In the next installments of “Tools of Transformation” I will explore what I believe to be the emotional roots of Anxiety and Depression: Shame, Guilt, and Fear. These three powerful energetic and emotional experiences have been identified by some of our leading psychological researchers, as central to the development of our personalities, among them Professors Thomas Scheff, PhD., Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Suzanne Retzinger, PhD., Adjunct Professor of Sociology at Antioch University, Santa Barbara. Both Scheff and Retzinger find Shame to be the Master Emotion, the emotion most determining our emotional and psychological development. I hope in this article to show the connections between the first of these powerful emotions, Shame, and the etiology of our experiences of Anxiety and Depression. I will also present some ways we can begin to understand and work with shame. I hope that this information and the tools I offer will be helpful to those of you who are suffering from ongoing depression, anxiety, and panic, and those who have friends or family members who face these emotional challenges. However, because hidden feelings of shame are almost universal, some of the ideas that follow may be of help to almost anyone who takes the time to read this.
My concern in writing these next blogs is that only a few people will want to read about the importance of Shame, Guilt, and Fear. These are unsavory experiences to be sure and they are not considered “positive” topics for discussion. Many of my clients who have suffered from Depression for much of their lives tell me that they experienced shame whenever they felt the need to express how poorly they were feeling. Most have experienced critical responses to their expressions of unhappiness, followed by badly timed encouragement to look on the bright side of life. In some ways this is an understandable response, because if you are not depressed yourself, it is hard to understand, let alone empathize with someone who is. The reality is, however, that if a depressed person could easily lift themselves out of depression, they would have done so long ago. The paradox that comes with this emotional territory is that because Depression is seen as something to be ashamed of, when someone becomes aware that they are depressed, they will immediately try to make a case for why their depression is legitimate. This effort can actually deepen their depression, as they try to validate their experience by enumerating everything that is going wrong and everything they believe is working against them.
Like Dr. Danie Beaulieu’s notion that Anxiety is a GPS type signal that we have taken the wrong path or made a wrong turn, Drs. Scheff and Retzinger believe, based on their extensive research, that Shame is a profound warning signal that indicates that we may be in significant danger. The shame signal is communicating that a primary relationship bond is being stretched or weakened to the breaking point. We human beings are the most dependent of all creatures on our caretakers for our survival. If we sense that one of our indispensable relationships is in jeopardy, the ground of our being starts to tremble. A kind of dread comes over us that can cause us to feel very small and extremely vulnerable. When this feeling comes over us we are likely to become apologetic, behave subserviently and perhaps try to hide. Because many of us do not even know the name of this feeling, we are likely to feel embarrassed, squeamish, and even nauseous. We may sense that danger is at hand, but we are most often not aware of what that danger is.
Shame is evoked by the prospect of rejection, abandonment, ridicule or humiliation. The feeling of shame in our bodies is potentially very strong, and it is usually translated either consciously or unconsciously to mean that we are fundamentally defective. There is something essentially wrong with us. It’s not that we have done something wrong. It’s that we are wrong. We feel instinctively that if we reveal how we are really feeling we will be unacceptable and therefore rejected. Shame is the ghost in the machine that brings on our apprehension of certain failure and rejection. It makes us feel insecure, inferior, and defective. The problem is that in our growing up years we develop defenses against feeling shame. When it starts to arise in the body, our defenses transform it into anger, fear, or sadness and these emotions are degraded energetically to irritation, apprehension or feeling down. We are out of sorts. Something feels wrong but we are not sure what it is. We feel bad.
What follows are a few paragraphs from a monograph entitled “Shame as The Master Emotion of Everyday Life,” by Drs. Scheff and Retzinger that elegantly summarizes what I have written above.
“We call shame the master emotion because it has many more social and psychological functions than other emotions.
1. Shame is a key component of conscience, the moral sense, since it signals moral transgression even without thoughts or words. Shame is our moral gyroscope. Since this function is well understood, we will give most of our attention to two others, both less well understood.
2. Shame arises in an elemental situation in which there is a real or imagined threat to our bonds; it signals trouble in a relationship. Since an infant’s life is completely dependent on the bond with the caregivers, this emotion is as primitive and intense as fear. The point that shame is a response to bond threat cannot be emphasized too strongly, since in psychology and psychoanalysis there is a tendency to individualize shame, taking it out of its social matrix. Typically in these disciplines, shame is defined as a product of the individual’s failure to live up to her own ideal. But one’s ideals, for the most part, are usually a reflection of the ideals of one’s society. Mead’s idea of the generalized other captures this notion perfectly. If one feels that her behavior has been inadequate or deviant, not only an internal gap has been created between behavior and ideals, but also a gap between group ideals and one’s self, a threat to the bond. The sociological definition of the source of shame subsumes the psychological one, pointing to the source in shared ideals.
3. Finally, shame plays a central role in regulating the expression, and indeed, the awareness of all of our other emotions. Anger, fear, grief, and love, for example, are not likely to be expressed outwardly to the degree that one is ashamed of them. One can be so ashamed of one’s emotions that they can be repressed almost completely, to the point that only unusual circumstances will allow them to come to awareness. In Western societies, shame is almost completely repressed and hidden, because one would be embarrassed that one was in a state of grief, fear, anger, or even embarrassment.”
Drs. Scheff and Retzinger go on to emphasize that the experience of shame and the knowledge of what is shameful is almost entirely unconscious because of the strong prohibition against emotion in Western society. As we grow up we are systematically learning not to feel. By the time I was a teenager, I experienced two emotions, anger and happiness and only happiness was really OK, unless I felt that my anger was righteous. This state of my emotional being apparently is not at all unusual. In spite of years of psychotherapeutic interest in what people are feeling, emotions remain to a large degree in the not OK category, especially when it comes to expressing them.
So Dr. Danie Beaulieu’s metaphor that we all have a “garbage bag” inside us that we have cinched up very tightly is very apt indeed. Dr. Beaulieu suggests that there are times when our Anxiety is trying to tell us that our bag is very full and that it smells. This reality is something to be embarrassed about for us, and unconsciously we will try to keep it more and more tightly closed. But, as she points out, even someone with surgery for not smelling, can recognize that the odor is getting worse and worse. The bag needs to be opened and emptied very carefully. Embedded here is a You Tube video of Dr. Beaulieu talking to a group of therapists about her use of this “Impact Method” with a young boy whose brother had been killed in an accident that occurred while they were playing together in a dangerous place.
This is a brilliant reenactment by Dr. Beaulieu of her work with this young boy. She demonstrates how she uses the “garbage bag” metaphor to overcome the boy’s shame by treating an actual garbage bag full of garbage with tenderness, as a living metaphor for her care of him and his deep feelings of guilt, shame and grief. Together Danie and the boy open the bag and empty it little by little. Her work here mirrors the understanding of Scheff and Retzinger’s work that so much of our emotional experience is hidden from us. We can be deeply troubled and not know just what the trouble is. Instead we feel bad, inadequate, and apprehensive. We need to let something out, but we don’t know how to open up and express what we so desperately need to reveal, both to ourselves and to another caring, empathic person. Dr. Beaulieu’s session is a wonderful example of how we therapists need to approach people who come to us with major shame issues. The rule of thumb is that the more severe the trauma that a person has experienced, the deeper will be the feelings of shame, guilt, and grief. In the You Tube example, the boy felt that somehow it was his fault that his brother died. He should have known the danger. He should have been the one to be killed. If we throw into the mix how little permission we have in our society to grieve any major loss of a loved one, we can begin to see that this young boy being able to express the depth of his feeling on his own was utterly impossible.
Drs. Scheff and Retzinger make another important point. We know so little about our own shame and about other people’s shame, that just to begin talking about it is an important step. I took part in their online shame discussion group for a few years, when I first learned of their work from a dear friend of mine. The discussion was halting and awkward at times as we began to cognitively understand what shame was and how it operated inside us as a moral gyroscope and an indication of threat to our bonds. I began to be able to see shame in my depressed and anxious clients, but I was not yet aware of how pervasive an experience it is in each of us. So all of us must begin to learn more about shame and learn to identify our own shame, because it is much more pervasive an experience than we would ever imagine.
The more shame accumulates inside us, the more likely we are to feel depressed, anxious, and up tight. The fact that this process of getting trapped in shame is so out of our awareness, a good exercise is to begin to think about what we are ashamed of. What experiences most embarrass us? What kinds of events, requirements, and challenges do we shrink from? What emotions are we most uncomfortable with in ourselves and in others?
Here is an example from my childhood. When I was 11 years old, my family would stay for several weeks on a lake in Wisconsin. We had a motor boat that had a powerful enough motor to pull a water-skier, and one weekend two friends of mine came to visit who loved water skiing. I had never tried it and they offered to teach me. Instead of expressing how fearful I was that I wouldn’t be able to do it, I went into a long tirade about what a waste of time I thought it was, and that I had no interest in learning to water ski whatsoever. My friends tried in vain to change my mind, but of course they failed, because my mind wasn’t the problem. I was ashamed of how fearful I was and of how inadequate I would feel if I failed to master water skiing. I was not, unfortunately, in touch with any of these underlying feelings. Fear in boys was not allowed in my family. I was caught in a bind. I couldn’t admit my vulnerability, so I had to righteously defend my choice not to ski.
I give this experience as an example of how we can begin to learn about our own feelings of shame. If we think of the things we have rejected at various times in our lives, these remembered experiences can provide a clue to our feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment, and shame. This signal that an important relationship bond may be in jeopardy often inspires us to reject challenges and areas of interest that we might otherwise explore. In other words, what often causes shame to come to the surface is our hidden apprehension that we will not win the approval of our parents, teachers, siblings, or our closest friends. We do not want to be rejected for being a poor water skier and so we reject water skiing, or whatever the experience may be, in order to save face in the context we are in. The paradox is that our tirades rejecting what we are actually afraid of are often more embarrassing than the admission of our truth. I am afraid of disappointing you and myself. I feel vulnerable because I am afraid, and I am ashamed to express my fear.
So what is the remedy for this almost universal situation? The simple answer is awareness, acceptance, and expression. In other words, we must become more aware of our shame and our avoidance of feeling it. We must become more accepting, not only of our experience of our shame, but of how prevalent it is in everyone. Finally, we must learn to express our vulnerability, rather than becoming angry, resentful, and rejecting of it. Take a close look at the Scheff and Retzinger monograph that I have given the link for earlier. In their analysis of a brief phone conversation and its consequences, they give several examples of what it would take for things to have gone differently. These examples, when compared to the awkwardness of the original conversation, reveal both the complexity of our interactions where shame is a factor, and the simplicity of resolution if we will only reveal our vulnerability.
Next month I will take up the powerful feelings of guilt and fear that we are so often either out touch with or simply do not have permission to express. Taken together, hidden shame, guilt and fear create an internal emotional landscape that is ripe for the development of Depression and Anxiety disorders. By exploring what we actually feel inside ourselves, accepting these emotions and situations without judgment or expectation, and giving expression to these feeling experiences in the company of a supportive and empathic guide can liberate us from the emotional traps that keep us from living our lives fully.
My thanks to you dear readers for your participation, to Dr. Danie Beaulieu for her skillful, empathic work and theory, to Drs. Scheff and Retzinger for their brilliant research and analysis, and to Toby Landesman for her endlessly amazing photographs.
Dr. Beaulieu’s website. She also has several You Tube Videos that can be accessed by putting her full name in the search bar, Dr. Danie Beaulieu.
Toby Landesman’s photos are available on her website.
Google Drs. Tom Scheff and Suzanne Retzinger for access to their extensive and exemplary writings.
Please feel free to comment, critique, and expound !
Article written by Tom Goforth
Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.