Shame and Family Violence

Some years back I took part in a series of group sessions that focused on helping people confront and deal with inner shame that had haunted them since childhood. It was the first group in my experience that got me to interact with other people not just through talk but through dramatic reenactments of past painful encounters. This experience was one of the first to wake me up to the ways other people might see me, free of the projection of shame I usually cast over the judgments of others. By working with the members of this group in recreating traumatic dramas and talking through each one afterward, I could finally begin to see the inner shame I carried as a depressed belief, not an objective reality. The people I knew only in this setting were tremendously supportive and gave me hard evidence to fight back against a heritage of shame built up in my boyhood.

There was one moment of frustration with that group, though, that opened before me all the emotional violence of my boyhood and teenage years. I had a choice to face it openly or keep clamping down and forcing the powerful emotions to break under the pressure of my refusal to let them out. There was no clear ending to that crisis.

The incident in the group that set me off isn’t even all that clear to me now. I just remember that I felt overlooked. I must have been bypassed as others were telling their stories and I was preparing to tell my own. Suddenly the focus of the group shifted, and I never got my turn. Since I had been getting ready to pour out hidden grief about a major event of the past, I felt betrayed by everyone. I was angry, hurt, even fighting back tears, and I found myself determined not to let any of that show. I spent the rest of the time shutting down and burning all the energy I had not to reveal what was storming around inside me. And then it happened that my past opened up, and I found myself holding tight to my feelings in the midst of a raging family fight of years ago.

My brother and father were locked in a furious fight, hurling punches, then stumbling over each other wrestling, knocking aside a table, hitting the floor, my mother screaming herself hoarse at my dad to leave him alone, my brother at some point breaking free and running upstairs to lock himself in the bathroom. But my father pursued him on a wave of rage that lifted him up those stairs to start beating on that bathroom door, then shoulder-smashing it open. My mom shoved him aside to grab my sobbing brother in her arms while hoarsely bellowing at my father to get out, get out forever. And there I was standing by, following the scene as it unfolded, silent, holding in all feeling, convinced that if I were to rage with the rest of them there would be nothing left standing of family, home, safety.

For this was no typical scene of domestic violence unleashed by an alcoholic parent on a battered family. It was an ongoing battle between my mother and father, mostly fought with quiet verbal knives but often breaking into shadow fights of shouted abuse. My mom looked to my older brother as her champion in this bitter contest, and he took my dad on physically. I was alert each night as I tried to study in my room to the sounds of my father entering the house, and I would wait to hear how violently my brother would greet him. Would this be a night of combat or merely a night of quiet tension and anger? If I heard the hard challenge in my brother’s voice, I’d move to get into that room with them, somehow hoping my presence would help avoid the worst. When I held back from the fighting, refusing to see my dad only as a monster to be hated and attacked, my mother called me a traitor and a coward. Yet I held my ground of not taking sides because a greater fear than her contempt was fear of the complete breakdown of this fractured household, the only home I knew. And in my heart I loved them all – my mother, my father, my brother – wanted them together, wanted a family, though love in that house was such a tortured and punishing thing.

There was only one way to express anger, aggression, violence in safety, and that was by directing those feelings inwardly at myself. I had little awareness of what was happening, but depression took hold quite early in my life. And the belief grew over time that the monster I refused to see in my father or my mother or my brother had taken up residence in me. It was a long and costly struggle to keep him well hidden.

Jelena Popic –

13 Responses to “Shame and Family Violence”

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  1. Mich says:

    Thank you for your kind response to my comment. Yeah, there are those days where the lies seem easier to believe. My mind knows the truth and I try to focus on that for the most part. To be honest, I think the “disgust” feeling occurs because the part of me that always wants to be in control does not like it when I find myself in a position of vulnerability.

    I think people who’ve experienced brokenness recognize it in others and appreciate when someone is able to express feelings and ideas for which we may not yet have found the words or the courage to say them. I am glad to have stumbled upon your blog.

  2. Clara says:

    John, I too come from a broken family made of broken people. I found my path out and learned to feel good about myself and my life but it took a very long time. I don’t think anyone’s path to survival is the same as someone else’s so I won’t even bother telling you what was my turning point. All I will tell you is to keep looking for that path. I wish you well John and I am sorry that you had so much to deal with at such a young age.

  3. John D says:

    Mich –

    Thanks for these compassionate thoughts – but I am sorry that you sense the “overlooked feeling that burns…” in yourself and feel only “disgust.” That’s such a strong word. Does that mean you see yourself in terms of “lies set in us by others and ourselves”? That is, that you believe those lies? You put that so well, it’s sad that you are still feeling negative toward yourself. I suppose, though, that I’ve done just that for so many years as well – totally believing the lies even after learning about their origin. That meant accepting the voice of depression in my case – taking it as the reality of who I was. It sounds like you share that problem.

    My best wishes to you!


  4. Mich says:

    Hi John,
    I found my way over here through Stephany’s blog.

    Wow…. it’s amazing how, through the initial frustration/sadness with the group situation, the door to such a significant room from your past was unlocked. How wonderful that you followed where that feeling led you. I think I’d have gotten stuck at the resentment.

    My folks fought, only theirs was a silent battle that weighed as heavy as an elephant in the room. I understand that overlooked feeling that burns the eyes and the heart. I see it in others and I feel compassion; I see it in myself and I feel disgust. Weird, eh? Intellectually, I know that there’s something askew with that and, ever so slowly and, at times painfully, I am beginning to cut myself some slack.

    When I think of that young boy having to deal with that scene from your past, my heart aches. Quite understandably and sadly, though mistakenly, he took on a responsibility that was not his. As adults we know this, as kids we don’t.

    There are lies that were set in us by others and ourselves, sometimes inadvertantly and sometimes deliberately, but they are lies nonetheless. I have a picture of a bubble rising from the deep that grows as it climbs. The bigger it gets, the more room and distress it causes. But what a relief when it finally hits the surface.

    Thank you for sharing your journey.

  5. stephany says:

    Yes, I am grateful for the person telling me that, because it really hit home with me and I think became a good foundation for self-acceptance along the way. Though, it is not always perfect this we know. I was in my late 20’s and I bought my mom a big crystal vase. A friend of mine looked at me and said, “You know…you can’t buy her love.” Now that took me back, because I hadn’t noticed my own pattern, of still in some way trying to fill that void. Ironically, the vase had a base that kept falling off and shattering. Which sent my mom and I on a quest for a replacment, to several shops in several cities, and had lunch and an unexpected great day together, which is one I will never forget. It’s been about 20 years since that vase day. Recently, at my Dad’s funeral, and at my mom’s house–I saw it. In her hutch of prized things, including some ceramics I’ve painted over the years. So there it stood. Right in front of me. The acceptance I sought, and didn’t really know I had.
    Maybe it’s something we don’t stop to see we had it? I’ve also believed that anger is the base of some depression, not all of course. Because that same person who talked about the void, when I made a comment I felt depressed, asked me “What are you angry about?” Some good soul searching questions.

  6. JohnD says:

    Stephany –

    What a gift at 18 to get that advice and then be able to accept the truth of it inwardly. I can’t say I ever stopped trying to fill that void while my mother was alive, even though I had “learned” this lesson. No matter that I knew it was useless, I kept trying emotionally to get something from her that she just didn’t have in her to give. It amazes me how long these patterns persist and how hard it is really and truly to get completely free of them.


  7. JohnD says:

    Thanks, Marissa –

    That’s an interesting way of putting it. I usually focus on the anger and aggressive feelings turned inward instead of hatred. But it is a form of hate I wound up directing at myself, a conviction that I wasn’t any good, more like contempt really. I don’t know that I ever felt hatred for my family – I’ll have to work with that one a bit. But inside me the self-hate, even if I didn’t call it that, has been powerful enough at times to lead to suicidal thinking.

    Isabella –

    That’s a striking image of a critical moment. I can see how that must have been a breakthrough. In the incident I describe, I couldn’t manage to release any part of the feeling in the moment but had to come back to the next session when the intense feelings had passed and then let them know. That made the whole thing a lot harder to deal with.


  8. Marissa Miller says:

    Hi John,

    I’m just starting to read your blog now. I’m sorry that you had to go through this. I think, for many people, depression is hatred toward others turned inward. I want to distinguish that from self-hatred because it’s not like we hate ourselves because we want to but instead of feeling the need to hate others, we feel the need to hate ourselves instead in the hopes that we can salvage any fractured relationships. I don’t know if that describes you but it certainly describes me.

  9. i have been in such group situations myself and it felt very strange to re-feel, as an echo, those old childhood feelings. a sense of – panicked un-reality?

    last time something like this happened, i spoke up to the person by whom i felt discounted and as i realized that there was still a lot of storm within me even after speaking up, i walked up to the leading therapist, told him how worked up i was (and how embarrassed i felt about feeling worked up) and went for a long walk.

    that was a real breakthrough for me.

  10. stephany says:

    The best thing someone told me at age 18 when I spoke of family and wanting approval,and more; was that there is a void there and nothing can fill it, not a person, friends, family, hobby, food, etc. once I embraced that concept, of having a void that cannot be filled, it allowed me freedom to stop trying to fill it.

  11. JohnD says:

    Anon for Now –

    I guess there were two problems. One was holding back both sets of emotions – expressions of love and of anger-aggression. The second was that I forced myself to hold all this in and wound up using that strategy of self-constraint long past the boyhood situations that started me on that path. There are still precious few times when I’m relaxed enough to show what I’m feeling in the moment, without censoring. There’s a lot more to unwrap from that, and I’m sure I’ll keep coming back to it in this blog.

    Zathyn –

    I’m not sure I kept wanting the perfect family, but I did keep on wanting to get things right with my mother, up until her death when she was not very lucid much of the time. We did connect a few times before she died, but I never freed myself of the need to try to be the good son and gain her approval. Everyone I know who has been through that has had nothing but frustration for the effort. And it sustained the dynamic that gave rise to depression in the first place when I was just a kid.


  12. says:

    All of us are individuals and how we cope with violent and abusive upbringings determines to a large extent the adults we grow into. No matter how much screaming, how much fighting, how much degradation we endured, we still wanted to have that perfect family. The father who’d protect us rather than turn on us. The mother who’d nurture us rather than strip us down. The siblings we could rely on rather than walk in the shadow of.

    I’m very much like you in this way, John. The quiet one who never expressed anger, hurt, shame, etc verbally or physically but turned it inward. The comment above asks a valid question and for most I’d predict the answer would be, ‘All of those things.’

  13. Anon for now says:

    John, here’s something to consider (no need for a response): Is the problem that that you weren’t allowed to express anger, aggression, and violence, or that you weren’t allowed to express the love you felt?