Thursday, June 6, 2013

Recovering from Mental Illness by Combatting Shame

I have had many good therapists since I was 19 years old but recently one noticed that I had a lot of trauma and abuse which was not being addressed properly. She referred me to another therapist who specializes in this and I have been seeing him for ten months. He is really the first therapist who has been able to help me actually start to recover from my bipolar disorder rather than just manage it. How did he do this? He requires me to have compassion for myself. (Which is probably advice now I have shared with many of you personally.)

Why does this work? Because it combats shame. In trauma and abuse, shame is what devastates you in the end. It is what hurts your soul, reprograms your brain, creates imbalance, and ruins your life. Shame becomes programmed into us. It is so automatic in many of our own minds and in our culture that we do not even realize this is what is hurting us, or even that it is happening.

Frankly, many people think shame is the way to make/encourage people to do better in life. Many parents subscribe to a definition of "tough love" which really entails shaming. I noticed this when my son spilled a milkshake into my purse the other day. At first, I heard in my mind the reaction I was trained to have: "Jeffrey! What's wrong with you? You need to be more careful! Look what you did! You ruined my purse. I can't take you anywhere." But instead I said "Jeffrey!" and paused knowing I could never say those things to my beautiful child. I continued with "Oh no, your milkshake! Let's clean it up and get you a new one. We all spill things." 

As shame researcher Dr. Brene Brown says we need to understand the difference between guilt and shame:

Guilt = I did something bad.
Shame = I am bad.

Yelling at my son "What's wrong with you? I can't take you anywhere!" would have been shaming him- telling him he was bad. 

If we think we are bad, if we feel shame or other people shame us by telling us we are bad, then we believe we are not worthy of connection and belonging. If we are not worthy of connection and belonging, which humans are hard-wired for, then we enter into despair and our lives fall apart. In her Super Soul Sunday show with Oprah, Dr. Brown says: "Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, violence, bullying, and aggression. Guilt is inversely correlated with those."

Watch this amazing clip to see this explained in a powerful way:

My therapist has been continually working with me to help stop me when I go into shaming myself. As I have worked with my therapist, I see how shame pervades my life. In everything I do, good or bad, I shame myself. I believe bad things happen because I am a bad person who makes them happen and good things must only happen to me due to a fluke or I must have done something bad in order to get this thing that is good. That means I probably shame myself almost 24/7. That is just not healthy and if shame is correlated with high rates depression, I am sure it is correlated in many ways to other mental illnesses.

So, how has my therapist helped me recognize shame? Dr. Brown says the one thing that combats shame is empathy, which for me is the compassion that my therapist is trying to teach me to have for myself. He notices when I shame myself right away, but in order to get me to see it, he asks me if what I say to myself is something I would say to a congregant or my own son. It is not.

When I believe other people's shaming of me, he again asks me to have compassion for myself and ask if what that person did to me I would do to someone else. I would not.

He also reminds me that when someone shames me, I need to first stop and acknowledge to myself that it hurt and that was not ok, rather than jumping to the conclusion that I deserve to be hurt because I am bad.

So, how does this work, this whole guilt and shame thing when you actually do something that is not all that great? Maybe this story will help:

One morning my husband left very early to go out of town. I forgot to set my alarm and I woke up late, took a shower, and walked out of my bedroom to realize my son was still home! I had not only forgotten wake up, but also get him breakfast and take him to school! He was just hanging out playing on his computer. Then, since it was so late and I was overwhelmed, I decided just to keep him home from school rather than have to explain what happened to the school. I felt like the worst mother ever and I told my therapist that. I said I was irresponsible, lazy, didn't care enough about my son evidenced by the fact that I even forgot he was in the house! What mother does that? His reaction was that I needed to have compassion for myself. To first realize that I must have been very exhausted to have slept in so late. That does not mean what I did was great, and I could have still taken him to school, but I am not a bad mother. Next time I will try and remember to set the alarm and if I do wake up late, I should probably take him to school anyway. Feeling guilt for doing something not so great and learning from it was an appropriate reaction. Feeling shame and thinking I am a bad mother who does not deserve her child was an inappropriate and damaging reaction.

The thing is it is hard to stop the negative programming in our brains. If we have been shamed long enough and thus learned to shame ourselves, we actually need to reprogram the way our brain thinks in order to stop it. It takes a long time of practicing compassion for yourself at every situation for you to start making a dent in the negative programming. And then when others shame you, it is very easy to fall back into automatically shaming yourself. It takes a lot of work on your own, support from positive friends, and sometime distance from those that shame you frequently until you have enough shame resilience to not have their behavior set you back.

The best way to practice compassion for yourself is to do a lovingkindness meditation daily, or even a few times a day. The lovingkindness meditation starts with yourself and then moves outward eventually to the whole world. I like the way Jack Kornfield describes this meditation since he encourages you to see yourself as a child because that allows you to feel love and compassion for yourself. Below is the first part of that meditation and you can click here for the rest of it:

"Begin with yourself. Breathe gently, and recite inwardly the following traditional phrases directed toward our own well-being. You being with yourself because without loving yourself it is almost impossible to love others.

May I be filled with lovingkindness.
May I be safe from inner and outer dangers.
May I be well in body and mind.
May I be at ease and happy.

As you repeat these phrases, picture yourself as you are now, and hold that image in a heart of lovingkindness. Or perhaps you will find it easier to picture yourself as a young and beloved child. Adjust the words and images in any way you wish. Create the exact phrases that best open your heart of kindness. Repeat these phrases over and over again, letting the feelings permeate your body and mind. Practice this meditation for a number of weeks, until the sense of lovingkindness for yourself grows.

Be aware that this meditation may at times feel mechanical or awkward. It can also bring up feelings contrary to lovingkindness, feelings of irritation and anger. If this happens, it is especially important to be patient and kind toward yourself, allowing whatever arises to be received in a spirit of friendliness and kind affection. When you feel you have established some stronger sense of lovingkindness for yourself, you can then expand your meditation to include others."


Rev. Katie


  1. Katie--no comment necessary. Beautifully said. Your words, I mean, although the video is useful too.

  2. Thank you Katie for this powerful testimony! I've been studying shame myself since before Brene Brown came on the scene, and I'm very grateful for her work, her insights, and her wonderful language. And for yours! The topic of shame itself is pretty new in public discourse, I believe because it affects so many people so deeply that we are embarrassed even to bring it up. Perhaps this is changing—I hope so!