Poet warrior's Blog: Poems, articles and musings.
The counselling course I completed in the middle of 2016 taught me as much about my emotions and how I process them as it did about supporting other people to deal with theirs. One of the emotions I found the most challenging to acknowledge and then own was shame. It wasn’t until I encountered the concept of ‘chronic shame’ as outlined by Patricia A DeYoung, that I felt I’d found a way to understand shame for myself and some of the people I’ll see.
Studying for the counselling course and undergoing my personal therapy helped me to see that shame is something that we in western society don’t feel comfortable talking about, it feels like one of the few remaining taboos. I began to see that for me shame was something so personal and painful that I believed it was unique to me, or it made me feel different in a way that didn’t feel good or right. Perhaps this is what makes it so powerful, our shame would have us believe that we have done something so terrible that we will be excluded or left behind by those who care about us and for us.
Some authors talked about ‘healthy shame’ or ‘useful shame’, for me this just seemed to muddy murky waters even further. However reading Patricia De Young introduced me to a concept and quote that would help me on my personal journey and my journey as a trainee therapist. She describes chronic shame as ‘a disintegrating sense of self brought about by a dysregulating other’. At first I couldn’t comprehend what all those words mean, or perhaps I didn’t want to see it. However the more I looked, the more I could understand and then accept what they meant for me and had influenced the man I’d become. Looking back I could see how I had looked for and worked for approval from significant people in my life, especially my family.
I think this is how many of us learned, we did something and were then praised for getting it right, or disparaged for getting it wrong. In this way we learn what is expected of us to fit in to our particular family unit. However as with everything else in life, I think there has to be a level of balance. For me chronic shame came about when there was no recognition of my achievements and much was made of my failures. At times it felt as if the recounting of my failures was almost savoured by those who got to decide if I’d succeeded at something or failed.
Looking back I can see this is what happened to me; my successes were either minimised or ignored and much was made of my failures. The ‘disintegrating sense of self’ made me believe that the best I could hope for was to be invisible. As being invisible meant that I hadn’t done too badly at whatever task I had been given. I can also see that there was a part of me that longed for (and still does) praise for when I got or get things right. This led to feelings of guilt, when I was doing such a bad job at everything I turned my hand to what right did I have to expect praise.
In retrospect I can also see how my chronic shame lead me to become not just invisible but also an outsider. At times it felt as if everyone else around me had received some secret memo or handbook that showed them how to be ‘real human beings’ while all I had was (as DeYoung puts it) a disintegrating sense of self about which I felt very ambivalent.
I also decided somewhere along the way, without ever being told that shame was not something that was mentioned or talked about without possible repercussions. Would talking about something like shame make me into more of an outsider than I already was? A part of me decided that all the ‘good people’ didn’t want to hear about this horrible thing that writhed and twisted within me wanting to get out of the dark but remaining there because he thought that was all he was worth and deserved.
This chronic shame became such an integral part of me that I didn’t even realise it was there watching and restricting me from living and being a part of life like an invisible jailor hiding in the shadows and determined to keep me there too. I’d read other books on shame both fascinated and repulsed, not quite understanding why until I realised that it was my own shame writhing around inside me both longing to be set free but also scared of the rejection it may face in the light of day.
Fortunately for me, when I first approached the topic I had the opportunity to distance myself from it because (as I told myself) I was learning about shame and how to support others to deal with it. It was only as I continued down this road that I realised that I was also being given an opportunity to look at my own shame and work with it before I would even help others to deal with their own shame. I’d find that being with other trainee counsellors would be a wonderful place to look at my shame as there would be others on similar journeys who would be willing to discuss shame intellectually or be willing share their experiences.
I’d find that discussing feelings of shame can sometimes be so (for want of another word) shameful that even experienced therapists can shy away from the topic as those feelings in their clients can bring up their own unresolved or unexpressed feelings of shame.
I’ve found that the best solution for me is to talk about and share my chronic shame, not just the emotion but also; how it made me feel, I re-visited some of the times in my past where I’d felt so wrapped up in shame that it had made me lose all sense of myself and I tried to understand it and accept it.
This felt like such an alien thing to do that it seems to have worked;
Acknowledging and understanding my shame has helped me to see how and when I hide or withdraw.
It is also giving me a sense of how integral shame can be to conditions such as depression and anxiety. I believe that there is always a part of us that it telling us “you shouldn’t be depressed” or asking us “what right do you have to be anxious about anything?” which feels shame based and stops us reaching out.
I’m also becoming to believe that the best thing we can do about shame is to break the taboo around it and begin to talk about it. Which is one of the reasons I wrote this article, that I started over a month ago, but had been thinking about for longer. My chronic shame telling me that no one wanted to hear what I had to say especially on a topic as contentious as this.
So, I’m trying to free myself from being shame’s captive by writing this article. Let’s talk about shame; what causes it in us, how we react to it, why we feel like we can’t talk about it and most importantly how we can come to terms with it and then overcome it.
Deyoung, Patricia, A (2015). Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame: A Relational/Neurobiological Approach. New York: Routledge.