At my last visit to my hair stylist, I happened to pick up a recent copy of a glamour magazine and haphazardly flipped through the pages, mostly out of boredom.
Although I know I did not exactly have a Eureka moment, I was struck by the fact that in image after image, as I perused the pages, I saw only smiling faces. These looked like people who were having the time of their life and who had discovered the closest thing to the bliss the Buddha was talking about.
For some reason my eyes were drawn to an article about Joan Collins, the famous Dynasty actress, who apparently has a quite enthralling estate in France. She showed it all to the reader with her smiling “hubby” by her side.
It struck me how alluring this depiction of life is. These are people who have it all. They have become the image of what so many people strive for: happiness, success, beauty, wealth, everlasting love.
And yet as I began to look closer, I noticed sudden cracks in the image of perfection. Joan Collins is aging and reminding me that the Joan Collins of Dynasty is a mortal. You could notice the faint contours of liver spots on her skin and none of the make-up could conceal her many wrinkles. I was particularly attuned to her signs of aging, because I myself recently had to come to terms with the inevitable loss of youth. Noticing my first gray hairs and the beginning signs of balding have recently forced me reckon with the fact that I am middle-aged, not everlastingly young.
The Illusory Pursuit of the Image:
Why is the idea of the image such an important source of allure and suffering in human existence?
The allure of the image is in some sense the allure of something eternal and unchanging; some kind of end state that we can arrive at or merge with.
An image, like a photograph, is immutable, just like a concept or an idea. It is in the realm of images that we can imagine things like true love, everlasting beauty, success, and so on. In the realm of the image, these are attainable states, or qualities people can possess, and we often aspire to merge with these attributes, to become them, or acquire them.
And yet life as the Buddha reminded us is not static, but always changing. Nothing ever stays the same. We never stay the same. And so the image in human existence is really an illusion. It is an aspiration Sigmund Freud might talk about as adeath instinct: the desire to return to a non-human form, which is really antithetical to life.
The Image and Jaques Lacan:
Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan talked a lot about the problems that come from identifying ourselves with an image. He pointed out that our internal experience is really quite shifting and fragmented, but that we learn to identify ourselves as a thing in the world through having our image reflected back to us in the mirror or by other people. He identified a specific developmental stage around 6 months of age when the child first begins to think of him or herself as that person in the mirror.
The problem with this identification is that it betrays a truth about us, which is that we are never really a unitary whole, never really fixed in our nature like the image would convey. The pursuit of becoming a static image therefore is at odds with life and a source of great suffering.
Lacan pointed out that what distinguishes us as human beings is that we live in a symbolic reality, or a reality of meaning, and this fact is both what makes images possible, and robs us of ever becoming one with them.
Words, like mathematical symbols, are never fixed in what they refer to: 1 + 1 can apply to apples as well as people, and the word “successful” can be attached to multiple different images, and can even mean different things at different times for different people. This slippery nature of symbols means that we never quite arrive at the final destination that we can dream about or aspire to: The idea of something, and the experience of that idea never quite merge. Because the symbol offers us a meaning rather than an “edible”, there is never really anything at the end of the rainbow. We can never really sink our teeth into the image.
Learning from Celebrities:
This is probably also why there are no shortage of examples of people who seemed to have it all but who ultimately ended up self-destructing. Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, Eazy-E, or even Brittany Spears all ended up discontent and unfulfilled. Perhaps what is different about them and the average Joe is that they were forced to confront the fact that the image always alludes us.
Many people find solace and hope in the dream about the image. How often don’t we hear people say things like: When I win the lottery I will quit my job and move to the Caribbean. They have the comfort of a different life as a possibility: the life they read about or dream about.
But people who have actually lived the dream, and still find the image eluding them are in a different quandary. Either they have to up the ante (such as perhaps run for president once they have already proven that they are successful in business) (wink wink), or confront the truth that images are illusions, and that life will always rob us of the satisfaction that would come from merging with our dream.
Perhaps that is why Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Michael Jackson turned to drugs. They had to find a way to escape the realization that they couldn’t run from themselves. That at the end of the day they are mortal, they age, and they don’t get more than simple and temporary enjoyments from the images they so want to be.
A life in pursuit of an image is in this sense a wasted life, because it is the pursuit of something that can never satisfy, or that is always elusive.
The Take Away:
As people we are ever changing, and we are different from the still perfection of the images we see around us on TV, hear about from others on Facebook, or attribute to others based on their appearance or our own projections.
I will not say that I have attained the wisdom to live my life in accordance with this truth, but life teaches us this lesson sooner or later, as my own confrontation with aging has made it apparent.
The only question left for us to wrestle with is whether we can accept this fact, or want to spend our life fighting it.
About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston, TX. I help people find ways to be more authentically themselves. Visit my website: www.bettertherapy.com to learn more.
In this comprehensive, yet simple and practical, self-help guide, I will give you an overview of fifteen of the most effective techniques psychologists use to help their clients overcome depression.
Let’s go through each technique one at a time:
1. Get Active:
When we become depressed our body often starts to shut down. We become lethargic, don’t want to do anything, and feel like every little task is a hassle. To counteract this tendency, behaviorists have long suggested that one of the best ways to fight depression is to get your body reactivated.
One way to do this is to exercise. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins into the blood stream and this produces a calming effect. You might even consider lifting some weights since the succession of straining your muscles and relaxing your muscles mimics another psychological technique to calm the nervous system called progressive muscle relaxation.
Even if exercising seems like too formidable a task at first, start out by just going for a 30 minute walk, or getting out and about in small ways, even if just to run errands. Any activities you do outside the house will help to make you feel that you are accomplishing something, and will counteract the vicious cycle of shame, guilt and inadequacy that comes from procrastination, sitting around, sleeping, or giving up.
The behavioral approach to fighting depression very much prioritizes doing over thinking and feeling. Even if you don’t feel like doing something or can think of many reasons not to, if you participate in activities, these behaviors will bring rewards and will ultimately change how you feel and think.
Think of it a bit like getting into a new series on TV or reading a novel. You sometimes have to just get started, in order to eventually get interested, and subsequently have an internal motivation to watch another episode or read the next chapter. What matters is taking the first step.
Watch a video on progressive muscle relaxation to try it out now:
Les Greenberg who has studied the change processes in therapy has identified “changing an emotion with an emotion” as one of the key principles of change.
If you are feeling sad, for example, that emotion which alerts you to a loss or absence of something you want, also contains a potential for getting in touch with other emotions, which will change the nature of your sadness.
You may for example access your anger about what you have lost or wish you had. This would mean turning the sadness outward and expressing your indignation at the people who were not there for you and the injustice of things not going your way. The anger that can be healing is righteous anger (or standing up for yourself), not sad angry complaining, but this is something we will come back to later in this guide (See principle #6: Be Assertive).
The sadness you feel can also be transformed through a grieving process which allows you to actively let go of what will never be or what is forever lost. Oftentimes people stay captive in a depressed state because they are not able to accept their reality. They continue to wish that it be different. Grieving allows you to move on and focus on building a new reality (See principle #14: Mourn Childhood Losses).
By going into your emotions, rather than avoiding them, and by accessing another emotion that is contrary to or different from the original emotion, you can transform how you feel.
Marsha Linehan, has made this one of the general principles in her Dialectical Behavior Therapy. She recommends that when you are sad, you watch something funny on TV, or when you are angry, you engage in charity work. She calls this principle “acting opposite your emotion”. Some might consider this “fake” or “inauthentic”, but that would assume that you consider your real self to be static or equal to your current emotional state. Research, however, shows that we have many selves and that different emotions organize and mobilize different versions of ourselves. That is why, an introverted person, can become extroverted in certain environments and at certain times, or why you can feel different about yourself around strangers than around friends.
Here is a tutorial on using the “Opposite Emotion” Skill as one of the ways to fight depression:
3. Challenge Your Negative Beliefs:
When you are depressed, your emotional state often hijacks your thoughts. You feel sluggish and you think to yourself “I am so lazy, so useless, so worthless”. These thoughts then make you feel even more hopeless and depressed. One way to actively battle this self-reinforcing downward spiral is to catch your thoughts and challenge them by using logical evidence to assess their truthfulness.
First you write down the things you tell yourself that make you feel down. Then, when you have become aware of the specific statements that run through your head, you subject your thoughts to what we can call “thought court”.
A thought court is a way for both the prosecutor and the defender to have their evidence heard so that we can better arrive at a true verdict that takes all the evidence into account,
In this case the prosecutor is the self-critical voice that tells you many negative things about yourself. We want to hear the evidence the prosecutor can submit to support the negative claims, and we want you to write it all down.
However, we also want to hear from the defender, who in this case would be the more positive voice that looks for exceptions or evidence to the contrary.
When looking at and comparing both sides, we can then arrive at a more factually and logically accurate verdict, and can write down a new thought which is more balanced and fair.
To get started with the exercise, take a piece of paper and draw separate columns. In one column you write down the evidence for what you are telling yourself (the prosecutor), in another you write down evidence against (the defender).
You have to imagine yourself making a case for and against your judgment of yourself in a courtroom in front of a judge. This means putting forth your strongest evidence for and against, and really trying to prove and disprove your case. Then when you have all the evidence lined up side by side, you have to take both sides into account and formulate a thought or judgment that is more accurate and more fair. When looking at the evidence, your thought “I am so useless”, might change into “sometimes I feel useless, but there have been many times when I have added value and contributions to others”.
The goal of the exercise is to demonstrate how thoughts influence the way we feel, and how we can change how we feel, by thinking in a more fair and balanced way.
You can make a copy of the following thought record to get started, or you can click the link below to download it:
This principle is closely related to the previous, but worth considering in its own right. When emotions take over your thinking, you are prone to base your self-assessment on faulty logic. One of the best ways to fight depression is consequently to examine the faulty logics that are contributing to making you feel bad about yourself.
Cognitive therapists have identified a whole catalogue of faulty logics depressed people use. These include:
All or nothing thinking (losing the ability to assess yourself as falling somewhere on a continuum, rather than belonging definitely to one category or another, F.ex: There is nothing good about me)
Mind-reading (assuming you know what another person thinks, feels, or intends, without checking with that person: F.ex. this person doesn’t like me, I just know)
Mental filter (ignoring any evidence that would dispute your conclusion. F.ex. ignoring the A you got on an exam, and focusing only on the C you got on another)
Jumping to conclusion (drawing premature conclusions and leaving out consideration of other possibilities. F.ex., he did not respond to my text-message, so he does not like me).
Noticing when you engage in such faulty logic, will help you when you challenge your negative beliefs (see principle #3), and will allow you to step back from your emotional conclusions rather than be swept up in them and treat them as if they were truths.
A list of some of the most common logical errors are reviewed below:
Emotions are appraisals of an environment in relation to one’s needs. They tell you whether or not things are going your way or getting in your way. When you get lost in your anger, your loneliness, or your sad complaints (blame), without fully understanding what it is you need, and why it is that your life situation is being given a negative emotional appraisal, you end up getting stuck.
However, every emotion gives you information about what it is you value, want, or need, and if you can get in touch with that, you will have more agency and control over getting what it is you really want. One of the ways to fight depression is therefore to unlock the unfulfilled need contained in your emotional frustrations.
For example: If you are stuck in a kind of grief that doesn’t seem to get better or resolve itself, it may be because you are reluctant to let go of the comfort and safety that comes from holding on to a loved one. You may be afraid of finally letting go, because you are afraid of the pain of feeling abandoned and empty. Your stuckness in grief reveals to you that you have a need to feel loved and held. This awareness might spur you to more actively pursue ways to feel loved and held by other people in your life, which can then free you to finally grieve your loss.
Another person might be stuck in the angry complaints against their romantic partner for being inconsiderate or absent-minded, but the angry complaints at feeling wronged might obscure the sadness and longing that comes from the need to feel close.
Once you realize what it is you want or what it is you are missing, you can more directly ask for it or attempt to achieve it. You can then get unstuck from an emotion that will otherwise linger because it can’t achieve its aim.
6. Express Your Anger and Be Assertive:
An old theory of depression is that it is anger turned inward. Although this is somewhat simplistic, it is often the case that people who feel guilty or fearful of asserting what they want end up feeling passive, sad, and unhappy. Depression can therefore often be a sign to you that you are not standing up for yourself on issues that really matter, or that you are not allowing yourself to set an important boundary. One of the best ways to fight depression is therefore to become more assertive and explicit about your needs and wishes.
It is important for you to realize that anger is an important emotion that helps you realize when your needs are being frustrated. Only if you can allow yourself to feel your anger, can you examine what needs might not be met and take action to correct a bad situation.
Some people are scared of anger because they associate it with being out of control, violent, or destructive, and they may think of it as antithetical to maintaining strong bonds with others. They may fear that if they express their anger, others will leave, get annoyed, not care anymore, and so on.
The truth is, however, that anger comes in many forms, and does not have to be destructive if handled skillfully. There is a difference between angry complaining, and righteous anger, and between aggression and assertiveness. In the one situation the anger blames and destroys, whereas in the other, the anger asserts and conveys confidence. Learning when and when not to trust and express your anger is a necessary skill for you to learn if you don’t want to live a passive life.
Here is a workbook I recommend that will help you find ways to become more assertive in your life:
We often grow up thinking that parts of ourselves are not acceptable or good enough. These kinds of experiences of being flawed or not possessing certain traits, can often lead to a pursuit to become someone we are not.
Many people end up living lives that attempt to make up for a perceived flaw. If you felt different from your peers when you were growing up because your parents lived in a trailer park, you might feel compelled in your life to compensate for this perceived inferiority, by measuring your self-worth against how much money you are making in your career. Your life might become a compulsive pursuit of status and prestige, but inside you are still that wounded child who just doesn’t feel good enough.
Many people pursue some ideal version of who they want to be that simultaneously passes judgment on who they really are. Because they are not accepting themselves, but always have to be better, smarter, richer, and so on, they are destined to live a life of dissatisfaction.
Karen Horney, has written an excellent book about all the ways we attempt to make up for our perceived flaws through what she calls a “pursuit of glory”. I recommend that you read it if you find yourself having impossible standards that you continue to resent yourself for not living up to.
When you are depressed you often don’t feel like getting out of the house or doing anything. You just want to stick your head under the covers and disconnect your phone line. However, there is good evidence that if you fight this urge to withdraw from the world and force yourself to get out and to do things, you will start to feel less depressed.
In behavioral activation therapy depressed clients are coached to schedule at least one activity every day that involves getting out of the house, and doing something active, even if they don’t feel like it.
You can keep the activity small at first, so you don’t feel overwhelmed, but you do have to commit to it and give it a shot.
Start with an activity of 30 minutes that you could possibly imagine would give you some joy. Perhaps go for a walk in the park, go get an ice cream, go to the library to look for a book that might interest you, treat yourself to a café latte in a coffee shop, or take yourself to the movies.
The important point here is that you don’t need to “feel like” doing it, but simply agree to do it anyway and treat it as an experiment.
The experiment is to compare how you felt before you did the activity and how you felt after doing the activity. Be a scientist and rate your depression from 1-10 before going out and do the same after returning. Now see if there is any change in your score. My best bet is that you will feel less depressed after doing the activity, not more.
Over time, you can increase the time or frequency of the pleasant activities you put in your schedule, but the important thing is that you stick to your plan even if you don’t feel like it.
Try to follow this advice for one week and schedule one pleasant activity for each day of the week. Then assess how it went and compare how you felt at the beginning of the week and at the end of the week.
Depression often goes together with feeling worthless or ineffective. An anti-dote to this feeling is to do something you feel good at. The sense of accomplishment and mastery that comes from a job well done will help rebuild your confidence and is one of the best ways to fight depression.
Remember to leave your all or nothing thinking at the door: You do not need to be good at everything in order to grant yourself a victory. If you are having a hard time remembering something you do particularly well, think back to earlier times in your life when you felt accomplished, or when somebody said you had a talent or knack for something.
Even if you come up empty, you can still give yourself an experience of success simply by thinking of a small project to complete: Clean your living room, look up a recipe and bake a cake from scratch, take care of some pending issue like getting your driver’s license renewed or following up on an e-mail you have been putting off.
You might not feel like doing it, but do it anyway, and make it manageable enough not to overwhelm yourself.
For starters just do one activity each day, and remember to pad yourself on the back and enjoy the fact that you accomplished it.
Challenge any negative thinking that tries to minimize or undo your accomplishment. At the end of the day, you are better off now than you were before.
10. Express Your Emotions:
Thinking and feeling things on your own is not the same as expressing them to others or even writing them down in a diary.
Something happens when we express ourselves that is very healing. Oftentimes we discover what we feel when we talk. We often don’t know what we think until we see what we say. This is in large part why psychotherapy is so healing. It helps us discover ourselves through talking, which gives us a better sense of ourselves and how we feel.
Of course there are other benefits to expressing yourself as well. If you open up to a trusted person it gives you the opportunity to feel validated, understood, and heard, and this in turn may make you feel more normal. It may help you to get your need for closeness met, and may give you the opportunity to ask for what you need.
If you don’t readily have other people available whom you feel comfortable opening up to, you should consider writing your thoughts and feelings down in a journal, participating in on-line forum, looking for meet-up groups to join, calling a hotline (or chatting online), or finding a therapist to talk to.
You can also get involved in charity work, which will help you take your mind of yourself, while building connections that might turn into lasting friendships. One good place to look for volunteer opportunities is: Volunteermatch
Open Path Psychotherapy Collective is a directory of therapists who offer low cost counseling:
11. Learn to Forgive and Move On:
Many people end up being angry and sad about what they wish were different but can’t really change. Maybe they wanted a different father who was more involved in their life, or maybe they continue to feel they can’t meet the expectations of their mother, whom they wish would love them for who they are and not for their accomplishments.
In many situations such as these, people don’t fully move into the loss, but continue to protest the loss. They become stuck in their sadness and anger (often an undifferentiated mix of the two), and are unable to go through the grieving process of letting go.
Emotion research conducted by Leslie Greenberg shows that the way to facilitate the grieving process is to fully experience and express the anger and sadness you feel so you can more fully understand what you lost and what need was frustrated.
Once you have fully understood this, you then need to move into an understanding of the limitations of the other person who did not provide you with what you needed.
A good way to accomplish this is to try to enter into the other person you are angry with or hurt by, and to view them like you do when you are most angry or most sad. Then you write out what you imagine them thinking and feeling, speaking as if you were them.
Inhabiting the voice of your critical mother, you might for example write: “I did not love you. You were never who I wanted to have as a child”. Continue to write until you get it all out.
Then once you have written out what this critical/ abandoning mother would say, you shift back into your angry/ sad self and express how the critical mother makes you feel. You continue to use a 1st person voice and this time you try to get in touch with what you really needed and did not get from your mother. You might for example say: “You really hurt me when you don’t accept me (sadness)” or “I hate you for never appreciating me” (anger). Again, continue until you have written out everything you are angry or sad about.
Then you switch back to being your mother again, and try to imagine how she would respond to knowing about the pain she caused you. You might for example say: “I never meant to hurt you this way. I was going through a difficult time in my life and I did not know how to show the love you deserved. I tried in my own way to love you, but I realize it wasn’t good enough”. Try to enter fully into the regretful and compassionate voice and perspective that might be evoked in the other person if they truly understood how they impacted you.
Finally, you switch back to being yourself again and write out a response that indicates whether or not you can understand where the other person was coming from and can take in their new message. In this case, you tell your mother whether or not you can hear that she is regretful and feels bad. You also express whether or not you can forgive her and accept that she did in fact love you, even if she did not always know how to show it.
Switching roles between yourself and the other person, and writing out the dialogue using first-person voice, is a version of the empty chair technique used by emotion-focused therapists and gestalt therapists to help clients resolve unfinished business.
Example of the empty chair technique to resolving unfinished business:
12. Examine Your Relationships:
People don’t exist in isolation and how we feel about ourselves often depends on how others treat us. We all have a need to have parts of ourselves we cherish seen, understood, and validated by others. If it is important to me to feel valued for my intellect, then I need to feel like others around me think I am smart. If it is important to me to be seen as helpful, then I need to surround myself with people who view me as kind and considerate.
Oftentimes, we begin to feel depressed or unhappy when the people we interact with don’t view us the way we would like to be viewed. Maybe we are in an intimate relationship with someone who always complains about our shortcomings, or maybe we have friends who take advantage of us or treat us with disrespect.
One of the ways to fight depression is therefore to take an inventory of the people you spend time with and ask yourself: Are these people good for my self-esteem, or do they drain me or make me feel bad about myself?
Then make a decision to either cut people out who bring you negativity, or to talk to them about what you need from them, or what you don’t like about your respective roles.
As with any confrontation, it is much better to keep the focus on your own feelings and needs than on what the other person has done wrong. Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements. Express how you feel, rather than what you think about the other person. Approach the other person in a soft and vulnerable way, rather than in an angry and attacking manner.
13. Practice Self-Compassion:
Many people who are depressed are very unforgiving of their own mistakes, but very compassionate and understanding of those of others. You might have a critical voice inside that tells you that what you do is never good enough and keeps beating you up about past regrets.
One way to challenge this negative self criticism is to deploy technique #3: Challenge Negative Beliefs.
Another is to practice self-compassion.
Self-compassion means adopting a loving and caring attitude toward yourself that is similar to the one you would adopt toward a good friend or someone you love. It is a way to remind yourself that you are human, have frailties, and make mistakes, but that you do the best you can given your circumstances, and deserve to be loved even if you make choices you are not proud of.
The Self-Compassion website by Dr. Kristin Neff contains 8 different exercises to cultivate a kinder and more accepting attitude toward yourself.
If you find yourself not feeling worthy of compassion or feeling too hateful toward yourself to attempt any of these exercises, try to imagine a kind and wise friend who cares about you unconditionally.
What would this friend tell you when you begin to slide into shame and start attacking yourself? Can you remind yourself that all of us have regrets, fears, and struggles? Can you step back from the flow of your thoughts and emotions to recognize that your suffering connects you to the rest of humanity, knowing that all human beings feel pain, guilt, and regret?
One way to get more comfortable with having loving and kind feelings toward yourself is to engage in meditative practices, such as the Self-Compassion meditation illustrated in the video below:
Some psychologists think of depression as the lack of acceptance of the full scope of all your feelings. According to psychologist and psychoanalyst Alice Miller, for example, depression is what happens when we attempt to escape from the childhood pain of not being acceptable in some way by trying to become what others want us to be.
Maybe we learned that our laughter was too loud, that our needs were too great, or that our anger was too destructive, and the implicit message we got was that our parents would not love us if we didn’t get rid of these impulses or feelings.
The fear of losing affection therefore started to overwrite our natural need for self-expression and we became more concerned with emotional adaptation than with fully being ourselves.
The problem is, however, that many of us keep on living our life as if we could redeem ourselves and gain the approval we were missing in childhood simply by being different. We still try to win our parents approval, even though the approval we are seeking is an approval we needed in the past. The loss of love we were seeking has already happened, and no effort can change this fact. Instead of chasing a way to redeem ourselves or repair an old wound, we are therefore better off grieving the loss and letting go.
This might sound depressing, but it really isn’t. Only when we can allow ourselves to truly mourn our losses can we get unstuck from the dynamic of trying to gain approval by being someone other than who we really are.
The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, which means the freedom to experience all of life’s emotions and urges, including those which we previously wanted to push away.
Being able to experience envy, jealousy, rage, disgust, greed, loneliness, sadness, and despair, means being whole, and being whole means living life fully and being fully human.
As one psychotherapy patient tells it to her psychoanalyst:
It was not the beautiful or pleasant feelings that gave me new insight but the ones against which I had fought most strongly: feelings that made me experience myself as shabby, petty, mean, helpless, humiliated, demanding, resentful, or confused; and above all, sad and lonely. It was precisely through these experiences, which I had shunned for so long, that I became certain that I now understand something about my life, stemming from the core of my being, something that I could not have learned from any book!
(Quote from: The Drama of The Gifted Child)
If you would like to read more about grieving your childhood losses so you can be free to be yourself, I recommend the following highly acclaimed book by Alice Miller:
15. Face Your Fears:
One of the ways depression can look is as a pervasive sense of indifference, lack of interests, and lack of zest for life. Some people feel empty, don’t know where they are going, have few or no opinions about matters around them, or avoid close encounters. They are emotionally shut down, alienated from themselves and others, and say they feel numb or that life feels like they are just going through the motions.
Oftentimes this anhedonic type of depression is fear-based. People shrink from life or shut down their emotions because they encountered situations in their life that were too emotionally overwhelming, and too frightening to deal with at the time. This could either be due to a specific traumatic event, such as violence or abuse, or due to a silent suffering such as emotional neglect or abandonment.
Whatever may have happened, the person learned to survive by getting rid of emotions that were too unpleasant, by lowering their expectations of life, or by not risking the rejection and disappointment that comes from getting excited or caring about something.
Sometimes working through traumatic events requires:
#2 Changing an Emotion with an Emotion
I have described how this works in the case of a trauma, in the following article:
At other times you may confront irrational or unfounded fears head on using something called exposure therapy:
Exposure therapy helps you take small calculated risks to confront your fears in a way that feels gradual and manageable.
If you are fearful of rejection, for example, you could go and ask out the most attractive person you know. But this would likely terrify you, so you have set yourself too big of a goal. On your exposure hierarchy asking someone attractive out for a date, might be the biggest challenge for you, and should be saved for last.
Smaller more manageable experiments would be to call up a friend you haven’t talked to for a while, or ask a colleague out for coffee. It might even be to say “hi” to a stranger or make eye contact for at least 2 seconds. It all depends on how big your fears are.
The goal of exposure therapy is to construct a hierarchy of activities according to perceived risk and difficulty that gradually helps you confront your fear of rejection.
Exposure therapy works because fear is just an emotion and emotions tend to decrease in intensity over time. By facing your fears, instead of avoiding things that make you afraid, you will gradually experience that you have “nothing to fear but fear itself” and that the actual situation is not that scary after all.
To learn how to construct an exposure hierarchy, click to download this handy guide by psychologist Danny Gagnon:
Congratulations! You now know 15 of the most effective psychological ways to fight depression. Pick one skill to practice or learn about at a time, and you will soon improve your confidence, self-esteem, and overall well-being…
Now that you know what to do, why not take a moment to help a friend by pinning the infographic or sharing this blog post on social media or in a personal e-mail? (see options below)
One of single biggest issues that stops people from living the life they want is their inability to let go of negative memories from their past.
Most often when people experience hurtful events in their life they tend to prefer to suppress their memories, or to simply silence their emotional pain by trying their best to ignore what happened.
When you ask them about why they want to avoid revisiting their past, they often say that there is no reason to dwell on their memories, since there is nothing they can do about their past anyway.
They will say things like: What is the point of remembering your childhood sexual abuse? It doesn’t change anything about what happened. And why should I remember that I grew up with an alcoholic father? or a mother who abandoned me? Crying about what happened or didn’t happen would simply be wasted tears.
At first glance this way of thinking seems reasonable. And it would be a great solution indeed, if it were really possible to simply let go of the past like this. The problem, however, is that our body remembers, even though we don’t. What this means is that whatever unfinished business we have not addressed will keep getting activated and wreak havoc on our lives, until the day we really confront it and lay it to rest.
What to Do about Negative Memories from the Past:
The positive news is that there is a lot that can be done about unpleasant memories and experiences from the past. Although it is true that we cannot change the past, we can in fact change how feel about it and what meaning we attribute to it.
The best way to do so is to go back into the experience rather than to avoid it.
When you don’t shut down a negative or unpleasant emotional memory, but are helped to fully enter into it, you will be able to learn something from it. Emotions tell us something about ourselves and about our needs, and this information helps us transform our emotions by giving us access to other emotions.
How to Overcome Negative Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse:
If you were sexually abused, for example, this memory is oftentimes initially experienced as unbearable, repulsive, or shameful. But if you enter into the emotion and get some help from your therapist, you will soon see that the initial experience of disgust, or pain, or shame, can give rise to a whole set of other emotions, which in turn change the overall meaning of the experience.
The emotion of shame, which causes you to want to hide, or the emotion of disgust, which causes you to want to push away, are often turned against oneself in people who were abused. They often think of themselves as “broken”, “damaged”, “vile”, “unlovable”. They sometimes want to hurt themselves as a form of punishment, or hide who they are from others because they don’t feel worthy of acceptance.
However, by fully going into these emotions, rather than shutting them down, the person may be able to access other facets of their emotional experience.
They may begin to access sadness at what was lost or what was taken away from them and to enter into the grief that was previously blocked by shame.
The sadness may in turn give rise to anger at the perpetrator for violating a helpless child, or at caregivers for not picking up on small signs that things were not okay.
As the person gets more in touch with their anger, this changes their sadness, by making them feel more empowered. In this way the person can go through a change process from initial shame or disgust, to sadness about their loss, to anger about what should have happened, but didn’t happen.
As they begin to feel more indignant at the other person, rather than blaming themselves, they may also better be able to soothe themselves or care for themselves. It is only a short step from “I was so helpless and alone” (sadness) and “it wasn’t right and shouldn’t have happened” (anger), to feeling compassion for one-self “I didn’t deserve it; it wasn’t my fault and I shouldn’t blame myself”.
By entering into the initial emotion, which was very unpleasant, it became possible to change the original emotion with another emotion, and thus to change the experience of the memory itself.
According to Les Greenberg this emotional change process will eventually lead to acceptance and agency. Once we accept who we are and what happened to us, and work through our feelings about it, we come out on the other side as feeling empowered and having a choice about how we want to move forward.
Instead of being stuck in a past that keeps wreaking havoc on our lives, we can now take control of our lives, give ourselves a pass, and orient ourselves toward the future with a renewed confidence and a more positive sense of self.
About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist at Better Therapy PLLC. I help people experience change at an emotional level and overcome traumatic memories and experiences that are holding them back.
Many people feel marred by guilt feelings that are preventing them from fully enjoying their lives.
Sometimes, of course, guilt is a useful signal to ourselves that we have done something we can’t really be proud of or have done something we shouldn’t have. It allows us to to seek forgiveness and correct a wrong. Without this kind of experience, we would not be able to become remorseful, and would end up not caring about other people’s needs, thoughts, and feelings.
When Does Guilt Become Excessive?
Many times, however, guilt becomes attached to a wide variety of healthy feelings, thoughts, or behaviors, and starts to work against us rather than for us.
We may for example feel like we have done something wrong after having sex, or we may feel like we made a transgression by standing up for ourselves when we really needed to.
Because the feeling of being guilty of a wrong is so unpleasant, it is likely that we end up avoiding situations that would make us feel this way, or that we become apologetic and remorseful in situations where we should really stand our ground.
In this way, our guilt feelings can begin to control us, and can make us cut off pieces of ourselves and live restricted lives.
The Woman Who Was Consumed by Guilt:
One woman, for example, had the propensity to feel guilty about asking for what she needed in her marriage. She would not be able to enjoy a movie if her husband didn’t pick it, and would not be able to tell him “no”, if he asked her to take on responsibilities, which severely encroached on her other commitments and plans. On her birthday when she chose a restaurant for her birthday celebration, she could not enjoy the dinner because she was too worried about others not liking the restaurant she picked. In situation after situation, she would therefore avoid making a decision, or avoid telling others no.
At the end of the day she paid for her guilt-ridden existence by feeling “trapped” in her obligations and responsibilities. Her conscience had turned against her. Rather than being a source of good, it had become a cross to bear. She was living a life of repentance of sins she had never committed and had become imprisoned by the prohibition against making any demands or stating any wishes. Being herself had become guilt-inducing.
In this situation the woman’s guilt had become “neurotic”.
Neurotic guilt is guilt that has stopped serving as a useful moral compass, and has started to become aggression turned against oneself.
The voices of adults we internalized when growing up, and which helped shape us into a moral human being with empathy and consideration for others, has in these instances begun to over-function.
What is Guilt?
Guilt is in its essence the experience of remorse for having done harm to others by our actions, feelings, or thoughts.
In a supportive environment, we learn that even though we hit our little sister, we can seek forgiveness and can repair the situation. But if for some reason, the repair was not an option, or if others seemed to be excessively hurt by our expression of a thought, or our display of a particular emotion, the experience of guilt can find no release, and instead become traumatic.
One woman expressed how her father during a time of depression, had told her that the reason why he became suicidal is that he thought she did not love him. The woman internalized this message as a perpetual guilt about her actions and omissions. She started to feel that there was something destructive about expressing her needs or feelings, and that she had the power to destroy the people she loved, by the mere expression of her thoughts.
Other situations that can lead to excessive guilt are early messages that you will go to hell, or that mommy and daddy won’t love you anymore, or any other message that communicates the lack of possibility of redemption, or the withdrawal of needed love and affection. The guilt in these situations can become overwhelming, and so aversive that life itself, with its spontaneous desires and wishes, has to be inhibited.
The Cure for Excessive Guilt:
In the examples stated above, guilt in its natural state has really been corrupted by the experience of intense anxiety and fear, or by excessive pain, or even self-loathing.
To remove the excessive guilt is therefore to come to terms with these feelings or fears. In many situations, guilt or the anxiety associated with asserting one’s needs or wishes, are really rooted in a fear of one’s own aggression and the erroneous belief that there is something destructive about one’s needs and feelings.
Only when a person gets in touch with these underlying realizations and learns to undo the false impressions of their needs and feelings, can these feelings be transformed. A person can then be released from the chains of their excessive guilt and find peace and comfort in being who they are.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist in Houston, TX. I help people undo negative learning from their past that has led to excessive guilt, shame, or anxiety. Visit my website to learn more.
One frequent problem people present with in therapy is: not knowing how to care for themselves emotionally. Many people make their lives all about caring for others, and not enough about caring for themselves.
They might make statements such as:
“My husband doesn’t like Chinese food, so we never go”
“I would never spend the money on a spa treatment for myself, I just don’t feel like I’m worth it”
“I did not feel proud when I got my promotion, I don’t want to be seen as egotistical”
Problems with Ignoring Own Needs:
This kind of attitude toward life whereby you shun your own needs, desires, and healthy pride due to feelings of guilt and shame can in the long run lead to problems.
First of all, when you shut down your natural desires and wants because you feel selfish for having them, you end up feeling more empty inside and more alien from yourself.
Second of all, when other people’s needs always take priority, you will end up feeling increasingly resentful of others and drained by other people’s company.
Is Your Focus on Others Self-Effacing?
Psychoanalyst Karen Horney refers to this lifestyle of minimizing your own needs and focusing always on what others want as a defensive strategy of self-effacement.
The person who lives their life this way cannot spend money on themselves, cannot openly demand anything, and cannot celebrate their own successes. They always live in the shadows of others and shun any feelings related to being proud of themselves or entitled to having their needs met.
Although a certain amount of humility and perspective-taking is certainly both healthy and appropriate, it is not healthy when we cannot proudly own our accomplishments, assert our needs, and take interest in ourselves.
When We Lose Touch with Who We Are:
Sometimes the ability to feel inside ourselves for answers to what we want may become muted to such an extent that we feel rather empty inside and lose touch with who we really are. At this point we are likely to become depressed.
Therapy with such people will often uncover that the reason why they have become so alienated from their desires is that they experience intense guilt feelings, shame, or anxiety whenever the focus is on them.
Unless these feelings are resolved, they are going to continue to shun any feeling that hint of pride, confidence, self-interest, and making themselves a priority.
These positive feelings about the self which are vital for a fulfilling life, are then going to continue to be judged as “selfish”, “self-indulgent”, “egotistical” and will therefore continue to be rejected and disowned.
Indeed some people might even go the extra mile and idealize their lack of self-care as a sign of their good-hearted, self-sacrificing, and saintly nature, erecting an even more formidable barrier to regaining healthy self-esteem.
When Self-Sacrifice Becomes Sign of Low Self-Esteem:
The reason why the ban against caring for oneself is so problematic is that instead of being a genuine virtue it often covers up shame, lack of self-love, low self-esteem, and a sense of unworthiness. Were we to really get to the bottom of things, we would often discover that the primary motor for shunning one’s assertiveness is not really a commitment to a more ethical and virtuous life style, but doubts about being liked, needed, wanted, or loved.
Questions that often underlie a compulsive need to please or a fear-driven avoidance of assertiveness, include questions such as:
Would my partner still love me and be with me if I made more demands?
Would I really discover that I am a horribly selfish person if I indulge my impulses?
Am I really worth enough to myself or to anyone to deserve to have my needs met?
These are not the questions of a virtuous person, but the questions of someone who doesn’t love themselves deep down.
What is the Solution?
The solution to the problem of lack of self-love is not to become more virtuous, self-sacrificing, and caring of others, but to learn how to care better for oneself. One must get to the bottom of why it is that vital feelings of pride, self-respect, and self-interest became shameful and needed to be shunned.
As so often happens when people engage in the therapeutic work of truly identifying the causes of their defenses and distress, what they will likely find is a history of losses, absences, and neglects that will need to be properly mourned and confronted.
Once the person goes through this process and reworks the meanings and implications of these past events, they will no longer need to disown parts themselves because they deem them to be unworthy or shameful. Instead they will develop greater self-compassion. Instead of shunning parts of themselves in order to protect themselves from unbearable bruises or erroneous conclusions from the past, they will then once again feel entitled to own all of themselves. They can then get in touch with the natural sense of pride and self-esteem that is the hallmark of a life worth living.
In my many years of experience as a psychologist and a psychotherapist, I have seen exceptionally few clients for whom depression was simply a disorder of the brain.
In the vast majority of cases, once a person begins to examine their feelings and their life more closely, they discover that their depression has a meaning and a message.
Depression, in other words, is not just a medical illness, but is what happens when a person is stuck in some aspect of their life without knowing exactly why.
Depression Hides its Own Cause:
Depression often conceals its own reason for being there. It is not unusual for a person to be depressed without being able to pinpoint some definite event that explains why they are depressed.
This absence of a cause often makes it feel like depression has no meaning and is simply the sign of a brain in disarray.
Perhaps this is why the vast majority of people end up treating their depression with anti-depressants, encouraged, no doubt, by commercials on TV.
However, if you go down this route you will largely miss the point of your depression, and will not grow in the way your depression is challenging you to grow.
Your Depression has a Message:
The reason why you are depressed is often not apparent. This itself is one of the hallmarks of depression. Depression tells us: you are stuck in some way, unable to deal with some emotion, haunted by the aftereffects of some experience, or dragged down by the reoccurrence of some pattern of behavior.
If you simply knew which emotion, experience, or behavior made you stuck, then perhaps you would not need to become depressed. Then you would have a pathway out: you would know what to do, or what to change.
The fact that you are depressed, however, tells you: it is not that easy.
Perhaps you have a need to be more assertive in life in order to not be walked all over, but this in turn triggers a fear that other people will reject you or that you will be abandoned by others.
Or perhaps, you have a vague hunch that you are not happy in your marriage, but this realization would have such disastrous consequences for life as you know it, and so instead you suppress it with the consequence that you are now depressed.
In both of these examples, depression simply communicates that you have hit some stumbling block to the authentic acceptance and expression of yourself.
It tells you: you need help to find a different path out of your current dilemma, and that your current solution isn’t working.
How to Get Unstuck from Your Depression:
What we discover when we take the challenge posed to us by our depression, is that we are almost always depressed for good reasons, even if it does not look like it from where we stand.
The trick of getting out of your depression is to get help to expand your awareness of what it is that is keeping you stuck. Once the full picture of what is keeping you depressed is brought to light, you will no longer feel stuck, and therefore no longer be depressed.
This was the case for both the person who could not be assertive, and the woman who could not allow herself to embrace her discontent with her marriage…
The Man Who Could not Be Assertive:
If the person who is unable to be assertive begins to examine some of the fears that keep him stuck in unfulfilling relationships, he may begin to gain access to more of his frustrations with other people, which he now no longer needs to block from his awareness.
As he allows himself to more fully embrace his anger, he may realize that he is tired of always trying to please people, and may begin to express more dissatisfaction when people let him down. As his anger becomes accessible again, he may also be able to feel entitled to his sadness that people have not really been there for him, and to challenge his negative view of himself as someone who is not deserving of respect. As he gets to the root of where his negative belief of himself comes from, and begins to access more compassion for himself, he may be able to shift his view of himself and feel more entitled to have his needs met.
His depression, which was simply telling him that he was stuck in the dimness of a narrow awareness, would now give way to insight and new possibilities of being himself. As he would then no longer be stuck, he also would no longer be depressed. His depression would have served its purpose, and he would have heeded its message.
The Woman Who Was Unhappy in Her Marriage:
If the person who is unhappy with her marriage begins to more fully allow herself to feel her discontent, and if she examines what the fears are about that hold her back from accepting her discontent, the dilemma in which she is stuck may begin to shift. She may be able to more fully discover what she needs in order to be happy in her marriage and may begin to realize that she has some options to more actively fulfill these needs that do not involve getting a divorce. The fear of realizing that she and her husband may in reality be incompatible, may then lessen, and may cease to serve as a barrier to more fully embracing her needs and wants.
As the unconscious dilemma in which she was stuck begins to become known, and she begins to become more fully aware of the reason for her fears and her unhappiness, she is then able to unlock the message of her depression and use it to become unstuck.
What is Your Depression Telling You?
In the majority of the cases of depression I have seen in my many years as a psychotherapist, there was a message to be unlocked in the person’s depression. Once the person began to fully access and examine the full extent of their feelings and experiences, they were able to see what their depression was telling them, and were able to feel unstuck again.
The reasons for one’s depression, cannot be found by looking at the bottom of a pill bottle, but must be discovered through a process of self-examination that is best facilitated by the process of psychotherapy. Only then will you address the real issue which your depression is telling you to look at, and only then will you be able to set your life on a different path.
If you want to understand your depression better, watch my video in which I explain some frequent causes of depression:
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in helping people unlock the message of their depression. Please visit my website for more information about the treatment of depression.
The line between telling the truth and telling a lie has always been the central theme of psychotherapy.
The real self (an acceptance of one’s real feelings and motivations) and the reality principle (a sober assessment of the world as it really is) has always been considered the hallmark of health or good adjustment.
Various forms of lying, on the other hand, have been the hallmark of what we consider to be pathology or maladjustment.
When we tell a lie, we make reality conform to our ideas rather than adjust our ideas to fit reality.
In neurosis, for example, the truth gets distorted (minimized or magnified) in the service of maintaining a certain level of psychological safety. We need reality to BE a certain way in order to feel okay with ourselves and comfortable in the world.
In psychosis, on the other hand, our lies become fully-fledged fantasies without any basis in external facts.
Although we all need some modicum of fantasy and untruth in order to make our lives and our view of ourselves more tolerable, for a certain group of people, lying becomes the central mechanism by which they interact with others.
We can call these people pathological or compulsive liars, although in many cases, pathological lying is really more of a symptom than a definition of who I am.
The compulsivity of pathological liars means that these are not people who choose to lie. Lying here becomes automatic. It is a mechanism for maintaining psychological safety and reducing interpersonal anxiety.
Pathological Lying as Reaction to Trauma:
In my own work with compulsive liars I have generally found that the lying is a reaction to trauma.
One person, for example, was in a physically abusive relationship where he learned that he needed to say or do things more out of a concern for maintaining the other person’s happiness, than out of a need to express his true thoughts and feelings. The truth became associated with danger and became hijacked by the more primordial need for safety. Who I am, in this scenario, becomes who I need to be in order to be liked or accepted by others. Being myself becomes a dangerous proposition, a luxury which I cannot afford. Instead my truth becomes a self-presentation I can adapt to what I think others want from me.
Another person was helped to discover that at the root of her lies was a profound fear of being abandoned if she were to be herself. Vivid examples stood out about not having been picked up after soccer practice, and otherwise being forgotten about or neglected by caregivers in many situations. Now, she had come to think of herself as mostly a burden and as someone who could only count on others to be there for her as long as she provided a benefit to them. Most of this woman’s life thus became a frantic effort to be who others needed her to be so she would not be rejected and plunged into a deep dark hole of feeling worthless and dispensable.
Truth is Only Possible When We Feel Safe:
In both of these examples, the compulsion to lie was driven by a compulsion to stay safe, and a perceived risk involved in being and expressing one’s more genuine self.
Both examples reveal to us that telling the truth is always only possible on the basis of a fundamental sense of safety in one’s relationships with others. The ability to be real with oneself and with others requires validation that one is good enough as is, and certainty that others will be able to tolerate and care for one’s unembellished unadulterated self.
In this sense, pathological lying is really just like any other neurotic defense mechanism. It serves to ward off shame, lack of self worth, and a fear of abandonment and rejection.
About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist who helps people get in touch with their personal truths. If you have been hurt or shaken up by the lies of someone you love, or find it difficult to relate to others without lying to them, psychotherapy can help.
When people come to therapy it is usually because they have identified some behavior, some feeling, or some aspect of their life which they find problematic and want to change.
Yet psychotherapists have long known that clients usually resist the very changes which they consciously claim they want.
For example, I know I should not procrastinate in school or at work, but even though I can list all the rational reasons why procrastination works against me, I still cannot simply make a rational decision not to procrastinate anymore.
Resistance to Change:
In therapy this force within me that is working against myself is referred to as my resistance.
My resistance confronts me with the fact that I am not always the master of my own house. It tells me that all the logic, reason, and will-power in the world often isn’t enough to bring about change. It reveals to me the presence of motivations within me that do not fall under the purview of my rational self.
These motivations that work against me oftentimes do their work outside my conscious awareness. They are not parts of my personality, which I identify with. It is this that makes them my most formidable adversary, for how can I win a battle against forces that are mostly invisible to me?
The Benefits We Derive from Symptoms:
The part within a person that resists change is considered by psychodynamic therapists to be motivated by secondary gain. It derives comfort from the very symptom the rational part of me wants to get rid of.
When looked at from the perspective of the rational mind this of course does not make any sense. Why would I for example not want to stop procrastinating? What possible benefit could I get from sabotaging myself?
The secret to understanding this conundrum is to begin to unlock the unconscious logic that makes procrastinating a successful bulwark against greater fears or threats to a person’s psychological safety.
Could it be that I am afraid to succeed because I at some level don’t believe I am worthy of success? Could it be that I am afraid that if I truly try and ultimately fail, I will get affirmation of this fact? Or could it be that a part of me resents the fact that I have taken on a career or a field of study which I thought would make my parents proud, a fact that I cannot openly acknowledge to myself, or which would require me to live with the guilt of openly disappointing my parents?
From the perspective of the unconscious, these would all be excellent reasons to procrastinate. My resistance to change is here the last bulwark against an unconscious and unacknowledged conflict, which must be kept out of my awareness to spare me much psychological turmoil and anxiety.
Keeping Unconscious Conflicts at Bay:
Oftentimes when we seem to not be able to wrest ourselves free of a depression, or change a self-destructive habit that keeps us stuck, it is because of the presence of an underlying unconscious conflict, which motivates us to resist a change to the current status quo.
Although being depressed, for example, is pretty miserable, it is often unconsciously preferable to being assertive and risking other people’s rejections or wrath, or confronting the realization that I need to change career or get a divorce. Depression sometimes keeps me from drawing the unpleasant conclusion of a realization that would cause too great of an upset to myself or to others.
It is often safer to stick with the devil we know.
And so it is that approaches to change that only address the conscious rational side of a person are almost always destined to fail. Although willpower and logical reasoning can get us far in life, they cannot win the battle over our secret fears and unacknowledged conflicts. To truly change oneself is thus ironically to first truly accept oneself: to honor our resistance and let our resistance reveal its logic to us, which means to become more aware of who we truly are and what is truly motivating us not to change.
Perhaps we should become a little more like Soeren Kierkegaard who instead of declaring warfare on his symptoms, acknowledged with a degree of self-compassion: “My depression is the most faithful mistress I have known — no wonder, then, that I return the love”.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist and psychodynamic therapist in Houston, TX. To read more about my approach to therapy, please visit my website: www.bettertherapy.com
You won’t find “disorders of shame” as a category in the DSM-5 (the official American catalogue over mental health diagnoses), and yet shame is probably the biggest single cause of most of our psychological problems.
Shame is often the secret engine that get us started on a path of disordered eating, makes us feel bad about our bodies, causes us to be depressed or have social anxiety, makes us engage in pathological lying, leads us to feel lonely and empty in our relationships with others, and makes us escape into addictions of all kinds.
Shame: A Personal Story
When I was first starting out in this business and had to learn to market my private psychology practice, I had a very shameful experience.
I had been invited to a radio show to talk about my views of therapy. Thinking that this would be an excellent opportunity to plug my practice, I spoke at length about how listeners could contact me, and sought to market my website and my blog. After the show was over, the radio host did not realize that he was still on air as he turned to his assistant and bad-mouthed me for being so self-promoting. My initial reaction was one of embarrassment. The radio host had seen me and judged me in a way that was not flattering, and had pronounced it to the world. He had attributed qualities to me that I both recognized as somewhat true and felt were undesirable and incongruent with how I would want to be. In spite of this, the experience was probably most shameful for the radio host who had been caught off guard in a role that put his professionalism into question. He too must have felt ashamed that these private thoughts had now been broadcast to the world and to his radio show guest.
The example illustrates well what shame is really about. It is about being seen by others in a way we do not want to be seen and in a way that make others pass negative judgment on us.
The initial reaction that comes with shame is the urge to hide or run away. We feel as if we would rather cease to exist for a period of time as evidenced by the expression: to “die of shame”. And yet, if all goes well, we learn through these experiences to adjust our behaviors to become more acceptable to others: to be less self-promoting, or be more careful about what we say and when we say it. In short, we learn from our mistakes, and forgive ourselves and forgive others for their faux-passes.
Shame, in this way, is not altogether bad. In fact, without out it, we would not be able to adjust or regulate our behaviors to the socially acceptable norms, and would not be able to coexist with others.
The Benefits of Shame:
Shame makes us inhibit ourselves to preserve and protect social bonds. It is what makes people not just prattle on endlessly about themselves at a party, and it is what makes us “get a hint” when someone politely brushes us off. In this way it makes us able to function in our society without getting shunned or bothering others too much. Some people who have too little shame, may in fact find it very difficult to get along with others and may feel shunned and rejected in their lives, without quite knowing why.
Shame only becomes disordered when it over-functions or over-regulates our behavior. Instead of becoming a learning experience about the particular norms of a situation, it may instead become a permanent mark on our personality or a permanent rejection of some aspect of who we are. Instead of just becoming the occasion of embarrassment, it may turn into a more permanent sense of ourselves as bad, wrong, repugnant, or unlovable.
The wish to hide now gets attached to an aspect of the self, which we can no longer allow others to see because it would be mortifying for that to happen. We may become ashamed of our body, our sexual desire, our need for others, our desire for independence, or any number of other things. When the shame is really deep, we can’t even access these attributes of ourselves without confusing them with our judgment of them. I may for example refer to any consideration for myself and what I need as a sign of “selfishness”, I may think of sex as inherently “bad” or “dirty”, or I may think of a healthy ability to rely on others as “being needy” or “weak”.
The more powerful my experience of shame, the more I have a need to hide those aspects from others, and even from myself. A part of who I am or how I feel must now be disowned, silenced, or hidden at all cost, and I essentially become estranged from a part of myself.
The problem with this desire to push aspects of myself away is that my shame continues to exercise influence even when it is disowned or goes unacknowledged.
Unhealthy Ways of Dealing with Shame:
Whenever who we want to be begins to diverge from who we inherently are, the result is almost always some form of psychopathology.
Many people with histories of shame develop an obsession with becoming someone other than who they are. Their entire life may now become a flight from self and a desire to merge with an ideal image of themselves. They want to be free from blemishes and embarrassing traits, but can only hope to achieve this by cutting off a part of who they are.
Unfortunately, the solution they are seeking and the problem they are trying to escape, are two sides of the same coin. The more I pursue my aspiration to become other than myself, the more I increase my judgment on who I really am. Shame and the pursuit of overcoming shame are thus often one and the same.
The problem is of course that I cannot run away from my past, nor can I heal the wounds of shame by simple trying to run away from myself. Shame will always follow me as my shadow, unless I attend to it and address its root cause.
No amount of money in the future can ever heal the wounds of childhood of someone who grew up poor and was teased and ostracized by his classmates, and no amount of self-sacrifice can ever heal the shame of someone who adopted the belief that their lack of love for their parents was what led to their parents divorce.
If we want to overcome our shame, the cure does not lie in ridding ourselves of our shameful attributes, but rather in learning to accept who we really are.
The Cure for Shame:
The antidote to shame is love and self-compassion. However, since shame is such an interpersonal experience and is tied to how we view ourselves in relation to others, simply reciting self-affirmations or telling ourselves we love ourselves, will not produce any real results.
Since shame was created through an emotional experience originating in a social encounter, or was internalized from messages we received from others about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, the cure for shame must be “a corrective emotional experience”. Love for oneself has to come from the experience of being lovable or acceptable to others. One has to be able to open up to others, to show oneself as one is, and to experience that others can still love and accept one in one’s most vulnerable and exposed state.
This corrective experience is in large part what therapy is about. Therapy helps create the safety and trust to reveal ever more of who one truly is from underneath the layers of social pretense. Sometimes this means getting in touch with facets of one’s experience, which are even foreign to oneself, since one has spent most of one’s energy repressing them in order to fit in and become what one thinks others want one to be.
Ironically, the greatest change in oneself and how one feels about oneself, doesn’t come from changing who one is, but rather from truly becoming who one is. Too many people are embroiled in battles of self-improvement that are nothing but concealed manifestations of an underlying shame. The distance between who one truly is and who one feels a need to be in order to fit in, be normal, or be acceptable, is often the culprit of many of the psychological problems that people report with in therapy, and is often what needs to be dealt with if a person is going to experience lasting peace and happiness in their life.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston, Texas who helps people get to the root of their psychological problems, so they can experience real change and not just temporary gains. Click to visit my website.