Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What's In A Shame?

I have a confession. Every month, when it's my turn to write a blog post for ETD, I get totally obsessive. I usually make eight or nine false starts before I finally find a subject that clicks. Even still, I often feel like there is something right under my nose that I've missed in the effort to craft something writerly.

This month, I don't have time to dither and deliberate. That's a good thing. It's forcing me to look at what's under my nose. Something I live with all the time, something I think about every day. For me, that something is shame.

Now, before you cringe at the prospect of some deep-down confessional, I'm not going there. In my ongoing work to make peace with my shame, one realization stands above all others: Shame is nothing personal. Shame sure feels personal when you're in it--horribly so. But I can't ignore my sense that it's really a shared problem. It's in our culture, hovering above us all, waiting for a vulnerable situation or person to emerge. Then, shame does what shame does best: it convinces people that they are terminally unique.

When I think about all the things I've ever felt ashamed of, they aren't unique. I've felt ashamed of having depression, ashamed of shopping and eating too much, ashamed of bad relationships, ashamed of aging, ashamed of the self-centeredness that motherhood did not cure.

I've met enough people in life to know these are common sources of shame (see my post last month about the pressure on people to be "together" all the time). But the curious thing about shame is how distinctly, personally painful it becomes. It's the worst feeling ever. It turns people into self-contained torture chambers. And under torture, people will admit anything. Even if it's not true.

I have to constantly remind myself that shame is a liar. Shame lies about me being a fundamentally bad person, it lies about me being worse than others, and--here's the big one--it lies about itself as a tool for positive change.

That last lie is deeply embedded in our collective conscience. Don't so many people try to shame themselves or others into being better? The shame can be overt, as when someone says, "You're terrible for having these problems." But shame has myriad subtle disguises, too. Comparisons: "Your neighbor keeps her house clean, why can't you?" Scare Tactics: "At your weight, you're a walking time bomb!" Bargaining: "I can only accept myself if my symptoms are completely cured."

The thing about shame-as-motivator is that it does work sometimes, especially in the short term. But the costs exceed the benefits. For one thing, people motivated by shame are often so driven by anxiety that they lose touch with their values. They seek out crash diets, phony relationships, inauthentic careers, and misguided searches for "the answer" to whatever is supposedly wrong with them. (Not that I, of course, have EVER done ANY of those foolish things.)

For another thing, shame eventually stops working because it just plain feels bad, and people long for escape. For most people, "escape" means a return to the very behaviors or traits about which they felt ashamed. Vicious cycle, anyone?

So what's the way out? When I find it, I'll let you know. Actually, I do know the way out--identifying shame and talking back to it. But sometimes I just don't want to. Shame is kind of an old friend. A dysfunctional, backstabbing friend for sure, but having grown up with her, I tend to overlook that sometimes. Talking back to shame means trusting my new friends, Acceptance and Humor, enough to enlist their help. It's often scary to do this, because on some level I still feel I need shame to keep me from being lazy or bad. I think this is a common belief, hence the culture of shame.

I'll never forget two therapy sessions I watched on tape as part of an intensive training in cognitive techniques. In both cases, the therapists were addressing deep-seated shame in their patients. One patient, a former Army commander, had gotten paralyzed by fear during a particular battle and couldn't forgive himself. Another patient was deeply embarrassed that she, a marriage counselor, had been married three times.

In each case, as the therapist took their patients through cognitive strategies for talking back to shame, I could tell exactly when the light bulb moment happened. The patient would suddenly sob with relief, realizing that they weren't who the shame said they were. The Army commander saw that his supposed cowardice had actually saved his men from being killed. The therapist saw that her former marital problems helped her understand clients better. They both left the session deeply transformed, having realized that acceptance, not shame, made them better people.

I've seen this in my own life. I'm at my most humble and teachable when I can accept myself. I will always make mistakes and do things I regret, but stewing in shame about them prevents me from being able to make amends and change course. Shame is a very self-centered experience. Acceptance of self, by contrast, radiates outward and has the potential to change the world. Maybe that's why it's so scary, and why we retreat from it. But if we want it, it is there... right under our noses.


Lisa Sniderman, LCSW received her M.S.W. from the University of Chicago in 2003 and has been a licensed clinical social worker since 2005. She is a past member of ETD's Mental Health Advisory Board and one of our storytellers. Click here to check out all of Lisa's posts.

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