Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Exploring Shame Series - Tuesdays with Dr.Dilley


A Beginning Journey of Overcoming the Darkness of Shame.


            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.  

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