Shame for the Person You Used to Be

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W.R. Bion, a British psychoanalyst who worked with psychotic and schizophrenic patients, identified a difficult transition point in their treatment. As psychotic process gradually gave way to the reality principle — that is, as his clients became more sane — they would have to confront the pain of how ill they had been before. This involved facing guilt for the hurt inflicted upon other people around them and shame for the destructive ways they had behaved. Sometimes the guilt and shame were so unbearable that his clients would retreat into psychosis.

I’ve encountered a similar challenge in my long-term work with borderline clients. There comes a time when they realize how ill they’ve been and sometimes the shame they feel is unbearable. They will retreat for a time to borderline ways of relating, where relationships and self-image are highly unstable, shifting between ideals and devaluation. It takes many months and even years before they can learn to bear the shame for the person they used to be; only then can they move on and continue growing. I actually think that anyone with a serious mental illness who spends years in therapy and changes dramatically must deal with the same issue.

Some people in long-term psychoanalysis will try to avoid this shame by developing what I refer to as a “superior post-analytic identity.” They have no reason to feel shame, they tell themselves, because they are now so much healthier and insightful than everyone else around them. I was very much this person in my 30s and early 40s. When I think back on my righteous post-analytic self, I still feel the sting of shame. I’m also proud that I finally recognized what I was doing, how damaged I still was in certain ways, and have continued growing since.

This idea of shame about the person you used to be has been very much on my mind lately because I’m in the process of re-writing my first novel, THE LIGHTS OF BARBRIN. I began writing it 40 years ago at the age of 21 straight out of college, sold it to Pocket Books at 22 and it was released when I was 23. While I’m proud of that accomplishment, revisiting my former self — just a few years into therapy — has also been a painful experience. I’ve been avoiding this project for a very long time because I had a fairly good idea of what was in store for me.

Oy! My prose was so overwrought and pretentious! This is the most shaming part, to see how desperately I wanted to construct an idealized writer self that would save me from shame (although I didn’t understand it that way at the time). I remember having a tussle with the copyeditor at Pocket Books who made a serious effort to simplify my prose. Looking back, I’m sure he felt irked by my overblown writing style. At the age of 60, I find it somewhat irksome myself. Excessively elegant language, precious ways of putting things, and (to use my mother’s expression) using a dollar word when a nickel word would do. Ostentatious and constantly drawing attention to itself — that’s how I’d characterize my former style.

At the same time, I’ve been surprised by how much I understood even then about constructing a novel. If you can see through the prose, it’s a very good story with a plot that grips readers on page one and carries them forward page by page. The characters are simple but well drawn, the conflicts are clear. It has a fairly strong conclusion, with hints of a sequel (another long story). I’m about halfway through the rewrite and expect to release it late in April. I’m trying to simplify the prose while remaining true to the original book page-by-page. I also want to remain as true as possible to the person I used to be, while rectifying some of his stylistic excesses.

So while I have felt some shame about the person I used to be, I also feel proud of what I was able to accomplish at such a young age. I find myself looking back on the former me with an affectionate pang. He wanted so hard to shed his shame-ridden self.

In the meantime, I have a new book to release about which I feel no shame whatsoever. I’m immensely proud of GRIM, by far my favorite of the books I’ve written. It’s a collection of the three fairy tale novellas I’ve already released in eBook form, with an introduction and a concluding essay that discusses the role of shame in the personality disorders. It’s intended as a companion book to THE NARCISSIST YOU KNOW and has a subtitle that ties the two books together.

It’s now available in print and Kindle version at Amazon and Amazon.co.uk. If you’re inclined to buy this book and find that you like it, please leave a review. The last year has taught me that the long-term success of any book largely depends upon how many 4 and 5 star reviews it has on Amazon.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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24 comments

    I couldn’t believe when I got the email update today showing what your latest post was about shame and facing the reality of things as this is precisely what I’m dealing with right now in my therapy process. Having left an abusive and difficult situation, the more distance I have from this, the more I see the reality of things and how difficult things were and my place in it in terms of denying things, making myself believe things weren’t happening. It was like my own beliefs which were a bandage were another wound and I’m facing that now. . I didn’t anticipate the feelings of shame about who I was and how I behaved and allowed myself to be treated but the shame has hit me this week like a speeding truck so it’s actually really comforting to read your post and to read that shame is part of the process.

    From my experience, if you can stick with the shame and learn from it, you’ll grow a lot and also develop some feelings of pride for having the courage to face it. Hang in there!

    Question!!!: I’ve not been able to handle the shame and guilt I feel for not being there more for my son when he was little, when I would drink. A lot of it involved (ex) in-law family get togethers, etc. and my ex sister in law. My son is now grown and I’ve apologized several times. I’ve been to counseling and inpatient. I’ve told God how sorry I am. I don’t feel I deserve forgiveness and I don’t know how to feel relief. Thank you so so so much

    You’re welcome. But you started off with “Question!!!” and I didn’t hear a question. If you’re asking how to get relief from all that shame and guilt, I think the problem lies in your harshness toward yourself, feeling that you don’t “deserve forgiveness.” You can’t go back and erase the past and no amount of self-castigation will change that. You’ll have to live with shame and regret but that doesn’t mean you deserve to live a life of perpetual punishment.

    It was nice to see one of your blog posts come through on my email; I know you have been busy book writing. Your blog has meant a lot to me in my recovery from borderline personality disorder. Tomorrow marks 6 years with my therapist and just this week I found myself marking the occasion by reflecting on the growth I’ve made in stark contrast to the shameful behavior I used to display. It was odd to celebrate those successes against the shame of my past. Your post came at a great time, as well as the blog site in general. Thank you for being part of my journey towards wellness.

    Thank God for growth – I wish you well in your book and glad that your writing has improved. Hope you let us know when you get it published. I imagine the depth of characters will improve too with your experience dealing with patients.

    You are right about shame, I struggled with that until I realized I had grown and am not the person I once was, I am a new, improved me :D. The key is forgiveness, forgiving others and forgiving myself. When I could do that, then the same disappeared. I think your patients are lucky to have someone sensitive about the hurt caused by shame.

    Thanks! I will definitely let everyone know when it comes out. The rights have reverted to me so I will be self-publishing in late April. If you go to the main page of my site, you can see the original cover which I’ll be using for this revised addition. I’ve always been very happy with this cover.

    Good as usual, and useful post for many purposes. I sure do still feel occasional guilt and shame about some of who I’ve been in the past. As a very young college guy and for too long after, i was depressed, didn’t understand myself at all, and had no idea how my typical male adolescent view of women and sex was hurting them and me. Fifty years, and a lotta’ therapy and life experience later, I don’t know how, raised as I was, that I could have been older and wiser than I was.

    I do argue with the part of me that feels more badly than useful about those and similar times.. And I think it’s not useful to feel frequent or excess pain about what’s long over, learned from and differently managed. At some point, I think we all can let go of the dimension of leftover shame and pain without any excuses for who we were back then. Dr Bob

    The distinction between useful and destructive shame is important. When shame becomes infected with perfectionism and cruelty, you can’t learn anything from it. The older I get and the more successful I feel (that is, the more satisfied I am with myself), the easier I find it to bear shame and guilt. They usually don’t overpower the good feelings. And they often have something to teach me if I can listen.

    I’m not sure one has to think of shame in the context of therapy. It’s similar to any profession. Think of the arrogance of the person who is now excelling in his or her profession; they forget, all to often, that they were once at a different level, making mistakes. In my profession I engage in high level international business deal making. Deal making, is a skill that requires constant learning. You’re never as good as you think. Helping a younger person to navigate the jungle of some deals is a great way to humble yourself and to deal with the shame of making so many mistakes in the past. I’m not adverse to using myself as an example when discussing mistakes and errors to help another do better, be better.

    I believe the ancient Greeks had a word for it: hubris.

    Thanks for your wonderful essay. They always make me think and evaluate.

    Hi Joseph,

    Wow, yes I identify with this one. When I realised about 5 years ago what a narcissistic (and not very nice person ) I had been I went to bed and cried for 3 days. I had this realisation several years after therapy finished. I still live with the fear that some of that not very nice person is still there. I’m realising more and more that I’m not as ‘healed’ as I thought I was in that I still have anxiety and depression. I wonder if I’m still overly narcissistic?

    The fact that you’re wondering is a good sign. You’re probably not “overly narcissistic,” but of course you’re still the same person in certain ways. Nobody becomes a completely different person, even when they work hard and grow.

    Hi Joe.

    Hope you’re healthy and well. I’m officially a fan of your work. Learning a lot from your latest book – “The Narcissist You know”. I would tell you it’s excellent but I don’t want to come across as a seductive narcissist!! 😀

    I’m curious to hear more of your thoughts on empathy. If you get a chance, please let me know your thoughts on the following:

    1. Why do “extreme’ narcissists lack (or have limited) empathy?

    2. Do you agree that most narcissists have well developed “cold” empathy (the cerebral kind)? And if so, please do elaborate.

    Regards,

    Conor

    I just finished reading The Narcissist You Know, which I found to be illuminating and fascinating. It was also painful to read because it clarified what a I did not get out of having undergone therapy for 40 years: how to have protected myself from my extremely sucessful, extremely narcisstic parents. Ironically, I feel shame at not having handled things “better”. I constantly tried to defend myself with the truth, rational thought, etc. My father was a brilliant man, so I never understood why I couldn’t get through to him. Plus, he was a famous psychiatrist! none of my therapists helped me to understand that I enraged him further by challenging him, I became the target of his narcisstic rage. Everything, including your valuable book, becomes a tool to beat myself up with. How do I stop? Any thoughts?

    I just read your book,and it was about 40 years too late,I have a son that has at least 4 traits you’ve described in The narrisist you know! My daughter-in-law has been seeing a therapist are she told her what we all are dealing with! I would love to find a therapist here in Sarasota to help me thru this process! I’ve now been cast out of my sons life because I didn’t conform to his bad behavior! Please let me know if you could recommend some one here? As I have just lost 6 lives and I’m really upset! Thanks! Do you do any counseling??
    Sincerely,Pam

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