Snobbery and Pretentiousness

Twice within the last six months, I’ve heard the 18-year-old son of friends use the expression “put to shame.” The first time, he told me that Lea Michele’s rendition (Glee) of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” put Barbra Streisand’s version to shame (I beg to differ). More recently, he told me that a certain designer’s collection during Fashion Week in New York “put to shame” the work of another well-known designer. It got me thinking about the use of the word shame in this expression and what exactly it means.

Most of the online dictionary definitions focus on embarrassment or humiliation. The superior achievement of one person makes another feels humiliated or embarrassed. In other words, the expression involves a comparison between two people, one of whom is above the other. This pairing between a “winner” and a “loser” has been a theme of my writing on this website from the outset. In particular, I’ve focused on the way many people project their own shame into someone else and then triumph over the other person, as if humiliating someone else “proves” that he or she has gotten rid of all shame. Bullying serves the same function.

In middle school, a period when tweens and young teens feel anxious to find their place in the social hierarchy, when cliques form and divisions between popular kids and the outsiders become more defined, one unfortunate girl or boy is often ostracized and forced to carry unwanted shame for a group of persecutors. Most of you will have heard, read about or experienced this kind of scapegoating. The person who finds himself the target of such persecution usually has some level of shame already — a sense of being unlike others, lacking traits or qualities that other “normal” kids possess. The group likely intuits this shame and “projects into reality,” as we say. Two young men currently in my practice fit this description and found themselves teased and bullied as they came of age. The experience has left them cautious and watchful: in social situations, they strive to adopt behaviors that will allow them to fit in, to escape the feeling of being different, and to make sure no one can see their damage.

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Projecting and the Law of False Attribution

I’ve been meaning to write this post for more than a year now; from the beginning, I’ve had this particular title in mind although I’m not 100% sure that it’s the right one. If anyone has a better suggestion for how to name this particular mental process, feel free to submit a comment.

I call the phenomenon I want to describe a “law” because it seems to be a fundamental principle of human mental functioning, an in-built assumption that if I am feeling bad, then someone or something is causing me to feel that way. In other words, we attribute a cause-and-effect relationship between the way we are feeling and the actions of people around us. Sometimes this attribution may be accurate — Your continual criticisms are causing me to feel terrible — but on other occasions, it may be false: The way you chew your food is driving me crazy! In the latter case, I am probably feeling irritable, tired and grouchy; rather than recognizing that I feel the way I do because I didn’t get enough sleep last night or because work today was highly stressly, I falsely account for those feelings by attributing them to you and your irksome way of chewing.

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‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ as Character Traits

I haven’t written a post in two weeks — unusual for me — because during that period, I have felt almost overwhelmed by the events in my life, mostly enjoyable and of great meaning to me: my oldest son’s 21st birthday, my middle child’s high school graduation, my daughter’s promotion from middle school, two flights (one to Chicago, one to Los Angeles), followed by the drive cross-country to Colorado, where I will continue to work throughout the summer. My fatigue levels have been made worse by some poor choices I’ve made along the way, and I’ve watched myself “hardening up” in response. Now that I’ve recovered a bit, I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about the importance of choice “after psychotherapy,” and what can happen when you don’t respect your limitations.

At the beginning of May, I had set as a goal for myself to complete a rough draft of my book on defense mechanisms before leaving for Colorado; that way, I reasoned, I would have an entire month to review and revise it at leisure, before my summer break. I really wanted to achieve that goal. At the same time, I wanted to keep up with this blog as well as the one on PsychCentral, and especially to continue practicing piano. I can become very cranky if I have to forgo my practice; I normally get up at 5 a.m. in order to make sure that I have uninterrupted time alone, so piano doesn’t impinge on work and family life. Even before May became truly hectic, I knew it was unlikely that I’d be able to accomplish everything I had set out for myself. I probably should have accepted that piano would have to take a back seat if I were going to finish my book.

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Vacation Breaks in Psychotherapy and Defenses Against Need

In my last post, I discussed how clients need to become emotionally dependent upon their therapists for psycho-dynamic treatment to be effective. How difficult the client finds it to tolerate his or her own needs obviously plays a major role in the development of that dependency. As I’ve said before, neediness is often one of the first issues we confront when we begin therapy: early experiences of untrustworthy or unreliable caregivers may have taught us that it’s unsafe to become too dependent, making us reluctant to “commit” to the psychotherapy relationship. These are ongoing issues that repeatedly come to the surface during treatment, especially around the therapist’s vacations, which often stir up abandonment issues or cause the old doubts as to the safety of the psychotherapy relationship to reemerge.

I recently returned to work from a 10-day vacation, and many of my clients had strong reactions to the break, none of them the same and each reflecting the person’s particular defenses. During my early years as a therapist, I found that I often lost clients immediately before and after my vacations; nobody decided to quit this time (with the possible exception of the client I described in my last post, discussed in more detail below), but there has been more “instability” in my schedule than usual — one session time “forgotten” by a client, some re-scheduling, emails expressing confusion about the appointment time, etc. This type of behavior usually (but not always) has a psychological meaning that you might uncover in the next session if you listen carefully.

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Emotional Dependency in Psychotherapy

The concepts of neediness and emotional dependency have negative connotations in our culture; when it comes to psychotherapy, many people (especially those who’ve never had any kind of treatment) take a very dim view of clients who come to depend “too much” upon their therapist. You may hear the very cynical opinion expressed that psychotherapists deliberately instill a kind of emotional dependency in their clients in order to exploit them. It seems that a great many people think that emotional dependency in psychotherapy is bad.

In truth, for psychotherapy to be effective, a degree of emotional dependency is inevitable. Clients with extreme amounts of pain and confusion, who have a history of unstable or chaotic relationships, may become highly dependent for long periods of time. If your life isn’t working, if you come from a deeply troubled background and never developed the kind of emotional capacity and self-awareness you need to get through life, you have to turn to and depend upon someone else to help you develop it. Effective work can’t happen and you can’t get what you need if you don’t.

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