Are you feeling like the issues you want help for are on the social black list?
Let’s talk about how to work around shame and so you can get help no matter how bad you think it is.
Imagine saying the following statement out loud when you walk into your first therapy appointment:
“Ok, Shame, thanks for helping me get to therapy. Without your nagging and unbearable criticism, I might still be sitting at home in misery. Here’s the thing, though… you need to wait outside in the lobby while I get some help here.”
You probably won’t be asked to do this, but for most people who want help with a stigmatized behavior pattern like substance use, disordered eating, self-harm, or another compulsive action, it wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Shame might shut down your ability to really let your therapist know what is going on. I promise, a therapist is not there to judge whatever it is. Our job is to help the truth come forward so we can support you in getting through it.
Why does shame even exist? And how does it get such a strong hold?
Brené Brown explains shame as “the intensely powerful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance or belonging.” In her book, I Thought It Was Just Me, she links shame to cultural expectations.
Because our culture is all around us in everything we do, we often don’t notice how it’s affecting us, which makes it seem like that unworthiness is our own fault.
The good news: It’s not.
How did our troubles become stigmatized in the first place?
When a person encounters something complex, scary, and unfamiliar to them (like another person’s drinking, eating disorder, or self-destructive behavior), it’s easier for them to categorically separate themselves from the person with the challenge than it is to consider their own potential vulnerability to encountering such a problem.
When a few of these people get together and start talking about those “other people” with the challenges, a stigma is born.
Basically, individual people’s discomfort with a problem is converted into a shared rejection of that problem as “bad” or “wrong.”
Stigma and shame are partners in crime.
When you know you have something that society has defined as wrong or bad, it’s easy to start identifying with those qualities.
It’s a painful thing to find yourself caught in a cycle of continuing with a behavior that makes your loved ones feel terrified, embarrassed, angry, or hurt.
Because of stigma, you think you should be able to fix the situation, wonder whether you’re fundamentally defective, and carry the secret details with you like heavy emotional sandbags.
And, voilà,you find yourself steeping in shame.
Many times, this is the place people are in when they first meet with a therapist to discuss their situation. And they are expected right away to divulge the details of their behavior to a stranger. No wonder it’s so hard to take the leap!
Thankfully, if you find a therapist who specializes in helping people with these exact challenges, you can rest at ease. Your therapist will not be shocked about the gritty details. Your therapist has known other great people who have similar challenges and has compassion for the weight you’ve been carrying.
So… what happens to the shame once you’re in therapy?
If shame has been obedient, it’s been waiting patiently in the lobby while you’ve gotten started in therapy.
From here, there might be one last favor you can ask of it. You can invite it in for an interview.
Because shame comes from messages carried by people in your life and society at large, it holds a lot of information about expectations you’re placing on yourself and where they come from.
Taking a good, clear look at these expectations can help you decide if you really want to hold yourself to them, or if they aren’t doing you any favors.
The problems that bring you to therapy can start to feel more manageable quickly when you make conscious choices about what you expect from yourself.
The bottom line?
The shame you feel about your challenges won’t disappear on command. But you can learn to notice and adjust the way it interferes with your day.
For starters, you can flat out refuse to let it hold you back from the support you need to make a change in your life.
**Written by Lily Tsutsumida, M.A., MFT, ATR, therapist on staff at One Heart Counseling Center**