Monday, June 18, 2012
Joel Achenbach, writing in the Washington Post today, noted a pattern of suspicion followed by silence among those who knew something about Sandusky's behavior with young boys. Those who work with survivors (a term I prefer to victims) of child sexual abuse know this pattern all too well and are often angered by it. How do we explain the reluctance of people to talk about their suspicions openly so that something might be done to stop these atrocities?
One of the explanations suggested is that the abuser is a person of power or status who could use that power to punish anyone who dared talk about what they suspected or knew. Though there is some truth to this, especially in the minds of the young person who has been manipulated and sometimes threatened into silence, I think there is a more basic explanation that comes clear in an understanding of the nature of shame and our responses to behavior that evokes shame.
Shame is one of the powerful survival emotions with which we are all hardwired. It is the emotion that compels us to surrender and try to hide when we are faced with an overwhelming threat or defeated in competition. It can save our lives in a primitive battle over status, and it has a complex function in forming our consciences and guiding our moral awareness. But although we use the word in a way that has many complex connotations, it is a fundamental and powerful basic emotion, and shares some characteristics with other survival emotions.
1. Shame compels an immediate behavioral response. Fear compels us to freeze first, then run. Anger compels us to attack. And shame compels us to surrender and withdraw, averting our gaze and trying to hide. We want to become invisible, and anything that draws attention to us makes the shame stronger. So when someone tells an inappropriate joke at a party, everyone wants to crawl under the table. And when someone in your group is behaving badly, no one wants to be the first to call attention to the problem. "For some people," notes Achenbach, "the subject is literally unspeakable."
2. Shame is contagious. Like the panic triggered in a crowded theater when someone shouts fire, or the rage evoked in a mob when it is focused on a target, shame over someone's exposure evokes an emotional response in all of us. Depending on our relationship to the person shamed, the emotional response can be one of shame or anger, but if the person is a member of your family, tribe, or a group with which you identify, the shame will come first. When Dad is drunk and making a fool of himself, everyone in the family wants to leave the scene. A secondary reaction of anger may set in soon, but the initial response is shared shame. If our political leader makes a gaffe, we all groan inside before we go into defensive action.
3. Shame is followed by anger. Take my word for it (or read my book about it) shame almost always leads to anger. But the anger may be expressed toward almost anyone. After feeling the sting of shame, we may be angry at ourselves, we may be angry at the world, we may be angry at the easiest person to be angry at - which may be the victim of the abuse - or we may fear the anger of others that we know is likely to emerge if we make a lot of noise about the shameful situation. So family members enable the alcoholic rather than confront, institutions shield and hide the abusers in their midst rather than share the shame of exposure, and people with suspicions of others, particularly leading members of the group with which they identify, keep their mouths shut and their heads down (the classic posture of shame). The fear of angry reprisals can extend to fear of legal action against the institution involved. But underlying this fear is the naive wish that it will all just go away if we can cover it up or keep quiet about it.
Understanding the nature of our powerful survival emotions, how they compel us to freeze, run, attack, or hide, can help us resist the self defeating behavioral responses that can arise in response to emotionally loaded situations and help us solve problems sooner. Wishing the problems and the feelings would just go away only prolongs the damaging situation.
Monday, May 21, 2012
Parents can teach assertive asking in two simple ways:
The next most important thing in assertiveness is timing, which requires some empathy for the other person so that your request can be heard. Children shouldn’t have to be too sensitive to their parents’ needs, though they often are acutely aware and can be quite naturally empathic. Parents can help the child develop this skill by coaching them: “I can’t read you a story right now, because I am fixing dinner, but if you remind me after dinner, I would be happy to.”
For more on Emotional Intelligence Skills go to Change-for-Good.ORG
Monday, May 19, 2008
Getting Attention to Getting Even
With the recent focus on violence in suburban schools, there has
been increased curiosity about the sources of social ostracism
among youth, painful facts of life about the healthiest and, we
presume, happiest of our kids. The focus of this article is on
teasing, an almost universal experience with implications far
beyond the attention we generally give to it. In Norway, following
two suicides determined to be related to teasing, an anti-teasing
curriculum was introduced in the schools in 1992 with a resulting
decrease in teasing by 50% over the next two years.
Most of us can sympathize with the child who complains miserably of
being teased or bullied. Our advice is usually simplistic: "Try
to ignore it," on the theory that the teaser will get bored and
drop it when the victim does not react. But this discounts the
reactions of the other participants, the onlookers or the audience
for whom the bully is performing and who reward the scene with
their attention. Besides, none of us is good at ignoring our own
feelings, and the feelings that can be triggered by teasing are
more powerful and painful than we like to admit, perhaps because we
feel powerless to protect our children from this kind of an attack,
ubiquitous as it is. The two primary feelings involved are often
topics of discussion in the therapy session: shame and anger, or in
their extreme: humiliation and rage.
Looking back on it, it seems to me that the relationship between
shame and rage should be obvious. When something or someone makes
you feel powerless, terribly hopelessly powerless, the thing you
crave most is something that will help you feel powerful, or at
least safe. We don't like to talk about these disturbing
feelings. Shame is something we hide, or minimize, because
exposing our shame only seems to make it worse. So the impact and
consequences of teasing, shaming and excessive criticism remain
obscure for many of us. And the resulting rage catches us by
Many things can make us feel powerless. Whenever we experience an
important loss or disappointment, we feel powerless. When we are
shamed, teased, criticized or bullied, we feel powerless. When we
are ignored, we may feel powerless. When we are sick, tired, or
hungry and as a result, confused, we may feel powerless.
When a young child craves power, there are only a few options. He
can reach out for the loving protection of a comparatively powerful
parent or caretaker. He can practice those few things that give
him a child's sense of mastery and control. He can exercise power
over someone or something smaller or weaker. He can imagine
fantasy scenarios of power, or revenge.
Babies are good at reaching out for protection. Though some may be
fussier than others, most babies have a powerful way of making most
adults feel nurturing and protective toward them.
A toddler is experimenting with a growing repertoire of movement
and communication skills that offer a sense of mastery and control
over a small part of his universe. But if you speak sharply to a
toddler, you will see the downcast eyes that represent the classic
posture and facial expression of the primary affect of shame. Some
anguished sobbing will usually follow, and it is not unusual for
the anguish to be followed by rage, as the toddler regroups and
assaults you with the worst insult in his vocabulary.
The surge of aggression following the shame of defeat is part of
our emotional evolutionary heritage. The two feelings are hard
wired together, the sequence normal and unavoidable. But we do
have some choice in what to think and how to act in response to the
feelings, and these choices are learnable and therefore teachable.
The parent who finds a toddler's tantrum cute and laughs at it, or
the parent who finds it intolerable and punishes it, will see the
child's shame and rage reenacted immediately. With a few
repetitions of this scene, the child soon develops a memory for the
experience of helpless rage. Another alternative for the parent
in this situation is to help the child release the shame and rage,
and to begin to learn how that is done. By listening seriously,
and labeling the feeling, the parent can accept the expression of
emotion, while firmly limiting any dangerous or destructive
behavior. Understanding, accepting, and labeling the shame and
anger (and predicting that it will soon pass) reassures the child
of continued respect and love; these responses help the child learn
to get past the feelings of helplessness sooner, an important
emotional skill to learn.
A five-year-old entering school is suddenly faced with a much
larger world full of dangers and chances to feel powerless. What
has he learned about this painful and confusing feeling and what to
do about it? If he has not learned how to recover from shame and
rage fairly quickly, he may be in for a crash course. Before long,
he will encounter a disapproving adult or a competitive peer who
will trigger feelings of shame and helplessness, followed by some
feelings of aggression or rage. He will practice one or more
strategies for dealing with this situation and choose one as his
favorite. He may try to bury the rage by taking it out on himself
in a damaging flurry of self-criticism. He may fantasize about
revenge, and even plan and execute some form of retaliation. He
may take his aggression out on someone else, seeking a way to
restore status by teasing or harassing another, or by shifting
blame. Or he may find a supportive listener with whom to work out
this problem, though this requires skill and sensitive
communication from the child and the listener. There are so many
such episodes in his young life, that a preference for one of the
strategies is soon established. It may work well enough in the
short term to hide the helplessness and take the shame inside, or
to gain back a sense of power. But often it may result in some
unreleased shame or anger that grows into a chronic expectation of
The adolescent lives in a world in which the option of reaching out
for protection from a loving adult becomes enormously more
complicated and difficult. Even the need to seek understanding
and help from an adult can be the source of embarrassment or shame
when the primary psychological task is establishing independence.
Competition for status within the all-important peer group often
takes the form of teasing or hazing, where one youngster seeks to
make himself the center of attention by making fun of another. It
is a universal game, and within limits, can be a healthy kind of
flexing of social muscles. But the limits are not well known, and
therefore easy to cross. The young person who is the butt of the
joke is in a poor position to define the rules of this game. Shame
and hurt rule in silence, and the inevitable anger soon begins to
grow. The young person may direct this anger at any of a number of
targets. He may define himself as a loser and experience anger at
himself, eroding his self-esteem. He may become angry with the
adults of the world for not protecting him, or with the "winners'
of the game for their cruelty or insensitivity. This anger is
difficult to express, especially toward the teasers who provoked
it. So it is more likely to be turned inward and become the stuff
of self-hatred or angry fantasies of revenge. Fortunately, many
kids find some way through this minefield without significant
scars. But many others do not. Eating disorders, adolescent
depression, and oppositional disorders all share a chronic
expectation of criticism or shame, with chronic anger focused
either on the self or the outside world or both. For some the
anger fuels constant fantasies of getting even. Their angry
demeanor subtly repels some of their peers, leaving them more
isolated, and angrier. They find sympathy with angry lyrics in
songs, angry images in movies, and a few angry friends, their
fellow misfits. Academic and social failure and isolation add to
the shame, and to the rage. Emotion "motivates" us to act. And
rage motivates angry or violent behavior, toward oneself or the
To be continued in an article in the next issue on what families
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Our brains and bodies are naturally designed to express a range of emotions and to respond to the emotions of others. The emotions of fear, shame, and anger serve us in the most dangerous situations we may have to face. The fear and anger not only energize us to run or fight, but also communicate our emotional state to those close enough to respond. Our anger lets others know we are energized to attack and they had better respect that. Fear communicates to others that there is something dangerous nearby, and they might want to get ready to run, too. Shame also communicates. It communicate surrender so that our foe will not continue to attack.
We are also hardwired to express joy, distress, and surprise. The expression of joy communicates our relief at being safe among friends, while distress communicates our need for help and comfort.
Surprise seems designed to help us assess the situation when something unexpected happens. It focuses our attention and opens our eyes.
We also come equipped with the ability to recognize these basic emotional states in others. Mirroring structures in the brain help us to respond to others actions and emotions automatically. Very young babies understand the difference between a smile and a frown, a lullaby and a scolding and they respond automatically.
Direct uninhibited emotional response between two people is called intimacy, and babies are natural at it, which is why we often find relationships with babies so rewarding. Babies are not ashamed to show their feelings, whether they are distress, frustration, delight, fear, or shame itself. And when we are with them, we are not ashamed to mimic them with goo goos and gah gahs of baby talk that we would be embarassed to see on video, absent the baby context. We are free to be responsive to a baby's distress or frustration. We are rewarded by the good feelings of intimacy.
So what goes wrong later?
Somewhere along the line, we learn to try to hide our feelings because our own feelings scare us or we are ashamed of them. Expressing our feelings becomes associated with feeling vulnerable
because others may make fun of us or try to use our feelings against us. So we work very hard to hide our feelings behind a mask of some kind, and in order to do this we work to suppress the emotions. We can get so good at this that we hide the feelings even from ourselves and feel horrified at the possibility that others could know about our distress, shame, or frustration. Some of us drink, binge, purge, or work long hours in order to numb ourselves and make it easier to suppress the emotions rather than express them. And we lose the freedom and delight of intimacy in a habit of hiding behind our mask. We substitute sex for intimacy and busy routines for friendship.
Underneath the masks, the busy routines, and the defensive habits, we are still hardwired to express our emotions and respond to others, still hardwired for intimacy if we can let go of the habits we have developed to protect ourselves. We can escape the trap of these new defensive habits, but we often have to have help to overcome the fear and shame that keep us stuck behind our masks.
When Joe arrives at an AA meeting and sets aside his shame enough to take the first step of introducing himself, “Hi, I’m Joe and I’m an alcoholic,” he stops hiding something he has hidden from himself and tried to hide from others for years. He is rewarded by the welcome from the other members of the group, “Hi, Joe.” It is the acceptance that is the first taste of intimacy he has enjoyed in a long time.
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
The following haiku and limericks on the topic of shame and anger were contributed by my friend John Kavanaugh, after reading a late draft of the book.
Thanks, John. Your sense of humor obliterates shame and anger quite effectively.
The hot red flush comes,
Shame will shiver your timbers,
Bring you to your knees.
So take a deep breath,
Gather your wits about you
Do not hide your face.
When your brain stem prepares you to fight,
It is time to step back from your plight.
Just suspend your reflex
and engage your cortex
And I trust things will come out all right.
When you're anger has led to contempt,
And your kindness has got up and went,
It is time to reflect,
Wounds of anger and shame to preempt.