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.

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