• The core issues of grief and shame

    There are a great many reasons that might compel a person to seek the help of a therapist. Broadly speaking, the two most common reasons are depression and anxiety. But there are many others as well, such as relationship issues, substance or behavioral addiction, significant loss, and what might simply be called “general life stress.” But whatever the reason human beings seek the assistance of a mental health professional, two core issues tend to show up over and over again: grief and shame.

    Let’s look at each of these in turn. First, grief: what is it? We all know what it is, or think we do. The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as, “very great sadness, especially at the death of someone.” Merriam-Webster’s definition reads: “a deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement.” The American Psychological Association defines it as, “the anguish experienced after significant loss, usually the death of a beloved person.” We can call grief a natural response to significant loss, especially death. But here’s an interesting thing: the vast majority of grief that I encounter in my practice is not the result of the death of a loved one. In fact, I would go so far as to say most of the grief I encounter in my clients isn’t even recognized as grief – at least, not right away.

    So, if there is so much grief, and most of it isn’t due to the death of another person, then what is causing it? As we go through life, we will suffer many losses, but a great deal of them will not be recognized as loss. Many of my clients have expressed grief over the loss of innocence, the loss of an ideal childhood, the loss of the perfect parents we all thought we had when we were born. These losses are very real, but they don’t get talked about much outside of the therapist’s office. Then there are other losses that are a bit more recognizable. Friends move away, or drift away (or we do). Pets come into our lives and they age and die, which is often our first experience with death. Even moving out of a house or changing schools or jobs can cause us to mourn, often in secret.

    In her book, Necessary Losses, the author Judith Viorst makes the case that, in order for us to grow and mature, we must experience certain losses. Two examples of this kind of loss are the loss of our younger selves, and the loss of impossible expectations we bring to relationships. Again, for most of us, we don’t recognize these things as losses, and as a result, we don’t allow ourselves to grieve.

    By the time we become adults, most of us have accumulated a great deal of emotional pain. We have a backlog, so to speak. Why is this so? Why do we accumulate pain like lint in a dryer that nobody cleans? Mostly for two reasons. The first is because we are all hard-wired to avoid pain. It’s a built-in survival instinct, which serves an important function. Without it, humans and other living creatures probably would engage in a lot more reckless, dangerous behaviors that could threaten our survival as a species. The instinct to avoid pain keeps us relatively safe. Unfortunately, there is a part of our mind that makes no distinction between physical and emotional pain. Grief is pain, so we avoid it.

    The second reason has nothing to do with instinct, and everything to do with a false belief that has been perpetuated by human beings for thousands of years. Basically, it is the belief that showing feelings, especially sadness, is a sign of weakness. We are taught that we must be strong, and that if we are sad, then either we are doing something wrong, or something is wrong with us.

    A good friend of mine told me about an experience she had when she was about ten years old. Her grandmother passed away, and she and her younger sister were getting dressed to go to the funeral. Their mother came into the room and said this to the two young girls: “Do NOT let me see either of you crying at this funeral!” Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens all too often. Most of us could agree that, if ever there were a time and place for a small child to express sadness, it would be at their grandmother’s funeral. But these kind of admonitions have been passed down from generation to generation since history began. “You need to be strong.” “Don’t be a baby.” “You’re having a pity party.” “Suck it up, buttercup.” These are the kinds of shame-inducing statements that get thrown at us by parents and others, often in spite of the fact that they are intelligent, well-meaning people. Most of the time, they are just repeating the same thoughtless junk their parents gave them.

    The result of these types of statements is terrible. They teach us to be the emotionally repressed, shame-filled adults that we are. And yet, we keep having these feelings of sadness and fear and guilt and anger, which we push down and pretend don’t exist, until we reach a point where we can’t contain it any longer. Then we think there’s something wrong with us.

    If I had a dollar for every time I saw relief spread across a client’s face when I told them that their feelings were perfectly normal and appropriate, I’d be living it up in some tropical paradise by now. (As it is, I live in Dallas.) So many of us walk around with a recurring thought that says, I shouldn’t feel this way. We’ve been led to believe there is something wrong with us, while in fact, we’re just experiencing normal human emotions. Sadness, anger, and fear are all a part of life, as are joy and calm. Some emotions feel better than others, but none of them are bad or “wrong.” In fact, a statement I make to clients on a regular basis it this: You couldn’t feel the wrong way about something if you tried. 

    So what is the cure for grief? Grieving. There’s no way around it. If we want to be free from grief, we must face it. We must allow ourselves to feel sad, and if you really want to release pain, then let yourself cry. There’s simply no better way to let go of emotional pain that through tears, especially if you share that grief with another person. Yes, many of us have been taught that such a thing is shameful, but deep down, most of us know on some instinctive level that crying when we’re sad is normal. There was a time when we were very young that we all did it, without shame or embarrassment, before the world got its hands on us and told us to stop.

    So much for grief. Now, on to the second issue, which is shame. Once again, let’s make sure we know what we’re talking about. Our friends over at Merriam-Webster define it as “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.” Oxford Languages defines shame as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” Both of these definitions make the mistake of defining shame as basically the same thing as guilt. And while shame and guilt are similar, there is an important distinction between them. Whereas guilt comes from a thought (which may or may not be true) that says, “I have done a bad thing,” or, conversely, “I am avoiding something I should be doing,” shame comes from a thought that says, in essence, “I am bad.” So, guilt refers to a behavior, while shame refers to the self. As such, it is more painful that guilt. If we did a bad thing, we can make amends. But if I am bad, then the issue goes much deeper. 

    Nobody is born feeling shame. In order for us to feel shame, we have to learn the meaning of two key concepts: the concept of “self,” and the concept of “bad.” And we have to have the developmental capacity to associate those two concepts together. According to the Institute for the Study of Child Development at Rutgers University, this happens in children between the ages of 15 and 24 months. In a reasonably healthy environment, the child learns to believe that she is safe, accepted, and worthy of being loved. But not all children are this fortunate. The child that is born into an environment that is chaotic, neglectful, abusive, or overly critical learns to believe there is something wrong with him. We are born thinking our parents are incapable of doing wrong, so if they are hurting us or ignoring us, the only possible explanation available to the young mind is, It must be my fault.

    As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, there is a concept in psychology called shame-based identity, which is exactly what it sounds like. A person’s sense of self is dominated by the belief that he or she is bad and incapable of being loved. Right now, there are millions of people all over the world who are affected by this unfortunate condition, and it’s likely that the majority of them aren’t consciously aware of it. This is true in part because nobody wants this to be true of them. We would rather believe that we are fine, that things weren’t that bad. In general, we are quick to let our parents off the hook for the things they did and failed to do that hurt us. A statement I have heard from many clients, after they have described episodes of neglect or verbal abuse is, “It’s not like they were hitting me or anything.” In other words, because I wasn’t physically abused, I don’t really have the right to feel resentful or disappointed.

    The ways in which we learn to feel shame don’t make a lot of difference in its effect upon us. Simply put, it is exceedingly difficult to feel reasonably happy if you believe that you are a bad person. Shame primes us for depression and anxiety. It is, in my opinion, the primary factor in depression.

    You’ve probably heard the old saying, “If you can’t love yourself, how can you love anyone else?” A more accurate way of putting it is this: “If you can’t love yourself, how can you believe anyone else when they tell you they love you?” This mindset makes it virtually impossible to trust others, and all relationships are tainted by the thought, “It’s only a matter of time before they discover who I really am, and leave me.” This causes a tremendous amount of anxiety.

    All of this raises the question, “How do you treat shame?” There is not an easy answer. Many types of therapies address the issue of shame, and none of them are perfect. The roots of shame go very deep, and they are stubborn and very resistant to logic. While it’s not very difficult to uncover evidence that indicates an individual isn’t the bad person she was taught to believe she was, this type of cognitive-based intervention isn’t as effective as we might hope. In fact, as I’ve said in previous posts, it can actually reinforce the belief that there is something wrong with me. 

    I have found that efforts to defeat shaming beliefs through logic or force of will simply don’t work very well. My clients report much better results when they use a mindfulness-based approach that allows them to recognize, understand, and even accept their shaming beliefs, without judgment. And when I say accept,  I don’t mean to accept as true, but simply to accept that the beliefs exist and that they are exceedingly difficult to get rid of. When people can recognize their shame-based belief without feeling like they are doing something wrong, the difference is incredible. And anyone can learn to do this, with proper instruction and practice.



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