It’s nearly impossible for many of us who have genital herpes to say the word without feeling shame. I am one of those people, though I am actively working on changing this. And as I’ve worked on the change in myself, I’ve asked a lot of questions about shame, its roots and what strategies are effective in overcoming its paralyzing effects.
The roots of my own shame aren’t a big mystery. I experienced some pretty serious abuse growing up and I have relied on the guidance and wisdom of caring and supportive counselors, spiritual mind-body practices, and more often than not, research to find ways to heal my wounds. Those of you, like me, who weren’t blessed to come into the world celebrated and loved the way you deserved to be know the kind of the work you will do to come back from abuse is the work you do just to stay alive.
But once you find your footing, you’ll soon discover your next mountain to climb is the one where you unlearn all of the habits you learned to survive, because survivors do whatever it takes to stay alive. We squash our dreams. We close our hearts to hope so it won’t hurt so much when something comes along we might love and lose or just be tempted to believe we deserve — because for all we know it will probably only hurt in the end. And our survivor brains tell us one more hurt is the only thing separating us from an abyss of pain we won’t escape because we’re convinced we’re alone.
And even if you’ve had a healthy start in life with supportive caregivers and opportunity to grow and thrive, shame is something everyone deals with on some level, and no doubt a diagnosis of herpes is an opportunity for most people to discover where they are in regard to shame and healthy self-concept, and even the strongest will likely feel the ripple effect for some time after they are diagnosed. Acceptance is a journey.
I’ve researched and read about the relationship between shame and imperfection, and I’ve learned in order to fight shame and truly embrace our imperfections, we have to become keen observers of our own thought life. We have to be mental shame ninjas, monitoring our thoughts and inner conversations with ourselves and others. And in my own practice of shame busting, I have learned to use two words to fight my own inner shame thoughts. They are really profound. Are you ready? The words are: “Who says?” So when my shame voice says, “No one is ever going to want to be with you now,” I force myself to ask myself, “Who says?” Sometimes that’s all of the fight I’ve got to throw at a shame thought, but it is a start. This simple question brings awareness and consciousness to such automatic negative thoughts.
We have to fight every thought that says being imperfect is the same as being inadequate or unlovable. Our shame comes from believing we are unlovable as we are, and that is a lie. How do I know? Because everyone alive has imperfections! Pema Chodron, a Tibetan Buddhist Nun says it like this: “Our brilliance, our juiciness, our spiciness, is all mixed up with our craziness and our confusion, therefore it doesn’t do any good to try to get rid of our so-called negative aspects, because in that process we also get rid of our basic wonderfulness.” I love that quote! And isn’t it true? This world would be a pretty vanilla place without you, without me, without all kinds of people and their wonderfulness. Herpes is not who we are, or even a small part of us, but so many of us find ourselves struggling mightily with fear and shame as we attempt to integrate this small virus into our self-concept, myself included.
A residual effect of shame winning the fight for our self-worth is isolation. I know this all too well. I remember telling the counselor I was seeing a while back about a recurring dream where I’d show up to a party wearing combat gear of some kind. I thought it was a silly dream, but when I told her about it, she instantly had insight into where these costume party nightmares were coming from. In my combat gear I felt safe … but no one could see me. No one could love me. I couldn’t feel anything. I knew she was right as soon as she began to ask me the first question.
Maybe you’re like me? Maybe you’ve discovered that you’ve developed some really great survival skills along the way that no longer work in your real life, or find yourself working on some new ones as a result of getting herpes. You’ve shut down and pulled away from others to protect yourself, but what you really want to do is let go of the shame, feel okay as you are and become brave enough to risk being loved?
A while ago, I read about this phenomenon called referred pain. Referred pain happens a lot in undiagnosed cancer patients. It’s pain that shows up repeatedly and would seem to have nothing to do with cancer. For example, a golfer might experience a repetitive pull in her shoulder muscle and treat the shoulder pain thinking he has a hurt shoulder, but in reality, she has cancer growing in her cervix or abdomen. This is serious stuff! When I read about referred pain I immediately thought about how the herpes changes so many of our internal journeys. Yeah, I was diagnosed with herpes, but what I really got was a wake-up call to a lot of internal work I needed to do. I learned I’d have to go deep inside to love and accept myself in this new reality on a whole other level before I would be healthy enough to disclose my status to someone new.
Pain is a gift to tell us to check things out. Pain says, hey…make no assumptions. Look at this. Take it apart and get to the source. You can ice a shoulder if you have referred pain, but it won’t do a thing for your cancer. Pain with herpes is a lot like referred pain. It is its own pain, especially during those first few breakouts, but after the physical pain fades, the emotional pain lingers. It comes up in the way we think and feel about ourselves. They way we perceive our value and worth. And if we’re not careful, we can put ourselves on the damaged goods shelf and stick a discount sticker on our foreheads that communicates something far beneath our true worth. Shame does that.
If we are brave, we will challenge the assumptions we make about ourselves and others and learn to love ourselves on a whole new level. Brené Brown, an amazing author, teacher and researcher on the topic of shame and embracing imperfection, talks about developing what she calls shame resilience. People with shame resilience do a few things well:
Our herpes support community here is a great place to begin reaching out, to hear a friend say “who says?” and to begin to tell ourselves new stories and create new realities to keep shame from stealing our destiny.