The Shame of a Secret

There are many times in therapy when a client is finally able to share a secret that they have held onto since childhood. The air becomes palpable with relief, the client expresses how the space around them feels lighter, and there are often tears indicative of their loss.

When we are children, we internalize everything. When trauma occurs, when we witness something or are a victim of something that we understand is ‘wrong,’ we automatically feel that somehow it must be our fault. There can be both an unspoken expectation, or a verbal message that we must keep this a secret. Sometimes a child comes from a background where they have no one to tell; but in many instances, even children who have trusting adults in their lives, will guard the secret. The reason? Shame.

Shame is an insidious emotion; it resides in us because it was given to us. It accompanies childhood trauma and until it is spoken aloud and processed, it will continue to occupy a space in ourselves. In telling the secret, it is important to understand that something can come of it, or nothing can come of it – the choice as an adult is always ours. The important part is the integrating; the sharing; allowing a trusted friend, partner or therapist to help you hold it.

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Anger 101

Anger is a universal emotion; when we see an angry face, we are able to instantly recognize the emotion. It is also our safest emotion; we know not to ‘poke an angry bear.’

Anger is a useful emotion in that it produces an action; it also provides relief. Anger however, is only productive when it is in our control; as soon as it moves to aggression (raised voice, yelling, hitting, name calling, etc.) it is no longer in our control and then works against us. When that “angry bear” shows up, it is either going to keep others from engaging with us or increase the conflict (anger will automatically make you feel defensive; it’s a survival strategy.)

We are in a much better place when we can recognize our anger and then work to keep our cool. Anger is always precipitated by another emotion. Sometimes this is sheer frustration, but other times we skip over our vulnerable feelings such as sadness, guilt, fear and go right to anger to keep us safe from those tougher emotions. When we feel anger rising, we need to take a deep breath and ask ourselves “What am I feeling first?” Just focusing on this initial feeling can often help keep the anger away from a place that begins to feel out of control.

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Instead of Saying “Calm Down…”

When our kids are having a meltdown, tough go, or panic attack we can inadvertently compound the situation by telling them to ‘Calm down’ or ‘Relax.’ Most of the time, this is also said with a tone that is less than calm.

Taking a deep breath ourselves before using these alternatives will help to deliver a supportive message:

“You look upset. Do you need a hug? 

“I can see that you are struggling with something. Do you need my help?”

“Hold my hand and let’s take a few deep breaths together.”

“Let’s fix this problem together.”

“Let’s start by counting to 10 together.”

“I can see that you are upset. Tell me about what is bothering you.”

“I’m listening.”

As parents, we have the ability to teach our children that the emotions they are feeling are valid. We can give them the gift of normalization by acknowledging their emotional struggle. By focusing in on how to calm when anger or upset takes over, we are teaching them that they have the ability to contain, process and choose an alternative behaviour. It may take a bit of practice on our part, but the outcome will be worth the effort. 🙂

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Why Do We Suppress Our Feelings?

I often speak about our emotional system and how it is wired to work for us. With every experience we go through, there is a feeling attached to it. And so why the tendency to suppress? Why do we push them down, set them aside, ignore them completely? Suppressing our feelings catches up to us at some point – by way of a build up – or perhaps we will experience them physically, with pains in our tummies and tightness in our chest.

For those who would say that they generally suppress their emotions, it has most likely come from childhood emotional neglect. We can’t come to understand our emotions or sense validation for feeling something, if we didn’t have a parent that was attuned to our emotional needs. Very often, clients will remark that they “went to no one” when they were upset, or have memories of being dismissed or chastised for their outward display of emotion. Lesson learned? “It is safer to suppress.”

Sometimes we suppress our feelings because of learned behaviour. Clients have often noted to me that they have no memories of their parents crying – not at funerals (even of significant family members), not out of frustration, not out of empathy. Lesson learned? “It is not safe to cry in front of others.”

And sometimes an experience can shut down a particular emotion. A client once spoke about her mother’s anger management issue; as a result, there was no room for anyone else to express anger as it was shut down immediately by the mother’s need to ‘out anger’ everyone. As a result, this young woman under-reacted to her feelings of anger, she would dismiss it to the point where her own needs suffered. Lesson learned? “There is no space for my anger.”

The first step in allowing our feelings to have some space is to recognize the suppression. When we can explore where we feel the suppression started, we can begin to give ourselves permission to give those feelings a little bit of space; to recognize that they are okay, that they are meant to help us process experience, that we can feel comfortable with them in their rightful place.

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Processing Our Emotions

Yesterday’s post explored the importance of accepting our emotions, without judgement. It includes being able to label an emotion as you are feeling it, without linking it to any learned associations.

“I feel angry right now and that is okay.”

“I am feeling sad and lonely.” 

“I am feeling peaceful and content.”

This may seem simplistic, but essentially, we are going back to what we usually learn in childhood – emotional regulation. It is our caregivers who have the ability to teach us that our emotions are meant to be felt. It is also our loved ones who are there to teach us how to process our emotions.

This is the part that allows us to slow down enough to ask ourselves “What do I want to do now?” Sometimes, it might mean having a good cry, other times, we may need to contain the emotion temporarily. Sometimes, we may need to say something to someone who has hurt our feelings, other times, we might decide this situation is not one worth going into battle for. Sometimes it is going to mean not doing something we might have usually done by way of an action urge – such as sending an angry text – and finding a healthier way to deal with disappointment.

In any given situation, we are going to have feelings. Acknowledging the emotion without judgement is the first step, followed by asking ourselves how we want to best use this feeling to not only inform us, but to work for us. Making decisions about how we want to proceed has an empowering effect and when we work to process our emotions, we are better prepared for the ebb and flow of every day life.

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Accepting Our Feelings

I often remark to clients that it is not our feelings that get us into trouble; it is the thoughts or action urges that follow it. If we are angry and it leads us to sending a nasty text, it is that act that will lead to rupture, regret. If we feel hurt but are defaulted to bury that emotion, the act of suppression is what really hurts us. If we feel sad and we spend the day with the covers over our head, we are feeding disengagement, not process.

We are meant to feel our emotions. Dr. Jonice Webb  has a wonderful way of explaining how our emotional system is meant to work for us, not against us:

“Feelings are chosen by your body, not your head. They were wired into your central nervous system before birth, and they are meant to be used as a resource in your life. Your emotions are a natural feedback system that informs and directs and energizes you. They tell you what you want and need, inform you when to seek help or protect yourself, and direct you in what to seek or avoid. They will also tell you so much more when you listen to them. This is why it’s so very important to never judge yourself for having a feeling. You feel what you feel. You did not choose it because we cannot choose our feelings.”

When we are able to see our emotional system in this way, we can begin to accept our feelings as being what they are – that they serve the purpose of informing us. We can begin by simply labeling the emotion without judgement:

“I am feeling angry right now” sounds different than “Feeling angry is bad.”

“I am feeling dismissed” sounds different than “Who cares? Do you think you really matter?”

“I am feeling hurt” sounds different than “Suck it up.”

The judgement statements that are tied to our emotions are learned. If we can stay with just labeling our feelings, we can move to accepting them.

“It is okay that I feel angry, (dismissed, hurt.) I am meant to feel that way right now.”

The act of labelling our emotions without judgement takes practice as we are challenging ourselves to a different way of reacting. Once we begin to simply accept our emotions for what they are, we also give ourselves permission to let go of the learned associations tied to them. As a result, we begin to feel more grounded and true to ourselves.

Tomorrow’s post will explore the next step – processing our emotions.

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Two Coping Skills We Want to Avoid

Not all coping skills are healthy ones. Over time, we can develop ways of dealing with something unpleasant that appear to help us in the moment, but in fact may contribute to our overall feelings of defeat.

Two coping skills we may want to avoid include:

  1. Pretending you don’t care. We have all done it or heard someone say it. When we feel as though we don’t have control over a situation, or feel exasperated, we can exclaim “I don’t care anymore.” When in fact, we do. Pretending that you don’t care is an attempt to convince yourself or others that it doesn’t matter to you what the outcome is. When in fact, it does. Pretending that you don’t care is often an underhanded attempt to get the other person to change their behaviour. It’s results are always temporary.
  2.  Blaming other people. When something doesn’t work out the way we wanted it to, or we are feeling crummy about a particular situation, we can often blame someone else for our misfortune. When we blame others, we are able to divert our attention to an external cause, completely bypassing our own culpability; and therefore; our own solution. “It’s never my fault” can be a slippery slope into the poor me cycle – a place we don’t want to call home.

Both of these coping skills are ones meant to protect our vulnerability. It is an attempt to build a wall quickly; to guard ourselves from feeling the pain and futility of a challenging moment. By using either of these methods, we run the risk of them becoming habitual. We want, instead, to be able to process our emotions and to communicate clearly with others how we are feeling. We can aim to take responsibility for ourselves by first acknowledging how this situation is upsetting to us, and what we can do about it to help alleviate the discomfort. We may not be able to change the situation completely, but we can manage our own choices within it.

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Self-Compassion; the Antidote of Shame

Yesterday’s post examined shame, how it develops, and how it can make us feel invisible. We also learned that the first step in being able to move past shame is to label it; seeing it as an emotion which doesn’t have to be tied to our self-identity.

We can begin to transform shame with self-compassion. Dr. Kristen Neff, a leader in the study of self-compassion, defines it as such:

“Having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others. Think about what the experience of compassion feels like. First, to have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering. Second, compassion involves feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself.”

Once we label shame as a way that we have been triggered to feel, from here we can move to curiosity. We aim to replace judgement – “I am bad, not worthy, not deserving” with a more objective look at why we are feeling this way. Gaining an understanding of why we used shame as an adaptive coping strategy in childhood, can lead us to challenging our inner critical voice.

How do we do that? With kindness. It requires gentle reminders to ourselves, it is about self-care, it is about choosing actions that will lead to healing. When we focus on self-compassion as our overall goal, we can help uncover our true identity and put shame in it’s place.

To read more about self-compassion, visit Dr. Kristen Neff’s website (linked above.)

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A Closer Look at Shame

What is shame and how does it serve us? Shame is a self-conscious emotion; typically associated with a negative evaluation of the self. It also differs from guilt.

Shame tends to have deep roots and it typically develops because of early experiences with disconnection. A parent fails to become attuned to their child’s emotional needs, the experience of being physically or emotionally abandoned, all acts of abuse. The lack of connection doesn’t allow the child to see themselves as worthy and loved and as a result, they begin to feel flawed.

As children, we have no true ability to deal with such distressful and unpleasant emotions, and so we carry them. Shame is tied to our sense of self, and when we are triggered to feel it, we immediately go to feeling flawed, unworthy, not lovable. Shame often imbolizes us; keeps us feeling stuck, hidden. But it does not have to be this way. 

First, we can begin to recognize that shame is the brain’s way of dealing with the threat of disconnection. The word ‘threat’ we can recognize as one that needs to be examined, for as a child, we may have not had the ability to deal with traumatic experiences, but as adults we do.

The first step is to simply label what we are feeling. “I am feeling shame right now and that is okay. I know that it protected me at a time in my life when I couldn’t protect myself. I can move out of this feeling and have a voice. I can make my own choices.”

Labeling shame is the first step in distancing ourselves from the emotion. Tomorrow’s post will examine how self-compassion allows us to transform shame from something that owns us, to something we can manage.

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A Little Reminder About Curiosity

In order to experience growth in our lives, we need to be curious. It is, after all, the greatest challenger of fear. When our fear response is activated, we become very focused on what threatens us – both real and perceived. It is the perceived fears that will hold us back; that will keep us stuck.

When we begin to question the validity of the fear, we begin to loosen its grip.

“Does it have to be this way?” “What would happen if I looked at this differently?” “What would it feel like to begin to explore the possibility of an alternative (job, relationship, habit, etc.)?” “Can I tolerate the discomfort of trying something new?”

When something feels unfamiliar, we fear it and therefore assume it must be avoided. And yet, sometimes what feels familiar isn’t healthy. It is the realization of this that allows curiosity to begin its lovely work of gently reminding fear that although valued for keeping us safe, it is also time to step aside. After all, we have work to do 🙂

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