We've all heard that its hard to teach an old dog new tricks. But what about humans? How easy is it to change a person? We've all tried to make changes to ourselves, whether it's losing weight or stoping smoking...and sometimes we can do it and sometimes we fail. So clearly people can change, but clearly it's not an entirely easy process!
Psychotherapy is, at it's core, designed to change people. We do this through helping people have new experiences that are more in line with their goals of who they want to be and how they want to operate in the world. Our brain is shaped largely by experience. If you have the experience of practicing piano every day then the pathways of neurons (brain cells) that are used to play piano get stronger. Think of neurons like muscles-- the more you work them out, the stronger they get. So if you work out the same "set" of neurons (a "neural pathway") every day, say by practicing piano, then those get stronger and stronger and easier to activate. This is how we build proficiency in things, like playing baseball or practicing piano, or even being good at making small talk.
Some people grow up in families where they don't have certain experiences like being able to talk about their feelings, or being able to ask for what they need from others. When those experiences are missing in childhood those neurons that are associated with that behavior are weak and hard to activate. Psychotherapy aims to provide experiences that were missing in childhood (or adulthood) that are needed to build adaptive behaviors that help us lead happy and fulfilling lives. So for example a person who grew up in a house where it was not OK to talk about one's feelings gets to talk openly about how they feel in therapy. That in turn exercises those neurons and strengthens that neural pathway so that talking about one's feelings becomes easier and easier.
In a very real sense psychotherapy is like hiring a personal trainer at your gym-- a person who can learn about how you would like to be (versus where you are now), set up an "exercise routine" to work out those muscles (neurons) and take you through those steps so that you can develop the muscles (skills) that you want. If we were to take a "before" and "after" picture of your brain we could actually see those neuronal changes that are a result of psychotherapy. As a matter of fact, studies have shown that one impact of psychotherapy is that the connections between the frontal lobe (which involves planning, organizing, regulating emotions, understanding consequences, controlling impulses and lots of other things we associate with being mature and healthy) and the limbic system (which is associated with raw emotions that can be overwhelming and "messy" if not regulated) are strengthened. So in a very real way psychotherapy helps your brain use the "smart part" (frontal lobe) to regulate your more primitive emotional center. This give you more control over intense emotions that otherwise may derail you from staying balanced.
The bottom line here is that our brains do change. Even in adulthood. This is good news for those of us who would qualify as "old dogs"! So if there are things about yourself that you wish were different I would encourage you to consider psychotherapy. As one person put it, "it's never too late to have a happy life".
And now that you know what a healthy relationship looks like, you can evaluate for yourself how well these people are doing: http://valentine.thisamericanlife.org. This is a collection of short personal stories about love and heartbreak, things we can all relate to.
Guilt and shame are bad, right? Well, certainly no one wants to feel either. Some of us, especially therapists, seem to be "guilt magnets" and "shame prone". We cringe at the slightest sign that we may have hurt or offended someone and spend hours thinking about it afterwards. We may even avoid that person in the future for fear that they are upset with us even though they never explicitly said so.
Psychology has long made a distinction, however, between guilt and shame. Guilt is actually considered to be a desirable emotion as far as society is concerned. Guilt is defined as feeling bad for something you have DONE. That is different from shame, which is feeling bad for WHO YOU ARE. Consider this-- if we lived in a world where no one ever felt guilty, i.e. never felt bad for hurting someone or cheating or stealing-- then what would keep people from doing whatever they wanted? If you knew that whatever you were going to do would not upset anyone in the slightest then why not do whatever you want?
So if guilt has a function, then what about shame? While I am not an anthropologist, my personal theory is that shame is just overshooting the mark of guilt. I think that Mother Nature gave us the capacity to feel guilt for the reasons stated above, but sometimes that feeling grows too large and instead of being just about our behavior it becomes about our identity, about who we are. Shame does not serve any positive function. While guilt makes us want to move towards people in order to repair the damage, shame makes us feel so bad that we isolate and move away. As shame researcher Brenee Brown puts it "shame corrodes the part of us that thinks we can do better [and therefore is willing to go and say we are sorry]". Shame leads to self destructive behaviors and isolating from others. Shame is toxic.
So what are we to do if we find that, like many patients who come to my practice, we seem to be "shame prone"? What if we tend to feel shame about even small things? Working on shame resilience is an excellent goal for therapy. Shame can only survive in secrecy and shadow. If you share your shame with someone, almost always you will find that the feeling diminishes. When we can see that the other person does not run screaming out of the room after we make our "confession", we don't feel so bad. And sometimes we are even lucky enough to talk to someone who reciprocates our shame tale with one of their own. Hearing someone say "oh, I've done that too" or "I did something else that made me feel the same way" we feel tremendous relief. We feel that we are not alone and perhaps we are not the worst person on the plant.
Psychotherapy provides a regular opportunity to talk about shameful experiences and feelings. It gives us the opportunity to shine a light of objectivity and neutrality on the shame-drenched sludge that we have been harboring in the deeper recesses of ourselves. And in that light of objectivity and through the compassion of another person we find that the shame shrivels and retreats, growing smaller and less powerful. Keeping the secret of shame is what keeps it alive. Sharing the secret of shame is the antidote.
Researcher Dr. Brenee Brown has written several Ted Talks and written several books about shame. She notes that "shame happens between people and needs to be healed between people". I could not agree more. Fortunately for us Dr. Brown has made a career about researching shame and has come up with four common characteristics of people who are "shame resilient":
If you are interested in learning more about shame I recommend any of Dr. Brenee Brown's work on shame and shame resiliency. Another great resource is work on self-compassion, which is another way to fight shame. For more information on self-compassion see Dr. Kristin Neff's website on the subject, www.self-compassion.org. She has links to her Ted Talk as well as information about self-compassion and even a self-quiz you can use to see how you rank on self-compassion.
One of the services I offer in my work is to assess your level of "shame-proneness" with a paper and pencil test developed by shame researchers. This test can be administered and feedback given all within a 45-minute appointment.
If you are interested in talking to me more about shame please feel free to send me an email or call me at:
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.