On Saturday, I made a short new video, making use of what I’d learned in media training. I felt very good about that video because I’d confronted some underlying shame and the related wish to remain invisible — that is, relying on a blank facial expression and little modulation in my voice in order to reveal as little as possible. I uploaded it to my YouTube channel and wrote a short post about it here on After Psychotherapy. Not long after the post went up, I received a supercilious, mean-spirited critique from one of my readers. Even after 2-1/2 years writing this blog, I still find it difficult to bear when site visitors say hurtful things to me. I have not developed a thick skin. In posting the video, stating explicitly that I felt good about it, I had made myself vulnerable; receiving that comment hurt. I felt humiliated.
My immediate response was retreat: I took down the post but left the video on my YouTube channel (apologies to email subscribers notified of a post no longer available on the site). This was a defensive reaction, a desire to make myself less vulnerable, akin to the feelings of clients who long to remain invisible, as discussed in this earlier post. I told myself that it should be enough that I felt good about the video; posting about it was asking for external validation. While there’s truth in that idea, it’s also a kind of rationalization, an effort to justify my defensive withdrawal.
Next morning, I received an email from one of my clients, explaining why the comments I’d been making in recent sessions were of no use to him. He then told me what he did find useful, which turned out to be a re-statement in his own words of what I’d been saying. He questioned whether it was worthwhile to continue treatment. Still feeling vulnerable from the video experience, this email seemed to cut right into me, stirring up some very unpleasant feelings I’ll try to describe. It felt important to sit with them, to understand and describe them.
I had a panicky feeling in the center of my chest. It felt, for lack of a better word, disorganizing; all of a sudden, my thoughts seemed to fly off in different directions. Speeded up, not terribly coherent. I’m speaking of subtleties here; I don’t want to make it seem like something overly dramatic, but it felt very much as if I were taking mental flight. I wanted to do something to escape that panicky feeling. I sat myself down in a chair and forced myself to remain where I was, emotionally speaking.
When I looked more closely, the panic expressed some irrational (very old) fears about falling apart, located now in concerns about my professional life. My practice is full, I have three fine literary agents expressing interest in my new book on shame, sales of Why Do I Do That? continue strong, but in that panicky moment, I felt (rather than thought) that it might all be illusory and fall apart. I have a client, another therapist, who sometimes feels this way when a couple of her own clients stop coming. She experiences a kind of terror that her entire practice will disappear. For both of us, it goes back to early childhood, having mothers who dropped us emotionally. Survival feels tenuous with that kind of mother. Under pressure, confidence in the lasting value of your own achievements may slip away, exposing you to deeply painful feelings of damage and unworthiness (shame).
I thought more about my client. It still seemed to me that he was devaluing me as way to escape feelings of vulnerability in our work together, but I also wanted to leave room for the possibility that he was right — maybe our work together wasn’t as useful as I’d hoped it would be. Viewing it as devaluation on his part might also be defensive, a way to ward off vulnerability. I’m very fond of this client; I feel that I’ve invested something of myself in our work together and if he leaves, it will hurt. I knew that if I wrote back to him right away, my response might seem defensive, so I decided to wait. I chose to think and write about this shame attack instead.
In the real-time experience of putting down these words, I have felt the panic abating. I’m feeling more focused now; I don’t need to react quickly in order to escape from those awful feelings. I also sense another set of emotions beginning to develop: pride mingled with relief and tinged with a bit of sadness. I’m glad that I’ve been able to weather this shame attack, to bear with and learn from it rather than taking flight into my defenses. I’m relieved to feel the pain abating; sad, because I know this isn’t the last time I’ll go through such an experience. When basic shame takes root so early on, you can’t fully erase its effects.
But I hope this account makes clear that there are genuine (if difficult) roads to authentic and lasting self-esteem. I feel proud that I’m brave enough to face my pain, continue to make myself vulnerable and share my experience with you. I hope you’ll find it useful.
If you choose to comment on this post, please bear in mind that I’m still feeling vulnerable. Thanks.