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Working Through Shame

One of my favorite quotes – half Dr. Seuss, half Bernard Baruch – is “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” I love the spirit of this – just be! If only it were that simple. Yet, what prevents us from being our true, most authentic, and, at times, whacky selves? What is it that stops us from being free?



This is a question I grapple with often, both personally and, with clients, professionally. It came to mind again yesterday while watching Monica Lewinsky’s Ted Talk, The Price of Shame. Ms. Lewinsky was impressive; she was poised, intelligent, funny, and courageous. She spoke of her worldwide humiliation and shame, drawing attention and focus to cyber-bullying. She is doing a great public good by honestly framing her experience in the context of shame. Shame is one of the most toxic, silencing, suffocating emotions. It was also apparent that I was witnessing a woman in the process of working through her shame. Yet, you don’t have to be cyber-bullied, or even bullied, to walk in the shadow, the imprisonment, of shame.



What is Shame? defines shame as the “painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another”. This is a fairly good definition, but it doesn’t account for subjectivity or personal history. The reality is that anything – anything – can evoke a feeling of shame: our strengths, weaknesses, preferences, or behavior, “because of what we think these things say about our character or because of the way they may seem to divide us from others” (Atlantic Monthly). We may feel shame over feeling “too” anything – too needy, too inadequate, too different. We may feel shame when we fail to achieve our goals or potential, or when we become emotionally reactive and act out in some way (yelling, withdrawing, using drugs, etc.). Many struggle with shame over a lifetime in an attempt to reconcile behavior engaged in as a young adult – a particularly cruel price to pay, since we now know that brain development isn’t complete until at least age 25.


Shame is also often closely wedded to trauma, making it an especially toxic cocktail. An underlying component of shame is a belief that we’ve done something to bring this on ourselves – we’ve contributed in some way, therefore it is our fault. We forget that we are human and fallible, and that things don’t always go the way we planned or hoped. Ms. Lewinsky is a perfect example of this. Other common examples of shame closely associated with trauma include being impacted by infidelity; affected by suicide; diagnosed with certain diseases (STDs, diseases that impact our appearance); reproductive trauma (abortion/miscarriage/infertility); domestic violence, and childhood abuse.



The Problem With Shame


Some shame is normal, necessary, and evolutionary. Shame contributes to certain parameters of behavior that enable societies and cultures to exist, even flourish. But, hidden and unrecognized shame is just toxic (Atlantic Monthly). It is often tightly bound with issues that are deeply private and personal, and it is self-protective to not speak of these issues: why risk further shame and humiliation? But this doesn’t really work; it simply lessens us. Unspoken shame holds us back, diminishes, and slowly destroys us. It keeps us in a one-dimensional world, without nuance or context. Ms. Lewinsky poignantly addresses this. She had a choice: to be known forever as “that woman”, immortalized in almost 40 rap songs – a pretty one dimensional existence that robs her of her own narrative. Or, she can demand that she be seen as three-dimensional, human, more like us than not. This is important – what the world reflects back to us, about us, impacts our identity, further discussed here.



Working Through


Shame needs to be addressed from a few different avenues, but, at the very least, we need to give it voice. This moves it through our bodies and minds and helps us to make sense of what has happened, regardless of whether the shame stems from the recent or distant past. To quote the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, we all need the “accepting, confirming and understanding human echo”. We see this need in its most superficial form, particularly for youth, indirectly manifest every day on Facebook, which probably has a lot to do with its success. Facebook posts are usually joyous, and show our best selves. Kohut’s quote takes on a deeper, more contextual meaning when addressing unacknowledged and unspoken shame.


The idea of speaking about our shame isn’t new. Shakespeare talked about the power of giving voice to sorrow, Freud addressed the “talking cure”, and the Catholic Church embraces this concept in the form of confession. 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, adopt this method as well. Give voice to your struggle, and something shifts internally. Having an interested and empathic witness to our stories is in itself healing. It helps us to feel less alone, and provides the opportunity for a new, non-shaming response. Our brains are rewired during this process, which helps in more fully integrating our sense of self. To quote Ms. Lewinsky, “You can insist on a different ending to your story.”


Other ways of giving voice to shame include journaling, writing articles and essays, and engaging in creative outlets, e.g. writing poetry, painting, and other arts. When shame is closely wed to trauma, giving back can be an important final and needed step in healing. Having an impact on others, however small, is enormously helpful.



Changing the Discourse


Ms. Lewinsky began her own process of giving back last year, when she emerged from the shadows after 10 years to write an essay for Vanity Fair on the culture of humiliation (nominated for a National Magazine Award). This prompted an expression of regret from David Letterman, and liberal bad-boy Bill Maher confessed feelings of guilt, both over their relentless Lewinsky jokes. Ms. Lewinsky, in her journey to reclaim her narrative, had an immediate impact on the public discourse. I’m certain this is helping her heal. Brava, Ms. Lewinsky.



Part of this blog is an elaboration of this on-line interview with Pamela Tsigdinos.


Thanks to my husband and Christina Hill for their input and editing. And love.


Women and Leadership / January 13, 2014

I recently had a spirited email exchange with a male colleague regarding the need for leadership training in our shared profession. His main point – that most of the directors of large public and private social services departments and organizations are lawyers or people with MBAs, rather than experienced clinicians – is quite valid.


Where our thoughts diverged was how we approached the issue. At the time of our discussion, I had just read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Her first few chapters presented a great deal of academic research that addressed the broad negative social and cultural messages women constantly receive, resulting in self-doubt, self-censure, fearing not being liked, etc. As we spoke, I began to wonder how all these messages intersect with leadership in our profession – one largely made up of women.


We were in agreement that of course both men and women have self-doubts and face adversity. He went on to say that men are more easily able to “ride with it…work against their doubts”, where women “…embrace their doubts” and allow this adversity to “slow them down”. Ouch. This is not something I wanted to hear. Yet…was he hitting too close to home?


On reflection – and we are both very broadly generalizing – I think he has a point. However, I would not use the word “embrace”; this sounds too purposeful, too active. Yet, if not embrace, then what? What factors influence differences between how men and women metabolize adversity?


One influence is the media, where portrayal of girls being “less than” starts very young and in very formative years. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media does a stellar job researching and illuminating prominent gender roles in family (G-rated) entertainment. They found that male characters outnumber females three to one in family films; females are four times as likely as males to be found in sexy attire; females are severely underrepresented in the professions (medical science, law, politics, business leaders), and that less than 20% of working characters are female. Little has changed regarding the media’s representation of gender in 60 years (


This less-than portrayal of women continues beyond family entertainment, and sometimes takes a sharp turn toward degradation. Some of this is very old (literature portraying witches, the evil stepmother), and some is new. For example, the latest version of the best-selling video game Grand Theft Auto, released this past September, is quite remarkable (and unapologetic) in its misogynistic treatment of women. (And, how frightening that the target audience for this entertainment is adolescent boys and young men.)


This portrayal of women certainly has a societal and cultural impact in the working world, where 50% of workers are now women. Although there has been improvement in concrete areas in the last 30 years (increased wages, opportunities for advancement, access to more fields), less definable and subtler obstacles persist. Recently, as I was thinking about this topic, two items in my regular reading jumped out. One addressed a controversy in the classical music world, where three prominent and powerful male conductors (one French, two Russian) made comments disparaging female conductors. Statements included references to their weakness, their sexual energy being too distracting, their lack of stamina – it goes on and on.


The second was an article in The New Yorker about fashion icon Eileen Fisher. Fisher recalled a conference she had recently attended of heads of “like-minded” companies (Whole Foods and the Container Store were two of the other companies mentioned). Fifteen men and seven women had been invited, and on the second day one of the men observed that only one woman had spoken. I’m certain each woman had their individual reasons for not speaking (and, to be fair, the article did not address how many of the men had spoken), yet the phenomenon of female leaders remaining silent in the presence of men was startling.


Both of these examples address something that is difficult to quantify: the impact, both conscious and unconscious, of cultural and societal messages that say men are more valued than women. Since this begins so young, how can women not internalize, and be impacted by, these messages?


Again, Sheryl Sandberg does an excellent job summarizing the impact of societal messages, particularly at work, based on published academic research. To quote her, “Go to a playground: little girls get called ‘bossy’ all the time, a word that’s almost never used for boys. And that leads directly to the problems women face in the workforce. When a man does a good job, everyone says, ‘That’s great.’ When a woman does that same thing, she’ll get feedback that says things like, ‘Your results are good, but your peers just don’t like you as much’ or ‘maybe you were a little aggressive’…that means that as a man gets more successful, he is better liked by men and women, and as a woman gets more successful, she is less liked by men and women….But I want to be clear: I am not saying that men are too self-confident. That’s not the problem. The problem is that women aren’t self-confident enough”.


Finally, it is possible that biology aggravates all of the above. Although men and women respond similarly to fear and distress, physically (racing heart, stomach clenching, etc.), women’s autonomic nervous system takes longer to return to equilibrium. In other words, women, biologically, remain upset longer and take a lengthier period to cool off. (Listen here for a fascinating and amusing Radiolab discussion of this, beginning at 7:45; for the time pressed, start at 11:28.)


This is not to say that the above applies to all women, all the time. We are much more complex than that. It is simply to emphasize that women have different experiences than men, and many have quite probably internalized, on a fairly unconscious level, society’s messages.


So, yes, women absolutely need more leadership training. But this leadership training, for women, must acknowledge the social and biological forces at play. We need to begin talking about these issues freely, without shame or defensiveness. Only then can we begin to address practical ways of negotiating both internal and external obstacles to leadership.

Who Am I? And Where Am I Going? / September 3, 2013

When in sixth grade (and 11 years old), I was informed by my teacher that I was to give one of the graduation speeches. Topics were assigned; mine was “Who am I? And where am I going?”


This was, admittedly, a little over my head. In fact, I have a very clear recollection of complete incomprehension. Even today, the existential nature of these questions gives me pause. Certainly I am not alone.


So – who are we? What factors influence and form our identities? 


One factor is genetics. We are all born with a particular disposition that will probably change little during our lifetime. Recently, Oliver Sacks, in a lovely column reflecting on his life, stated, “I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at 80 as I was at 20”. Closer to home, my nieces are both kind and spirited little girls. Yet, one is defined by her sweetness; she is caring, empathic, and consistently shows concern for others. The other is fearless, strong-willed, and feisty. These characteristics have been apparent since they began walking and talking. Barring a terrible trauma, these traits may be tempered, but will most likely remain consistent throughout their lives.


Families-of-origin also influence identity. Ideally, parents and caretakers help shape identity by nurturing children’s unique interests, strengths, and talents. Other family-of-origin influences on identity include the teaching (or not) of basic morals and ethics, as well as the fundamental manner in which children are regarded, e.g. with respect, contempt, etc. The now-classic poems, All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulgham, and Children Learn What They Live, by Dorothy Law Nolte, wonderfully summarize these influences, both found here.


Yet, identity development is fluid, and does not stop with genetics and early experiences. We progress, change, and grow throughout our lifespan, and many factors impact how we think and feel about ourselves. One of the most significant influences on identity during adulthood is our interpersonal relationships. Social relations are prime instigators of emotions, and much of how we think and feel about ourselves forms through interactions with others. Our “selves” are built upon responses to us made by others, and our psychological well-being is largely dependent on relationships with and connectedness to others.


Our best relationships help us feel whole and complete, and reflect back to us the best parts of ourselves. This affirms identity. When these relationships are off, we feel bad because we are receiving feedback that we are, if only in that moment, undesirable, unwanted, unloved.


All our relationships have the ability to influence our identity, including marriages and romantic relationships, as well as interactions with friends, family and work colleagues. Even strangers can impact identity, if only temporarily. La Belette Rouge beautifully captures this here, when an interaction with a stranger suddenly transports her back to junior high school.


So – genetics, families-of-origin, and relationships all contribute to identity. Of course, there are other factors (e.g. societal influences, cultural norms), and the interplay between all these aspects is complex and ultimately unknowable. Most importantly, it is exciting to know that growth lasts a lifetime. We are never fully “cooked” if we don’t want to be.


And – that speech from sixth grade?  Just finished it. :)







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