I have written about shame before but wanted to expand on my earlier blog with some new information on how exactly we learn to be shame prone.
James Harper has written about this subject and explains that families that promote shame lack certain fundamental qualities that protect against shame. These qualities are accountability, intimacy and dependency. If these qualities are present in sufficient amounts in a family system children can grown up without undue amounts of shame. To break these
Again if these qualities are not present enough kids will end up feeling toxic amounts of shame. When kids experience shame a lot they naturally begin to internalize it. That emotional state gains preference in the nervous system and is more easily accessed. I compare this to driving down a dirt road every day for several week. Over time you will notice grooves getting established in the dirt so that it gets harder to deviate from the path you have been taking each time. This is similar to the way our brains respond-- the more we feel something (or think something, or do something) the more that pathway is reinforced and becomes easier for the brain to find the next time. So numerous experiences with shame as a child make is "shame prone" in adulthood.
“Children are especially vulnerable to shame." commented Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW in this article in Huffington Post. "Self-centered and dependent, young humans will easily translate, “You did something bad,” into, “You ARE bad.” We need to be aware and careful about the messages we send.
One potent quote I heard about shame was this --
Shame is a lie someone told you about yourself
(that you believed).
Whether it is intentional or not we need to be careful about the messages that we transmit to kids. That they are frustrating, that they are "too much", too needy, too demanding, incompetent, embarrassing or not measuring up to our standards. They may believe these falsities many, many years into the future.
Perhaps one of the reasons that shame is such a persisting emotion and so hard to "un-learn" is that it is tied to our very survival. Shame is centered in the autonomic nervous system. Unfortunately the human brain, in some ways, is pretty dumb. It cannot distinguish between physical threat and emotional threat, just like on a brain level it does not distinguish between physical pain and emotional pain (see my earlier blog on this). When the brain perceives any kind of threat it responds by booting up "crisis mode"-- the autonomic nervous system. This is the response of the brain to shame, probably because shame implies a threat to important relationships. Especially in childhood our relationships with caregivers are life and death matters. If we are being shamed by our caregivers we respond as if our survival has been threatened-- because it has. Just like being attacked by a bear we have the urge to hide or flee. If that does not work we resort to attack. Shame is hard-wired in to these deep areas of the brain (the ANS) that are designed to protect us from actual annihilation. So once these areas have been reprogrammed to feel shame it can be very hard to root out.
Shame proneness in kids is sadly predictive of numerous problems in adulthood, including alcohol abuse, high risk sexual behavior, legal problems, suicide attempts and social isolation. Shame proneness, while not associated with age or socioeconomic level, is also associated with low self-esteem and PTSD as well as the problems mentioned above (Ashby et al. 2006, Crossley & Rockett 2005, Feiring & Taska 2005, Stuewig & McCloskey 2005). Shame-proneness assessed in the fifth grade predicted later risky driving behavior, earlier initiation of drug and alcohol use, and a lower likelihood of practicing safe sex (Tangney & Dearing 2002). Similarly, proneness to problematic feelings of shame has been positively linked to substance use and abuse in adulthood (Dearing et al. 2005, Meehan et al. 1996, O’Connor et al. 1994, Tangney et al. 2006). For people who are HIV positive, having persistent feelings of shame predicted t-cell decline, showing compromised immune function (Weitzman et al. 2004).
Shame-prone people also engage in aggressive acts more than those who are not shame-prone. For example they tend to verbally attack, blame and externalize as well as the more passive-aggressive option of simply talking badly about someone behind their back. Shame-prone folks are also more aggressive physically, either interpersonally or by attacking objects/possessions important to the person they are angry at (think keying someone's car). Sadly the shame-prone person may also harm themselves or simply ruminate in their unexpressed anger. Interestingly these individuals admit that their anger gets them into trouble and is destructive of relationships but they seem to have trouble not being triggered into these negative behaviors.
Brene Brown has written and talked extensively about shame and how to become less shame-prone. She suggests the following steps to help recover from a shame-prone upbringing:
For more help with shame I recommend Brene Brown's Ted Talk or her book on shame. She also has other resources available on her website.
Therapy can also be a wonderful tool to work on deep feelings of shame or surviving a shaming childhood. People can heal from toxic shame and learn to more fully love themselves and live the lives they truly deserve.
Wishing you happiness and peace,
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I have written about shame before but wanted to expand on my earlier blog with some new information on how exactly we learn to be shame prone.
James Harper has written about this subject and explains that there are types of families that tend to be shaming. Harper, along with a colleague Hoopes (1990) says that healthy families all contain the following essential qualities to promote optimal emotional development in children-- "accountability"-- the sense that "family members feel and act responsibly towards each other and meet each other's basic emotional needs"; "intimacy"-- family members are "able to share physical touch, be nurturing to each other, and share emotional experiences" in a way that feels supportive and comforting; and "dependency"-- the "ability of family members to rely on each other emotionally for basic needs". This includes parents not being annoyed by the natural dependency of young children and being willing to continue "scaffolding" children well into adolescence as they learn to become more autonomous. Parents who fail to provide enough of these essential qualities inadvertently create shame experiences in children. If repeated often enough this can become part of the child's self-concept and identity. They feel that they are inconvenient to their parents, that their basic feelings are not acceptable, that their world is unpredictable. They learn to despise their natural needs to be dependent and also their normal failures and struggles as they grow and develop. They assume that if only they were "good enough" they would be loved and, therefor, their feeling unloved is somehow their own fault.
When kids experience shame a lot they naturally begin to internalize it. That emotional state gains preference in the nervous system and is more easily accessed. I compare this to driving down a dirt road every day for several week. Over time you will notice grooves getting established in the dirt so that it gets harder to deviate from the path you have been taking each time. This is similar to the way our brains respond-- the more we feel something (or think something, or do something) the more that pathway is reinforced and becomes easier for the brain to find the next time. So numerous experiences with shame as a child make is "shame prone" in adulthood. Research shows that people who are "shame prone" or have "trait shame" learn to expect to be shamed and they learn to hide their flaws from others. This impairs their ability to feel intimately connected with others and can even cause these people to lash out and shame others before they can be shamed themselves. According to studies people high in "trait" shame tend to also be more pessimistic, narcissistic, dependent, emotionally labile, feel victimized and be introverted. In an effort to cope with chronic shame people often turn to substance abuse, addictive behaviors (sex, gambling, eating, work, exercise) and/or chronic interpersonal conflict in an effort to ward off the collapsing into shame they so fear. Mills, Imm, Walling and Weiler (2008) found that children with higher shame experiences also had higher cortisol in their bloodstream, a sign of physiological stress. Remember that the brain does not distinguish emotional versus physical pain in where the information is processed or how the body responds. So shame provokes a stress response in the body that, over time, can lead to chronic stress-related illnesses including more trouble returning to physiological baseline after feeling shamed.
Relationally shame-prone partners tend to have insecure attachment styles (Karos, 2006; Wells & Hansen, 2003) and distressed romantic relationships (Greenberg, 2008). Their sex lives also tend to be problematic/unfulfilling. I am often fond of telling couples that anger and shame are two tried and true arousal killers. Shame-prone partners have trouble communicating in their relationships because they are so guarded and are constantly trying to defend themselves against having shameful parts of themselves discovered. They may perceive attempts to be close as intrusive and an attempt to uncover things that they feel shame about. They may also be aggressive and try to push others away, especially as that person is trying to get closer to them. Sadly in this way shame-prone people often create the situation they are fearing-- being seen as "bad" or "unlovable", which reinforces their feelings of shame.
While all of this is no doubt frustrating to those who are trying to love and be with a shame-prone person it is important to remember that shame-prone people, like all of us, have earned their scars and defenses. Research shows that people who are chronically struggling with shame tend to have histories of abuse, be it sexual (Feinauer, Hilton & Callahan, 2003), physical (Kim, Talbot & Cicchetti, 2009) or other traumas (Lee, Scragg & Turner, 2001). They also are more frequently abandoned by their spouses (Claesson & Sohlert 2002). So they have plenty of reasons to feel vulnerable, victimized and exposed. Empathy and emotional validation are keys to helping a shame-prone person feel more comfortable. Essentially acknowledging their shame and giving it words can be a great weight off of the shame-prone person's shoulders. Of course since those who are shame prone tend to see judgement at every turn it's important to phrase things carefully and let the person know that it makes sense that they feel shame based on their history. It can also be very powerful to share some of your own shame feelings in an effort to normalize their response.
Chronic shame can rob a person of adequate self-worth, goal achievement, fulfilling relationships and feelings of love, joy and satisfaction. If you or someone you love struggles with chronic or intense feelings of shame I recommend that you reach out to a mental health professional to discuss treatment. Psychotherapy, whether it is individual, in groups or as a couple can be a powerful way of healing this toxic emotion.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Perhaps no other death carries as much stigma and pain as suicide.
Family and friends wonder what they could have done, how did they miss the signs? They grieve the loss of not only the person but all that they could have become, the life spread out before them unfinished. Suicide has become a larger and larger problem in our country, claiming young and old, rich and poor, crossing boundaries of gender, color and religion.
And yet despite most of us knowing of a suicide in some way -- a classmate, a relative, a friend of a friend, we don't as a society talk about it openly most of the time. So here are some questions you may have wondered and some "straight talk" about suicide.
Please remember to take ALL suicidal gestures and comments seriously. If someone is talking about suicide call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800 273 8255. You can also take the person to any hospital emergency room or if you are in Texas you can call 911 and ask for a Mental Health Deputy. These are police officers with additional training in mental health evaluation. They are mobile and can go to the person in crisis.
Hopefully you will never need this information but it's better to be prepared to deal with this potential mental health crisis in case it happens. If you are feeling suicidal PLEASE contact a hotline, the police or a mental health provider immediately. Suicidal feelings can be treated but only if you ask for help.
Guilt and shame are
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. Brene 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. Brene 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. 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 using the form below or call me at 512-293-3807
Shame, embarrassment and self-interest are powerful motivators. They can keep us from letting others truly know us. We tell ourselves that "what they don't know won't hurt them" or "it's not relevant" or "they wouldn't understand". But if you truly examine why you don't tell those close to you these difficult truths it usually comes down to the trifecta of secrecy: shame, embarrassment and self-interest.
Why share? How harmful are these undisclosed bits of ourself? Isn't everyone entitled to their own private lives?
In a recent post on the blog "Mirror of Intimacy", Alexandra Katehakis and Tom Bliss wrote of disclosure that "Keeping secrets from, or telling lies to, your partner can be an enormous burden that will ultimately get in the way of your sexual intimacy. A guilty conscience is not sexy, but making yourself vulnerable is". They went on to say that "Exposing your true self means facing your shortcomings and any accompanying shame you feel about your actions. Speaking the truth about things that make you feel bad about yourself can be scary or painful, but is essential if you want to build your relationship on honesty. Living a life of secrets and lies doesn't allow love and sexuality to flourish but, instead, suffocates them."
Katehakis and Bliss recommend that we "Take time today to think about what an act of courage it would be for you to disclose any secrets and lies you're holding that separate you from your partner. Are you ready to face yourself and stand up as an adult? Keep current with your partner by banishing secrets and lies from your relationship, and experience what it's like to live in honesty every day."
That's a tall order for many of us. Especially if you grew up in a dysfunctional family where secrets and lies were the norm. Many of us were taught that being vulnerable would be met with blame, punishment, shaming, teasing or attack. Certainly this would train us to keep anything difficult or potentially self-incriminating to ourselves. And to those of us who grew up in dysfunctional homes not only does this secrecy seem normal, it seem smart! Why make ourselves open to the slings and arrows of those around us? Haven't we suffered enough?
If only that strategy worked. I often tell those who work with me that I am a huge pragmatist. I really am. I aspire to do what works because in the end I just want the desired result. If lying or keeping secrets or sequestering parts of ourselves away from our loved ones worked I would have no issue with it. If it did not ultimately cost us, if it did not ultimately lead to loneliness and damaged relationships, I would encourage it. Whatever road leads to health and happiness I am fully prepared to not only walk myself but lead others on.
Unfortunately keeping secrets, lying (by omission or otherwise) and partitioning off parts of ourself so that no one knows the true us really doesn't work. It may serve to keep us safe in the moment, but ultimately it keeps us apart from those we yearn to be close to. It leaves us feeling that existential angst of "born alone, live alone, die alone". Which I firmly believe is NOT true! In fact, of all living organisms, humans are born to need others MORE, not less. We are inherently pack animals, desperately in need of connection to maintain our own mental and physical health.
When I work with people on trying to deepen connection to others I am fond of explaining the concept of "laddering intimacy". Relationships deepen when each person reveals something to the other that represents an emotional risk. This prompts the other person to respond with their own escalating level of emotional risk. The process builds on itself, giving each person the feeling that they are being trusted with important information. This bonds people together. When we fail to disclose risky material to our partners or loved ones our relationships wither and become flat. We drift apart. We no longer have that feeling of being tightly bound together. What we do to protect ourselves ultimately cuts us off from the very relationships that we need to survive emotionally.
I encourage you to take stock of your intimate relationships. How vulnerable have you made yourself? Are there parts of yourself that you keep hidden? Do you lie by omission? Keep secrets? Revise the truth? If so, what toll do you think it has taken on your relationships? Are you truly close? And what are you really afraid of?
Many years ago while still in training a wise supervisor (Dr. Marc Rathbun) told me "marriage isn't about having fun, it's about growing up". I think those words are true for any deep relationship, not only marriage. I think that being close to someone is about growing up and realizing that we cannot continue to protect ourselves while expecting others to be vulnerable. We cannot be halfway invested and yet reap the full benefit of intimacy. Part of being an adult is moving past one's fear, past one's selfish desire to protect oneself at the expense of another. Withholding, lying and secrecy leaves the relationship inequitable. We hold cards the other doesn't. This is the currency of childhood, of a time when centeredness is the natural phase of our development. But it holds no place in adulthood and cannot lead to truly deep bonds with others. And circling back to my pragmatism, the good news is, if you practice disclosure and put all of your cards on the table, you will be rewarded with the same. In this way you create the intimacy we all need. The price, I would argue, is worth the benefit.
Wishing you health, happiness and closeness with those you love,
"Grief does not change you. It reveals you."
~ John Green
In my work as a therapist I can honestly say that it is never to late to grieve a loss. I have seen many people who start off thinking that "there's no point in getting into that, it was so long ago" or "I should be over this by now". But with support and encouragement these people have been able to do the important work of uncovering unprocessed grief that they have carried around for many years. And the results are remarkable. Letting go of grief can bring about profound changes in energy level, mood, openness to new relationships and even forgiveness of one's self and others.
If you are carrying around unresolved grief, no matter what kind or how old it is, I invite you to think about starting to process that loss.
The following post has been excerpt from a blog by Alexandra Katehakis & Tom Bliss. Many thanks for their words of wisdom on letting go.
No one knows the hurt of heartbreak until they've experienced it. The gnashing pain of saying "good-bye" to a lover--when we know the relationship isn't working, when we have to leave in order to grow into our potential, when we've been so terribly betrayed that we can't hold a vision for healing, or when someone dies--is beyond comprehension until we live through it. Loss is so devastating that many people hold onto pain, resentment, or anger as a perverse way to stay in relationship with the one we've said "good-bye" to. Sometimes it even feels righteous to stay in anger, hurt, or upset--almost as though we can right the wrong if we dig in our heels. Yet over time, this stance leaves us embittered and stuck, hanging on for dear life so as not to feel the awful feelings of sorrow. Worse, that mental clinging precludes our moving on.
Grief, on the other hand, is an essential step in our progress forward. Grieving requires the ego and the recriminations to get out of the way so that we can become vulnerable and fully feel the loss of what once was. Without the full-bodied sensation of our grief and loss, we can never get past them. Letting go and grieving is a cleansing and healing process for all: we tear open our emotional prison and energetically release ourselves, and our former beloved, to move on.
DAILY HEALTHY ACTS
· If you're holding on to an old wound and haven't let yourself feel the loss, take time today to write about what keeps
· Free yourself for a good cry over your primary losses.
· Have a small ceremony to commemorate the anniversary of the loss of a loved one, whether it was a relational loss or literal loss. Light a candle in his or her name to free them, throw a rock into the ocean to symbolize an aspect of the relationship that needs to be let go, or plant some flowers so that your grief can blossom into something new.
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.