The Lingering Pain of Old Shame

Why is it that old shame so often awakens in our mind?

Why is it that old shame so often awakens in our mind?

We have all experienced, like a punch to the gut, old feelings of shame for things that happened long ago. Everybody, or course, has committed past blunders or acts of negligence, cowardice, or foolishness. A lot of people hold on to these memories, and they continue to be inundated with waves of regret, embarrassment, and shame.

Even when people try to forgive themselves for old missteps, the memories can persist. Why would we continue to be haunted by such memories from the past? They only bring up—right in the present moment—a fresh new experience of the original shame or humiliation.

The answer to this question affords us an opportunity to see exactly how, in our unconscious mind, we produce much of our emotional suffering.

Jeremy, a client of mine, was lying awake in bed in the middle of the night. A recurring memory from 40 years ago crept into his mind. At that time he was almost fired after making a foolish judgment that cast himself and his company in a bad light. The memory seemed to hover over him like an ancient curse, and once again he found himself reliving the original shame.

“What’s this all about?” Jeremy now asked himself. “This event is ancient history. Why am I tormenting myself right now?” [Read more…]

The Pain We Lock Away

What is it we don't want to see deep in our psyche?

What is this hidden pain that we’re reluctant to see deep in our psyche?

It’s so important to see through our psychological defenses if we want to become emotionally strong and escape from suffering. Through our defenses, we lie to ourselves in much the way that parents lie to children to protect them from life’s harsher realities.

Some experts believe that psychological defense mechanisms serve a good purpose. One expert, writing at the Psychology Today website, said, “Psychological defenses are forms of self-deception we employ to avoid unbearable pain.”

“They also protect you,” said another writer at the same website, “from the anxiety of confronting your weaknesses and foibles.”

“They work as shock absorbers and help a person deal with pain,” according to another website.

Wow! Thank goodness for these defenses. Without them, we’d apparently be bouncing and rattling down the road in spasms of pain.

Wait a minute! What is this “unbearable pain” that we’re protecting ourselves from? Wouldn’t it be better if we were to see it clearly? Wouldn’t that give us a better chance to heal or resolve it? Our defenses, it seems, are preventing us from seeing ourselves more objectively. Well, what is it we don’t want to see? What reality or pain is so dangerous or threatening that we must navigate life’s highways in a truth-proof armored vehicle with jolt-free shock-absorbers?

One of the above writers provides the following answer. She says that (in a situation in which the defense of denial is being used to cover up a person’s substance abuse) “you protect your self-esteem” by refusing to acknowledge the harmful behavior. But this doesn’t make any sense. What kind of self-esteem is that? It sounds awfully fragile. [Read more…]

Understanding Anorexia

Unresolved inner conflict is a primary cause  of anorexia.

Unresolved inner conflict is a primary cause of anorexia nervosa.

Recently I watched a YouTube clip of Phil McGraw (Dr. Phil) counseling a 79-pound woman with anorexia, and it was a sad sight indeed. My sadness was felt both for the plight of the woman and for the plight of all people who get only shallow psychological knowledge from so-called experts and the media.

In this video clip from 2012, Dr. Phil succeeds only at shaming the woman for her anorexia. The woman already lives with considerable inner shame, and the unwitting Dr. Phil is only piling it on.

Anorexia can be treated and cured when its psychological origins are uncovered. Yet prominent websites on the subject—such as WebMD.com, the Mayo Clinic, and MedlinePlus, the website of the National Institutes of Health—provide only scanty and shallow psychological information. The National Institutes of Health, which favors a medical approach to understanding and treating eating disorders, claims that, “Family conflicts are no longer thought to contribute to this [anorexia] or other eating disorders.” I disagree with this statement, and I provide evidence in this article that family conflict, along with inner conflict, does indeed contribute to these disorders. When anorexics understand their inner conflict and how they act out that conflict with others, they have a decent chance of escaping their painful condition. [Read more…]

O Shame, Where is Thy Secret Source?

We can penetrate more deeply into the roots of shame.

Self-knowledge helps us to penetrate more deeply into the roots of shame.

Shame is a powerful and self-damaging emotion, and many books in recent years have tackled the subject in search of its roots. Some experts say shame is “the quintessential negative emotion” because it influences so many different moods and behaviors.

While shame can saturate our emotional life, most sufferers don’t understand its roots deep in our psyche. (I wrote about shame in an earlier post, “How Deeper Awareness Can Eliminate Shame,” and this is a fresh attempt to help readers understand the affliction.)

Shame is the painful sense that there exists a dark secret or an exposed truth about some vile, disgusting, or pitiful aspect of oneself. The negative emotion sometimes lies dormant until triggered by a situation or event in a person’s life. Other times, shame is active within us on a daily basis. Whether we’re conscious of our shame or not, it can play an important role in obesity, addictions, depression, crime, violent behaviors, sexual offenses, social phobias, career failure, outbursts of anger, and other self-defeating behaviors.

Shame is often associated with external variables such as our appearance, clothes, social skills, and a sense of physical and mental ineptitude. It’s also associated with inner fears such as being exposed as a fake or phony, and experiencing or imagining ridicule over our handling of money.

We have a better chance of overcoming shame when we know where it comes from and how it’s produced. Shame itself is a byproduct of forces, drives, and conflicts in our psyche. [Read more…]

Easing Tension and Stress at Family Gatherings

Unresolved issues make it hard to fully enjoy family gatherings.

Lingering emotional wounds from our family of origin are like riptides in our psyche. At times, most of us in childhood experienced betrayal, rejection, and other painful hurts. As adults, many of us, swept along by emotional undercurrents, are unable to enjoy our time together at family gatherings. Here, for the approaching holidays, are some principles of depth psychology to help us foster good cheer.

We do want, of course, to feel affection and love for parents, brothers, sisters, and other relatives and in-laws. But time we spend with close or extended family can challenge us emotionally, producing shades of anxiety, shame, embarrassment, anger, and envy. Such gatherings bring to the surface any unresolved issues we have from childhood.

In the emotional world of our psyche, time and place are compressed. An old hurt we remember now as an adult on the West Coast can feel as fresh and sharp as when we first experienced it on the East Coast fifty years earlier. [Read more…]

The Secret Allures of Pornography

An addiction to pornography produces guilt, shame, and other suffering

Lots of people, men in particular, are addicted to pornography. They are sexually aroused by the visual stimulation, and they return compulsively to the activity, looking for that pleasure. However, it’s often a pleasure that comes with a price. Many feel shame after feasting on the stimulation. They might also feel guilt if they have a partner who is being kept in the dark about it. They can also feel bad about themselves because they can’t stop the voyeuristic activity.

Pornography has dimensions to it of the impersonal, mechanical, tawdry, and boring. So how does a person become addicted to such voyeurism?

Several hidden psychological components are at play. When the consumption of pornography is addictive, it means the individual is acting out his inner passivity. He doesn’t have the power to act consistently in his best interests. This is the same inner weakness that leads one to be indecisive, to procrastinate, and to feel overwhelmed. This individual replays an unresolved emotional issue that involves the feeling of not being in charge of his or her own life. Such individuals frequently find themselves in fixes in which they are lacking in self-regulation, as with compulsive gamblers and those with obsessive-compulsive disorders.

All of us can suffer with guilt, confusion, worry, and anxiety whenever we are losing what may be life’s greatest struggle: to maintain self-regulation of behaviors and emotions. [Read more…]

How Deeper Awareness Can Eliminate Shame

Shame is largely a mystery to those people who suffer from the painful affliction. It’s even a mystery to psychological experts who struggle to define it. However, we can get clarity and understanding about it when we go deep into our psyche.

Better yet, with deep awareness we can completely eliminate shame and its accompanying suffering.

Let’s first discuss the surface aspects of this negative emotion. Shame is more than just the awful feeling that one has done something wrong. With shame, a person often feels that he or she is a phony, fake, or imposter. Sometimes the person feels like a complete loser or utter failure as a human being.

We can be entirely innocent of wrong-doing, yet still feel shame. Examples include feeling shame in association with sexual functions or deficiencies, elimination processes, social ineptness, impressions of being looked down on by others, and allegedly being ugly or clumsy. Hence, we often feel shame for emotional, irrational reasons.

Shame is also frequently associated with one’s behaviors or actions. Drug addicts, alcoholics, and compulsive gamblers can feel great shame in the aftermath of their self-defeating behaviors. So can individuals who lack self-regulation with food, shopping, video games, pornography, or other compulsive activities. Shame can certainly be an appropriate emotion when someone does something truly disgusting or perverse. [Read more…]

Get Rid of Guilt with Deeper Insight

Guilt is no fun. We can feel guilt for our slightest slip-ups or misdemeanors. We sense that we deserve our guilt because we have allegedly done something wrong. But often the guilt is produced when, deep in our psyche, we absorb negative accusations from our inner critic.

Sometimes the misdemeanors we feel guilty about occurred ages ago. One client could still feel guilty because she had gotten angry for a few hours during her mother’s long, fatal illness over thirty years ago. The mother was sick for more than three years, and my client had been a conscientious daughter who tried her best to be helpful and ease her mother’s pain. But she still regretted that one-time outburst of anger and frustration. She said she had forgiven herself many times for the outburst, but the painful memory of it, and her guilt for allegedly having been a “bad daughter,” kept coming back.

I told my client, “The only reason you’re still feeling guilty and suffering in this way is because your inner critic is still able to hit you up with negative accusations about that long-ago incident. Those inner accusations of having been a “bad daughter” are unfair and quite irrational. Typically, our inner critic is unforgiving and cruel. It ignores the fact that we can’t be perfect. Even though, as you said, you forgave yourself for your angry outburst a long time ago, you still allow your inner critic to pass judgment on you. You absorb that negative accusation, which means you feel that the accusation has some validity. That causes the guilt.”

We absorb aggression and negativity from our inner critic because of our inner passivity. This passivity is an inner weakness, a place inside our psyche that we have not yet claimed (or infused) with sufficient consciousness. The outlines of this inner passivity, which affects men and women equally and causes us all sorts of problems including clinical depression, come clearer to us as we study our psyche and acquire self-knowledge.

As we get stronger and eliminate our unconscious passivity, we successfully shut down our inner critic and live guilt-free and in greater harmony.

UPDATE – A scientific study was published in June, 2012, proving just how right Sigmund Freud was about guilt as a major factor in depression. The study, published in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry, compared brain scans of people prone to depression with people who never got depressed to show significant differences in the regions of the brain associated with guilt. Freud famously said that depression was related to feelings of guilt and self-blame, which is how it differed from normal sadness. The self-blame Freud refers to is the action of the inner critic or superego as it assails or berates the personality for alleged faults, foolishness, and wrongdoing. As mentioned, the guilt arises because the individual, through his or her unconscious ego or inner passivity, unwittingly absorbs this aggression from the inner critic. The individual feels the guilt as a consequence of his or her unconscious submission, meaning is this case the individual’s willingness, through inner passivity, to absorb the aggression and to “buy into” the allegations of wrongdoing. When we understand this conflict and can objectively observe this inner dynamic, we can occupy with our self-knowledge and consciousness the area in our psyche that has been infused with inner passivity (a primitive consciousness if not a state of nonbeing). In doing so, we no longer absorb the aggression from the inner critic but deflect or neutralize it. As a result, we experience neither guilt nor depression. (See also, “The Hidden Cause of Clinical Depression.”)