Q: Someone near and dear to me suffers from such powerful, long-standing shame that he cannot, or won’t, admit engaging in behaviors that are destructive to his personal relationships (e.g., verbal abuse). Is there any way to confront him gently, in a way that helps him feel safe so that he and his loved ones can start healing their respective relationships?
Jodi Brayton, L.C.S.W., M.S.W.:
This is such a great question on many levels. It involves a universal emotion – to be human is to feel shame – and the very wording of the question shows that the writer already understands the antidote to shame: love, connection, and compassion. I like that the writer gets the fact that destructive behavior should be confronted (in a safe way) in order to begin healing any relationship. There are some very thoughtful experts exploring current research on the issues of shame and compassion and I want to share some information that may be useful to you.
One of my favorite writers from a psycho-therapeutic point of view is Janina Fisher, Ph.D., a therapist who looks at the shame and self-loathing associated with childhood trauma from a neurobiological perspective. Fisher does a beautiful job of explaining that many of our negative behaviors are, or were at one time, beneficial adaptations to traumatic circumstances. Anger, for instance, may be a self-protective maneuver designed to push people away before they can hurt us. She explains how shame and perfectionism are adaptive strategies that drive responses such as hypervigilance, automatic obedience, and total submission; strategies that help young victims survive abuse[i].
The dilemma with confronting people who struggle with shame is that even the kindest, most gentle approach can confirm their worst beliefs about themselves. The thought, “it’s my fault,” can activate areas of the brain that lead to emotional and autonomic reactivity, according to Fisher, which may explain reactions that are destructive to personal relationships, such as verbal abuse.
Curiosity and mindfulness, on the other hand, tend to activate the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates such emotional and autonomic reactivity[ii]. The job of a therapist is to help clients remain in the medial prefrontal cortex part of their brain because when we are curious and mindful we find meaning and gain perspective. Your friend is more likely to accept a recommendation of therapy if you come from the approach that he is not where he wants to be. The website janinafisher.com has several informative articles that can be downloaded for free.
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Understanding the hard science behind behavior can help many people recognize and accept the need for change and there is fascinating research on the physiology behind the healing power of self-compassion. It seems that our body responds to an emotional attack of self-criticism just as it would to the physical threat of having a gun pointed in our direction. The fight or flight response is triggered and the stress hormone cortisol is released in order to mobilize our body to avoid or confront the threatening situation. We all know that too much cortisol over a long period of time can be destructive to our bodies; however, recent research shows that generating feelings of self-compassion can actually decrease those cortisol levels and increase the release of the hormone oxytocin in our system. When we increase the level of the oxytocin we increase feelings of calm, trust, safety, generosity, and closeness to others – all of which are needed to counter the painful emotion of shame[iii].
Kristen Neff, Ph.D., one of the leading researchers on the physiology of self-compassion, has a website – self-compassion.org – that many of my clients find useful. It offers several guided meditations and various exercises designed to help people increase their self-compassion skills. There’s also a self-administered test that measures the elements of self-compassion, as well as the things that hinder our self-compassion, such as self-judgment, isolation, and over-identification. You can recommend this site not only to counter the effects of shame but to anyone who wants to live a more contented and fulfilling life.
The last writer I want to mention is a researcher who has an exceptional ability to inspire people to go to those deep, dark places of shame and fear. Brené Brown, Ph.D., believes that we begin healing by sharing our difficult stories with appropriate others in order to feel worthy, connected, and lovable. She gave a 2010 TEDx Houston talk on the power of vulnerability that was one of the most popular talks on TED.com. She followed up with a second talk in 2012 called Listening to Shame, and together these talks have received over 25 million views. They are chock-full of humor, humanity, and interesting information and you can recommend these talks based on the entertainment value alone.
Another thing I hope you consider reading, and/or offering to your friend, is Brené Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Brown has devoted most of her professional career to the study of human vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame, and she really leads by example in this book. In order to help others find the courage to explore their own feelings of inadequacy, Brown fearlessly, and wholeheartedly shares hers. This leaves the reader with a sense of connection to our common humanity, as opposed to the feeling of isolation and alienation that results from keeping things hidden. Many people find this book a valuable tool for self-exploration.
The concept that permeates all the works cited above – and that can help your friend find the non-judgmental state of mind he’ll need in order to observe his own thoughts and behavior in a safe way – is mindfulness. Suggesting mindful practices, such as meditation, prayer, and journaling (especially a gratitude journal) could prove most valuable in helping your friend gain perspective and find a sense of peace even in the most complicated and difficult situations.
Thank you so much for this opportunity to share this information. Your question is important and the task is a challenging one, but Brené Brown sums up what is at risk with the following quote[iv]:
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy – the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
– Jodi Brayton, L.C.S.W., M.S.W.
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[i] Fisher, J. Working with the Neurobiological Legacy of Early Trauma: Paper presented at the Annual Conference, American Mental Health Counselors July, 2003.
[ii] Fisher, J. Brain to Brain: The Therapist as Neurobiological Regulator. Psychotherapy Networker. 34:1, January 2010.
[iii] Neff, K. D. (2012). The science of self compassion. In C. Germer & R. Siegel (Eds.) Compassion and Wisdom in Psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Press.
[iv] Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (p. 6). Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden Publishing.