Because I write and think so much about the psychology of shame and its toxic effects, I’m often asked about overcoming shame, to explain how one “recovers” from shame, or whether I have any guidance about “healing shame.” My answers in the past have felt inadequate to me, but a recent session with a long-term client helped me bring my thoughts on this issue into focus.
Stan, a middle-aged married man, has struggled with unbearable shame for most of his life and has relied on the typical defenses against shame described in earlier posts. In particular, he relies on blaming as his primary mode of defense. For example, he often rants in silence against his wife whenever they have a disagreement: he’ll mentally complain about her behavior with a sense of grievance, blaming her for the argument.
This has been a life-long pattern in his relationships. Behind his defensiveness, he has suffered from the sense that he’s emotionally damaged in some fundamental way.
During the economic downturn, Stan suffered some reverses in his business that have placed a great strain on his family, largely shifting the financial burden of supporting them onto his wife’s shoulders for the time being. She hasn’t criticized him for what has happened nor complained about the weighty responsibility she now must carry. She recognizes that the economic downturn wasn’t his fault but Stan nonetheless feels humiliated and defensive. It taps into a lifelong feeling that he is damaged and ineffectual.
Recently, Stan has remarked on his wife’s increasing moodiness. Even the smallest things seem to set her off; when they re-connect at the end of their work day, she instantly launches into an account of all the things that irritate her about her job. She strikes him as angry. Because he feels ashamed about his limited inability to contribute financially, he tries to be as supportive as possible but finds these “bitch sessions” increasingly difficult to bear.
On a recent weekend before our Monday session, they had to spend much of their free time taking care of chores they used to farm out in better days. His wife was in a “bad mood” nearly the entire time. Though he kept his thoughts to himself, Stan was ranting about her inside, complaining about her moodiness and the way she couldn’t seem to keep anything to herself. Why couldn’t she just “suck it up”?
Stan and I have worked together for a number of years; by now, he knows himself well. He also understands his wife very well, and when he’s not railing against her or projecting into her, he can see her with clarity and compassion. Over the weekend, it finally occurred to him that her complaints and moodiness were her way of expressing the anger she felt about the current difficulty of their lives — anger at him, in spite what she has said about not holding him responsible. In middle age, when she hoped things would have become less stressful and more financially secure, she has to work harder and with greater anxiety about the future. While she doesn’t consciously blame Stan for what happened, she feels angry at him all the same. She knows he doesn’t deserve her anger but she can’t help but feel it, expressing it indirectly through “complaints” and “moodiness”.
On Sunday evening, Stan sat down with his wife and told her what he thought she was experiencing. He said it in a straight-forward, sympathetic and non-critical way. He told her that he found her anger completely understandable. She immediately acknowledged that it was true, she did feel angry. Thereafter followed a long conversation in which they came together as a couple and talked about their future in a constructive way. His wife felt understood. Stan felt relieved. Nobody was to blame for anything. Stan also felt pride and gratitude that he had the ability to understand himself and his wife in these ways, to respond constructively rather than defensively, with compassion instead of criticism. He could see that his wife’s understandable anger had tapped into his own shame, stirring up the old defenses; if they had gone on in that way, it would have been destructive to their
Stan’s shame and his wife’s anger didn’t suddenly disappear after that but instead became bearable for each of them. His accomplishment was not in overcoming shame but rather in being able to tolerate it: he no longer felt so overwhelmed by his shame that he had to defend against it. In other words, the healing of shame means transforming it from something toxic and unbearable into an experience that is still painful but can be tolerated. Toxic shame becomes non-toxic shame. Toxic shame so poisons one’s sense of self that the usual remedy is flight into various types of narcissistic behavior, whereas consciously dealing with non-toxic shame and being able to bear it can generate feelings of authentic pride and self-esteem.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, this is the kind of psychological transformation that is possible. You don’t “recover” from shame; you don’t “transcend” or “beat” it. Instead, through hard work and coming to know yourself well, you can learn to bear your shame and earn your own self-respect by behaving in constructive and not defensive ways.
Finding Your Own Way:
Can you think of occasions when you saw yourself responding in characteristic and defensive ways but then you chose to do something different? How did that experience make you feel about yourself?
Contrast that with a time when you knew you were behaving defensively, or blaming someone who didn’t deserve it. How did you feel in that situation? Can you see reasons why you were able to behave more constructively in one instance but not in another?
How about the art of the apology? Think of a time when you were able to acknowledge fault in a completely unconditional way. I behaved badly and I’m sorry. How did that make you feel? Despite the pain of acknowledging your fault, did you also feel good about yourself for doing so?
As I keep saying, it is not our feelings that cause the problems; it’s the defense mechanisms we use against them. Facing up to painful feelings — including shame, hatred and anger — can lead to pride and self-respect if we’re able to tolerate those feelings and not simply act them out.