Clients Corner explores the subjective experience of being-in-the-world, and the struggles, successes, failures, and modes of adaptation that characterize this experience.
Clients Corner explores the subjective experience of being-in-the-world, and the struggles, successes, failures, and modes of adaptation that characterize this experience.
Shame is a master magician
Born of human frailty,
Delicate, self-deluded and eagle-proud.
Shame casts its dreams over the world
Plans each day to be better than the last
And by night falls into restless reverie
Shaming all with steel-plated perfectionism.
The face of shame darkens soft eyes
The feet of shame walk in shadows
Its body bares the weight of trauma.
Its tongue speaks of unworthiness
Spits into the psyche despair
“I suck therefore I am!”
And acts as if it precedes Being.
The tragedy of shame
It wants to be Other that itself
It wears grimly the mask of normality
Desires the crown of exceptionalism
And swims against the current
In pursuit of this radiant, non-existing (excellent) Other
As shame moves through life
Its future is endless repetition,
Disappointments and mistakes freeze failure
In the deep beyond
Speechless in their presence
A drowning skipper
A barren soul
A broken embrace
A certain collapse.
Short on tenderness,
Empty of compassion
Shame comes to therapy reluctantly.
With one hand extended the other withdrawn
Its fingers crossed in fear and disgust
Its need a wound stripped, salted, and double-bound
Its crown of exceptionalism tattered stunningly steadfast.
Shame engages the therapist with small talk
Cryptic conversations darken their way
Calculated statements hold secrets
Traces of desperate truth
Shame presents difficulties, tests, and temptations to the therapist.
A mirror to reflect upon
A stage on which the two can struggle
Shame on shame collapses the two
In an instant of misunderstanding
Shame softens within the tenderness of a patient psychotherapy
A beacon whose illumination wanes as the hour passes
Through the mirrored deceptions that distort each word
In the aftermath of all that has been unlearned
Through repetitive movements that seem like a glacial dance
That require more than endurance
A mindset unschooled and undisguised
Painful truths are held and spoken.
In the cradle of these conversations
Deep within the crucible of human frailty
Shame releases shame.
A tear descends
Shame staggers forward
Over the precipice of unworthiness, regret, and resentment
And surrenders to tenderness
That learns empathy for itself.
I write these words as I climb my wall of shame erected by the pain of my faults. I can see from this perch across the wastelands shame’s story retold by my clients and friends.
On more than one occasion, I have left home after an early morning argument with my wife needing to clothe myself in the comfort of therapeutic garb and do for others what seems so difficult to do for myself: break the “doer/done to” cycle of he said/she said. So I prepared for my first client of the day who I had not seen in several weeks since because of vacations. He is a thoughtful individual who has been struggling in a marriage characterized by years of chronic conflict. Prior to my vacation, he had reached a bleak point following a bad argument with his wife that led to a brief separation.
In the morning session, he described feeling much better, and felt that he had turned a corner. He described how he had gone to a bookstore and bought a copy of Thich Nhat Hahn’s book, Anger Wisdom for Cooling the Flames. He told me that the turning point occurred when he was able to shift focus from how he was being hurt by his wife to how he was hurting her. This turn seemed so simply stated, yet significant. From this perspective he was able hear his wife’s words not as criticisms but as statements about how she felt. In the past, he saw himself as a passive victim, a nice guy who always accommodated and tried to be helpful. In reactions to his wife’s perceived“ criticisms” he felt devalued, hurt, and victimized and would lash out.
As I listened to my client, I felt the unsettling recognition that he could be describing me. The thought occurred to me that perhaps I had something to learn not only from my client but also from my wife.
The shift from looking at how one is being treated to how one is treating another represents a radical change in perspective, a relic of ancient wisdom enabling one to move from a self-centered focus to an empathic one. Making this shift is a herculean task for the heroic ego that reacts to psychological injury with flight, flight or submission, each with its concomitant distorted view of reality. This shift involves moving outside the ego’s comfort zone into a space influenced by the other. It challenges the ego’s determination to be right and its need to feel safe. It opens the doors to mutuality.
“Wear the projection” is a supervisory suggestion made to psychotherapists in training. It is a way to teach empathy. It asks them to take in and absorb what the client says about them in order to understand their client’s perspective. Wearing the projection is antidote to being trapped in an endless “doer-done to” cycle. It is a complex effort of self-reflection that involves vulnerability, openness to others, and the ability to step back from the emotional heat of a discussion.
Wearing the projection is a process that can be broken down for illustration into a set of steps that operationalizes empathy. First, empathy emerges out of a certain mindset that I am calling psychological mindedness. This mindset understands that reality is a blend of multiple perspectives and that one’s thoughts and feelings reflect one’s subjectivity and not reality. Second, it involves realizing when one is emotionally activated and its impact on experience. Emotional activation is typically a call to action, hardwired in our brains. Psychological mindedness recognizes activation as a signal to pause and think about what is happening. Why am I feeling so riled? Am I overreacting? Reflection is critical to empathy in that it leads to the understanding that one’s emotional reactions might be influenced by past experiences that color present perception. Third, having done the difficult work of thinking about experience, one is ready to wear the projection. Wearing the perception can feel like putting a shoe on the wrong foot. This discomfit represents the experience of change that involves breaking down the attachment to old and faulty ideas and sorting through the debris to discover new ideas. And this discomfit needs to be tolerated in order to empathize with another and learn from experience.
Wearing the projections leads you into the realm of paradox and possibility. Making room for the other’s perspective entails mental wizardry to create a space that didn’t exist within the impasse of “doer-done-to.” My wife and I are having a heated discussion. She says. ”Stop yelling at me.” I reply automatically, “I am not yelling.” The conversation can devolve into a she said/I said impasse. What if we are both right? We are both activated. I am not yelling in my mind and I am yelling in her ears. If we both recognize this duality, then we can move forward. If neither of us recognizes this, then we are stuck. If only one of us recognizes this, then there is an asymmetry that most likely reflects a fault line in the relationship.
Christopher Bollas, a psychoanalyst, described in The Shadow of the Object the “self- analytic element” which is the capacity to receive “news from the self” in relationship to others. This idea of “news” represents the capacity to understand something new and different about oneself in relation to others. Relationships, especially close relationships, can be seen as x-rays of the psyche that provide valuable information about the self.
Often we are either too busy seeking approval or too defended to be open to receiving “news.” Bollas suggest that in between projection, the casting out of pre-conceived notions of how things are and introjection, the taking in something you already know there is evocation, which involves the creation of a new mental experience. Vulnerability, empathy, and evocation provide the possibility for both personal transformation within a relationship and resolution of interpersonal conflict.
The Lithuanian philosopher Emanuel Levinas has articulated a radical relationship between individuality and empathy in his book Alterity and Transcendence. He states, “It is my inescapable and incontrovertible answerability to the other that makes me an individual ‘I’. This idea translates into a principal of “hospitality” where one puts aside one’s assumptions, prejudices, beliefs, and convictions, and stretches to view oneself and others through the eyes of the Other.
How have I hurt my wife? What is valid in the “accusations” that she has communicated to me over the years: “you’re don’t realize how angry you are; you’re too sensitive, you take everything I say as criticism?” If I were to think of her comments not as criticisms, but as statements having valuable information, what would I learn about myself? Is there something that I have not been able or ready to see? Am I that angry person who can only see how he has been hurt?
I ended my morning session and still couldn’t shake the anger-hurt. My wife had said mean things. She needs to recognize how she hurt me and what her role is in our conflict. I could not see beyond my pain. Justifying my position, obsessing about the things she said fed the anger that kept the wound alive.
My schedule could not have been better planned. My next appointment was a couple that I had not seen for a while. For years they had engaged in brutal verbal battles that had resisted the efforts of a battalion of well-intentioned therapists. The viciousness of their accusations and cross-accusations were painful to sit with. It seemed that they couldn’t talk to each other even in a therapist’s office without activating rage. They were bound to each other, both unwilling to end the relationship.
At my wits end, short of terminating what seemed like futile work, I set a limit on their abusive conversation in my office. At the end of a very disturbing session, I said that we needed to change how we worked. I forbade them to make comments about what their spouse was doing or not doing to them and insisted that they could only communicate how they were feeling, their emotional pain. I asked them to shift focus from what was being done to them to what in their nature was being activated in the relationship.
Deeply pained by the cruelty of their rage, I wanted to understand my anger. “Wear the projection of an angry, overly sensitive man,” I said to myself. Yes my wife had said hurtful things, and yes there was validity to my anger. And yes the hurt was interwoven with past hurts that I had been carrying with me that were not always apparent.
So I tried on the projection. I went through a day remembering and forgetting to notice my reactions to people and things. I became increasingly aware over many days and many cycles of rupture and repair with my wife of two antithetical poles of my personality: One pole collected frustration, burdens, hurt, and disappointment. It operated quietly, secretively, and semi-autonomously. It felt anger, resentment and bitterness and acted accordingly. It generated self-justified explanations for its behavior. And it didn’t communicate directly. The other pole was infinitely giving and forgiving, patient and willing to go the extra mile. However, this quality wasn’t simply a virtue, but a duty that insistently tugged at me to do the right thing.
The two poles of my multi-sided-self neither knew each other nor realized that there was more to me than these two sides. This was news! The space of possibility had been sandwiched between accommodating and resenting. Seeing things exclusively from either side led to misperceptions of others and to a foreshortening of my self. Getting into this middle ground opened up the possibility of discovering “news” from myself and from others.
To my surprise the couple took my prescription to heart. In the next session, the wife was able to describe how at the core of her pain was the feeling of being overwhelmed, alone and abandoned. She had felt the burden of having to do it all by herself throughout her childhood. Feeling burdened in the marriage enraged her, and she would become volatile. Her husband stated how he hated unreliable and volatile women because of his childhood growing up with an alcoholic mother. Seeing signs of instability in his wife freaked him out, leading to rage.
Before this couple could recognize what they were doing to each other, they needed to feel their own pain and not simply as a reaction to their spouse. They also needed desperately to have their pain felt and understood by their spouse. When they were able to do this, they were able to see how their behavior not only contributed to their conflict, but also perpetuated their own suffering. Past hurt had been fused with the present in such a deep way that their partner had come to represent everything that was hurtful in their life.
The ability to transcend one’s limitations and empathize with others bridges the gap that separates and alienates individuals, and feeds the conflicts that threaten our world. Empathy undoes the “doer-done-to” dynamic that perpetuates cycles of endless repetition. It addresses the Other and allows for the possibility of mutual recognition and connection.
Changing personal belief systems, narratives of how one sees the world, is the last thing that most people would think could be beneficial. Individuals have an implicit set of beliefs that organize their perceptions of the world and ground their reality, particularly how they see themselves and others. These beliefs are woven into the fabric of their identity. Like a map, it delineates the psycho-emotional geography of interpersonal space. To give up these beliefs is equivalent to asking a person to surrender their identity or a leopard to change its spots. Yet these beliefs are often what cause and perpetuate interpersonal conflict, and ironically stand in the way of realizing one’s deeper self.
Personal beliefs are a product of unconscious and conscious factors strongly influenced by interactions with parents and significant others across development. However flattering it is to assume that we are the architects of our beliefs, they are not simply ideas one picks off a shelf. They are cognitive-emotional complexes embedded so deeply in our being that they seem hard-wired into our brains.
While many psychological qualities exist on a continuum between rigidity and malleability, stressful life situations can activate recurrent, rigid emotional reactions, the default of our being-in-the-world. Such reactions are most apparent in intimate relationships.
After listening to many couples describe their difficulties in couples therapy, I am no longer surprised by how differently each individual in the couple sees the relationship. Usually couples therapy begins as a tale of two relationships. These tales are often organized around unrecognized psychological pain and trauma, the baggage that individuals bring into relationships. Many individuals unwittingly see their world through a wound-broken lens that is dissociated from its painful origins. Each new insult or disappointment is experienced as a virgin insult. The hard work of therapy when successful leads to a narrative that transforms the two stories into a shared third that recognizes the pain at the heart of the difficulty.
Jessica Benjamin (1), a contemporary psychoanalytic theorist, describes how most relationships struggle with mutual recognition. Mutual recognition depends on the ability of two individuals to recognize, accept, and appreciate each other’s subjectivity, i.e. their differences. It involves each individual managing the conflict between assertion of self and recognition of the other. The crux of the conflict is simple: the person who we need recognition from is also the person who needs recognition from us. Couples need to learn how to share their subjectivities.
In other words to get a little, we need to give a little. Or to quote Lennon and McCartney, “And in the end, the love you take
is equal to the love you make.” This simple principle that is taught in preschools seems so difficult for adults to practice in their intimate relationships and seems almost contrary to human nature. One only has to look at the level of violent, unrelenting cruelty for evidence.
What makes this lesson taught in preschool so difficult for adults to incorporate into their close relationships? So much of our psychological energy is devoted to the development of our individuality, giving voice to our uniqueness, worrying about and protecting our self-worth. To this end, we sacrifice relational skills. From the narrow perspective of the self, relationships are challenging and potentially threatening. We want to be liked, validated, and respected for our ideas and opinions, especially by the people closest to us. Our need for love is intertwined with our need recognition on our terms. This need for recognition stands in conflict with our partner’s need to be recognized. When push comes to shove, when identity seems on the line, most individuals either push back or retreat: fight or flight. And this battle line is often drawn around the most inconsequential issues.
Many relationships that struggle with mutual recognition go through repeated cycles of break down and repair without learning from experience. Benjamin describes the breakdown of mutuality in terms of complimentary or “doer-done to” relationships. In “doer-done to” relationships each person feels unable to gain the other’s recognition, and feels misunderstood, devalued, and judged, in other words, “done to” by the other. Ironically, both individuals occupy the same position without recognizing how they are “doing-to” their partner what they feel their partner is doing to them.
The resolution of this impasse challenges the self to change perspective: its narrative of self and other that is deeply woven into the cloak of identity. Making such changes often feels like surrendering power. A complaint I have heard from clients who are frustrated with their spouse criticisms is “This is the way I am. She/he wants me to change who I am!”
Intimate relationships present an opportunity for self-transformation. Psychological development hinges on the individual’s ability to balance autonomy with dependence, assertion of self with recognition of the other, and assimilation of the new with accommodation of the old. The idea of the autonomous individual is a cultural construct that doesn’t recognize the value of inter-dependence.
A client who was stuck in a sinkhole of fear, panic, and lethargy looked at me in dismay as he said he wished he could experience more zest in life. I replied that I too wished the same for him and thought if only he could convert the enormous energy powering his worry into zest he would be living more fully if not passionately.
How does one change stress to zest, convert fear into action, make something out of the dreadful feelings that drive intense anxiety? Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) believes that irrational thoughts sustain maladaptive feelings. To change one’s feelings one needs to change one’s thoughts. Understanding the irrational assumptions underlying one’s thoughts will lead to a more realistic assessment of the situation and a reduction in one’s anxiety.
While not a CBT therapist, I see the value and helpfulness in this perspective. However, it doesn’t address an essential paradoxical character of anxiety: intense anxiety overrides cognition. Anxiety can become unbearable. One can’t think clearly to consider the irrationality of one’s thoughts. And even when one understands that their thoughts are irrational, this fragile realization collapses from the force of anxiety.
How does one change one’s point of view when one’s point of view is a torrent of anxiety? There is something intrinsically destabilizing about anxiety that simultaneously undermines the cohesion of self. I am reminded of a Chinese proverb that says, go to the heart of danger, and there you will find courage. The cognitive understanding that can modulate anxiety comes from the courage to experience the feeling at the heart of anxiety. Without feeling the presence of your fears, affirmations and reframes are like road signs in the path of a tornado.
Often buried within the swirl of anxiety and not easily accessed by reason is a fundamental self-defining fear. Anxiety not only disturbs but it also conceals and confuses contributing to self-deception. This core belief is background to a foreground of anxiety that hides and prevents the “unthought known” reality of the core belief from being recognized.
I was working with a graduate student who came to see me in a state of panic that he would not complete his thesis. Anxiety interfered with his ability to think clearly and focus on his work. As he approached the deadline, his anxiety became increasingly paralyzing. It felt like his life was falling apart and he was helpless to do anything about it.
We met frequently. Through these intense discussions, we were able to sort through the rubble of anxiety to discover how vulnerable he was to the opinions of others, particularly individuals he idealized. He described how his work had been going well until he met with his thesis committee. One professor dismissed his work as superficial. My client said that he wasn’t initially bothered by the meeting, but over the next couple of days began to doubt his ideas, the credibility of his work, and ultimately the value of himself, at which point he was swallowed up by anxiety. He acknowledged that his fear of failure was profound. With this recognition, he had established a foothold that allowed him to work with his anxiety and his fear of failure as he re-established a relationship to his thinking, capable self. The anxiety that had been intense, vague, pervasive, and destabilizing had become tangible, understandable, and workable. Now there was work to do.
The vulnerability to self-experience is pivotal to change and to mastering anxiety. Avoiding feelings produces anxiety. Confronting fears produces anxiety. Caught between a rock and a hard place, I am reminded of the visual cliff, an experimental paradigm used years ago to study infant perception. The visual cliff is a glass surface divided in half, one part clear giving the illusion of depth and the other part having a checkered board pattern that looks like a floor that is safe to walk on. Taking that first step towards the danger of confronting one’s fear can feel like walking into the abyss, yet it might be like walking onto a visual cliff. Fear is an experience waiting to be realized. Surviving the experience and discovering the reality of oneself grounds one and builds confidence. What was once terrifying becomes a challenge.
“We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. And if we could only arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful.”
Rainer Marie Rilke “The Dragon-Princess”
We are so quick to spend and borrow money. At least we were until the financial bubble burst. Now with little credit available we can turn our attention to the real value of credit in terms of valuing oneself. How often do we stop and think positively about what we have done or our value? How willingly do we follow a trail of critical self-appraisals that lead us into dark woods while thinking that we are on the right track? Yet, how reflexively do we feel wronged and respond angrily to both perceived and actual criticism?
The world seems structured on the principle of negative feedback and punishment. Point out what is wrong repeatedly until there is improvement. Positive reinforcement is looked on skeptically, more like a bribe, motivation for wimps, than a principle grounded in behavioral research. Too many of us have internalized this value as a fundamental principle of life that guides our attitudes and behaviors.
I have a client who walks through life with a hole in the pocket of his self-esteem. He deposits all of his achievements, big and small into this pocket. Consequently he feels inadequate, devalues his lack of accomplishment and always comes up on the short end of comparisons. When he embarks on a project, he feels tentative, anxious, and insecure. When I initially questioned why he didn’t acknowledge his achievements, he looked at me skeptically and responded, “It never occurred to me.”
The climb of life is steep and the burdens we carry heavy. The self-confident stumble on their ascent. To not develop and secure one’s internal resources for this climb is akin to going into the wilderness without food or water.
Self-valuing is not an act of vanity, that is over-valuing, nor is it a walk in the woods. It is the ability to see oneself more clearly through the distortions created by guilt and shame. In addition to the work of doing, trying, risking, failing and re-engaging the world, there is the psychological work of recognition that consolidates the sense of self. This entails a conscious awareness of one’s accomplishments and possibilities, an active acknowledgement of successes and capabilities.
Without this recognition, the Self is a shell, empty, easily broken, and disillusioned.