What I Mean When I Use the Word Shame

I’m just about ready to deliver a draft of my book on defenses to the other members of my writer’s group; as part of the final revisions, I’ve been attempting to clarify my ideas about shame as they’re so central to the work I do; the text below is adapted from a chapter about defenses against shame and reflects my efforts to sharpen these ideas.

Although I can’t print her name, I’d like express my thanks and acknowledge my debt for all the help I received from one of my long-term clients, a gifted therapist herself and a women who cares as passionately about this subject as I do. She pointed out some holes and inconsistencies in prior posts and helped me clarify what we both believe to be crucial ideas. Thanks, S.

Of all the painful emotions humans must bear, a core sense of shame is the most excruciating, the most difficult to bear. My views on shame and its origins likely differ from how you normally think about it; before describing the most common defenses against shame, let me clarify these views with a brief detour into neurobiology and early infantile development.

Upon birth, we human beings are intensely vulnerable and reliant upon our mothers and fathers to help us grow. The course of our development depends upon how they respond to our physical and emotional needs, and we enter this world with a set of in-built expectations for what those responses ought to be. Winnicott referred to this genetic inheritance as a “blueprint for normality.” When our parents respond appropriately, in keeping with that blueprint, it feels natural, right and good, instilling us with a sense of safety in our world and of our own intrinsic beauty. This experience forms the core of self-esteem.

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Attachment Theory and the Origins of Shame

The following video was brought to my attention by one of my long-term clients who also happens to be an excellent therapist and works extensively with concepts of shame in her own practice. This week, I’ll be discussing the video in several posts. I recommend that you watch the entire video. It’s fascinating, informative and provides a neurological basis for an understanding of shame. The primary lecturer, Allan Schore, and the other researchers don’t discuss shame, in particular — they approach this topic from the perspective of attachment theory; but as you’ll see, their explanation of neurological development in the infant help us understand how an early and deep-seated shame takes root. I’m very grateful to my client for sending me a link to this valuable resource:

<a onclick="javascript:pageTracker._trackPageview('/outgoing/www.linkedtube.com/MD5MI-EACI08eb63097416bca7519a9e87a05a845a5.htm');" href="http://www.linkedtube.com/MD5MI-EACI08eb63097416bca7519a9e87a05a845a5.htm">LinkedTube</a>

You’re no doubt familiar with the nature vs nurture debate concerning the relative importance of heredity and the environment. Nowadays, the prevailing view seems to be that it’s neither one nor the other but an interaction between the two that defines us. Even so, most people assume that you are born into the world with your complete genetic makeup and that you then interact with your environment. The primary lecturer in this video — Allan Schore, a member of the clinical faculty of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UCLA — challenges this view: “One of the great fallacies that many scientists have is that everything that is before birth is genetic and that everything that is after birth is learned. This is not the case.” He goes on to explain that there is much more genetic material in the brain at ten months than at birth. Only the brain stem or “primitive brain” is “well advanced” at birth; the rest of brain continues to unfold and develop for the next two years as neurons become myelinated and interconnect. This development does not occur in an automatic and predetermined way in all people; it is powerfully affected by the environment, in particular by interactions and relationships with the primary caretakers.

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Precocity and Impatience

We usually think of precocity as a gift and associate it with genius: the musical prodigy who plays Carnegie Hall at age 12, for example, or the math whiz doing advanced calculus in grade school. For many people, however, precocity can be a curse when it leads to unrealistic expectations about how easily things ought to come, when it prevents them from doing the hard work involved in true mastery of any discipline. Most of us know the famous quote from Thomas Edison: “Success is 10 percent inspiration and 90% perspiration.” No matter how brilliant you are or how precocious your talent, hard work is always necessary to succeed at any meaningful endeavor.

Many highly intelligent people I’ve known who shone early on found their public school education utterly unchallenging and rarely interesting; they quickly developed an ability to determine the minimum work necessary in order to earn the ‘A’ and worked no harder. The first 12 years of their education were relatively effortless; for many of them, college came as a shock when they realized they actually had to work in order to succeed. One friend of mine graduated valedictorian of his high school class, went on to a fine university and received two ‘C’s during his first year there, before developing a different work ethic.

For some people, it might take even longer. I know a brilliant lawyer who grew up in a family of legal minds, where spirited debate at the dinner table was the norm. On her first day in law school, she awed her classmates when the professor engaged her in Socratic dialog about the legal issues in a particular case, and she rose to the occasion. For her, law school was relatively easy and left her a lot of free time, so much that she also joined a modern dance company. But at the end of her second year, when she interned for one of the most prestigious law firms in the country, they told her in the end-of-summer review that she “didn’t know how to think” and declined to give her an offer to come back once she graduated.

What she eventually realized as a result of this narcissistic injury was that her intellectual gifts and ease with the legal world had made her lazy, that precocity had led to a kind of self-sabotage. She expected everything to come easily; when it didn’t, when she came up against an issue that actually challenged her, a feeling of impatience would rise up and she’d resort to facile conclusions without the needed subtlety of thought. It took her years of hard work to develop a tolerance for that frustration, to overcome her impatience and to value hard work more than quick and showy brilliance. The greatest help came from her ballet teacher, she told me, who taught her how to care about every last detail, including the position of the pinkie finger on her left hand.

Another friend of mine who skipped several grades never had to work very hard to succeed at anything he tried. School came easily, of course, but he also had a gift for singing and acting that landed him on the Broadway stage at the age of 15. On nearly every level, he’s had a highly successful life, though impatience is still a feature of his personality. He easily becomes frustrated when things don’t come quickly enough, to him or to other people, though he understands the problem and struggles with it. He told me that working with horses has taught him the most about patience. There is no way to rush a show horse through the training necessary to reach advanced levels. It is slow and methodical work; impatience will undermine you in the step-by-step, often tedious process.

I’ve had my own struggles with this issue, in particular as it has affected my career as a writer. I had a precocious way with language and began writing fiction in the fourth grade: a three-chapter “novel” (about 25 pages in total) featuring my teacher’s imaginary pet dragon Herman. The year after I graduated from college, I wrote a science fantasy novel and sold it the following year when I was 22 years old. I published another novel several years later — a work of psychological suspense that “novelized” a screenplay written by another client of my agent’s. Genre fiction came easily to me … but then I decided to write something “serious”. Writing literary fiction takes much more care, more hard work than figuring out and implementing the conventions of a genre. I was crippled by my own facility, the ease with which I had written and published my first two books. My own impatience in the face of hard work prevented me from producing anything truly worthwhile in the realm of literary fiction. I have not published a book since I was 26.

Twelve years ago when I moved to Chapel Hill, I joined a writer’s group with seven other members, all of them published novelists and scholars, the most insightful and sensitive critics I’ve ever known. Last year, with their help and an awful lot of hard work, several drafts and countless revisions, I completed a novel that I believe passes muster. One year ago, I also began to develop content for this website; week after week, I’ve written carefully and thoughtfully, working hard to promote my site through Facebook and Twitter and, in particular, learning the ropes of “search engine optimization and marketing” — how a particular website shows up on page one of a Google search. I’ve curbed my impatience and taken no short cuts.

Two days ago, a publisher offered to buy the first book coming out of this material here on my website. It feels like a major accomplishment to me, not only because I have finally (30 years later!) sold another book, but because I’ve mastered my impatience, the wish for quick and easy answers; I’ve done the long hard work to achieve my goal. I’m 56 years old and there’s nothing precocious about it.

Idealizing Your Baby

Good friends of ours recently became grandparents; hearing them talk about the baby — that brand new life, a blank slate where anything and everything seems possible — took me back 20 years or so, to the day when my first child came forth into this world. I was not one of those parents who instantly fell in love with his newborn the second it popped out; but not long after that day, I felt overwhelmed with that love nobody can prepare you for. William was born toward the end of May, and that Christmas, at a holiday party for my institute, I went around with a pocketful of photographs, foisting them upon anyone who made the mistake of asking, “How’s the baby?” I was besotted.

To me, he was the most beautiful baby I’d ever seen. Literally. While I had some objective awareness that perhaps this wasn’t true, I nonetheless felt it, as so many parents have done in their turn. I think adoring your baby is a crucial experience for both parent and child, a critical stage that helps the parents cope with the deprivations of child-rearing and plants the seeds from which self-esteem will later develop in the child. I believe it’s crucial for the growing baby to feel that he or she is beautiful to the parents; the experience of being adored determines, in large part, what it feels like to be “you” or “me” in this world — whether we feel self-confident and capable or riddled with self-doubt and shame.

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Self-Consciousness and Performance Anxiety

Most of us have had the experience of hearing a recorded version of our own voice and thinking, “I don’t really sound like that.” In preparing the first two videos for my website and new YouTube channel, I’ve had to observe myself in a similarly unfamiliar way. As I’ve seen myself on camera — editing different takes, perceiving my discomfort, watching myself fumble because of anxiety — I’ve had to take a different look at how I appear to others. At the same time, this has brought me into closer contact with my own self-criticism; I’ve had to confront that savage inner voice in ways I don’t usually do.

That critical voice tells me things in ways that aren’t particularly useful, but there’s often an element of truth. Getting feedback from friends and site visitors has helped me to filter our the harshness and distill everyone’s observations (including my own) into something useful. The best reality check came from a client who viewed the first video on bipolar disorder and told me I didn’t seem at all like the person she’d known for so many years. She could see I was struggling; she commented on my anxiety. I think she meant that I didn’t seem at ease and lacked my usual self-confidence. To me, it feels a lot like playing the piano. If I’m alone, I can play my current piece almost perfectly, completely immersed in the music, almost without self-awareness; if you give me an audience, I’ll become self-conscious and start to fumble. I’m sure many of you have had similar experiences.

These situations involve the process of projection, where our own inner critic is projected outside into the audience. Artur Rubinstein, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, suffered from such severe performance anxiety that he would become physically ill before each concert and sometimes had to be forced onto the stage. The pianist father of one of my clients was so crippled by stage fright that he eventually abandoned his concert career and spent his life teaching instead. For some reason I don’t entirely understand, this process of projection seems to intensify the self-criticism. Maybe it’s because instead of one critical (internal) observer, you have thousands outside, each one of them just as critical as you are. In recording myself on camera, I’m no doubt inhibited by the fantasy of potential viewers watching me and finding fault. So maybe if I’m very careful and controlled, I can avoid doing that one thing or expressing myself in that one particular way that all of you out there will criticize!

For that reason, what comes across most to me as I watch myself on camera is my guardedness. I’m trying so hard not to make a mistake! As a result, I lack spontaneity or a sense of ease, and several of my personal qualities seem to be missing: my warmth, first of all. More than one friend has told me I need to smile more, the way I do in social interactions; but what exactly is there to smile about when discussing the extreme suffering behind major symptoms of depression and manic flight? In a similar vein, I have a lively sense of humor. I like to laugh a lot; even in sessions with clients, we’ll often laugh together about something we both find funny. How to convey that in a video for an audience of people who don’t know me? It’s hard to laugh “with” a camera, even if I could find something to laugh about in bipolar disorder. An actor-friend who has done a lot of work on television told me I need to address the camera as if I were speaking to somebody I know well, explaining my ideas to an intimate. Okay, I’ll work on that one.

A part of my anxiety also comes from not wanting to appear narcissistic, as if I think I have all the answers. It should be obvious from this website that I don’t believe in answers or solutions of the kind so many mental health professionals seem to offer. I also spent a lot of time in a professional community where it was too often personal charisma — the appearance of having it all together and knowing the answers — that made people want to connect with you. And yet, here I am, putting myself on video and promoting myself as an authority. Surely that is narcissistic behavior of some kind. What makes me think I have the right to put myself forward in this way?

I do think I have something of value to say, a point of view that’s different from most of what’s available in the mental health community at large and online. Video has become increasingly important for reaching an Internet audience, so as uncomfortable as it makes me feel, I’m committed to putting myself forward in this way. I expect that in time, I’ll get better and more relaxed with the process. If you haven’t seen it already, I’ve made a second effort, a piece about narcissism and ‘The Social Network’. You can view that video by clicking on the Vimeo link below.

I think this one is a little better. There’s even the hint of a smile at the very end!