Sunday, 25 August 2019

How Shame Can Make A Mockery Of Us All

A tutor at my counselling course told me early on in the course that many of the problems clients present with “stem from shame”.

That surprised me. Surely, shame is transitory, I thought. We all suffer from occasional embarrassment but we all get over it quite quickly, don’t we? It’s not like it has to power to influence us for long periods, does it? 

The thought came and went and didn’t resurface for quite a while – a bit like my concept of shame – but, when it did, I began to realise my tutor of many years’ experience was a great deal more knowledgeable than I’d given her credit for. 

I was learning from my own work with clients that shame played a very large part in the reason for their visit to a therapist. They might say they were looking at exploring one issue but, hidden way, sometimes way back in an early part of their journey through life, some sense of shame was making their present difficult to manage.

My continued interest in and exploration of the subject meant I needed to understand the difference between shame and guilt. I understood there was a difference but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Following a fair bit of online research, it seems right for me to go with the suggestion that shame is the feeling we have about our “whole” selves and something involving our “whole” selves, whereas experiences of guilt are connected with something we might have done to another.  

Looking at it from an early-sign perspective, I can see how there is a link with shame and embarrassment perhaps more at the lower end of the scale which, if we can pick up and reflect on in time, can be dealt with and then we can move on. We may feel a little awkward, maybe even blush as the blood rushes to our cheeks and reflects our feelings in a somatic way, for all to see. If we’re naturally resilient, we can learn that we feel uncomfortable with what we have either felt or revealed and we can learn from that experience. It can, indeed, be transitory.  

But real shame or shame that has become a part of us is something else. Shame, according to Carl Jung, is a “soul-eating emotion”. It can envelop your soul. Your “whole” being and become all consuming. And that is what may bring someone to therapy.

Children do not feel shame. Watch the variety of toddler who has a secure start to life go for something they want. They don't feel awkward about their determination to achieve whatever goal it is they want at that particular moment. They are unaware of Machiavelli’s The Prince and the end justifying the means. They are only interested in achieving their aim at that particular moment in time. They don’t know why they want it, they just do. And if they are thwarted in their desire, they tend to be upset and/or angry. But not ashamed of their desire. Children acquire a sense of shame through the teachings of others.

Shame is acquired, not inherent
It’s fairly clear from such an example that shame, in an ordinary sense, is an important part of learning. It’s connected with empathy. 

For instance, I remember being told the Japanese ask their children: “How would you feel if…?” The adults put the child in the position of the “other” so that they can understand how someone else would feel. For a society to work well, we need to factor the “other” into our way of being. 

Shame becomes a problem when it overrides everything else and stops us from moving on, from continuing to develop our whole selves. What if you took to heart something someone said to you as a child in a throwaway line that you, a highly sensitive little person, took to heart. The chances are the person who said it will not even remember the conversation or be mortified if reminded of their words, appreciating that those same words had done such damage. It happens all the time. I hear it from confidences my adults are generous enough to share with me.  

Taking another example.  What about the adult person who is stopped from doing something different because of the fear of failing or the sense of being observed failing? It’s easier to imagine in our world of social media because many of us tend to publicise our efforts through a social media page. In the past, if we tried something and it didn’t work, it was no big deal – a bit of transitory embarrassment, maybe, but not the sense of public humiliation we might fear now. Ah, there’s another word. Humiliation, a public shaming. That is something we all fear.

So what’s to be done? Well, there is no instant answer. What may have taken a lifetime to develop cannot be “cured” abruptly. I’d suggest we need to be aware of our thoughts, our feelings, our bodily reaction to a twinge of awkwardness, embarrassment, shame so that we catch it before it catches us.

A twinge of such emotions can be useful, as a way of learning and understanding about ourselves and trying to help us be a better, more fully formed person, someone who generally – remember, we all muck up, don’t expect perfection – adds to the greater good. 

A little bit of shame may have its uses. But don’t let it eat your soul.

By: Lulu Sinclair

Photo by Gage Walker on Unsplash

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Time For Some Positive Thinking

Someone asked me recently: “When did everyone in this country become so angry?”

It’s an interesting question and one that’s given me quite a lot to think about.

Obviously, the run-up to Brexit in 2016 comes to mind and then there’d be a good reason for 48% of the voting population to feel aggrieved. Or, for that matter, the 52% who voted out. So that accounts for 100% of the voting public. Quite a number.

But, reflecting further, I wonder if the anger was there before then, otherwise the question of a referendum would probably not have come up. Happy people are less likely to question the status quo.

So, I suppose we’re talking about the financial crash of 2008 and the effect it has had on all of us. The banks – who were at the centre of the storm – seem to have recovered and are doing very well. But what about we, the people, what about us? Have we recovered?

I’d suggest not. There’s an anxiety in the air that doesn’t show any sign of dissipating any time soon. We’re living in uncertain times.

There are terrible conflicts going on in the Middle East over which we seem powerless but which are brought to our attention through 24-hour news; our leaders seem to have lost it (I’m not talking about our latest PM here, it’s too early to judge) and, economically, it all seems a bit worrying. Prices are going up, the pound is going down.

And the people don’t like it, we feel unsettled. And, with our perception of increasing crime and terrorism acts, we don't feel safe. And we need to feel safe. If, individually, we function better when we feel reasonably secure, it’s even more imperative when we’re working as a collective within society.

Philosopher Thomas Hobbes offered his ideal social contract as one in which the individual offered everything to the monarch in exchange for being kept safe. He lived during the terrifying time which was the English Civil War and I always thought that seemed a bit extreme (I preferred John Locke’s idea of “enough for your needs, plus a little bit more” as a good way towards contentment) but now I'm beginning to get Hobbes. It’s hard to feel secure when all around seems to be chaotic. David Cameron’s survey about happiness no longer seems as odd as it once did.

So, what can we do about it?

Collectively, I’m lost. But I’d suggest that, individually, there are a number of ways in which we can help ourselves.

For instance, take time to reflect on what you as a human being actually have. Your health, your family, your work, your friends, a pet, food, exercise – anything and everything that gives you a feeling of contentment at least. Experience and recognise what you’re feeling and “bank” it so you can draw on the pleasurable side of your life when and as you need.

Living in the moment

I recently saw a toddler discovering wind (not that sort) for the first time. What I experienced as potentially frightening – fences being knocked down, people hit by falling trees, trains not working, etc. etc. – she experienced as astonishing and wonderful. The expression of delight on her face as she lifted it towards the sky and gave a really gutsy laugh reminded me that there is always another way of considering something of concern.

In the old days, the phrase for it would be: “Count your blessings.” Now, it’s incorporated into a style of mindfulness that keeps us centred in the moment; we can’t stress about our worries when we’re actively living in the now.

On a personal note, I believe mindfulness as a form of meditation is great but wouldn’t be able to manage it permanently. I remember another expression: “Live each day as if it were your last.” I understood the sentiment but not the reality. It would be exhausting and I’d clock up the most enormous debts for which, if it weren’t my last day, I’d be liable.

And that takes me to another thought.

If you want to, listen to what others have to say but remember not to “go with the flow” unless it’s what you really want to do. Choose for yourself what suits you. It’s easy to be uncomfortable if we’re living a life that doesn’t suit us.

As well as reflecting on your feelings and your internal world to bring out happiness and/or contentment, take time to enjoy the good offerings of life. Immerse yourself in a good book or film, take some exercise (it doesn’t have to be hard, walks are good too) or listen to music that lifts your mood.

The key is in awareness and discovering what suits you. Listen to your inner voice and be aware of what your body is telling you. We can’t do much about the world about us, but we can take charge of how we make the most of ourselves within it.

As the song goes – it’s a worthwhile message:

You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between

(Lyrics: Johnny Mercer/Composer: Harold Arlen)

By Lulu Sinclair

Sunflower picture:  Elijah Hail on Unsplash 
Laughing child:  S&B Vonlanthen on Unsplash