Recently, Walt Disney Productions has returned to its roots, making amazing movies for children that are powerful and profound enough to be essential viewing for adults as well. While “Inside Out” examined how emotions work in the brain in a truly brilliant way, it had one major flaw: It had no character to represent Shame, which many consider the master emotion—an emotion that affects all the others. There is no such problem with Disney’s “Frozen,” which deals with shame in such a full and precise way that the entire movie can be seen as a parable of healing shame. “Frozen” is a parable of creating and finally melting the shame freeze.
Brody is my psychotherapy client—and a psychotherapist himself. In one particular session, he shares with me what happens when he goes into a room full of people; the distress of it for him, the sheer physiological activation of his nervous system, the sweating, his whole body being on high alert. And as he tells me more about what occurs to him under these circumstances, I listen, with care and attention.
At the age of four, Barry* had been forced to do something very much against his nature by his father, something about which he still felt great shame, and which was affecting his current relationships. Having done years of somatic work, he was ready and eager to feel into that painful memory in order to overcome it. I kept him in the present for quite a while, drawing him out and complimenting him about his competence and strength in the present, his successful career, his love of nature. Then I suggested that he could feel into that past memory. But, I cautioned, “Go back to it as you are now—a competent, resourceful adult, keeping all of your resources with you. You can be with that child that was so hurt and shamed. You can have compassion for that child.”
How do you deal with profound disappointment? With things not going the way you wanted—or expected?
How do you deal with disruption/change/shock/disorientation/feeling like the bottom just fell out and you don’t know which end is up? Several clients have spoken lately of feeling confounded: “…Like being in the middle of deep water, so I can’t touch down anywhere, and I don’t know which way land is. There’s nothing to hold onto. I’m disoriented and don’t know what to do— but I can’t stay where I am and have to do something.”
We are living in interesting times. Recently we had an election that is likely to be affecting all of us in a big way.
In working with clients, it is extremely important to bring in the concept of healthy shame vs. toxic shame. While toxic shame feels horrible and produces an amazingly unpleasant state of freeze, healthy shame can actually help you function better. A humorous example of healthy shame is realizing “I can't fly. I wish I could. It would be really nice. I really envy those birds, just soaring through the air. But I can't. I'm human. I have limitations, just as all people have limitations.” This understanding is particularly healthy shame because it can keep us from jumping off cliffs—and being very surprised as we flap our arms. While this is an extreme example, healthy shame helps us to be aware of limitations, reassess our actions and act more appropriately in the future.
My work has been focused on the emotion of shame for many years. The theme of emotions is particularly interesting for me to write about because of the role that shame plays with emotions. Often shame binds with sadness and grief to cause what used to be called pathological grief, and shame binds with anger to hold a person in a state of depression or frozen rage for years. Shame can bind with fear to create social anxiety. Shame can also bind with happiness and get in the way of happiness.
On a recent trip to Canada, my wife and I were struck by how many Canadians asked us, “What in the world is going on with your election?” I really didn’t know how to answer.
Since returning home, I have become obsessed with the election. I spend hours each day reading the news. Each time I hope it will somehow calm my extraordinary anxiety, but each time I find myself becoming more anxious. I try to quit cold turkey, but I soon find myself back on my computer, reading the news once again. I am reminded of people who can't turn away from a terrible accident. But this accident feels like it involves me directly.
Once I was working with a woman who was feeling very lost in her life. She wasn’t sure if she even wanted to start a new job or a new relationship. I asked her what her picture was when she imagined getting a new job, and all she could picture was what happened in her last job: her co-worker and even her supervisor putting her down. I asked her what picture she imagined when she thought about a new relationship and she couldn’t even imagine that; she just kept saying over and over, “The last one wasn’t very good, so there must be something wrong with me.”
Often I notice that in the back and forth of the day to day, we can lose ourselves in one thing after another. Sometimes when we can put a name on to something that’s happening and pause, it can allow us to stop and be in the moment in a more embodied way.
Let me give you a few examples. A couple from my practice told me how one day in the middle of their usual argument about who was going to pick up their daughter, who was going to buy the groceries, etc., instead of escalating the argument, the fellow said to his wife, “I want to thank you for choosing me so long ago.”