A double bind

There’s hardly any time to write these days. There is not even much time to think. Someone talks to us for 3-6 hours a day depending on the day. Then there are social activities. The suspicion is that they are deliberately keeping us busy and that that is the main purpose behind what we’re doing, although why they think we need to be busy, I can’t work out. Do North Americans need to be busy all the time?

Perhaps. But it’s driving me crazy.

I am bored out of my mind and it worries me also. How will I be prepared if there is no time to think?

It’s driving me crazy that there is no time to write.

In between, I have had two thoughts. One of them is a discomfort at being different. Now, I don’t know that I mean much by different. I assume we are all different and that I am as different from the others as they from one another. This is not the dominant view. The dominant view is that it takes a certain kind of person to want to live in a place like Country X and we are all that kind of person. But I look around and still see diversity.

So that is one thought. The other thought that comes out of this is that I am not afraid of difference for the reasons I have been told I would be afraid of it. I am not worried about rejection or social disapproval. The group is my link to my home culture and it will be an important source of support, so I will need them. But most people don’t like you or dislike you based on who you are. Their opinion of you comes from how you treat them. Mostly.

The worry is about rejection by God or something else nebulous and abstract. I must “fit in” the way I was raised to. And yet I can’t fit in with these people. They are “outsiders.” From them, I have to be separate. It’s a double bind. I must fit in. I can’t fit in.

And what I feel most commonly is an uncomfortable sense of contempt for the group, although I like the others in the group, or at least I like most of them. I think they’re good people. But I was raised to view all other groups of people aside from the Two by Twos with contempt.

You stop believing in all these things, and yet the familiar responses don’t disappear. We believe that thoughts and feelings are linked and yet they aren’t with feelings and thoughts triggering one another. We are more like Pavlov’s dogs, salivating before our meals. The thought and the feeling and the action are all part of a response. You can take out one piece of the response–the thought–but the feeling remains.

There are some theories of psychology that see us as immensely complex and our problems as very “deep.” As time goes on, I see myself as less and less complex. I am merely an extremely intelligent primate. What I can do better than a chimpanzee is think about the future. I can also remember the past better. And I can better control my impulsiveness. But in other regards I am much the same.

Change is difficult not because we are so complex, but because we are so simple. Very often, we are not behaving or thinking purposefully–and by purposefully, I mean in a way that is directed towards a goal. So we are not attempting to defend ourselves against pain or because we want to maintain a positive self-view. In many cases, we are behaving more like biological machines.

So there isn’t any deep meaning behind my sense of contempt. It’s conditioned and no more meaningful than saliva.


Uh-oh, a Dirty Diaper, and the Hell Inside

Photo: A Forest Frolic/Creative Commons


First words.  At least according my mother, whose memories of my life are about as reliable as dreaming.  (So there’s a good chance this is not at all true.)

But I still wonder.  “Uh-oh,” because I needed a diaper change.  “Uh-oh,” like I wasn’t supposed to soil my diaper at 6 months or 8 months or however old I was when I said it.  Did I feel ashamed then?  I must have.  I felt ashamed all the time.  So much so that shame felt like a part of who I was.  But did it really start that early? Am I reading too much into this?  Do infants feel shame?

Even if you weren’t abused the way I was, shame is often a part of our childhoods, part of adulthood, part of life.  Many of us feel ashamed because we were instructed to do so: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”  But why?  Isn’t it enough if we are just really very sorry?  Do we also need to be ashamed?

What is shame, anyway?  It’s an emotion, Wikipedia says, and it’s also a set of thoughts.  If that’s any indication.  Probably, not much.

I want to get at the feeling aspect of shame in this bit of writing, because the feeling is so much harder to deal with.  Thoughts you can just replace with different thoughts if you don’t like them.  Feelings, I find, I am stuck with even if I hate having them.  If you can’t make friends with a feeling, it is happy to stay on as an enemy.

And shame really is terribly unpleasant.  The worst.  Worse than deep sorrow.  Definitely worse than anger.   Worse than guilt.  Sorrow we can release and feel better from: crying does wonders for sorrow.  Anger has the benefit of jolting us with energy and purpose.  Guilt can be expiated with apologies and making amends.

Shame sucks.

I read a book by John Bradshaw a few years back.  He says shame is a sense that we don’t have any worth.  It’s the sense that we are a mistake.  Not necessarily that we’ve made a mistake, but that we are the mistake itself.  That sounds a lot like the thought part of shame.  I’m not so interested.

I want the feeling.

What I think about my own situation is that I felt shame when someone else felt contempt for me.  Gershen Kaufman describes shame as contempt directed at the self.  I think of it more as the mirror image of it, a response to contempt, which partly involves the contempt, but also involves some other things.  It’s what you feel when someone else finds you to be disgusting, less than them, less than human.

Contempt. Photo Credit: Paul Ekman

What shame feels like to me is that I am being cast out, which I suppose is a thought rather than a feeling.  But the feelings are harder to name.  I’ll try: a deep sorrow and disappointment, profound loneliness, and a fear of being cast out even further.  All that, mixed with the contempt leaked into me from someone else.  So, a confusing blend of anger and disgust as well.

As social creatures, we tend to reflect the feelings of those around us to a certain extent, especially those of powerful or important others, like our parents or siblings or the most popular kid in the class.  If we are children, and our psychological boundaries are still porous, this is all the more true.

So there is a little anger in there, a little disgust—the two closest relatives of contempt—but then also that other part: the sadness and the loneliness and the isolation.

Disgust. Photo credit: Paul Ekman.

It seems to me shame is used most often to keep people in line.  Being cast out of the group of people we call our own is often the worst kind of punishment possible.  Contempt casts us out into a desert of the soul.

Often the things we are most ashamed of do come from when we were young, when other people were most directly trying to control us, so maybe that’s no accident.  Our parents want us to do certain things, our teachers want us to do other things, the most popular kid in the class wants us to do something else.  They all have a reason to try to shame us into behaving the way they would like.  And sometimes they do.

So I suspect many of the situations that trigger shame are related to those from when we were very young,  When shame rises up in us and overtakes us, some of that shame is from the present and some of it is merely a memory of what has already happened.

But all in all it is a long-standing association of thoughts and feelings.  For example, a link between a certain quality of ours or a certain action, and contempt or disapproval that is activated when we display it, even to ourselves, we can become overwhelmed with that sense of being exiled from those we most want acceptance from.

If you read my last blog entry on trauma, and are familiar with the whole juice/chair episode, then you’ll understand that what I feel most urgently when that trauma is activated is shame.  I feel terrified as well, but a good measure of what I feel is shame.  The intensity of my lizard brain’s need to remember every detail of the episode makes shame a part of what needs to be remembered, because the emotions are as much a part of the experience as the events.

Near Ayparahui, Bolivia, South America, 1998. Photograph by Maria Stenzel. Copyright: National Geographic Society

It’s part of what I find tedious, and repetitive, and wish I could get out of my head and can’t.  I suppose it counts as what many people consider to be toxic shame.  But I wonder if the only difference is one of degree.  “Healthy” shame is manageable.  Toxic shame is not.

And maybe toxic shame is stimulated by actual contempt, while “healthy” shame is stimulated by its milder friend, disapproval.  But I still believe they are an instinctive, emotional response to real or imagined exile.

For a toddler, exile is dangerous, life-threatening.  A toddler exiled from humanity will die.  So, even if my mother hadn’t hit me over the head with a chair and left me in a pool of blood, the intensity of her contempt for me was in itself a life-or-death situation.

I suppose that’s why it’s so important for me to remember it.  The contempt was a large part of the danger.  The exile was what might kill me, even if my mother didn’t.

Further Reading:

Bradshaw, J. (1988).  Bradshaw On: Healing the Shame that Binds You.  Health Communications, Inc.: Deerfield Beach, FL.

Ekman, P.  Dr. Paul Ekman: Cutting Edge Behavioral Science for Real World Applications (Personal website).  Retrieved from: http://www.paulekman.com/

Kreger, R.  (2012, January 5).  Shame is at the Root of Narcissistic, Borderline Personality Disorders.  Retrieved from:  http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/stop-walking-eggshells/201201/shame-is-the-root-narcissistic-borderline-personality-disorders

Science Daily.  (2009, August 16).  Facial Expressions Show Language Barriers, Too.  Retrieved from:  http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090813142131.htm