The Paradox of Shame – Part I
Shame has been a constant theme throughout my healing, but I have found it to be really dominant as I have begun to risk more and live more fully. When I was recovering, I finally realized how ruled I was by fear. Fear was all about me, imprinted on a cellular level; present in the air I breathed. When I finally realized how permeated by fear I was, I was scared to stop being scared! I can still get scared, but fear is not the omnipresent backdrop of my life anymore. Being less afraid has led to being able to risk more. As I risk more, I find myself reacting with shame when I run into new difficulties. Happily, this has led to my discovery that BN is also a first class shame buster.
The true purpose of shame is to keep us safe from violating the taboos and rules of our “tribe.” For so many human generations, our very survival depended on our ability to be accepted by and attended to by a group of people. We are a social animal, who thrives by being with others. Our needs cannot be met without relationship. We cannot know ourselves outside of relationship. Failure to conform to the mores of a group could result in being driven forth so that an individual did not threaten the well-being of the group; but being driven forth was often the equivalent of a death sentence. So our need to “fit in” is extremely strong and other people’s disapproval can affect us deeply. Which is why a sense of shame is such a powerful motivator to control our behavior as it is literally experienced as a matter of life or death.
In a demonstration of excellent timing, BN has recently been doing a lot of reading about the experience of shame in childhood and how our sense of shame is formed. A child is, by nature, very open and loving and thinks nothing of making themselves vulnerable in a way an adult could hardly contemplate, let alone carry out. In those moments of disruption, when attunement is broken, and something which is full of life and joy suddenly turns to anything but, our reaction in that moment is to be ashamed of ourselves. Children, as part of their development, believe they are the center of the universe so if something goes wrong, it is experienced as their caregiver disapproving of who they are. Disruption triggers a fear of abandonment, so disruption is to be avoided. If a caregiver is actually attending, then a disruption is speedily repaired and hence does not feel extremely threatening. The fear of abandonment is banished before it can take hold. However, take a child who is abused, who has experience after experience of horrible misattunement, of their needs not being important, of being faced with anger for expressing those needs and they have built up layers upon layers of shame.
There was often no repair of these disruptions, so being abandoned became an overwhelming and consuming threat to be mitigated at all costs. And so there comes a point where we start to use shame as a defense mechanism to motivate ourselves not to risk the behaviors which have gotten us hurt in the past. Since many of our behaviors are, at their base, about getting our needs met, we become very ashamed of our needs. Needs which are reasonable, normal, and even an essential part of the human condition can come to seem like the mewling demands of a selfish, greedy creature which will devour anyone who comes too close. At times I can feel as if all that I am is a gaping maw of need which could never be satisfied.
This dynamic causes us to feel shame for behaviors and beliefs for which we should not feel ashamed. And this is the point at which we run into the paradox of shame. When we are ashamed of something which is not actually shameful, the only way for us to “learn” the truth, is to become vulnerable and express our sense of shame to an attuned, caring other and see reflected back, not condemnation, but acceptance and understanding. Shame causes us to turn away, to not allow ourselves to be seen, lest we offend and be driven forth. To turn away so we do not see the rejection in the other’s eyes. Every instinct is to hide, but the cure is to do the opposite. Lift our eyes, speak our thoughts and let ourselves be seen in our fear. Which is why shame is so very difficult to heal. It is at the heart of the hellish bind of healing from the abuse of a caregiver. The lessons you learn by being abused taught you not to do the very things you need to do in order to heal.
But just because something is painfully difficult does not make it impossible. 🙂 (Unfortunately, it does remain painfully difficult). I wanted to share one of my profound experiences with shame and how facing it can be healing. This whole episode felt like an exquisite torture devised by a complete sadist. If this example of shame does not resonate with you, substitute your worst fear to help your understanding.
I found a book of poetry at the library whose cover I recognized by its long-term residence on BN’s desk. BN constantly has large piles of reading material piled on his desk and table (it’s actually one of the things that draws me to him). I am in the habit of perusing the titles as I’ve discovered a lot of good books that way. I checked the book out only to find that the author acknowledged BN by his full name. As if that wasn’t enough, one of the poems in the book was dedicated to him. The poetry stood out both for the amazing imagery and profound meaning. Upon investigating the author, I discovered that she is nationally known and acclaimed with several NY Times bestselling memoirs and multiple awards and prizes. To add injury to insult, her cover picture showed a svelte, arresting, sophisticated woman. You know the type of woman who could walk into a room and suddenly no one else there is noticeable in her presence?
I do not think I have ever experienced such deep feelings of humiliation and shame. It shattered my sense of my relationship with BN. How could I EVER have believed that he saw anything special in me when he was on intimate enough footing with such an incredible, talented, beautiful woman that she dedicated poetry to him? I, quite literally, felt I could never face him again; I spent some time trying to decide if I could actually manage to just never see him again (I was not going regularly to therapy at the time, I would just call when I needed a session). But as I struggled with these feelings, I realized that the shame was eating away at both our bond and the work we had done together. I came to the dreaded realization that no matter how impossible this felt I needed to go see him.
I did not want to blind side BN with this (as tempting as it would be to gauge his raw reaction) as I did not know the nature of his relationship with this woman, client or friend. He would not be able to say because if she was a client, he could not tell me that without breaking her confidentiality. (Just for the record, I have never read any of her autobiographical books because she talks about therapy in them and I am too afraid to see BN in them and expire of jealousy.) So I decided to email him to ask for an appointment and explain what was going on. Parts of the email are excerpted below:
I want to explain why I’m coming in as I think it might help save some time in the long run. (And it’s possibly easier to say here, than have to say it to your face.) … I went to the library to pick it up and thought I recognized it as a book I had seen on your desk. I am one of those people who always read through the acknowledgements and ran across her acknowledgement of you and then saw that she had dedicated one poem to you. Then I saw her picture. I found her writing and poetry very powerful but the connection between you and her did a lot less for me. (I do not know the nature of your relationship, if she was a client or a friend, and obviously I can’t know that because if she’s a client I realize you have an obligation to protect her confidentiality. I do not mean to put you on the spot BN. One reason I wanted to tell you ahead of time was so that you wouldn’t get caught off guard.) I’m sure you know where this is going.
May I say this felt exquisitely humiliating in countless ways? This woman has a number of critically acclaimed books, both prose and poetry, to her credit, her poetry and prose were both quite moving and powerful, she has obviously overcome a lot in her life, and on top of that she’s incredibly beautiful.
I am writhing in embarrassment that I EVER let you read any of my poetry. And despite knowing better, in my heart of hearts, I have cherished (and nursed, housed and fed) the hope that although you would never say it that I was somehow a special client. That the boundaries might have been difficult for you also at times. Seeing ——- , and her accomplishments and yes, her looks, makes me feel like an idiot for even ever entertaining the thought. I do not feel remotely in this woman’s league. And it’s obvious that the relationship, whatever it’s nature, ran very deep. It feels like a high-powered spotlight has been turned on and is shining on a sign which reads “That’s right, you’re a CLIENT, he goes this deep with other clients and you are neither the most interesting nor the deepest.” Which I know I have been working at coming to terms with for a long time. I have “known” this was the truth and you have never told me any different, but this brings it home on an undeniable gut level. I also am aware that seeing the situation this way is not a good reflection of the truth, but what I know to be true isn’t counting for a lot right now up against my, admittedly irrational, feelings.
The thought of actually coming to see you and talking about this feels close to impossible, despite knowing you’ll respond well; that I will just be swallowed up by embarrassment. I gave serious thought to just never contacting you again but it also feels like the emotions this has triggered are eating away at our work together. Not to mention that if there’s one thing I learned from you, was that running away doesn’t really work so well. Despite understanding where these feelings are coming from and attempting to be compassionate with myself, it feels very pathetic to be feeling this way. I understand the irrationality of my feelings but it’s not helping all that much. This really feels like I am overreacting so severely. What I hate the most is that it feels like such an act of regression to have my sense of our connection be undermined by this. I know so much of this is about the deprivation of my childhood, but it’s just been too painful to ignore.
I heard back from him with an appointment in record time and he thanked me for my candor. The worst part about this was knowing my relationship was real with BN, but it wasn’t enough in the face of the intensity of the feelings being kicked up. There was a frustration about that which was adding to my sense of shame. Why was I back here again? It’s the main reason I was going back to see him. I wasn’t willing to lose what we had built together but I didn’t feel like I could get past it myself and was worried about the damage these feelings would do if they remained unaddressed. So please don’t be too impressed by my bravery; it was an act of desperation. And BN had been very consistent, accepting and caring over the long haul and responded beautifully every time I’d shared something difficult. He had created a very deep sense of safety by being so trustworthy. It doesn’t take all that much courage to speak in such an environment. It’s one of the things for which I am very grateful to him.
Ironic side note: Something about this post was making me uncomfortable but I couldn’t pin it down beyond a vague feeling of being too exposed. So I asked a close friend who had been through this with me to read it before I published. They offered an interesting, and I think, accurate, insight which that I was feeling ashamed about talking about having the courage to face doing something difficult. So I’m ‘fessing up to the shame. Have to LOVE the irony. 🙂
In my next post, The Paradox of Shame – Part II, I’ll tell you what happened at our session. Sorry, I seem to be developing a taste for cliff hangers (and attempting to keep my posts to a reasonable length.) 🙂
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