Shame is often experienced as a massive, tornado-like swirl of helplessness and hopelessness that keeps tearing through our hearts and minds, through the very core of our being. Its redundant looping can become stuck on any number of thoughts of inadequacy: I am such a terrible failure; there is no way anyone could ever love me; I shouldn’t even bother trying, there’s no way I’m gonna measure; I don’t want anyone to see me; No one could ever understand what I am going through.
It’s as if these voices trap people inside the black hole of shame’s universe, with seemingly no way out.
Some of the biggest pitfalls of working with clients in this state is to try to shift their thinking. It’s important to realize that when dealing with intense shame our pre-frontal cortex has already been hijacked by the brain stem and limbic system—we’re no longer consciously in charge, rather our automated, patterned historical experiences are in control. These shame-filled thoughts and voices feel reasonable and accurate in this instance and to contradict them is like telling someone who’s hyperventilating that they’re fine. A response like this is far from safe to a person billowing in and out of a paper bag.
In my practice, I always start by saying, “I understand you feel that way. Of course you would.” But I don’t leave it at that. I hone in on what is driving these feelings, and I seek to normalize them because the truth is it is normal to feel overwhelmed and helplessness.
So I help point out, “of course you would feel that way given this is the anniversary of your father’s death. Everything you’ve explained around that relationship was overwhelming and made you feel inadequate.”
You want to meet them where they’re stuck in their black hole of looping helplessness, not sound like an outsider who doesn’t get what the inside of a black hole looks like and feels like.
I recently worked with a woman whose shame was tied up with money. She is a highly successful real estate agent who has done very well financially despite the ups and downs of the market over the years. In general, she has a successful life with a strong and supportive partner and wonderful grown children who she felt close to and proud of. But she had very rough developmental years and her father used his financial might to control, blame and shame her and her siblings. She was in the middle of a large real estate deal when her father contacted her in a manipulative way around money. That’s when she contacted me.
“I don’t want his money, not a penny, but if I had it for this deal everything would fall into place!!” She began to cry over Skype.
I knew enough about the relationship to know she would never take her father’s money, still she was in a tailspin.