Shame is one of the most difficult feelings for humans to acknowledge and express. It becomes a vicious circle: We feel shame about an event or action in our lives, and then feel shame about our shame. Shame causes self-doubt, depression and deep suffering and prevents us from living freely, fully and authentically. Our shame causes us to monitor what we say and do, out of fear of saying or doing the “wrong thing.”
As a humanistic, existential and Buddhist psychotherapist, my primary goal is to help my clients uncover the truth about the cause of their suffering so that they can live full and satisfying lives. Through my work with a client I will call “Bill”, I have discovered the power of EMDR[i] as a tool in this process.
Bill came to see me complaining that he was not able to experience joy or passion in his life, and felt that nothing he was doing had any meaning. This is an apt description of existential despair. Bill had not suffered any recent crises that would account for his angst, and on the surface, his life looked quite successful: Bill is a brilliant scientist, in a good marriage and has a high paying job. He is athletic and is an avid cyclist and skier. However, Bill was unable to experience any joy, passion or satisfaction from his accomplishments and activities, saying that he had a “nagging feeling that something is missing.”
Bill and I spent many sessions trying to identify the source of his existential despair. He described growing up in a small mid-western town. His parents divorced when he was 16 years old, and he and his brother lived with his father. Bill has been estranged from his mother for over 20 years. He described his mother as having an “alternate lifestyle” as a Lesbian and artist. It was clear to me that he was doing what we therapists call “splitting” – seeing his father as all good, and his mother as all bad. However, my attempts to go there with him were futile.
Bill tended to describe painful experiences, like the recent death of a friend and his parents’ divorce, intellectually, factually and with little emotion. My attempts to go deeper would be met with the response “I don’t know”. After several months together, Bill acknowledged a deep fear of expressing his emotions, saying, “what if I express myself and no one accepts it?” Attempts to explore his fear more deeply were met at that point with more “I don’t knows” and intellectualizing. I observed how difficult it was for Bill to directly experience his body sensations and emotions. He acknowledged that he has always relied on his intellect as a way to cope.
In addition to Bill’s fear of rejection if he expresses himself, he came to realize his deeply held belief that “If I were a good enough person, my life would have more meaning and joy.” We explored what this meant to him, and I asked Bill what unfinished business he might need to complete, and what he would need to accomplish if he had a terminal diagnosis – the big existential question. It was clear to me that his estrangement from his mother was the elephant in the room, but Bill was unable or unwilling to go there at that point in our therapeutic relationship. I believed then that EMDR (see footnote 1) would help forward Bill’s journey of self-discovery. Bill agreed to give it a try.
Our first task in preparing Bill for EMDR was to get him to feel safe feeling his body sensations and emotions, and our next task was to identify a target for our EMDR work. He identified the target as his fear of being emotional, and described the incident representing the worst part of this issue as being rejected by a girl in elementary school after he gave her a gift. The negative belief he took from that experience was “I will get hurt if I express my feelings”, and the positive belief he wanted to have instead was “I am safe to express myself.” Bill was able to complete the work on this target in one session. However, we both came away with the feeling that there was something more. I encouraged Bill to note any insights and new memories that might arise during the week before I saw him again.
Bill came in the following week saying that after our EMDR session, he started experiencing profound shame about his parents’ divorce and his feelings about his mother’s lifestyle. We discussed how painful shame is, and I validated his difficulty in acknowledging it.
My experience as a therapist, and as a former client in therapy, has taught me how unbearable the experience of shame can be. We will do almost anything to avoid it – risky behaviors, blaming others, acting out in any number of ways. Shame unacknowledged can lead to deep depression as a result of internalizing the negative messages we received earlier in life. In acting out his shame, Bill made his mother the “bad guy” and was unable to take pleasure in his life, a form of self-punishment. He had internalized his family rules “don’t air our dirty laundry” and “don’t express your feelings” to such an extent that he was living an inauthentic life, leading to his existential despair. Bill’s fear of feeling the full panoply of life’s emotions resulted in his dissatisfaction and belief that his life lacked meaning.
Bill’s nascent awareness of his shame placed him in what Naranjo (1993, pp. 52, 63) has called “a limbo where the surface games of the personality have been dropped and self-awareness has not [yet] taken its place. Shame… [is] not [a] pure experience of reality, but the outcome of attitudes in which we stand against that reality, denying or resisting it, fearing to perceive it….Shame [is a] mind-created curtain that we interpose between ourselves and the world.” [ii] This curtain of shame prevents us, like Bill, from fully and directly experiencing life and all of its riches, whether painful or pleasurable.
Bill asked to do another EMDR session around this issue. The negative belief he has carried about his shame was “I am insignificant” and the positive belief he wanted to have instead is “I matter.” The emotions that he felt were grief, despair and shame. Through the EMDR process, Bill discovered that he has spent an inordinate amount of time trying to avoid his feelings and be “perfect”, and that he projected his shame on his mother and others who he perceived as not good enough. He also felt tremendous guilt about the way he treated his mother. After processing the disturbing feelings, Bill discovered that truest positive belief for him was “I forgive myself.” This was a deeply moving session for both of us.
Bill came in to our next session saying that he felt that our work was complete for the time being. He said that he had blamed his mother for everything, in his black and white thinking, and was in the process of writing a letter to her to acknowledge this and hopefully begin a relationship with her. Bill said he had a tremendous sense of relief about this, and he felt more appreciation for his life. I encouraged Bill to use “I forgive myself” as his mantra when he felt the tendency to retreat behind his curtain of shame. Bill knows that he is on the path to continued healing, and, with his newly gained tools, is not afraid or ashamed to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
[i] EMDR is a scientifically proven therapeutic protocol for overcoming trauma and other life difficulties. EMDR utilizes “bilateral stimulation”, i.e., sensory stimulation alternately on both sides of the spinal cord to release traumatic material from the brain in a way that makes it workable. Trauma that is locked in the brain leads to the “fight, flight or freeze” response. EMDR helps release traumatic images, transforming them into memories that no longer have a deleterious hold on the individual. In addition to this physiological response to trauma, the traumatized individual also develops negative beliefs about him or herself (such as “I do not deserve love, “I was at fault,” etc). EMDR allows the individual to replace negative cognitions about him or herself with positive ones (such as “I deserve love”, “I did the best I could”, etc.). EMDR also works on a somatic level, with the therapist guiding the client to feel the traumatic images and negative beliefs in the body, thus further facilitating the transformation of the images into non-intrusive memories, and also transforming the negative beliefs into positive, useful ones. Therapists need to be trained to practice EMDR, and follow a standardized protocol in EMDR work with clients. (The foregoing is a brief summary of EMDR, and is not intended to be a full explanation of the process.)
[ii] Naranjo, C. (1995). Gestalt Therapy: The Attitude and Practice of an A-theoretical Experientialism. Gateways/IDHHB Publishing: Nevada City, CA.