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Russell Collins: Healing the Shame That Binds Us
A newly divorced woman in her 40s looking at a house to buy is greeted at the door by the young Realtor representing the seller. She thinks she recognizes him from her yoga class. He is energetic. His teeth are white, she notices. He smiles a lot and looks in her eyes as he takes her through the house. She is pleased by this and returns his warm gaze with one of her own.
When the tour is over, he gives her his card and asks, “Are you working with an agent?” In fact, the woman has a friend she has been planning to use in her search, but she blushes slightly and replies, “I haven’t decided yet.” The young Realtor hands her a card, encouraging her to give him a call when she gets serious about looking.
As the woman drives away, she catches sight of the Realtor talking to a pretty young woman who she guesses is a colleague. They are laughing, and the man touches her shoulder in a friendly way. For some reason, the woman is moved to glance at her own face in the rear-view mirror. It seems lined and old. She is suddenly tired — deflated — as an unpleasant feeling rises up in her stomach, chest and throat. She forces her thoughts to go elsewhere — to a house she saw earlier that she would have to stretch to buy, but where she could imagine being happy.
Early the next morning, several hours before sunup, the woman awakes from a dream feeling panicked. “My life is a charade,” she thinks. “I‘m alone.” She pictures her college-age daughters. They’re away and may never return. Her ex-husband has moved out of town with a younger girlfriend, and she has lost touch with so many friends.
As these thoughts go through her head, she notices her heart pounding in her chest. “Why am I so afraid?” she asks. She has enough money. Her health is good. But these thoughts bring little relief. She remembers the Realtor from the day before. “How ridiculous I must have looked,” she thinks. The feelings from earlier rush up again through her stomach and throat. She tries vainly to force her mind to go elsewhere. For the next hour, until the sun rises, she lies in bed, feeling hopeless and ashamed, and wishing she could somehow disappear from the planet, leaving no trace.
Shame is perhaps the most painful of human emotions. This is because it confers all the painful qualities of other emotions relating to loss, with the added connotation that there is something terribly wrong with us. It is an emotion put there by evolution to shut down our excitement, enthusiasm and expansiveness. Its specific purpose is to suppress us, depress us, inhibit us — even make us want to die, according to some theorists.
The irony, of course, is that the emotional qualities we are most likely to feel shame about — our sexuality, our desire for connection, our natural and expansive desire to be loved, even our anger and competitive drive — are the keys to joy, vitality and spontaneity in life.
A young mother is holding a small infant in her arms. Their gazes meet and they smile. Then the mother is instructed by someone off camera to stop smiling and looking at the child. In a slow-motion close-up now, the baby keeps his eyes on the mother and continues to smile. A flicker of something — distress? — clouds his expression for a frame or two. Then he grasps that his mother is neither looking nor smiling at him. His smile begins to freeze. He turns his head away and looks aside. Seconds pass. He looks back at her. A trace of a smile returns as he scans his mother’s face. Finding her not returning his look, his eyes defocus slightly in concern. He comes back to her again — this all unfolding in slow motion on the screen — an expression that looks unhappy, confused, almost shocked crossing his face. Then his head flops sideways. He stops looking at her, giving up. His head drops — his gaze locked, his mouth slightly ajar, saliva dribbling out from its corner.
In the late 1960s, Daniel Stern, a psychiatrist with a background in psychoanalysis, began examining the interactions between mothers and their infant children. This had been done before — in fact, there was a groundswell of interest in early childhood development under way in the psychiatric community just then — but no one had approached it in quite this way.
Stern filmed these interactions and examined them frame by frame. Psychoanalysts since Sigmund Freud had been theorizing in great detail about early childhood experience, but until now they hadn’t attempted to extract that information from the micro-movements and micro-expressions of the infants.
What Stern found surprised him, and antagonized much of the psychoanalytic community since it didn’t fit their theories. A complex dance of emotions — joy, love, excitement, laughter — was unfolding between the caregiver (usually a mom) and the child as they gazed into each other’s eyes. This intense interaction was often a playful, joyful mutual exploration in which mother and child seemed to ingest each other with their eyes in an effort to completely understand, absorb and internalize the world of the other. Stern eventually named this dance “intersubjectivity,” meaning “a combined sense of self.” The interaction was so intense and so rapid in its ping-ponging call-and-response of emotions that Stern felt compelled to call it one experience, not two.
But Stern’s film revealed a darker side to this dance of attunement between mother and child, too. If it goes sufficiently wrong, it becomes the basis for deep, abiding and largely unconscious shame.
When a child turns exuberantly to his mom expecting matching exuberance from her, he can experience a traumatic deflation if he is met with indifference. Repeated often enough, this “misattunement” can become an abiding aspect of his experience. Repetition can “wire in” this sequence of emotions, so that later in life any feeling of elation activates at least a strong potential for shame. And any disappointing or disconnecting event that gets packaged with that elation — by occurring soon after or involving the same people or situation, for instance — can then trigger painful shame that seems to come out of nowhere.
The right amount of “stressful socialization” through shame is a necessity for growing up in a world where you have to wear clothes and hide your more objectionable habits and feelings. But if the infant’s excited play for attention results too often in shame, the joyful experience of being fully seen and known turns from ecstatic to excruciating.
The opposite desire — to hide, disappear, be swallowed up and die — may well up in children as well as adults. The house-hunting woman in the vignette felt these feelings, as — we might guess — did the baby in the film. The long-term effects of too much shame during childhood can include depression, anxiety and, at the very extreme, suicidal urges or homicidal rage.
Infant research has given us this window into suffering and how it springs on us from out the darkness of our pasts. Yet it also provides a new set of tools for healing the shame that binds us. Simply put, human connectedness is the antidote for shame. This is both radical and counterintuitive, especially for those whose lives are driven by shame. Status, power, achievement, material wealth — these are the glittering illusions that catch our eye when we are hurting, to distract us from our shame. The defectiveness we feel as a result of early childhood experiences seems reparable, if only we have enough wealth, or a good job, or a beautiful wife. But the wounds that hurt us are from another dimension — the dimension of childhood — and cannot be fixed by acquiring things in this one.
Combined with some kind of awareness — in our bodies, emotions and even our thinking — an ongoing, authentic connection with others can provide a lasting curative for the searing effects of old, unrecognized shame. Skillful therapy can provide some of this connection, while helping us recognize the sources of shame, but other social aspects of our lives can provide it, too. Church, religion and spirituality — especially practiced communally — provide many people who suffered attachment trauma as children the healing connection they need.
Causes and political action, helping others in trouble or less fortunate, reconnecting with family (even difficult family sometimes), clubs, even softball — these can be important avenues for making the authentic connections you need to be happy.
True connection with others can dissolve shame’s irrational power to dominate and suppress our most vital instincts, allowing us more natural, unrestrained happiness in our lives.
— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.
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