There’s a subtle or not so subtle expectation of what is supposed to be happening this time of year: images of a loving family gathered around a tree or fireplace, expensive presents, lots of food to eat, the image of love and connection through the generations as people smile at each other. Whether on TV or a holiday card or images on the internet, there is a warm feeling of connection to these images. Whatever each family tradition or circumstance, if there is difference, sometimes even there is shame. And there can be shame between our imagined family on TV or little house on the prairie memories and the remembered unavoidable misattunements, and even horrors in some families, of what showed up growing up.
“I feel so guilty. I always stay with my mother when I visit her. The last time, I decided to stay at a hotel. She fell down during the night and ended up in the hospital.”
“My father drives me crazy, but when I talk back to him, I feel guilty.”
But is “guilt” really what these two people in distress feel?
In almost every workshop that I teach on shame, someone asks me to explain the difference between shame and guilt. There is a common wisdom here, which I basically agree with: Guilt is “I did something bad or wrong,” shame is “I am something bad or wrong.” Guilt is about actions, shame is about your very being. While useful in many ways, there is a basic problem with this distinction. Many people use the word “guilt” when they are really talking about shame.
I developed many of the techniques I use in working with shame as a Somatic and Emotional Mindfulness Trainer from my trauma training with Peter Levine. Shame, like trauma, puts the body in a freeze state and lowers the ability to think and act clearly. Shame feels like a fog or cover, something that is external, that makes it hard to function. I think of shame as developmental trauma. Usually, it is not a single shock to the system, like an accident or a hospitalization, but a series of more subtle shocks, a slow drip, drip, drip that disrupts normal functioning and creates feelings of isolation and powerlessness. The freeze of shame, like the freeze of trauma, has survival value in allowing a person to get through an intolerable situation.
Although I must admit I was never a basketball fan until a few years ago, I did watch the Golden State Warriors win the NBA championship yesterday for the second time in three years! When my husband first told me about an amazing 3-point shooter by the name of Stephen Curry, I immediately noticed Curry’s smaller physique and graceful, dancer-like movements that allowed him to navigate his way through members of the other team in a very different kind of way. As my husband explained the game to me, I began to see the advantage of Curry’s 3-point shots from far across the court, compared to the 2-point shots that most players compete for. I was impressed by the teamwork and spirit of cooperation by the Warriors, who live up to their motto of “Strength in Numbers.”
Last year I read an article about Stephen Curry who shared about his father, a basketball star who also served as his mentor, and how he told him that because he was a smaller weight and size, he must excel at shooting baskets, otherwise, no coach would even give him a second look. Curry spent the next few years slowly developing, working and finding his own way to shoot baskets. I believe this is a good example of growth coming from healthy shame.
The session was not going well. I was demonstrating to the group how to work with a mother suffering because her son had been left back in school. Nothing I did seemed to work. After an excruciating 30 minutes, I gave up. “I don’t think I’m really helping you right now. I’m truly sorry.” She politely agreed that it hadn’t helped much. “It did help a little, I guess,” she said, trying to soften my embarrassment. She had calmed down a bit, benefitting from simply being able to talk about the situation. But the kind of calm and peacefulness I had hoped to help her achieve was far away.
My pleasant, meditative mood was shattered, once again, by sudden hysterical, loud barking. I live near the top of a hill in what in Berkeley qualifies as a semi-rural area—lots of trees around, near Sibley Regional Park. The hills, which seemed a drawback to me at first, have become incredibly useful in combating high blood pressure. Every day, I can step out my door and feel like I’m in the country. As I walk down my street, with fresh air and lots of green, my mind quickly goes happily blank. Then, suddenly, I am jarred out of my reverie by my neighbor’s two dogs, who fill the air with thunder as I absentmindedly pass their house. While it happens almost every day, it always startles me and throws me, for a moment, into primitive fear. Over time, I have grown to hate those dogs—two little Scotties who have a false sense of their size and ownership.
I come from a long line of blamers. When something was wrong, my mom said it was my dad’s fault; my dad, of course, said it was my mom’s fault. It had to be someone’s fault. That was just the way things were in the world. Somehow all along the family tree there would be stories of who was to blame for what, stories that seemed to pass beyond the generations into the long distant past. Often there would be a cut-off, as in: We don’t talk to them anymore. We just talk about them!
In watching all the blame, and sensing into the unexpressed pain under it, I determined not to be a blamer. I would do something different. But what else was there?
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.