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Litanies of the Heart: The Wounded Heart


"Litanies of the Heart provides innovative approaches linking Christian meditation and psychology that will help the broken find comfort, consolation, and healing for their wounds." - Matt Fradd

Alexandre's Story, Part 2 : The Burden of Shame

In the eyes of my child self, my father was the very figure of masculinity. He was strong and good-looking and had a booming voice. He could curse out anyone. In his younger days, he rode a motorcycle, played hockey, and knew martial arts. He had a rifle in the closet and porn magazines in his dresser drawer. I was afraid of him because his demeanor always included an element of threat. No one messed with him.

The truth is that no one would have guessed that this paragon of masculinity was abusing me.

For many years, I carried that burden of shame. As a child, of course, I didn't know about sex, and I had no words for what was happening. My father was normally rough and loud and irritable, but then he would become playful and include me in his "secret." It was the only time I felt as if he wanted me around, but at the same time, I was scared and overwhelmed by the abuse. He made it clear that I could never say anything to anyone about it. This is when I learned that the world wasn't what it seemed and that I couldn't trust anyone. These were my first lessons in compartmentalization and dissociation. I put the abuse in a box and pretended it didn't happen. And when it did happen, I exited my body and disconnected from reality.

The sad truth is that I carried that burden through adolescence and into adulthood. I could behave on the outside as if everything was all right. I could achieve good things and be the poster boy for overcoming adversity. But deep inside, that little boy was still there, hurting, uncared for, fearful, and deeply ashamed. I wondered if I was gay. I didn't want to have sex with men, but I couldn't get the images of the abuse out of my head. I hated my father, but I wanted deeply to be loved by a father. I wanted to be affirmed by a father. I wanted to believe I was man enough.

I was working as a lawyer in the early nineties and heard that Sheldon Kennedy, an NHL hockey player, came forward as a victim of abuse by his former coach Graham James. In Canada, many young talented hockey players were sent out west to live with host families under the care of a coach who managed every aspect of their lives and prepared them to be drafted into the minor leagues and eventually into the NHL. Sheldon's witness had a profound impact on me because here was an NHL hockey player—in my mind, the epitome of manhood—revealing that he had been sexually abused as a child. I learned from his courage that the shame I was carrying didn't truly belong to me; it belonged to my abuser. Sheldon inspired Theo Fleury, another NHL player who had played with Wayne Gretzky for Team Canada in the Olympics, to come forward with the truth that Graham James had also abused him. Not only did Fleury unburden himself of the shame, but he also chose to advocate for abuse survivors across Canada.

Releasing shame begins when we tell our stories—not only of pain and suffering but of resilience and growth. My first disclosures occurred with close friends, including my future wife. In time, I learned that in telling my story, I was able to receive the love and care and empathy that I needed as a child. When Oprah interviewed abuse survivor Tyler Perry and invited two hundred male survivors on her show, she was giving those men a voice, affirming their worth, and allowing them to stand with pride. The courage that Tyler and those men shared inspired me. Eventually I developed the courage to talk about my story more openly and tell it to others.

The Psychology of the Interior World

In both IFS36 and Ego State Therapy37, wo psychological therapeutic "parts work" approaches, parts are often understood as subpersonalities, as we've already discussed. In IFS, parts are often categorized as protectors or exiles.

Recall that exiles are wounded and traumatized parts that are holding grief, pain, and shame. These exiles are usually young parts. Charles Whitfield and John Bradshaw described healing the "inner child." Our protector parts are divided into managers and firefighters,38 and they keep us from feeling the pain of the wounded parts. Manager parts are often good at completing tasks or functioning effectively in some role, such as a parent, a worker, or a helper, whereas firefighter parts leap into action during emergencies when an exile begins to overwhelm the self-system. The protectors can take many forms, such as a critical voice, a wall, an anxious "doer," or a tough Navy SEAL. We know from the previous chapter that Alexandre has an achiever manager part, a withdrawn firefighter part, and a third-grade exile part. We also know he carries a heavy burden of shame.

Exiles are parts that hold distressing and disturbing emotions, thoughts, and beliefs that we call burdens. We often refer to them as "wounded children" because they are frozen in the past. When we work with exiles, we need to understand that developmentally they are often very young. We therefore need to speak to them as we would to a child who has experienced something very distressing. They may feel abandoned and rejected. They may blame themselves for things that were out of their control. They may feel lost, sad, or fearful.

It is possible that as you read this description of exiles, or as you read the first two parts of Alexandre's story, you have protector parts showing up to protect your exiles. You may have a protector who wants to challenge the ideas and concepts behind parts work. You may have a protector who wants to disconnect from your feelings. If so, this is perfectly normal. Take a break whenever you need to as you read this book. Thank your protector parts for working hard to defend you.

Parts are not bad in and of themselves, but many parts appear dysfunctional. As a result of traumatic experiences, our parts carry burdens. Manager and firefighter parts adapt and find ways to cope during difficult life circumstances. Some of these parts learned to adapt in ways that are now causing problems. For example, in the previous chapter, we saw how Alexandre's intellectual achiever part developed to avoid emotions because his father was emotionally volatile. If he focused on being smart and rational, he could avoid negative emotions. Here we discover that his child part also experienced sexual abuse and carried a burden of shame. As a child, he was unprepared to make sense of what his father was doing. The child just wanted his father to love him and affirm him.

Other parts, perhaps the intellectual achiever part, or some other part with a critical voice, might blame the child for being needy or not standing up to his father. These critical parts may not fully realize just how young the child part is. Since intimacy and abuse were inappropriately conflated for the child part, he may not be able to trust people who appear to be friendly and loving. We must appreciate just how difficult it is for abuse survivors to experience safety. We need to recognize that, deep down, we are dealing with a hurt, frightened child.

Real healing begins when Alexandre thanks his protector parts, including the critical ones, and then asks them to ease back as he invites the exiled wounded-child part into his present consciousness. The wounded-child part may have learned that sharing one's feelings is selfish or that one's feelings are to blame for another's bad behavior. Whatever the case, the wounded-child part is invited to share once he begins to feel safe. It may take some time for the child part to feel comfortable and be willing to receive compassion, care, and nurturing.

Although this book will help anyone discover his or her parts, unblend from them, access his or her inmost self, and begin the process of unburdening, many survivors of trauma require the help of a therapist trained in parts work39 before they can complete all the needed work with an exiled wounded-child part. Everyone's story is unique, and everyone's needs are different. This book may be the beginning of your healing journey, a helpful resource for ongoing healing, or an adjunct to therapy, but it is not meant to replace therapy. It is necessary but often difficult to gain the trust and assistance of our protector parts before we engage an exile. If we bypass the protector parts, they may try to sabotage our healing efforts. Also, exiles carry strong emotions, such as shame, fear, anger, and sorrow. A therapist can help us through this often painful but important process. The relief that comes as we unburden and reconnect with our exiles is life changing. Most people describe this process as liberating; they feel lighter and experience newfound joy. You will see examples of this as you continue to read about Alexandre and others throughout this book.

Dissociation and Compartmentalization

Trauma causes our parts to dissociate or disconnect from our core or inmost selves, from each other, and from God. We become a "divided self," which implies we are not cohesive. Many spiritual writers such as Thomas Merton refer to the "false self," which is really a dissociated blended and burdened "part" coping as best as he can. Carl Jung correctly calls us to "make the unconscious conscious"; this means that our dissociative and disconnected parts enter our conscious awareness and can interact with our inmost self and helpful resourceful parts to bring about healing. We must learn from these formerly dissociated parts and must relate to, engage, empathize with, understand, and support them.

This can be a difficult task because these parts may not always present themselves in a positive way. We must see past their reactive exteriors to discover the pain and hurt underneath. A dog caught in a trap in the forest for days may attack its rescuers until it learns that they are there to help. Our broken, hurting, dissociative parts need to learn that we are safe. We can assure those parts that we are safe only when we approach them from our inmost self with calm, compassion, and patience. In later chapters, we will learn ways to access this inmost self.

The grounding exercise in the previous chapter can help us notice that our bodies are, in fact, safe in the present moment. It may seem obvious, but we need to experience calm and safety before we can believe it. When we take deep breaths and relax our muscles, we signal to our brains that our bodies are safe. Then we can share our feelings and eventually bring truth to the lies we have learned.

Scripture Study: Relieving Burdens

The unburdening process often begins by our mustering the courage to tell our story to someone we trust. In the 1990s, psychiatrist Judith Herman described three stages in recovery from the effects of trauma: establishing safety, telling your story, and reconnecting with others.40 When Alexandre heard the stories of celebrity survivors, it gave him permission to start telling his own story. In this chapter's exercise, we will pray the Litany of the Wounded Heart so that we may bring our woundedness to Jesus and bring our burdens to the foot of His Cross.

John the Baptist reveals Jesus as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29). What is this sin? In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find many cases where the word sin is defined as something tangible: either something needing to be forgiven and physically wiped away or a physical weight or a burden.41 We find Moses complaining to God, "Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favour in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me?" (Num. 11:11). Isaiah admonishes Judah with the following words: "Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity" (1:4); he later describes sin as something to be taken away on a cart by oxen: "you who drag iniquity along with cords of falsehood, who drag sin along as with cartropes" (5:18).

As a result of their mistakes, sin produced a heavy physical consequence for the Israelites. Examples of sinful behavior included worshipping other gods, murder, stealing, and adultery. These sins literally weighed the people down. To ease these burdens, God provided a way for the people to be relieved through a communal ritual. On the day of Atonement42 the Israelites brought two goats to the temple. One was sacrificed, and the other was set free to run into the wilderness, which the Israelites often associated with the underworld. This process allowed the Israelites to be relieved of their burdens and restored their relationship with God.

Jesus, the Lamb of God, is the Paschal Lamb who takes away our sins. He is the suffering servant who allows Himself to be killed for us (CCC 608). When John the Baptist calls Jesus the "Lamb of God," he could also be alluding to this second goat from the Day of Atonement who carried the burden of Israel's sins and essentially cast it into Hell.43 Jesus has come to take our burdens and cast them into a place where they will cease to exist.

In the Gospels we see Jesus cast out unclean spirits and demons. We also see Him heal physical illnesses, such as fevers, leprosy, paralysis, a withered hand, dropsy, blindness, and deafness. He even heals people who are dead or near death. Jesus relieves spiritual and physical burdens so that people can be free of pain and suffering. They, in turn, typically express gratitude and reconnect with God.

These spiritual and physical burdens can correlate with the emotional and psychological burdens experienced in our inner world. We know that relieving psychological burdens (e.g., extreme beliefs and feelings) has a positive effect on our physical bodies and our ability to practice a healthy prayer life and grow spiritually. The human person is made up of a spirit, soul, and body44 that are interrelated and affect one another.45 When the inmost self helps the parts of the self-system remove their burdens, there is a positive effect on the whole person. In EMDR therapy,46 when a client has a disturbing emotion, we often ask them, "Where do you feel that in your body?" We then ask the client to notice that body sensation, which is connected to emotions, negative thoughts, and memories, and to continue processing.

In parts work, the unburdening process often involves noticing how the emotional or psychological hold has a physical "weight" in the body. When the psychological burden is relieved, there is a corresponding lightness in the physical body. When we give up our burdens of sin, we feel so light that we can "run with perseverance" with Jesus as the "pioneer and perfector of our faith" (Heb. 12:1, 2). Alexandre felt this when he accepted that the shame he felt was not his own, and he could release it.

We also know that Jesus relieves personal sinful burdens through forgiveness and that we are called to confess our sins and forgive one another. Jesus forgives the Samaritan woman at the well and offers her "living water" (John 4:10). To the Jews of Jesus' time, it is remarkable not only that He forgives someone but that He forgives someone who is both a woman and an outcast. Samaritans were considered unclean by the Jews. The inmost self also seeks out parts of the self-system who are in conflict with or rejected by other parts of the self-system. We may have a part who views pornography and has "many husbands" (or "wives") like the Samaritan woman at the well. We may have a part that feels ugly or unwanted or unworthy. We may have a part that is angry and reactive and seems unlikable. We may have a part that is needy, clingy, and codependent. We may have a part that is proud, judgmental, and arrogant.

All these parts of the self-system are loved by the inmost self and by Christ. These parts may be in conflict with other parts, but the inmost self sees them with compassion and understanding. Like Christ, the inmost self will not leave them alone and burdened; the self will call them lovingly and offer them something new, something they always needed: living water. This living water can be understood in IFS as "self-energy," or it can be seen as grace. The inmost self becomes a channel through which God renews us and inspires us. We gain a zest for life, and we become motivated with a new purpose. When the burden of shame was lifted for hockey player Theo Fleury, he was inspired to advocate for other abuse survivors.

Jesus tells us not to be anxious: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear" (Matt. 6:25). He calls us to bring our heavy burdens to Him so we "may not grow weary or lose heart" (Heb. 12:3). He then asks us to take the light yoke He provides. "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matt. 11:28–30).

Jesus also promises to send the Holy Spirit, who will teach us everything, and so we must "not let [our] hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid" (John 14:26–27). Each and every part of the self-system can take on the yoke of Christ and find rest. And each and every part of the self-system can know that the Holy Spirit is present and working through the inmost self to bring a deep sense of peace and inner safety.

Let us begin the process of healing by bringing our wounded hearts to Christ in the Litany of the Wounded Heart.

Read part one and part three.

36 Internal Family Systems or IFS is a therapeutic approach developed by Richard Schwartz in the 1980s. He applied a family systems approach to the individual's inner world. Schwartz developed the techniques known as unblending and unburdening.

37 Ego State Therapy (EST) is a therapeutic approach developed by John and Helen Watkins in the 1970s. They applied elements from psychodynamic theory and clinical hypnosis to the individual's inner world.

38 Richard Schwartz and Martha Sweezy, Internal Family Systems, 2nd ed. (New York: Guilford Press, 2020), 31.

39 Examples of parts-work therapies include IFS and Ego State Therapy.

40 See Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery, was which was originally published in 1992.

41 In Psalm 38:3–4, for example, we see sin described as a burden with a physical manifestation: "There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me."

42 See Lev. 16.

43 A fuller treatment of the idea that sin is a burden can be found in Gary Anderson's chapter "A Burden to be Borne" in Sin: A History.

44 The glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the human person as "made in the image of God; not some thing but some one, a unity of spirit and matter, soul and body, capable of knowledge, self-possession, and freedom, who can enter into communion with other persons—and with God."

45 Second-century Church Father Justin Martyr said, "For the body is the house of the soul; and the soul the house of the spirit." On the Resurrection, chap. 10.

46 Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a treatment developed by Francine Shapiro in the 1980s that involves the use of bilateral stimulation to reduce anxiety and recover from past traumatic experiences, is an example of one type of trauma treatment that considers the body.

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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GerryKenCreteGerry Ken Crete, PhD. "The Wounded Heart," Chapter 2 from Litanies of the Heart: Relieving Post-Traumatic Stress and Calming Anxiety Through Healing Our Parts. Sophia Institute Press (2023).

Reprinted with permission from Sophia Institute Press.

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