Having offered several blogs on shame in October, it’s time to offer you a respite and some tools for your toolbox on overcoming shame.
Let’s begin with Helen Lewis, former professor at Yale, and her work on shame and neurosis. If you are guessing this comes out of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, you are absolutely right. The idea that the way we are parented is fundamental to our psychological makeup cannot be overlooked. In Lewis’s book Shame and Guilt in Neurosis (1971, p. 23) she writes about the difference between guilt and shame:
“Identification with the threatening parents stirs an ‘internalized threat’ which is experienced as guilt. Identification with the beloved or admired ego-ideal stirs pride and a triumphant feeling; failure to live up to this internalized admired imago stirs shame.”
When you explore your history, you are becoming aware of the incidents that first evoked feelings of shame. Part of the healing can be to share this in a safe group of people with similar experiences; whether it is military veterans, women with post-abortion trauma or adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. In pastoral counseling, with your eyes closed you have possibly been asked to visualize where Jesus (fully human and fully divine) was that first time you remember feeling shame? The emotional connection in either setting can be the first step to overcoming what you have not been able to do alone. It is like the ultramarathon runner getting a companion at the end of the course or a warrior with battle buddy in the heat of combat.
Social workers frequently encounter people burdened with either guilt or shame or both. You can learn to identify shame for yourself. In a Season to Heal (Freed and Salazar, 1993), the authors describe healthy guilt as a sense of stepping outside your ethical boundaries (remember “… forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us,” The Lord’s Prayer). Guilt brings up feelings of regret or remorse. Shame tells you that you are worthless or a failure and comes out of abuse or is learned through messages of conditional love, i.e. if you perform, then you are loved.
Recognizing the emotions that come with shame, some of which are mentioned in my October 12th blog, allows you the choice of replacing the three basic musts you have heard with the truth. One of these musts, according to cognitive behavior therapist Albert Ellis is “I must do well and win the approval of others for my performances or else I am no good.” Ellis believed that emotions, thoughts and actions are intertwined. He would have encouraged you to replace destructive and ineffective ways of thinking with effective and rational thoughts. If you choose to start on your own, may I suggest journaling some of those irrational, destructive or ineffective beliefs. Afterwards proceed with countering each of those beliefs by writing truths that you have learned about yourself – whether through friends, family, life, dreams, straight from the Bible or during times of prayer. REBT therapy urges to accept the fact that you will make mistakes, but you can dispute your irrational beliefs and move on with new feelings and consequently behaviors.
A third and final tool, one that I offer in my practice, is Solution-Based Brief Therapy. The premise is that small changes in your behavior and thinking this week may in the long run precipitate the major changes you desire. Small does not mean insignificant. Focusing on exceptions (helpful solutions) to your problem (unhelpful solutions) is an effective means of using what is possible and changeable in your life. People are uniquely gifted and resourceful. My aim is to help you recognize and validate what you are doing well in the present and translate that into your small and specific; practical and positive; achievable, measurable and observable goal. This is a short form of therapy, lasting 6-10 weeks, with an endpoint that is visible from the first session.
Do not be discouraged if counseling is not an affordable option now. Community health centers, EAP at work, church counseling, The Shepherd’s Gate at Denver Seminary or asking for financial support to cover counseling costs are several alternatives. In all cases, you are entitled to ask about the modes of therapy employed; to become educated as to what theories and tools your counselor uses to bring about the changes you are ready to make and how they assess when you are ready to move on.