guilt and shame, revisited.

Posted: January 7, 2013 in Uncategorized

So the last time we spoke, it was to discuss the difference and purpose between the feelings of guilt and shame.  To reprise, guilt serves a societal function, working to allow all of us to get along with each other.  Shame works to humiliate, to ruin, and attacks the very essence of a person.

Our bodies are often framed in terms which evoke shame.  We speak of personal responsibility and hold up shining examples of those who are able to change their bodies as heroes.  Jillian Michaels is the first to come to mind, as she has built an empire on her history of weight loss.  I am also reminded of Legally Blonde.  Yes, that junky movie with Reese Witherspoon. 


Bear with me here, and see if you can relate.  In that movie, there is a woman on trial for murdering her husband.  She has a fitness empire and has build this on the lack of fat on her butt.  Yes, her butt.  It turns out (spoiler alert! 10 years too late!) the woman was out getting liposuction and couldn’t have killed her husband, but would not allow this to be used in a court defense to keep her out of prison.  She was more concerned with hiding the lengths she’d go to for the perfect body than staying out of prison.


I have a vivid memory of reading a novel when I was in my teens, and there was a character in that novel who was fat.  I remember reading about this character, who would fantasize about cutting off parts of her body with a knife because she hated her fat so much.  As a teenager, I could relate to this, as I often had the same fantasies.   These are not things I shared with anyone, so to see it on the page was remarkable – someone had the same feelings I did.  Just like group therapy, it was a moment of clarity produced by universality.  I am not alone.


There has been a movement in the past ten years or so (probably longer, but that’s when I became aware of this) for fat acceptance.  To move away from the toxicity that is preached by our media and our parents and our peers.  Agree with this movement or not, the purpose is to reduce the amount of shame we have in our bodies.


The way we think about addictions has shift the same way within the past 25 years.  In the olden days, when an alcoholic would go to treatment, he or she would be shamed beyond belief.  Often in treatment centers they would practice “encounters” where a client would be forced to stand in the middle of the room and explain something “bad” they had done.  Then, other clients and therapist would (often harshly) confront this person.  The idea was to associate shame with the drinking or even with an antisocial behavior (such as stealing).  However, encounters are now rarely used in therapy.  Because they don’t work.  Putting someone in front of a group of people where they are publicly humiliated did not make them feel bad about their behavior.  It made them feel bad about themselves.


Those therapists and counselors and self-help aficianados will know the term “coping skills” and often therapy is geared toward assisting clients to build healthy, productive coping skills.  Once a person can cope with life, they no longer need therapy.   The problem with encounters is they evinced intense feelings of shame. 


You see where I’m going with this now.  My father told me when I first started being a counselor that I was dealing with people at the bottom of the barrel.  When I protested, he explained “these are people who don’t know how to deal with life.”  While I still object to the characterization, I can now understand his point.  As we grow up (and even as children) we are put into situations in which we encounter adversity.  Most times, we learn to handle this adversity and develop coping skills.  This can be affected a great deal by our childhood environment (to be discussed in depth later) but as a general rule, we learn to deal with our emotions during stress.


Alcoholics and addicts often don’t learn this. 


While someone without these issues may use deep breathing to calm down when anxious, an addict will smoke marijuana.  Someone may cope with anger by running; an alcoholic will have a beer.  You see the difference?  The substance becomes the coping skill.


Now ,what do you think would happen if we produce intense feelings of shame in someone who deals with adversity by using a substance?  Excellent, now you understand why encounters are so rarely used today.


Despite our increased understanding of better, more effective techniques to treat drug and alcohol addiction, we insist on treating other problems the same way.  If someone uses food to deal with life’s issues, eats when stressed or sad or bored, what will they turn to when feeling ashamed of their body?


I don’t know about you, but I always end up eating healthier and exercising more when I am happy and feeling powerful and good in my body.  When I am embarrassed I have trouble looking in the mirror, trouble getting motivated, and often become so depressed I have difficulty even leaving the house.  Is making people ashamed producing any change?  I don’t think it is.  But it makes us feel better about ourselves.  Just like your mother told you about the high school bully, who put others down to make themselves feel better, we shame and ridicule others to make ourselves feel better.  And it’s not working.

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