hollywood tells us it should). If we were to heal all at once our internal circuits would be blown. So we remember to honor the wisdom of our psyche and the timeline of healing, which has at its core an internal guidance system that our conscious minds can’t even begin to fathom. The bigger the trauma and betrayals of early life, the slower we must go with the healing process. And even for those of you who don’t identify with “betrayal and trauma of early life”, there is still pain that needs attention and healing to be done. When we tend to our inner stories with reverence for the process, we move toward healing with more patience and grace, which are the silent hands and secret walls of the birth canal that hold us as we birth ourselves anew.

36 comments to Heartbroken Not Broken

  • Natalie

    Something bad happened to someone in my family. I feel like I could have done more to prevent it. Objectively I probably could have done more. The family member asked for help, yet I didn’t see because it was phrased in a way that I wasn’t capable of understanding at the time. I was grieving over my ex. What happened to this family member was something that will take years of therapy to undo. I am ashamed that I didn’t help. I am ashamed and I feel selfish. I couldn’t communicate these feelings to my partner because it was already too big of a burden for me to carry and in telling him I’d put him in the same position. If he told anyone (which would be totally understandable) he would jeopardize the work done in therapy. Could it be that I have relationship anxiety because I’m projecting the belief that I can’t love someone enough onto my boyfriend whom I love very dearly?

  • Natalie

    I’m not sure if my comment posted, so I’ll try again:
    I feel a lot of shame and guilt for something bad that happened to a family member because I feel like I could have prevented it or helped that person after it happened (as this person expressed their pain to me). I wasn’t able to help this person as I was distracted by my ex boyfriend breaking up with me. Could it be that I’m projecting the feelings of guilt, shame and regret onto my current boyfriend because I have developed the belief that I am not worthy of love and can only cause other people pain if I love someone?
    Side note: my current boyfriend and I’s relationship was very consuming, the anxiety started after I felt secure and loved in the relationship, in the beginning I constantly questioned if he loved me enough (/as much as I do him) until I realized he wanted to stay. I shouldn’t be calling him my current boyfriend as he broke up with me yesterday because I was in a constant state of anxiety and let it out on him by constantly seeking reassurance and closeness

    • Hi Natalie: I responded to your comments on my other posts today. From what I’ve read there, it sounds like you’re starting to make sense of this. Keep reading, start journaling, and you will learn and grow.

    • Xenia

      Natalie, sorry to hear that your boyfriend broke up with you. My heart sunk when I read it though – I am at the point in my relationship when I don’t question my feelings towards my boyfriend but instead I worry that I would be too much for him with my anxieties and need for reassurance. How long were you in a relationship with your boyfriend?

      • Natalie

        I’m really sorry that I scared you, and I’m also sorry that I can’t give you a good answer. My high school relationship lasted 10 months and we had other issues aside from my anxiety. The two of you will find your own way of dealing with this. The fact that you’re worried about this just shows how much you want the relationship, so I suggest you try to figure out what’s underneath your anxiety and what you’re afraid of, so you can return to loving your partner with your eyes and your heart wide open.

        • Xenia

          Natalie, no worries! You know how it works with us, anxious people – little things can spike us 😉
          I do care about him but have so many fears rooting in my childhood. I am working through this with my therapist but it’s not easy and takes time.
          Thank you for your response and all the best to you.

  • Yachal

    Sheryl, thank you for this. Oh the hours I’ve spent crying to my husband that something is wrong with me because I’m not “better” yet. I definitely have lots of years of deep wounds from childhood that I cognitively know will take a lot of time to heal, but it’s so hard to trust the process and be patient. Almost 2 years into really understanding relationship anxiety and my anxiety, I think I’m really just starting to trust that my projections and anxious thoughts aren’t truth but rather signals to something happening in my heart. I still struggle to trust this, but I am definitely seeing the growth trajectory – more clear moments of love and Truth, and less of being tangled in anxious thoughts. In fact, when I have clarity and feel the powerful love for my husband that’s in my heart, the depth and authenticity of it almost frightens me. It is amazing how our minds try to convince us of the complete opposite (I’m not in love, this isn’t “right”) in order to protect us. I guess the “step” I’m at now is finally accepting that it’s not about us or him, but me – and embracing the healing process that I’m starting to believe calls for time as it’s main ingredient.. Again, thanks for all you do.

    • This work really does take time; no quick fixes. It sounds like things are starting to make more sense and that from this place of true responsibility you’ll be able to respond differently to your thoughts and feelings. Keep going!

  • Brooke

    This touched me deeply. I want to put this into action daily. Do you have any advice on how to do that? Shame has been such a legacy for me, especially because of relational trauma and abandonment trauma.

    • Are you doing any daily practices right now? If so, tell me what they are.

      • Brooke

        Um, I was journalling but it got overwhelmed with emotion. I’m working on seeing a psychologist, but I’ve been afraid to do meditation and yoga because my emotional distress got so high. I mean how do you feel the powerlessness and grief? I feel like people say you shouldn’t feel powerless etc.

        • It’s not possible avoid feeling powerless; it’s part of being human to recognize that there are many things in life over which we have no control. If the feelings feel too big when you journal I would strongly encourage you to continue your search to find a therapist. Also the Trust Yourself program, which I believe you have, will guide you on how to grow your own Inner Loving Parent, which is what’s needed when the feelings feel overwhelming. I encourage you to go through that material again (and then again).

          • Brooke

            That’s so rare to hear that it’s okay to feel powerless… Funny you mention it, I’ve been going over the Trust Yourself course for the past few days. I’ll keep at it. Thanks Sheryl for your guidance <3

  • Caitlin

    Thank you so much for this, Sheryl. This evening I had an argument with my mother, and immediately the feelings of shame about not being a good enough daughter arose. Reading your blog tonight enabled me to see that the shame is protecting me from experiencing the heartbreaking pain that I will never have a close relationship with my mother no matter how hard I try or desperately I want it. I’m pregnant with my first child, and this realization is incredibly painful but I know essential for having a healthy relationship with my own child. And I see, like you said, the process is a true gift. Lastly, I would just like to note for anyone in the throws of relationship anxiety to keep working at it. As someone now almost five years into marriage, working through relationship anxiety rather than running from it was the absolute best decision. On the other side of really intense relationship anxiety is not fairytales and rainbows, but you slowly start to learn what real love is. And I suspect those of us who are attracted to Sheryl’s work are here to learn what the true meaning of love is. Wishing everyone strength to keep doing the work – especially when it’s hardest.

    • Thank you for sharing this, Caitlin. You hit the nail on the head (I accidentally wrote “heart” instead of head, which is probably more appropriate) regarding the pain that lives underneath the shame around your mother. This is an essential piece to grieve actively while pregnant, as it will likely arise at various points throughout the pregnancy and in the early years of your child’s life and the more you grieve consciously the less it morphs into anxiety or shame. And congratulations on your pregnancy ;). I can’t believe it’s been five years since you first found my work!

  • Hi Sheryl…
    Thank you for your words and work that you share with us here.
    Like so many others have shared, I have shame and I battle it daily.
    Many days are better than others yet there’s always this tape rewinding in my brain that says I’m not enough. Funny, that tape originated by my bio father and now I push rewind button and bio father is long gone.
    My spiritual journey has been to overcome my trauma and hurt of childhood… overcome me

    Do we ever really overcome?

  • sandra

    I am feeling extreme shame, guilt and regret over a decision I made a few years ago when I was feeling very low, unloved and unwanted. This decision is now irreversible and I am struggling to move forward. I am doing the Breakfree from Anxiety again and have seen a therapist but don’t seem to get anywhere. I hope with perseverance it will help. Does it work the same for people who are guilty.

    • Yes, guilt and shame often go hand in hand. I’m glad you’re working with a therapist and that you have the course, but remember nobody can do this work for you. I suggest going through the course again, and then again, and make sure that you’re practicing at least one of the daily practices as well as journaling. There are no quick fixes for healing from these deeply rooted patterns and beliefs, and for learning how to excavate buried feelings and attend to them with compassion and curiosity.

  • Josefine

    Shame, shame, shame… If it’s not relationship anxiety and the shame that comes with that, it’s always shame for something else. Being a bad daughter, being the reason for all the bad feelings among my closets friends and family. Today I started feeling guilt over the past year as i’ve been working with children, as an extra help. I’m young, have no children myself and have no education in the area, started being anxious about being to hard on them at times when they did not listen, ir for saying things that may not be particularly nice at times. Started feeling so much shame over that today (months later) as I have days when I go through everything that i’m not, all my mistakes and stuff. I know i have never done anything horrible, but my mind makes me feel that way. It’s so tiredsom. Shame is an awful feeling.

    • I encourage you to ask yourself, “What is this shame protecting me from feeling?” and see if you can get underneath it to what really needs your attention. And also to remind yourself that making mistakes is HUMAN.

      • Josefine

        But how do I forgive myself for my mistakes? Always feel like I have to admit, apologise, take responsibilities for my actions? It’s hard to feel what shame protects me from as what I feel is genuine shame and regret.

  • Sarah

    I feel so much shame because I could not save myself from abuse in my childhood and the circumstances around it. It is so draining, and I totally see that it is a way for me to avoid the pain and feelings of helplessness. On top of that I now feel shame because I have lost myself in all the shame! I will try to understand how to get through this.

  • Xenia

    Sheryl,
    Thank you for reminding me that healing takes time and that I need to be patient. I feel better one day and then worse the other. My relationship anxieties go from “I don’t love him anymore” to the sickening worry that he would leave the relationship. Not necessarily because of my anxieties but because I am not good enough and because my dad left me. At times I also experience extreme jealousy of his past and compare myself to his ex. I am all over the place…
    Anyway, thank you for the timely article. Baby steps forward, one step at a time.

  • Mônica

    Thanks again for your comforting words, Sheryl!
    I feel the grief of the end of a bad relationship – I’m happy it’s over as I know I deserve more, but of course there’s still grief, mainly over what I fantasized about this man – I loved the “virtual” man way more than the real one.
    But on top of this grief I am sometimes overwhelmed with a feeling of responsibility towards this person, and some guilt that I “left him alone”. His mother died last year while we were breaking up and I felt I needed to be there for him and did the best I could… but now I feel bad again, wondering how he’s dealing with his loss and his miserable life. I don’t want to be with him nor to give him false hopes, but feel inclined to offer him a helping hand, which would probably only leave me feeling drained, as it did from day 1 since I met him.
    I love what you say about being patient and honoring the process. I think I can slowly feel that.
    What would you say when we feel that we “owe” things to people that in reality we don’t?

    Thanks and lots of love!!!

  • alexandra

    Hi Sheryl,

    I am 21 years old in a 3.5 year relationship with my boyfriend. He is my best friend. We are both extremely mature and have so much in common. I have been diagnosed with OCD since age 11 and suffer from both ROCD/HOCD. A lot of emotional trauma has been released in my relationship both from him and I. We have taken out our childhood trauma on each other and I would classify a lot of it as emotional abuse from both ends. We value each other so much and would never physically lay a hand on one another, lie or cheat. Now, We both are working at our own stressors and our relationship. I am starting therapy and he is taking the matters into his own hands. I’ve been so fearful of our past happening again, and it is like an alarm in my head telling me to leave. We are growing positively and we are willing to work on everything but something inside of me is guarding me from this. Is it my intuition or my fear? Please help me, Sheryl. Again, we are steadily progressing but my fear of love is stopping me from accepting growth. Thank you Xoxo

  • Alexandra

    Sorry about the first couple of sentences on my post, I didn’t not mean to copy that in there as well… But I’m just wondering if it is my intuition telling me to leave and not grow with him, or is it my fears? Thank you Sheryl

  • Cassie

    Thank you so much for writing this, Sheryl. I’ve struggled with this feeling that there’s something wrong with me for pretty much my whole life. The past few years I’ve taken responsibility for my healing with tools like your courses and weekly therapy with a psychologist, and that has been really helpful.

    It’s as if the “Something is wrong with me” mantra just got implanted in my head one day when I was a child. And from then on, that has been something I’ve returned to whenever something challenging/painful/difficult comes up for me. It’s very painful to feel like there’s something wrong with you, so I think I spent a lot of my life trying to protect myself from that very self-rejecting feeling. Part of the work for me was to de-couple challenging/difficult/painful experiences from “there’s something wrong with me”. And once that happened, I was able to just feel the raw pain and grief that you describe above instead of layering on my shame mantra. It’s definitely hard to do if you are used to running (maybe sprinting lol) from difficult emotions.

    A couple things that also helped me that might be useful for others- 1) some understanding of how the shame story/mantra developed– particularly for those of us with early childhood traumas and/or abuse, 2) developing unconditional self love, self trust- knowing the Truth of who you are in God’s, the Universe’s eyes (I know- a tall order and easier said than done), and 3) recognizing that this work takes time (maybe A LOT of time)- this is still really tough for me. Particularly keeping up with the daily practices with a busy life, a partner (relationship anxiety sufferer here!), a demanding career, friends and family, etc. The daily tools help me so much so I’m not sure why I still struggle with them… some resistance I think.

    Anyhow, thank you again, Sheryl. And peace and love to all of those out there who are struggling with this.

  • Lucy

    Thank you, Sheryl. The difference between shame tears and grief tears is something I’ve felt but never clearly articulated to myself, and this article illuminated that. Being able to notice the tears arising from shame, I intend to use your wise question “what is the shame keeping me from feeling?” next time they arise! I have a question – can tears arise from fear, as well? Or is it likely to be tears arising from shame that has morphed into or inspired the fear? Or both?! 🙂

  • Jen

    I worry a lot about my parents and the fact that they don’t seem very happy with each other. They are so different and seem so unhappy with themselves. I feel a lot of shame and responsability towards them and have always tried to make them happy. Their sad faces makes me unhappy and I feel a lot of guilt about it. I’m sure they like to be with each other, at least they say so, and they do everything together which I find destructive. It’s almost like they have never “sorted out” themselves. I feel so bad for thinking this about them, that they seem unhappy and that they should not be together, but in some way they stay together. It’s not an abusive relationship what so ever, but my dad can drink a lot (when he drinks) and my mum has very low self esteem. Every time I’m talking emotions with them, they push it away. I’ve always felt like I’m wrong for having so many feelings as my whole family keeps so many emotions inside. Any thoughts?

    • That sounds very painful, and my guess is that underneath the worry and shame is a lot of sadness, helplessness, and loneliness. If you can move toward the root feelings, the top-layer feelings of shame and worry will lessen over time.

      • Jen

        But when I come to the feelings of sadness, loneliness and helplesness that I also feel towards many things, I don’t know what to do either. Hove can I work with focusing on my life insted of theirs when I do really love them?

        • It’s a practice to rewire that habit. Working with a therapist can help enormously, as can any practice that helps you turn inward and learn to attend to your thoughts and feelings effectively.

  • Gromit

    I’ve been gaining clarity recently on how much my negative thoughts about my fiance, and my positive thoughts about other men (many of whom I barely know), have to do with the difficulty of moving past the pain of my childhood. I can see that I’m waiting for a perfect, nice mommy or daddy, someone who will understand and mirror me perfectly. Moving forward from out of this grief, without ever having had that mommy or daddy experience, is terribly painful, and it turns out my subconscious is brilliant at resisting it. Thank you so much for your blog, Sheryl. I’ve been doing this work for years, but it is slow, slow, progress for me, and takes time for my stubborn heart to get the point.

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