Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Compass of Shame

The Compass of Shame

The compass of shame was created by Donald Nathanson to help clinicians and clients understand what happens when shame is encountered. Dr. Nathanson defines shame as the interruption of positive affect. That simplistic view makes it easy for me to help clients understand that when they are going about the business of their daily life, enjoying the day, and anything that interrupts that enjoyment or interest, causes shame. I am putting the compass of shame on the blog today because almost every article I have written on shame refers to this compass in one way or another. As, a result I can keep referring people to the blog on June 23rd, 2011 and not have to recreate this simple formula for each article.

According to the Compass of Shame, what do we do when we experience shame? We react in one of four ways, usually a blend of the four reactions. They are:

Demonstrated by:


Masochistic Behaviors


The sense of a defective self - that often leads of addictive behavior

Compares and competes

Creates false self


Atypical depression (self-hatred root)

Becomes overwhelmed by excessive worry or flooding of memories

Avoids eye contact and isolates socially


Blocks any attempt to look at self

Estranges others

Refines the “power over” theme

Friday, June 17, 2011

Series on Overcoming the Darkness of Shame


A Beginning Journey of Overcoming The Darkness of Shame.

These first few paragraphs are share with you some points of view of the psychological aspects of shame and then share with you how shame influences your daily life. This is the first article in many to come on my blog.

Shame has been consistently the stepchild of psychotherapy because it seems that we have found it shameful and uncomfortable to talk about shame and shaming events. Often even well trained psychologists brush the surface of shame in sessions. An example of that might be a situation where a client is talking about peeing or pooping their pants in school. If the psychologist is uncomfortable with that topic, the psychologist may not inquire for further information by asking questions like, “What was that like for you or what happened when you did that?” As the stepchild of psychology, shame has been pushed into the closet and not openly investigated. Recently, our field of psychology we have moved into a “fix-it” or “educational” modality. It is my opinion that keeps the psychotherapy office rather sterile. By an educational modality, I mean often times the therapist will lapse into explaining what happened for the client when they were shamed or telling the client, what they can do about it. The art of exploration from therapist to client can often feel uncomfortable. Therapists must undergo a certain amount of training “unlearning” social standards of appropriate communication. For example, as a Southern girl I learned it is impolite to ask questions, any question, and much less questions about sex, bodily functions, or money.

Theories of shame have been proposed by Silvan Tomkins, Helen Block Lewis, Gershen Kaufman and Donald Nathanson since the early 1960’s. Before that, the only real mention of shame was by developmental psychiatrist, Erik Erickson. He speaks of shame in the second developmental stage of life: autonomy vs. shame and doubt. Toddlers of eighteen months are learning how to do things on their own. It is important that they learn to master their environment, bodily functions, and acquire a sense of self. The more the toddler learns to do master his/her environment, the more autonomous the toddler becomes. Autonomy is equated with a good sense of self. The more a toddler fails at achieving and mastering his/her environment, the more the toddler develops a sense of shame and self-doubt. Self-doubt sets us up to operate our life from an external locus of control which means looking to others for approval as well as trying to figure out what are the right and wrong things for us to do.

Silvan Tomkins’ (1963) work on Shame and Shame Theory conceptualizes shame from an evolutionary perspective introducing into literature the nine biological affects. According to Tomkins, we are all wired with nine biological affects. We become aware of our nine affects when we become aware of our facial, skeletal, and inner visceral behaviors. Affect is primarily facial behavior and secondarily bodily skeletal and inner visceral behavior. Shame is one of our nine biological affects that we are pre-wired to express.

Kaufman (1989) speaks more clearly about shame, speaking of it in terms most of us can identify, such as feeling exposed, diminished, imperfect, and defective.

“Shame reveals the inner self, exposing it to view. The self feels exposed both to itself and to anyone else present.” (Kaufman 1989) So, perhaps you felt exposed. Perhaps, afraid someone was going to point out to you that something was wrong with you, how you thought, believed or acted. Perhaps that fear comes from a history of self-doubt because your memory tells you that your parents were always pointing out what you were saying or doing wrong. It is even possible that you keep remembering a scene that was particularly embarrassing to you as a child. Because of the negative impact of that one situation, that memory might continue to cause you to feel a phenomenological sense of feeling seen in a painfully diminished sense. Kaufman (1989) the experience of feeling diminished in front of someone or even in your own headspace is that uncomfortable affect of shame. Donald Nathanson (1992) tells us that when humans experience shame they respond to that shame from one of four perspectives. Nathanson calls those four perspectives the compass of shame. He tells us that we attack others, attack ourselves, and avoid (addictions) or withdraw (depression). Thus, when we are in situations that trigger old memories of defeat, failures, or rejections the current situation does not need to be actual, only perceived as such, shame envelopes you crippling your ability to respond in ways that might be healthier for you.

In addition to providing a theory for how shame impacts our lives, Nathanson offers strategies for dealing with shame. Nathanson helps us understand shame by reducing to a simple definition, that shame is the interruption of positive affect. The two positive affects, interest and excitement and joy are powerful affective responses. When a person is in the process of enjoyment or interest and something negative or bad happens to them, it interrupts those positive affects and shame sets in. Over time, a person might even stop moving toward something they enjoy or are interested in because of the fear of failure and defeat. Thus, the negative possibilities immobilize them from moving toward something they enjoy. This recurring issue can cause someone to give up their voice, their desire, or their ambition toward something they so desire.

Now, let us look at the practical issues involving shame and how those issues affect us on a daily basis.

It is common to believe that when we turn eighteen or twenty-one that we will somehow magically know how to be an adult. We dream that we will know the right things to say and always do the right things just as we believed our parents were always right. Even when we were fighting with our parents as adolescents, often there was that secret sense that we hoped they were right. Because if they were not right then how could we ever really trust anyone? They raised us and we were completely dependent upon their worldview.

For instance, when was the last time you were out to coffee with a friend and the topic of discussion turned to politics, religion, or just an opinion about a TV show. For instance, let us say you like Dancing with the Stars.

And your friend says, “I don’t understand how anyone can get caught up in these reality TV shows, especially something as ditzy as Dancing with the Stars.

You think to yourself. “Ouch, I thought that was an okay show to watch. I must be stupid for wasting my time doing that.”

However, in the conversation you say nothing, agree with your friend, or find a quick excuse to go to the restroom. What would it have taken you to say, “I disagree with that? I find Dancing with Stars very relaxing and by the end of the season, I can see how each dancer has progressed. I really enjoy it.”

Somewhere along your life’s journey, you have lost your voice. Now, you are at a deciding point, you either have to decide to stay inside of your cocoon and feel silently miserable about your secret opinions and enjoyments or to put your toes into the river of life and learn how to voice your opinion to others. Your opinion is who you are. You have a right to like the things you like and enjoy things that bring you relaxation, hope, and positive feelings. You are uniquely you and that is okay. Not only is it okay, but you need to celebrate who you are. Find one way today to celebrate yourself.

Voice is one of the most important aspects of who we are. Voice allows others to get to know us and to engage us in their lives. Without voice, we are invisible.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

It is time for an Emotional Health Check-Up!

Do you need an Emotional-Health Check-Up?

Medical and dental offices always are reminding you that it is time for your annual check-up whether that is your annual physical, annual mammogram, annual Pap smear, prostate, or colonoscopy. Medical doctors see a need to snoop around in your body and make sure that those things we cannot see with our naked eye are still in proper and healthy working order. Dentists do the same thing. For people like me that hate to floss, dentists want me to clean my teeth with a hygienist every three months. My accountant wants to take an annual look at my taxes and if I had a financial advisor he/she would want to sit down with me once a year, and my attorney wants to make sure my will is up to date.

So, what about your mental health? What if we changed the term from mental health to emotional health? Is the word emotional health, more palatable to you? Or have you been raised to believe that the only way to be in life is stoic, non-emotional. Or, do you think if you use a coach or psychotherapist that you are weak? Why is it shameful to make an appointment get an annual “how’s my life” check-up? It usually feels better to talk about what is going on in your life, what hurts, what is working, what you want to make different this year? Why is that you have to wait until the emotional hurt is a full blown bleed that needs a triple by-pass on your anxiety, depression, and adjustment scales before you take better care of yourself?

I would like to offer you a different way of looking at your mental health. I would like you to take a moment and challenge your thinking. If you are wondering if this is all there is or if you are wishing that life were just a bit more interesting, then perhaps you are settling for the status quo of the day-to-day humdrum. When one day of humdrum leads to another day of humdrum then you are likely to become humdrum yourself. Who wants to humdrum? However if the word dynamic or vibrant just do not appeal to you perhaps you are more than humdrum, perhaps you are depressed. Who does not want to vibrant, to squeeze every positive moment and encounter out of life that they can?

There are several ways to think about your emotional well –being. Here is a checklist of five. If you check three out of five it might be time for you to call a psychotherapist, coach, or psychologists and see what is happening beneath your happiness bar.

1. Do you worry about the things that you have no control over? For instance, do you worry about “what-if” I am laid off from my job rather than having a plan B in case you do?

2. Are you more argumentative or negative than usual?

3. Are you more indecisive than usual, even down to where you can’t decide to what to wear or eat?

4. Do you find yourself daydreaming about what you wish your life were like?

5. Do you feel a sense of loneliness and dissatisfaction?

If you find these questions thought provoking, perhaps it is time to call me or someone else, sit down and have a discussion with them about what is going on with your life. Also, there are various psychological tests available to help you and your therapist figure out what might be percolating underneath the surface. Sometimes, emotional health determinates so slowly we don’t even notice that our life is changing negatively. Testing is a good way to obtain a fair and objective read about what is going on with you.

My challenge is that you make your emotional health a priority on a day –to- day basis. You count.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Learning to be Grateful- Reflections from a Vacation

Today I got up, dressed, bought a Pike’s Place Market Starbucks in Waikiki and pretended to walk at a clip on the beach walk. It was about 5:30 a.m. and I soon noticed the homeless people asleep on water front benches. With some embarrassment my first thought was, “Wow, what a wonderful view and peaceful sounds to awaken you in the early morning.” I immediately checked myself and said, “Dilley, what are you thinking. You slept in a comfortable bed and you will have a warm shower, an indoor toilet, and gastronomical delights throughout this trip. They on the other hand will most likely wake up stiff and sore, wonder where their food will come from today and search the beach for a public restroom at best. Homeless people have always intrigued me. I know there are many sides of the debate. Maybe they did not make the best choices. Perhaps, they were raped, beaten, tortured as children and grew up to survive as society’s outcast; those you look away from. How long would I last if my life went belly up and I had nowhere to turn and no way to make a living? Look at all the things that I have to be thankful for in this simple paragraph:

I woke up. I was able to move. I was able to see, dress myself in comfortable clothes and walk in comfortable clothes. I had money to buy Starbucks, eyes to see, ears to hear, and hands to hold my cup. I have taste buds and can enjoy the aroma and miracle of the sensation of coffee filling up my mouth and awakening my tired body and mind. Yes, I am still of sound mind. I have fingers to type and a spell check to help me out with typo’s and words too difficult to remember. I will return to a loving partner, a viable psychotherapy practice, and more comforts than many people in America.

Other people woke up today. Some of them on the cliffs of Santa Monica and others awakened in the slums of India. Some did not wake up today. Many woke up in hospital rooms other’s awakened to the anxiety of their friend or family who are sick or injured in hospital rooms. What to do with the dilemmas of inequity is the question?

The answer, notice and be grateful. It will make your day a better day.

Dr. Robin Dilley, PhD
Psychotherapist, Author and Speaker

"In A Moment's Notice"

"may you awaken those parts of you that have fallen
the parts of you that are thirsty, and discover anew the magic of growing."

Saturday, June 4, 2011

An Exercise in Free Association

An exercise in Free Association.
Hope, Love, Forgiveness, Action, Laughter, Peace, Enthusiasm, Energy, Attitude, Direction, Power, Spirit, Earth, Other, Connection, Time, Health, Relationship, Friend, Community, Quality etc.

Reflections of the past few months helped me create this feature article. I found myself sitting here looking at my to do list and wondering where in the world will I get the time to get all of this done. Then I looked at my list and realized there was not much on the list that I wanted to do and that is why I was just staring at it. I cajoled myself by reminding myself how much better I would feel if I just knocked out one or two things from the list. I dutifully did that, came back to the list, and saw all of the things that I had yet to do. I realized I had spun myself up in a knot by looking at my limitations and not at my accomplishments. Geez my critical voice became even louder, chastising me for being so negative and critical. I allowed that voice to ramble on and on in its self-defeating, provocative discourse of what a negative slug I had become. Finally, as in any abused situation I know I had a choice. I could roll over and agree with the voice, I could fight back, or I could get up and leave. I don’t know about you but I have never….never ever won an argument with a critic whether that be my internal critic or the multiple external critics in my environment. I also knew I did not want to roll over and agree with the critic because after ten minutes of the critic’s diatribe, I did know beyond any doubt that my critic was a liar. Those cursive words of always, never, should, could, failures were clearly lies. However, by that time I was just tired. Therefore, out of the three options that I could identify, I got up and left. Yep. I left my critic, my to do list, shook my head, shook my body as to shake free of its shackles and got in my car and went to Starbucks. I ordered my ice coffee and sat. I had no journal to force myself to be productive. I left my I-Phone at the office. I sat. I sipped. I breathed. I noticed. I practiced smiling. I thought about laughing. I took in the colors, smells, and noise all around me. I continued to breathe. I watched people talk and observed their level of happiness or non-happiness. I looked with envy as the medical students pounded away in their books. I remembered what it was like to be in school, to be free, to be excited about the next topic. I noticed myself relaxing. I felt my chest lighten. I found myself saying inside, “Life is Good.” A natural smile gently spread across my face. I felt different. I felt like I was doing something meaningful rather than calling the cable person or following up on a lost package. Life is Good. I was alive. At that moment of being, I was alive, conscious, and present. I finished my coffee. I got up and walked around the parking lot a bit, just noticing. I got in my car and drove back to my office. I looked the list and felt good. I can do these things. I can get them done. I just need awhile to be with myself and away from my internal taskmaster. I accomplished so much more than I ever thought possible. Yes, Life is Good. Take a break from the mundane. Shut down your multi-media, social networking, and go be with yourself doing nothing. You don’t have to meditate, do yoga, exercise, lift weights, or catch up with an old friend. Just be with yourself until you re-enter your body, the present, and realize Life is Good.

I was at a Continuing Education Seminar this morning listening to Dr. Loes speaking about pain, pain management and healing. One of the most important things that he shared was about how he saw the difference between pain and misery. He said,

“People with chronic pain may always have chronic pain, but that they do not have to be miserable about it.” He went on to delineate the difference between pain and emotional misery. Emotional misery is about what we choose to focus on and how we choose to continue to focus on that negative, woe is me feelings. Less, face it. Life is hard. It is hard for everyone at times. However, life is not hard all of the time in every category of our life. Emotional misery is where I was headed before I took my Starbucks Break. My list was still here when I returned but I was no longer miserable about it. Pain may not be able to be fully alleviated and may leave the person with some real disabilities in their body because of it; however, the misery does not have to go along with it all day every day. His topic returned me to the literature on positive psychology and I leave you with this thought. “It is not what happens to us that makes us who we are, it is what we do with what happens to us.” If you don’t like it, (whatever it is), stop complaining about it and take one-step toward positive change.

Free Association is the art of relaxing enough to let ideas freely float to your consciousness. I have provided you with a list of twenty-one words. Choose several from the list and write them on a piece of paper. Then after each word, write three words that first come to your mind when you think about your written word. For instance, if you chose the word HOPE: Strength, Encouragement, YES I Can are the first three words that come to my mind. Spend about 10 minutes doing this list. Notice if the list is more positive or negative. The direction of the list will give you some idea of whether you have worked your way into a rut. If you feel better when you are finished with this short exercise, then you are headed in the right direction. You brain cells are firing in such away to help you redirect your emotions into a positive direction. The goal is become a more positive person.