When Is It Appropriate to Feel Shame?

In many of my earlier posts, I’ve written about the role shame plays in psychological and emotional difficulties.  I’ve discussed the fantasy flight into an idealized self in order to escape an unbearable sense of toxic shame; I’ve also tried to describe typical defenses against shame and frequently connect shame and narcissism, as I did in my post about Charlie Sheen .  In each instance, I’ve been discussing shame when it becomes toxic and thereby linked to different forms of mental illness; but is there a different type of shame, one that is non-toxic and in some sense “normal”?  Isn’t it appropriate, sometimes, to feel shame?

It seems that every culture (including less developed and non-Western cultures) includes ideas and codes of behavior related to shame.  According to Rochelle Gurstein in her book The Repeal of Reticence (1996), shame is always connected to physical exposure and vulnerability; it also “threatens to engulf us at moments when our biological reality — our ‘animal’ nature, as it is commonly called — overwhelms our ‘civilized’ self; that is, when we are too directly confronted with the body in its most physical aspects.”  She quotes Norbert Elias (1939), who held that “people, in the course of the civilizing process, seek to suppress in themselves every characteristic that they feel to be ‘animal.'”  The origins of the word shame — not only in English but French and German as well — are linked to the idea of covering up.  You may recall that, in the Bible, shame was born when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, realized that they were naked and covered themselves to hide their nakedness.

So (putting it baldly) if a stranger were to walk in while you were on the toilet or having intercourse, you’d want to cover up; the feeling that motivates you is shame.  (This does not imply that we feel those activities are “dirty” or “bad” — a religious overlay — but that they should not be witnessed by other people; they are private.)  Apparently this sort of feeling in connection with the activities of our “animal nature” is to be found in virtually all civilized cultures, even primitive ones.  As they become “civilized”, human beings everywhere want to distinguish themselves from other animals on the planet, to believe we are on a different plane; when we have an experience that confronts us with the fact that we are not so different — that we, too, are animals despite all the trappings of civilization — we experience shame.

On the other hand — and I may be anthropomorphizing here — it seems to me that our dog Maddy on occasion feels shame, too.  Usually, she sleeps through the night without waking us and waits to relieve herself until morning.  But on several occasions when she was suffering some kind of digestive problem and couldn’t wake us up to let us know, she peed on the floor.  In the morning when we awoke and saw what had happened, she hung her head and slunk off to the closet — to me, the very picture of someone filled with shame.  This occurred without our saying a word to her, or attempting to humiliate her for losing control.  I’ve seen this with other dogs and heard similar stories from other dog-owners.  My theory is that Maddy feels shamed not of her animal nature but when she is unable to control her bodily functions.  Most human beings would also feel shame under those conditions.  Can you imagine how you’d feel if you lost control of your bowels in a public place?  This doesn’t mean that you should feel ashamed but that you inevitably would.

As Gurstein notes in her book, ours has become a society where this type of shame scarcely exists any longer.  If you suggest that some behaviors actually are shameful (that is, should be kept private), you will be called “uptight” or labeled a “prude”.  During graduate school, Gurstein studied with the historian Christopher Lasch, who famously wrote about The Culture of Narcissism (1979) and how individuals in modern American society, with a fragile sense of self, become obsessed with fame and celebrity.  Her own book shows how the “repeal” of social standards that used to preserve a realm of privacy around the transactions of our animal nature, particularly sex, has led to a debased public realm in which virtually nothing is held to be sacred and private.  She does not link the two themes — shame and narcissism — but I will do so now, expanding one of my central themes into the social realm.

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Coping with that Savage Inner Voice

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, when we emerge from our childhood with a profound sense of damage and the shame that goes with it, when we feel hopeless about ever getting better, we tend to long for perfect and magical solutions instead.  At the same time, a part of us comes to expect that we will become perfect and berates us brutally if we fall short of expectation.  I’m sure many of you know exactly what I’m talking about:  that savage inner voice that can make our life an ongoing misery.

In my own practice, the majority of my clients have suffered from such savagery, as I myself have done.  Even in the best of therapeutic outcomes, this voice never goes away entirely.  What we can hope to do is to free ourselves from its domination, to recognize it quickly and sideline the cruelty, moving on to more productive ways of thinking.  The first step involves some techniques that can be worked on and mastered, in keeping with behavioral modification techniques as well as meditation; the latter part takes time and involves building mental muscle, the ability to think clearly and exercise non-harsh judgment.

In an early post on the importance of mental silence, I described ways to put a stop to verbal thought and focus instead on breathing, much as advocated by Eastern meditative practice.  This becomes especially important in dealing with the savage inner voice.  To this day, I regularly have the experience of recalling something I may have said or done and feeling my entire body flinch; I’ll close my eyes tight and clench my muscles, as if somebody very strong were about to strike me.  If I’m not paying enough attention, I might then start to tell myself what an idiot I was to have done such-and-such, or how stupid I am to act in so narcissistic a way.  I think you know what I mean.  Then I have to force myself to relax, to silence the words and focus instead on my breathing.

Behavioral modification refers to this as “thought-stopping,” a useful technique.  I do not, however, go on to voice self-affirmations instead.  I don’t believe in the lasting value of self-affirmations because they do nothing to promote real thought or to develop discernment.  The truth is that my savage attacks often contain an element of truth to them.  If I simply tell myself that I’m a good person, I’m strong and sensitive, that everyone makes mistakes, etc., I will have learned nothing from the experience.  The goal is not to substitute a non-reflective positive judgment for a harshly negative one, but rather to develop a more nuanced capacity for discernment.

Let me give an example, one I’ve referred to in other posts, especially this one abut how to make an apology.  Many years ago, I said something hurtful to a friend at a dinner party.  It took me a long time to recognize that I had misbehaved; once I did, I came down very hard, berating myself for behaving in a thoughtless and hurtful way.  I was brutalizing myself.  The solution was not to start telling myself that I was actually a good, thoughtful person, or to tell myself it’s okay to make mistakes; what was needed was to remove the savery from the self-criticism.  Once I did, I was able to understand the envy that drove me to misbehave, to make an apology (though not as genuine a one as I should have given), and to pay more attention to my own frustrated longing.  In the process, I moved from viewing myself as a contemptible loser to a frustrated writer with painful feelings of envy for a successful friend.  This didn’t excuse my behavior but made it understandable.  I learned something from the experience.

It takes a long time to develop the capacity to make such a transformation.  What we try to do is evolve a better internal parent, one who doesn’t simply attack you because you made a mistake or lie to you about how “good” you are, but might help you understand why you made such an error and how you might learn from your experience in order to avoid such an error in future.  In my experience, it’s difficult to make this change alone.  You may need to work this through in the context of regular psychotherapy, with a person who you respect.  Even then, it’s not easy.  With my clients, I’ve been repeatedly struck by how difficult it is to clear a space where we can think together about something the client did, without feeling crushed with humiliating shame on the one hand or taking flight from it on the other.  For such clients, as discussed in my last post, any attempt to exercise discernmnent feels like harsh judgment.   It takes a long time to transform black-and-white thinking into a process with shades of gray.

Without such a thoughtful internal parent, only two options exist:  either you’re wonderful and everything is fine, or you’re a contemptible fuck-up and you’ll never be any different.  This dynamic leads to a cycle of crime and punishment, as discussed elsewhere, where nothing can be learned and we’re condemned to repeat the same behaviors again and again.

Finding Your Own Way:

Think of something  you did or felt for which you’ve criticized yourself harshly.  It may be something that happened long ago that you’ve never gotten over.  Maybe the memory of it makes you cringe, as some of my recollections do.  Don’t run away from it or attempt to put it out of your mind, but focus on your breath and work for mental silence.  See if you can keep the idea in mind without berating yourself.

Can you think of possible reasons for your behavior that involve no harshness, either for you or for anyone else (i.e., no shame or blame)?  Can you feel any sympathy for yourself that doesn’t excuse your behavior or make it somebody’s else’s fault?  Can you learn something about yourself from that experience that might help you to do something different next time?

The goal here is to recognize traits or feelings that might cause you trouble in future but not to judge them harshly; to take them into account and tolerate them next time, without simply acting reflexively, without understanding, and berating yourself afterward.

Charlie Sheen’s Rant and the Power of Destructive Narcissism

Charlie Sheen’s recent rant on The Alex Jones Show offers a perfect illustration of my earlier post about defenses against shame, as well as many features of narcissistic personality disorder.   Although I wouldn’t classify Mr. Sheen as NPD per se, he exhibits a great many features of pathological narcissism.  If you haven’t seen or heard the full radio interview, you might want to watch this YouTube video.  It’s astonishing, deeply upsetting and sad.

From the beginning of the interview, Mr. Sheen makes clear we’re dealing in the territory of shame.  “Dude, I’m 0-for-three with marriage and nary an excuse.  Like in baseball, the scoreboard doesn’t lie.”  At first, this quote makes it seem as if he’s putting himself in the “losers” camp (to use his own terminology); but he rejects any sense of shame in the next sentence while discussing the current women (the “goddesses”) in his life:  “What we all have is a marriage of the heart … of the hearts.  To sully or contaminate or radically disrespect this union with a shameful contract is something I will leave to the losers and the Bible-grippers.”

This is what I hear Sheen saying:  “I’m not a shame-ridden loser in marriage because marriage itself is the loser.  People who get married are the losers.  Rather than contaminate myself, I’ve engaged in a superior polyamorous form of relationship, where we exist on the level of gods and goddesses, peering down with contempt upon you pathetic mortals.”  As I’ve discussed, this kind of contempt is a classic defense against unbearable shame; poor Mr. Sheen must be drowning in it.  Brittle and defensive, he next reports that one of the women in his menage-a-quatre has decamped; he wishes her luck in her new life because “she will need it.”  Unable to bear the pain of rejection, he treats his former goddess with the contempt he feels for everyone outside his “family”.

In Charlie Sheen’s quotes, he continually exhibits a kind of grandiose narcissism, another primary defense against shame. “I’m so tired of pretending that my life isn’t perfect and bitchen and winning every second and I’m not perfect and just delivering the goods at every second.”  That’s a verbatim quote, difficult to decode exactly, but he clearly wants to convince everyone, especially himself, that he has a close-to-perfect existence that’s the envy of the contemptible losers around him.  “Look what I’m dealing with, man — I’m dealing with fools and trolls.  … I don’t have time for these clowns, I don’t have time for their judgment and their stupidity.  They lie down with their ugly wives in front of their ugly children and just look at their loser lives and they look at me and they say, ‘I can’t process it!’  Well no, and you never will.  Stop trying.  Just sit back and enjoy the show.”  From Sheen’s heavily defended viewpoint, he’s a godlike spectacle the world should simply watch and admire.  Beneath that surface, he has to feel confused, out of control and shamed of what he’s done with his life.

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The Fallacies of Psychological Diagnosis

As you may have heard, the American Psychiatric Association is in the midst of a revision to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, used to identify different mental illnesses and assign diagnostic labels to patients.  This newest edition, the DSM-V, will be published some time in 2013.   Among the more controversial changes is the elimination of five of the 10 personality disorders currently listed, the best known of which is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

This revision seeks to move diagnosis toward a greater emphasis on descriptive traits, based on the undeniable fact that individuals diagnosed with one personality disorder often demonstrate traits associated with another.  As many clinicians have pointed out, the personality disorders exist along a spectrum.  I suppose this refinement in the DSM is a step in the right direction as it appears to treat people a bit more like individuals than categories, but I have a more fundamental problem with the idea of assigning diagnostic labels in the first place.

The fundamental assumption behind the DSM is that its categories of mental illness, with their official code numbers, actually correspond to a discrete syndrome exhibited by real people; in this sense, it is meant to be the psychological counterpart of the International Classification of Diseases 9 (ICD-9) used by physicians to diagnose and label physical illness.  In theory, applying the DSM-IV label Narcissistic Personality Disorder should carry the same weight and have as much scientific validity as an ICD-9 code for, say, diabetes.  The impending elimination of NPD from the DSM-V proves that such an analogy is fallacious.   Can you imagine if the American Medical Association suddenly announced it intended to eliminate diabetes from the ICD-9?
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Celebrity and Romantic Love: “Meaning” in the Modern World

In our modern culture, a huge number of people seem to derive a sense of meaning in their lives through the worship of celebrity (combined with a longing to achieve personal notoriety) and/or the pursuit of idealized romantic love.  I’ve discussed these issues in my earlier posts on celebrities and love junkies; my good friend Marla Estes has also done extensive work on the subject of romantic love in the seminars she teaches.  I’d like to enlarge those ideas into a discussion of personal values and how we derive a sense of purpose in our lives.

You might have heard about Jake Halpern’s book Fame Junkies.  In a survey of several hundred middle-school students in upstate New York, Halpern found that just under 50 percent would prefer to work as a personal assistant to a celebrity over being a university president, corporate CEO, Navy Seal or U.S. Senator.  These students valued mere proximity to a celebrity over other kinds of prestigious work.  Another poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that the vast majority of 18-25 year-olds surveyed in 2007 listed fortune and fame as the top two goals for their generation.

I find these results discouraging but they come as no surprise.  Grocery store news racks, the ones at the check-out lines, mostly hold magazines with movie and TV stars on their covers.  The shopping public seems to have an inexhaustible interest in famous people and their love lives, even though such stories concern the same mundane events that vast numbers of Americans personally experience:  dating, starry-eyed romance that leads to an idealized wedding, followed by disillusionment, infidelity and broken families.  I’ll bet another survey would show that most people would prefer to be a wealthy celebrity going through a painful divorce than a schoolteacher basically satisfied with his or her marriage.  Most people feel that to be famous gives their lives meaning and rescues it from the uninspired realm of ordinary life.

TV reality shows give the average man or woman a chance to participate in that world of celebrity, if only for a brief time.  I believe this is why so many people are willing to expose the most personal and painful details of their lives on nationally-televised shows like Dr. Phil or Jerry Springer.  Quaint notions of privacy or appropriate shame have no force when overpowered by the lure of notoriety.  Maybe my empty life is a total mess, my marriage a shambles and my family alienated from me, but as long as I can be on television, it will nonetheless mean something!
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