I was stressed! I had ten minutes to take a shower, shave, and get dressed before leaving to take my son to school. Without getting into too much detail, I probably could have started earlier before my walk and workout. Now, I was under the gun and wanted to blame someone. Thoughts in my head strung a racing narrative that confirmed the piling responsibilities and deadlines I had to meet if my day were to be a success. As a result, the interaction with my wife and son was…tense, strained and…my doing. When my wife reminded me that I should have started earlier (or not take so long with breakfast, or shorten the walk, etc.)—I balked. “Okay, I know, but that isn’t going to help me now!”
Many of us know this story: we do something, it causes us (and others) some pain and discomfort, we may (or may not be) confronted, and finally, we just want it to go away. We are always want to avoid any type of stress, pain, bad feelings or discomfort; but the truth is: sometimes, its gotta hurt.
How it Hurts:
Whether we are rushed for time, agonizing over a poor decision we have made, running into hardship after hardship, the stress of being financially tight, the frustration over a protracted argument with a spouse, the loss of a job: “pain” comes in a variety of forms—the same is true in therapy. I often compare my time with clients to the cleaning out an infected or improperly healed-over wound. In order to begin the healing process, we have to do some cleaning—which can be painful, even excruciating.
The pain can be both subtle and overt. It’s easy to feel hurt, saddened and frustrated at some relational difficulties that we cannot avoid, what is most difficult is to accept discomfort, uneasiness, and even avoidance as a type of pain. In the workplace, if we get tense and rigid at the anticipation of teaming up with a coworker, it may help to realize that what we might want to call “frustration” is really a type of pain.
If we are continually being offended or slighted by so many people around us—which can be ever prevalent in a society that takes personal offense at a premium. In our “offense culture” we can easily find things to be upset over—so much so that real tragedy gets drowned out. Not to say that being bothered is not legitimate but its full weight may be found in the reaction, not the initial action.
Personal pain can come in the form we feel and in a form we give. The oft used expression “hurt people, hurt people” may seem cheesy but it holds vital truth. We may not stop and realize how challenging our situation is but we can take a good look at our behaviors (and no, avoiding them does not help!). Therapists will often check those who continually express anger at others for depression. The angry young man isn’t just a cultural catch phrase, it can point to deeper rumblings.
Pain also comes in the form of improperly translated shame. Remember, guilt can be repaid, shame can never be repaid and so it keeps pressing—over and over again. Shame can keep us from change and so has a tendency to be avoided at all costs. The shame cycle goes like this: someone points out an area in which we need change, we feel the sting of shame (usually with the “I’m flawed” narrative), we take offense or feel even worse, which brings more shame—and avoidance—thus continuing our unhealthy behavior.
Why it Hurts:
1). Fear and Avoidance:
When asking the question, “why” we really must be prepared for the answer. The reason I say this is because many of us ask why so that we can point to a situation or a person outside of ourselves. The why question can also help us avoid doing anything about anything. If we continue to ask why then we can sit and rub our chin instead of getting out of our chair. Besides, maybe the reason something is hurting is because we haven’t done anything about it. Avoidance may feel comfortable as we kick the can down the road but it also feeds our shame and does not deal with the problem.
It’s true that we can find ourselves in situations that are painful: a destructive relationship, a harsh work environment, even discrimination, but what we may not be able to change in others we need not accept in ourselves. Take a harsh work environment: Whereas it’s true that snapping up another job can be scary and difficult, it’s also true that we may not be as trapped as we think we are. We are not prohibited from seeking a different line of work, modifying our behavior, or seeking counsel in our situation. I have worked with many who have changed their tack and found encouraging results.
2). Natural Consequences:
Why may also lead us to realize that we often hurt over our own actions and behaviors—hitting our own hand with a hammer will hurt, bad! Looking back on the work example, what we may want to call discrimination someone else may call just rewards (keeping in mind there are different forms of discrimination). We are all want to minimize our role in causing ourselves hardship, what we must be careful of is missing the real issue lest we get ourselves stuck by routinely pointing at situations and others.
When going through pain, it may seem obvious to many around us why but can be very difficult to see for the person in the fight. I have known many who continue to put themselves through the most difficult of circumstances because they feel they just can’t (or don’t want to) change—which could also tie back to the shame cycle. If circumstances snowball and continue to get worse, which causes us to feel the failure so we avoid, so our situation gets worse as more poor decisions are made (you get the picture). I may not want my hand to hurt as I continue to whack it with a hammer but that’s just the way it goes.
Many who suffer with addiction will confess that they hate their situation and their actions, while others in the same boat will want all to go well for them even though they have burnt bridges, strained relationships, lost jobs and continue to use. This sort of “magical thinking” rests on the idea that circumstances should go well because we want them to, not because we should do something different. These stuck folks have a very hard time seeing the natural consequences of their behaviors. In a sense, such consequences are a gift from God that can help direct and shape us for the better. Those who don’t want to accept them will continue to put themselves through pain—all the while trying desperately to avoid it (a paradox any way we look at it).
3) Poor Boundaries:
For the co-dependent, issues may continue to hurt because of the tendency to take on other’s pain. This happens on two sides of a contract: the one comes from the person who always wants to be rescued and continues to avoid the pain of responsibility; the other comes from the one who rescues and can’t see their loved one go through the pain of responsibility. This creates an undue burden on the person who is always swooping in—feeling like they are taking everything on their shoulders and straining under the weight. In this case boundaries work two ways, what we do to others and what we allow them to do to us (or expect from us). Keeping a firm handle on letting “you be you, and me be me” means that, if I am co-dependent, I don’t keep rescuing your or taking your pain as my own. If I am grandiose then I have to accept my pain and not try to demand you deliver me from it. This takes a lot of work but is well worth it!
Hopefully, we all know what it feels like to regret something we have said or done. I know that can sound strange but regret is, actually, a good thing (in good measure) that can indicate we care. Regret can come from mistakes we have made—which we all do! Some may try to avoid regret by not admitting to ever making mistakes. Running across a person who never admits to a mistake is not a pleasant deal; Usually, such people are obnoxious and draining. Regret can also tie back into the shame cycle, in which case we must be careful to use regret as a vehicle for change and thus, redeem what it is there for. To regret for a moment and not a lifetime allows us to see things in proper balance. Remember, if our regret does not lead to change it has a good chance of becoming shame, which is toxic.
5) Confrontation: Me and You Against You:
Many of us have dealt with that loved one: spouse, sibling, parent, child etc. that does not do confrontation well. Being confronted can cause anger, hurt, and avoidance—and for very good reason. Looking back on the Stages of Acceptance we see that avoidance is a common maneuver as we knee-jerk our way to shirking responsibility. But being confronted hurts in a couple of ways: for one, if you come to me with an issue I may attack you because you are the face of what is causing me pain (me against you), but I will also attack you because deep down I know that I am wrong (me and you against you)—which links again to shame. In this I may feel like I can go toe-to-toe with you and all your flaws, but you and me against me can be way to overwhelming—and painful.
One of the most difficult, and needed, aspects of my job can be confrontation. There are many therapists who out right avoid, and feel there is no place for, confrontation (and think so for good reason), but there may come a time when we confront the behavior that is hurting them. If I tell you that hitting your hand with a hammer is causing you the pain you hate so much and then you get angry at me because I point out something you are doing wrong; well, sometimes its gotta hurt! Confrontation in this way can come in many forms and most certainly not on the first meeting. When rapport is built, trust established, and a good alliance is made a gentle question or observation can be both needed—and painful! I try to be very careful in gauging the situation and even ask “So what would you like to do?” before I just lay it on. Because of the tender nature of the situation I will often wait until I am asked—making every attempt to not gratify my own goals and visions for the client I help.
Why it Needs to Hurt:
Bad decisions, poor life choices, uneasiness, confrontation—there seems no end to the list of stuff that hurts. What is important to remember is that we, as people, are want to avoid pain, sometimes at all costs. In this way (and I’ve said it before) we treat pain like a burning building, we go the opposite direction in hopes of having it just go away. The problem is that many of our issues are engulfed in the flames of pain—avoid the flames and the problem never changes. That is why I try to help clients “run into the burning building”, put out the flames and face the problem (and the pain) head on. In doing so it helps to recognize a few of the following:
How to Deal With the Hurt:
Not dealing with the pain is not dealing with the issue. Whether we are confronting ourselves or someone we are close to we have to accept that sometimes its gotta hurt! Simply put, we deal with the hurt by facing it, appreciating it, and allowing it to hurt so we are motivated to do something different. In this we must realize that there is a type of hurt that brings life and another type that brings death. The hurt that brings life is one in which we say “ah, yes, I did that and I am wrong. Thank God I have a chance to know what I have done and to change!” The hurt that brings death is the one we avoid, with the idea that to accept the need to change means we are hopelessly flawed and unable to recover. It is a lie to believe that by accepting and facing responsibility we are somehow irreparably damaged. We also need not wallow in our pain. If it hurts, then look for ways to change it—first ourselves and then our situation. Remember, the support of good friends and an insightful counselor can help. If you or someone you know is in need of extra support, go to our website www.downeyparkcounseling.com or like our Facebook page at Downey Park Counseling Associates.
You’re Not the Boss of ME!: The Five Ways Adults Communicate Like Children and the VOICE That Can Help Fix Them
Children are a wonder: one moment kind and gentle and then pointedly hurtful the next. Go to any elementary school yard and the refrain of “I’m not going to be your friend” can be heard at least a few times. As children, we learn from our families how to navigate the social waters around us: the cues, the facial expressions, and the tones of voice. But we also learn how to work our relational way through the socialization schoolyard. Problems arise when our families lack emotionally mature ways of operating that give us the much needed foundation of how to interact in future relationships. When young, having not developed the parts of our brain that can articulate emotionally laden interpretations, we can take others actions as being an attack and respond by closing off or going ‘big’. As a child we may be able to get away with such behavior, but as adults there is a bit more expected from us. Real trouble comes when we look like adults but still act in childish ways. The following are five ways in which we as adults act like emotional children, they provide a key in how to challenge and combat the dysfunctional ways we tend to operate.
1. Limited Vocabulary:
Research tells us that we have the full range of emotions around the age of five. What we lack, however, is an adequate way of articulating and expressing our emotions (Gail 2016). Walk into any primary or secondary grade classroom and it’s a safe bet that there is a host of vocabulary words posted so the teacher can convey the subject matter to her students. We also understand that any career field and workplace has a lingua franca shared and understood by its employees. Language helps us convey concepts and ideas that would otherwise take drawn out and confusing explanations. I could tell you that when you are driving and come upon a pole that extends out over the street, containing an upright rectangular box with red, green, and yellow lights you must stop at the red light; or I can just say there is a “stop light”—making the lengthy explanation unneeded.
So it is with expressing our emotions. As both children and adults, when we get emotional, trying to explain how we feel can seem like a herculean task. If we have not learned to articulate and express our emotions in mature ways then we can feel trapped by what I call counterfeit emotions—emotions that we feel in the moment but may not be completely accurate. We all have a range of emotions but we do not all know how to pinpoint and name what they are; as such, hurt, sadness, and loneliness can feel like anger; excitement, uncertainty, and curiosity can feel like fear; and compassion, empathy, and understanding can feel like guilt or shame—just to point out a few.
With limited ways to express how we feel we are only left with the emotions of the moment; therefore, If I feel angry I will speak the language of anger and fear, If I only understand shame then I will move, and be moved by, the language of guilt and shame. This then leaves me communicating in a passive, passive-aggressive, or aggressive manner—which can be a certain way toward unhealthiness.
The Fix: Developing (V)ocabulary:
When I learn the vocabulary of how I am feeling (by really digging in and examining what first feelings I have) I can develop the words to share what is going on inside and help those across from me hear what I am feeling as well—which is assertive communication (US Federal News Service 2012). Therapists will often give clients lists of feelings and ask them to write down what they are really feeling in the moment vs. how they usually react in the moment—which can lead to a wide spectrum of feelings that may have been long avoided or unarticulated. The vocabulary of emotion gives us a ready way to connect with ourselves and others when tempers flare and we want to act like children.
2. Limited Perspective
Jean Piaget, the famous developmental psychologist, pointed out the stage of maturity he called the preoperational stage in which children tend to operate at a highly egocentric capacity (Breedlove 2015)—and some never move on! Expanding our perspective comes with maturity and practice. Perspective can operate at two levels—one obvious and the other more sophisticated: The first understands where someone else might be coming from. As children, when we lack ways to articulate and communicate how we feel we are left with only our raw emotions to understand others and the world around us. When the emotions are high we can get into that “fight or flight” mode in our head which then leads to self-preservation as the primary directive—which is actually one of the hallmarks of being a child (or immaturity). Whereas it’s true some children can seem very giving and self-sacrificing, even this can be a means of self-protection.
As we move into the teenage years, our sense of the world, and it’s orbit around me is compounded with the development of the amygdala—that area of our brain that deals with emotions and relating to others. It is during these adolescent years that a heightened sense and awareness of ourselves goes into overdrive; as such, what those in the psychological community call the “imaginary audience” (that sense that everyone is watching us and actually cares about what we are doing!) can be the main force in how we act as bigger children (Galanaki 2012). Take this perspective into adulthood and we are left with only seeing issues from our point of view. This limited perspective is all about how it makes us feel, and react, and think, and so on. It is for this reason we so often fight to be understood rather than fight to understand (which is a huge hang-up when we are in disagreement with another). What can be difficult is actually getting out of our own moment and getting into the head and heart of another—after all, I’m to worried about me to consider you! In these times it is essential to consider that everyone walking the street has hopes, fears, worries, stresses, heartbreaks and hang-ups that drive their day.
The second level of perspective taking (the more sophisticated side) rests in realizing others make mistakes. As children we judge at face value—seeing someone’s behavior or actions and making up stories about what they meant to do to us (more on that later). I have mentioned this before but a youth pastor of mine once said, “We judge others by their actions and we judge ourselves by our intentions”. Because children’s emotional thermostat can continually run hot, it’s very difficult to think, “hmm, I wonder if they meant that when they said…” At the same time, we as grown children continually want to be let off the hook for the stuff we didn’t mean that resulted in reactions we didn’t expect. If you are involved in any service industry you have seen how grown adults can treat others: they can be demanding, insensitive, selfish and unregulated—all stemming from a lack of understanding, empathy and perspective—which is pretty childish.
The Fix? (O)thers Perspective:
One of the surest ways to gain the perspective of another is to ask questions. Without honest inquiry we are left with making up our own story in our heads (from our perspective!). If we think or feel a certain way we could ask of the other, “I am thinking ________, is that what you meant?” or, “you sound upset, are you okay?” and then be prepared for the answer (not what we assume to be the answer); remember, we know what our perspective is, the question here is: What is theirs?
3. Limited Control
One of the great things about children is the rawness of their emotions. I remember when my daughter was about 18 months old (she is 21 now), she was completely overcome at the passing of a fire truck on a code three run. As the sirens went blaring she watched in frozen consternation with what must have been a holistic fright. After the engine passed she let out a wail and ran into my arms, looking for me to help regulate her. This extreme in emotional reaction is common to those who are young and have not learned to mitigate how intense feelings can be sometimes—and so must look to their parents to help them do so (Kopp 1989). In the same way, adults who are unregulated can ‘blow the doors off the hinges’ in regards to their feelings. In some cases emotions can be a type of drug—often turned to and seldom put aside. In this way we can tend to park on our limited vocabulary and perspective by binging on our hurt, anger, fear etc. Because these emotions can carry a type of intoxication we can find ourselves not wanting to let them go because they feel so right. Think of the angry customer at the checkout line or the bitter divorce’. We may think, “You have wronged me and I will NEVER forgive you”—all emotion and totally extreme.
Another angle to this is how some have responded in the opposite direction to such intensity. Some have grown up with such emotional dysregulation that they chose the opposite tack—cutting themselves off from their feelings—which is why therapists will often see couples who work in such extremes, one unregulated, the other cut off. This does not lessen the fact that there is wrong in this world (which there will always be) but it does say much about how we respond to such wrong—unregulated and extreme, stuffed and cut off, or managed and appropriately directed.
When we operate to such extremes we can find the ‘fixes’ we try and implement just make the problem worse. If I do not regulate myself and immediately fly off the handle, verbally spewing all that is in me in the name of sharing my feelings, I may say things I later come to fully regret. On the other hand, if I am cut-off emotionally and say I am feeling nothing (in order to make the situation ‘go away’) then nothing will get resolved and I may grow to be bitter and resentful (and unable to feel).
The Fix? (I)nternal Regulation:
Emotions are good and needed, but to let them go wild can damage those around you. Once again, emotions are good and needed, but to ignore and stuff them can damage us inside. It is important to ask ourselves, “Why am I getting so angry and emotional” or, “Why am I so numb? “When was the last time I felt something?” Emotional regulation comes in many forms but the first step is healthy internal dialogue. A step outside the immediate intensity of the situation may help to calm us down; or, really digging in to something we know we should have some feeling over can help us to feel again.
4. Limited Challenge
This area of limited challenge can prove tricky. First, per Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, children tend to base who they are on what others say about them, parents and loved ones. Next, they will often take on the language and emotional tenor of the homes of upbringing. But something happens in the adolescent years that shifts the search for identity from “Who do you say I am” to “Who am I, really?” In these years children (adolescent children) now carry around their family messages of who they are but are also forming internal, autonomous, messages of who they are and looking to peers for support (Breedlove 2015). It is for this reason teens can often get an attitude, challenging all around them but not challenging themselves. And this can be paradoxical, for on the one hand they shun the family that has long known them, yet on the other they wholeheartedly adopt every statement and fad from their social set—not bothering to question or critique. So it stands to reason that children this age can have a limited ability to challenge what they are thinking while at the same time regularly challenging those around them. This can prove especially true among teenage males as they act without thinking, often leading to impulsive and dangerous behavior.
When we as adults do not challenge our own thoughts and beliefs we can respond in emotionally unhealthy ways. So it is with communication, when we fully rely on our own interpretations, not questioning our scripts and beliefs about our internal, relational, or global dialogue, then we can leap to some pretty outrageous assumptions. Even if we are the type to take on the blame for other’s behaviors around us we are not challenging our own thoughts in the matter as to why we feel we are always to blame.
The Fix? (C)hallenging Our Beliefs:
We all have beliefs we carry around with us that inform the way we interact with ourselves, others, and the world in general. These beliefs can have both strengths and weaknesses. If we march about never questioning the weaknesses of such beliefs then we are in for some communication frustration. One example of a personal belief is operating in ideals. Ideals carry with them, “What if?”, “If only”, and “Should” scripts—these are great for dreaming (a strength!) but can be destructive for communication when our expectations are not met. In my practice I assess for the top personal, relational and external beliefs with the PRE Beliefs Inventory so awareness can lead to healthy challenging.
5. Limited Boundaries:
As children, we really don’t have very fixed boundaries, and for good reason—we need people to take care of us. As we grow we learn how to act from our parents—often watching for their reactions to certain situations which further cement our relying on others to inform our mood and take care of us. As time passes we eventually achieve some skill in operating on our own. As we continue to grow older we become increasingly more autonomous leading to eventual separation sometime in late adolescence. A healthy family dynamic allows for the change in parent/child relationship to move from dependent to independent; however, many families grow up either not recognizing and/or not accepting this long and gradual transition. Families that operate on an economy of emotional manipulation, fear, anger, and shame have a difficult time producing children that understand the value of where they stop and others start. This can range from overt to covert: For example, the mother with fear and control issues may, in subtle ways, use emotional pleas to get her children to do what she asks. The children may then grow to be adults that use language such as, “If you really loved me you would…” Many recognized co-dependents often take part in unhealthy communications and behaviors as a means of assuaging long held fears and functions. As authors John Townsend and Henry Cloud state in their book, Boundaries In Marriage, there are issues such as cause and effect, responsibility, power, and respect that surround our behaviors and communication toward others (Cloud & Townsend 1999). If we are unaware of our own boundaries and others (as children tend to be) then we are in for some violations that can have us acting like children.
The Fix? (E)stablishing Boundaries:
Recognize that others are not responsible for our feelings and cannot deliver us from them. Accepting that people do and say hurtful things and we cannot control them, we can only control ourselves. We can also be aware of where we stop and others start. We may want to talk over or shout down another because we don’t like what they say. In this case we must practice internal and external boundaries—internal being our internal regulation and external relating to not allowing others to coerce or control us. Remember, this does not mean saying whatever hurtful thing that comes to mind (Remember the first four steps) but it can mean either standing up for ourselves by not letting others run us or recognizing how we may tend to try and run others. Also be aware of the coercion, manipulation, and emotional arm twisting we may employ and look to avoid such means. Remember not to assume what others need and want but ask and be open to the answers you receive.
Changing the way we have long communicated (either in our heads or toward others) takes hard and persistent work—after all, we have grown skilled in our childish behaviors. A good question to ask ourselves may be, “Is this way really helping me?” or, “Is there a better way to communicate.” Remembering to use our VOICE can be the start of a better operating system. If you want a change and hope to move forward, finding a good therapist can help you do just that. If you would like to contact me you can leave a comment on my facebook page Chris Oneth LMFT or, to see my other posts visit my blog at www.chrisoneth.net.
Chris Oneth LMFT
Downey Park Counseling Associates
ASSERTIVE COMMUNICATION LEADS TO STRONGER RELATIONSHIPS. (2012, Nov 14). US Fed News Service, Including US State News Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1151544838?accountid=40702
Breedlove, S. Marc, (2015) Principles of Psychology, New York, NY: Oxford University Press
Cloud, Henry, J. Townsend, (1999) Boundaries in Marriage: Understanding the Choices That Make or Break Loving Relationships, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan
Gail E. Joseph, Ph.D. Philip S. Strain, Ph.D. Enhancing Emotional Vocabulary in Young Children Center for Evidenced Based Practices for Early Learning, Accessed February 27, 2016 http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu/resources/training_preschool.html#mod2
Galanaki, Evangelia P. (2012) The Imaginary Audience and the Personal Fable: A Test of Elkind’s Theory of Adolescent Egocentrism. Psychology Vol 3, No 6 457—466.
Kopp, Claire B. (1989) Regulation of distress and negative emotions: A developmental view. Developmental Psychology, Vol 25(3), May 1989, 343-354.
Shame is one of the most frequent and often spoken of emotions I come across in mental health practice: “What were you thinking?” “I can’t believe you said that!” “You should have known better, you idiot!” “God must be so disappointed with you.” Can be just a few of the many negative internal scripts we find ourselves entertaining at any moment throughout the day. I have found this true of those that operate a forklift, use a scalpel, speak from a pulpit, or move children to and fro—shame is no respecter of person or station. It can be consistent and hard pressing often repeating what we have internalized in our youth.
Shame or Guilt?
Shame has a myriad of definitions that primarily center around an attitude of regret, disappointment in oneself, embarrassment, and disgrace. In this it is important to recognize the difference between guilt verses shame (It’s easy to get them mixed). As stated in other posts, guilt is something outside of us—something we may have done and that we can repay; shame, on the other hand, is who we are—something that is us and that we can never repay. In trying to move away from shame as a motivator we most certainly are not talking about ignoring or extinguishing guilt that must be made right—we would do ourselves a complete disservice to remove all feelings of guilt when, at times, we are guilty! It’s strange that some of us, even if given the option to turn shame over into guilt, will chose shame because it is what we have always done—continually punishing ourselves for who we are.
From Where Comes Shame?
When we ask where shame comes from it can get a little tricky. Relationship expert Margret Paul, in her popular piece on the Huffington Post Blog, Why We Feel Shame and How to Conquer It, shares that shame initially comes from not being validated as a child, then blaming ourselves, and eventually wanting (and not getting) control over ours and others feelings and emotions (Paul 2011). It can also be amplified by events we went through and feel should have been in our control such as abuse. In such cases, all the following characteristics of shame still apply. I would further submit that there may be something more to shame than just parents and control, which I will go into a bit later.
In considering motivation, we usually operate on a stick and/or carrot principle. The carrot is one of goals and aspirations, the stick that of consequence. Those who move themselves by shame will do so with both the stick AND the carrot, with the script stating: “Can’t you do any better, what is wrong with you?” If a goal is not met (carrot), and a “Don’t screw this up again” for a push to avoid failure (stick). This is seen in the workplace, school, sports team, the home, and the church.
As someone who has worked extensively in the Christian community I find shame to be the “go to” motivator in many people’s lives. Entire congregations will operate on a surface level, (afraid to dig into each other’s lives) for fear of exposing heartbreaking needs and struggles that, they believe, will ban them from the group they so very much need (which is a stick any way you look at it!). This is not exclusive to Christians but I believe it is given more cosmic muscle in the church and so can be harder to snap.
Many of us do not need a church background to be intimately acquainted with shame, below are the five characteristics of those of us who are driven by such a cruel motivator.
1. Negative over Positive Scripts and Emotions:
Shame is unabashedly negative. As demonstrated in the opening lines to this post, the negative scripts that shame generates tend to stir up emotions of fear, ridicule, sadness, frustration, failure, condemnation, the list goes on. In doing so, we as individuals will not only hear negative but will give it as well—after all, it is very difficult to speak positive when we entertain such negative lines between our ears. Many of us are not even aware of how negative these scripts can get until we take serious note, even saying them aloud can give us a shock.
Author Martin Seligman cites in his book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life that these negative thoughts can seem personal, pervasive and permanent; that is, it can seem like everything we do is messed up because we are messed up (personal); that everywhere we look and whatever we do will be messed up (pervasive) and that the bad feelings we are having will never change (permanent). So it is with shame and the negative language that perpetuates. (Seligman 1998) What can be even more difficult is actually changing the continual and repeated scripts we have come to dysfunctionally rely on.
2. Demanding and Controlling:
Shame is not only negative, its demanding and never satisfied—which ensures continued feelings of failure. Even for those who are motivated to achieve, if shame is the driver it will always take more than it gives. What ends up happening is that there will never be enough—enough kudos, education, looks, prizes, perfect children or possessions. Translate this into our heads and it might sound like: “Sure you made it, but what about….?” Or “The only reason you really got this far is because…..” The demand shame puts on us will most always result in burning ourselves out—then passing it on to others. In this way, what is demanded of us (from shame) we demand of others, continuing to drive and never letting up.
In so demanding, the rules shame applies are always shifting and never solid. This “unattainable perfection” is yet another example of our inability to extinguish shame. The pattern goes something like this: We make a rule, the rule is met, motivated by shame we are still not satisfied, so we demand just a bit more—first of ourselves and then of others. Any of us who have grown children can attest to this when they may finally come to say, “You were never satisfied with anything I did!” Though this can be painful to hear it should give us pause as to the voice we have used to get ourselves going—the deeper truth being that we were never satisfied with anything we did!
Never being satisfied can put us straight on a course of needing to be in control—of ours and others feelings, attitudes, and actions—leading to feelings of anger, disappointment, and hurt. This control exacts itself in never being satisfied to be sure, but it also shows itself by unmet expectations, being overwhelmed or angry at other’s emotions, inability to accept another way, and being unwilling (or unable) to change or roll with the punches. Those who operate off shame will most certainly encounter a near meltdown when things become out of their perceived control—with either getting abrasive and loud, or crushed and heartbroken. Such reactions show control in either an overt or a covert manner. Overt control is the type we can all see readily—the loud, abrasive, finger pointing boss; whereas, covert control is one that attempts to quietly move the people and pieces around them so they don’t feel bad or uneasy. In our culture, the overt side of the controlling aspect of shame is ever present in the form of “shaming”—the boundary violating means of societal pressure.
Paradoxically, we are want to control others by shaming but cry “foul” when we perceive others attempting to shame us. Consequently, when control is not attained, the shame ramps up, “Why can’t you get your crap together”, “You need to do this or else”, “If you don’t help them and something happens, it’s going to be on your head!”—both to ourselves and others.
3. Comparing and Blaming:
Shame loves to make comparisons to everyone around us. When we are working so hard at doing right, running from the “not screwing up again” and “Why can’t you….?” can leave us trying to run at a frantic pace. In the demands of shame, we will either just meet what it asks or (more likely) never attain what it asks. As such, our human tendency to find “okayness” through the weeds of failure can leave us comparing and blaming ourselves and others. When we are comparing, the internal dialogue may go something like this: “Well, at least I am not that bad” or “She has it together, what is wrong with you (me)?” The comparing script of shame can take us in one of two directions: Self-righteous or self-condemning—conjoined twins of the shame narrative.
Self-righteousness has us using others as a shield from shame for our acceptance. If we are working hard, checking all the boxes, members of the right group, and saying the right things, then to perceive someone as not trying as hard immediately sets us at odds; thus, coming close to someone who may not live up to our standards brings us nearer to the shame we are running so hard from. From this we may try to control others’ behaviors and attitudes—blaming (and shaming) them all the while for the problems of the world. The subconscious attitude being, “I’m doing what is right, why can’t you!”—bearing that all too familiar shame script that drives us. If this continues we may have a very difficult time empathizing with others and being moved to sensitivity. In fact, our first reaction to those that are “less than” will be contempt and punishment.
Conversely, self-condemnation closely rides the heels of self-righteousness and can catch us at any moment. Self-condemnation has us using ourselves as the shield (taking the arrows of shame full-on) for others, for our acceptance. As the self-righteous blames others, the self-condemned blame themselves. With this mindset, we see others as more worthy, beautiful, healthy, and holy. Prompted by shame, we long to have what they have and are repeatedly unsatisfied and disappointed with ourselves and the things we have, compared to those around us. In this way, the contempt and punishment are then turned toward us, picking up those arrows that missed us and finishing the job!
As someone who has grown up in the church, I see this self-righteous/self-condemnation cycle play out ad infinitum. In fact, each complement each other! The condemned will gladly take the arrow the self-righteous fires off (the blamer finds the blamed!). In fact, it’s as though each are trapped by the rules of a game no one can ever win but each sign up for (more on that later). This “push/pull” dynamic can fill entire congregations as each scrap and struggle to obtain an acceptance foothold, either working hard pointing at, or punishing, others and themselves. The irony in all of this is that such behavior blocks true connection and emotional intimacy—which we need to overcome shame. The struggles each side has are not confessed and so no one believes anyone struggles with anything. Another brand of this comes in the form of weak and marginal honesty, the “general confession” many call it. This is when we offer watered down statements such as, “Oh yes, we all struggle” and, “I’m just not where I want to be” as a distancing tool from shame—and others. To be fair we obviously don’t confess everything to everyone, but in this environment the intimate few are just a notion and not a reality.
4. Avoiding and Protecting:
As shame drives us, we can find ourselves in a pattern of avoiding situations and others that touch a tender nerve. In this way, shame has a way of protecting itself from being changed or letting go. Avoidance can appear in many different forms: avoiding situations (such as finding a job, ignoring a problem and/or blaming the circumstance or others), avoiding people, (loved ones, co-workers, and friends) and avoiding ourselves (denial, endless self-distractions, a packed schedule). This avoidance seeks to curb the immediate pain of a situation but most always prolongs the agony. Often, the primary emotion accompanying shame that leads to avoidance is fear—fear of something different, of putting ourselves “out there” and of rejection. I have counseled some that have undergone remarkable pain and felt they had to “do it alone” by not sharing or confessing their hurts and struggles with others—the shame and fear too great to reach out. Those who suffer from depression are want to isolate themselves and avoid others all-together, entertaining shame scripts such as, “You are so pathetic!” and “no one cares anyway”. In this way, even people with a great deal of social support alongside feel as though they are completely alone.
The corollary to the avoidance that shame instills is that, by avoiding, shame is sure to protect itself from being dislodged. I cannot recount how many times I have pointed out the shame narrative in people’s lives, only to be met with, “That’s how I get things done” or, “But it’s true, I am pathetic”. I have often equated shame to a small room, with feces thick on the walls and the overpowering smell that comes with it. (apologies for the graphic!) If told that the door was unlocked with several undiscovered, clean, comfortable rooms just outside, would those of us driven by shame step through that door? At first telling the answer would seem to be “yes” but the truth is, we most often would not; why? because the room is what we know and the mystery on the other side too frightening to move toward. This stagnation then perpetuates the feelings of worthlessness and helplessness making shame all the more powerful. If this analogy seems outrageous, consider the ways in which all of us may have “reasonable” protections against changing our shame behavior, scripts and expectations.
5. Familiar and “Safe”
As strange as it sounds, we are often hesitant to give up our shame scripts because they offer a type of safety. Fear governs whether or not we “open the door to our shame room” and walk out—fear of what we do not know. In this way, shame becomes a place we grow horribly comfortable with. This false sense of safety is not safe at all but only seems less scary and uncomfortable than the unknown. When couples come to me in locked disagreement, we discuss how the place they are in has only broken and worn-out tools—albeit tools they have grown comfortable with. This “comfort” with the broken has a way of settling us into good enough, which then keeps us from feeling good about who we are and where we are going. The new tools (which exist in the rooms outside of shame) are strange and clunky, but are so much more effective and healthy.
The root of familiar is family, which means that, more than likely, we learned to grow comfortable in our shame language from the home we grew up in. Even the subtle, “You could have done so much better”, meant to bolster one’s potential, has a way of amplifying the underlying failure. Negative undertones, difficult standards, and the stick of motivation from our families cultivate the seed of shame inside all of us. Indeed, having worked with many who have come from homes of abuse, I see grown adults who have resented and hated the treatment their parents have given them—only to agree to continue the abuse in their head upon moving out. Even in good homes the perceived perfection required of them comes from a filter of shame.
Did Our Childhood Do This to Us?
Child development experts agree that, as children, we gauge our emotions and attitudes on what our caregivers provide, which can include acceptance and/or shame; as time progresses, however, it becomes imperative to develop our own personhood and boundaries in relation to emotions and attitudes (something families may have a difficult time doing). If our relational roles were confused we continue to grow in stature but not emotional maturity. In other words, we will repeatedly rely on others to define our emotions and who we are, much like we did as children. So, if we continue the mantra of “my parents did this to me” it does very little for our present situation. Even if we are coming from abuse we may continue to identify ourselves by that abuse—never allowing another avenue into who we are. It is my contention that in adulthood we must develop our personal boundaries (in our head), relational boundaries (with others) and external boundaries (with the world around us) if we are going to get any kind of joy out of life. If these areas are lacking, then we will continue to dive into shame for ourselves and others—always hoping and expecting but never satisfied. So to answer the question: what our parents may have started we do not want to be guilty by taking part in.
What Can We Do About Where Shame Comes From?
Whereas its true that the way we were raised certainly has its influence, I would contend that, even if our parents were poor at validating our feelings, shame comes innate in all of us from the start—which returns us back to the distinction of guilt vs. shame: guilt = I have a problem; shame = I am a problem. First, we have to chase down whether the shame we are feeling is really guilt, which we should make right. If it is not guilt (or we cannot repay) then we need to reconsider the why of shame. In this, the hard, and compelling, crux of the matter is: we do have a problem! (Which can be a shock to some but manifest to others) The thought follows that if we are born of imperfect people, then we have every possibility of making the same mistakes they make—even if we don’t want to (Remember the “shame contract” we agree to continue after we leave home?). Such behavior points to something inside of us that agrees to the hurt we have received—and will tend to pass on. For those that are battling shame from childhood abuse it is important to remember that such treatment did not start the shame but does intensely amplify it. This innate shame ties us back to the idea of “shaming” others in our culture—the shame inside of us becoming a kind of manipulative currency. Societally, we cannot be shamed unless we are in some agreement to the accusations! When we recognize that we do make bad decisions because of something inside of us, rather than just perpetuating the shame, we can ask ourselves what the shame could be telling us—or pointing to (the why). If it is not just our parents, or others, that give us shame (after all, they have their weaknesses too) then this piece of who we are may have no other out then to have someone greater than us save us from us. Keep in mind that if we continually hope that individuals as flawed as we are will take on the mass of our shame we are sure to be hurt and disappointed every time. This asking of an “other” to deliver us from shame is a tendency in all of us (after all, we do it all the time); however, what (or who) we rely on to take our shame away must be strong enough to bear the weight of what we ask (as a Christian I have more thoughts in this!). In this way, shame can either be confronted and dissipated, or nurtured and cultivated to grow and take over our lives.
If you have any thoughts or ideas on this matter, please go to our Facebook Page at Downey Park Counseling Associates or even check out my website blog on www.chrisoneth.com/blog
Paul, Margaret (October 6, 2011) Why We Feel Shame and How to Conquer It. Huffington Post. Retrieved From: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/margaret-paul-phd/dealing-with-shame_b_994991.html
Seligman, M. (1998) Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Pocket Books New York, NY