For When You’re Feeling Shame

Shame compounds.

Of all of the negative emotions, shame is the worst. Anxiety subsides when we avert a threat. Sadness ends when fortune shifts. Anger resolved through rectification. But, shame persists relentlessly. For many of us, shame whispers through other emotions, scolding us for feeling them. I’ve lost count of how many times clients weren’t able to deal with their Axis I disorders (e.g. depression, anxiety, panic disorder, etc…) because they felt ashamed of having had them.

“There’s not point in feeling sad,” one said to me yesterday. “What could I possibly get out of it?” Some people seek out a cognitive-behavioral therapist because they want to learn how to dominate their emotions. The underlying belief is that emotions are bad, but, through discipline, can be controlled. I asked that client what he thought would happen if he allowed himself to simply sit with his sadness; would he fall apart? Answering honestly, he said he didn’t know. Although it’s easy to consider depression or social anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder as “the” problem, what more often than not makes them difficult to treat is the fundamental shame attached to them.

My clients sometimes ask, “Why can’t I just get over this already?” Inferring, sitting with those emotions seems to envelop one with shame. Personally, I still find it hard to allow myself to experience sadness, or even to cry. In my idealistic conception of the world, adults don’t cry; they just go and handle their business. To allow any aspect of the world to harm you, especially another person, is an essential weakness, a descriptor of who you are. No one can break your heart, or cause you to feel ashamed of having allowed it, if you don’t have one. But, is that goal even attainable? Better yet, is it even a worthy one if it were?

In attempting to discipline themselves, my clients fail to recognize an existential truth: emotions can’t be subdued. Regardless of one’s efforts, they always find a way to break through the box. The refrain “You have to feel it in order to heal it” frequently falls on deaf ears. But centuries of psychotherapy point to it as fact. The longer our emotions are submerged, the longer they’re avoided, piling up, the probability of being overwhelmed by them increases.

But, the more shame you possess, the less patient you will be with yourself. Some of my clients want their diagnoses erased quickly because they don’t believe that they can continue to tolerate having them. When emotions are simply weaknesses, the negative ones become mocking messengers. So, what else is there to do but run away?

Shame has a way of making sadness feel worse and the same goes for anxiety. We become more fearful when faced with the possibility of losing our positive, or at least neutral, self-image; sadder when we consider ourselves weak. We often treat ourselves the way others treat us, demanding, “Just get over it.” Too many people discontinue treatment when they discover that it isn’t about subjugation, that they won’t learn how to eradicate their negative emotions. Therapy, instead, forces them to observe their beliefs about their emotions and themselves, in turn. It’s easier for us to look at the surface and label it the problem. Yet, the more important question, more significant than inquiring about treatment for intolerable feelings, is: why aren’t you allowed to feel them in the first place?

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