Jennifer Lehr, MFT digs deep into her personal battle with shame and secret keeping. As a therapist, she chooses to reveal so much of herself with the hope that others will benefit. Unmasking shame is a very effective way to strip away its power.
I tend to reveal a lot about myself in my writing. Even though as a therapist, showing oneself is tricky, I made a conscious choice to do this because I knew that is how we remove stigma and heal shame. If I reveal an experience that someone else identifies with and has shame around, they then have the possibility of experiencing less shame. I will also have less shame because I have shared about this part of myself.
As a child, I had areas where I excelled. I also had areas where I felt unworthy, ugly, and not good enough. I was given the message that I was a burden on my father’s life. This left me with a very specific sense of shame that I fought by becoming very independent in my career. I was determined to take care of myself and not allow anybody else to take care of me.
As I entered into the world of relationships, I discovered that I was not well equipped for them – largely because I grew up in a family with a lot of relational dysfunction. Eventually I met a man who I thought I could marry. We fell in love quickly. About six months into our relationship some major problems emerged. He would become very critical of me at times. I gave him an ultimatum. Attend couples therapy with me or I would leave the relationship. I didn’t want to end the relationship. I don’t even know if I would have had the strength to do so at that time. But I knew what was going on was not okay.
We started our first round of couples’ therapy. He got angry and fumed. I cried. This was our ‘cycle.’ When we weren’t in this dynamic we mostly got along. After 3 years of every other week sessions, we stopped. 2 years later we started another round of couples’ therapy for several more years with a different therapist. We eventually stopped. I was tired of trying to make our relationship emotionally satisfying. We had both made some changes. But it wasn’t enough. We were both very focused on our careers and had other parts of our lives that nourished us. Our personal connection ebbed and flowed – but there was a lot of distance and big areas where we could not find a sense of safety or connection with each other. I had learned much about myself and developed many parts of myself in this relationship. I was not the person who had entered into that relationship years earlier.
Eventually I knew that I wanted to leave. I hung in for a few more years hoping that things would improve. Finally one day I went through what was to be my last disappointment over my husband’s lack of emotional availability. It was as if a switch was turned. I was simply finished. I told him that I wanted a divorce.
That began a whole new and stressful cycle. My family was hurt and disappointed. The process of separating our lives was stressful and painful. My husband moved from grief at his loss and a sense that perhaps he had let me down emotionally to fury at me for doing this to him. His shame at having failed in his marriage was huge. I became hated. His anger at me was easier for him to tolerate than his shame over having failed.
I had my own shame to contend with as we split up the life we had created together. Was what my family was saying true? That because he had contributed more financially, because I had initiated the divorce, that because he wanted to have another go at it, that I deserved less – much less than him? That I should walk away and hang my head in shame?
We live in a world of impermanence and imperfection. How we deal with this has much to do with the feelings we hold. If I cannot accept the seeming imperfections of my life or myself and tend to blame others or myself, I will undoubtedly have shame under those attitudes. If on the other hand, I can accept who I am, the cards I have been dealt and am working with them to the best of my ability, I do not have to feel as if something isn’t right about me – I do not have to carry shame, nor defend against it.
I had to reach down to a part of myself that wasn’t fully formed – the part that could stand up for myself and know that I had done my best, the part that had to say no to my families’ beliefs and ideas. I could see the root of this belief system – right back to my father telling us that we were eating up his life – literally – and that we were shameful and undeserving of using any (his) resources.
I had not previously been able to talk about my feeling of not deserving, my feeling that if I didn’t pull my own weight equally in every area, I was not okay. I’ve had to reframe this concept differently. I’ve had to accept that my life has been laid out for me to confront this. I’ve had to decide that not only is my contribution to the planet valid, but that it is okay for me to be helped by others along the way.
What is shame?
Shame is probably the most difficult and debilitating emotion that there is. Shame tells us that we are not okay and that there is something deeply wrong with us that cannot be fixed or cured. When we feel shame, it is as if there is a stain on us that we cannot remove. Shame separates us from other people for it requires secrecy to survive.
We feel shame over areas where we do not feel that we are the way we are supposed to be. We get stuck in these places. Often these areas are parts of ourselves that we do not accept. For example:
• I fantasize about men even though I am a straight male.
• I was sexually molested and feel as if I am damaged.
• I should be able to take care of myself (or you) and am bad that I need help
or can’t do it.
• I shouldn’t need anything.
• I should have been able to save my family (but couldn’t).
The list goes on and on. There are gazillion things we could feel shame over.
As a therapist, much of our training is to help others talk about the parts of themselves that they have shame over – opening that up so that it can be expressed, seen, accepted and healed. This is because healing shame involves allowing what we think is shameful to be seen and learning that we are not the horrible thing that we thought we were – undeserving, unlovable or damaged.
How does a couple resolve shame that may be at the root of some of their most difficult dynamics – like I had in my first marriage? It is a question that has emerged for me as I have moved through my life and deeper into my work as somebody who helps couples work through their most difficult issues. Luckily for me, I had training in ‘relational gestalt therapy.’ Relational gestalt means that we share our own experience if it is helpful to the other person. It is a more transparent form of therapy with more self-disclosure than some of the modalities out there. It focuses on the relationship between the client and the therapist. Because this is the point of focus, instead of the client herself, we move into the realm of intersubjectivity – how do I impact you and how do you impact me. And this is exactly where we end up in relationships and couples work. There is no real objective right and wrong (barring things like abuse), but simply how we impact each other and how we connect and heal each other. This perspective has been invaluable to me. It is one of the keys to healing relationships and to finding ways to create more safety in our relationships.
We all have areas where we may feel shameful.
Do you know what your voices of shame are – the areas where you may feel as if you are not okay?
Do you know how you fight against them?
And how does that fight impact your life?
Having shame does not make you shameful. Shame is a feeling. But it is what you do with that feeling that is important. Are you working on healing your shame? Or do you hide it and fight against it, or the parts of your life that trigger it? Do give your shame to others by judging them?
Remember the old saying, ‘you are only as sick as your secrets?’ That saying is talking about shame. The antidote to shame is acceptance and empathy. See if you can find a way to bring that to the parts of yourself that you judge and hide.3