In our motivation to feel better, to live wholeheartedly, and to embrace the happiness that is rightfully ours, we might have missed one very important piece. In fact, we might have missed it because we were busy trying to extinguish it.
I’m talking about shame. According to Vernon C. Kelley, Jr. and Mary C. Lamia, authors of The Upside of Shame: Therapeutic Interventions Using The Positive Aspects Of A “Negative” Emotion, shame holds a very important place in our lives. It offers a critical and rarely experienced window into relationships – especially the attachment patterns that define them – and serves to motivate learning, change, and reconnection. It also has traceable evolutionary roots.
“The effects of shame as a negative emotional state characterized by painful feelings of exposure, deflation, helplessness, hurt, inadequacy, or incompetence have obscured the abundant insights and learning that can be gained when people experience the affect,” write Kelly and Lamia.
One important function of shame is to restore positive feelings.
“Shame provides critical relational information beyond the felt experience when, through cognition, shame becomes linked with the diminished sense of self. Given its disruption of good feelings, shame not only draws attention to the partial impediment to positive affect, but also what impeded it in the first place,” write the Kelly and Lamia.
From an evolutionary perspective, it is shame that signals the presence of those things that interfere with our positive emotions, and acts as a necessary tool for the management of our well-being.
“It would be impossible to monitor good feelings without having readily available the information that while in the midst of such feelings, something begins to interfere with the experience,” write Kelly and Lamia.
Yet when we avoid shame, we also fail to learn the lessons it offers. While emotions such as fear and terror motivate running away and anger motivates attack, shame motivates restoration.
“The upside of such interpersonal shame and vulnerability for social interaction and society as a whole is that it creates scripts wherein the restoration of relationships is necessary and desirable,” write Kelly and Lamia.
While shame becomes an important self-teacher and offers an important reflection of how we appear, behave, and achieve in relation to others and to our own internalized standards, for some people, Kelley and Lamia concede, any feeling of shame is highly disruptive. For these people, it is the inflexibility of their internalized scripts that can be most damaging.
“The disadvantages of scripts include rigid responses when change would be of benefit, as well as the tendency of the most rigid scripts to alter new information to fit old ways of thinking – a process that promotes relearning what we know time and time again,” write Kelly and Lamia.
The impact and meaning of negative emotional states has also misconstrued the therapeutic understanding of shame. While ameliorating these emotional states may offer patients some relief, it fails to recognize what they signify – that something pleasant, comforting and positive has been lost.
Often it is the loss of a loving connection with another person that turns what was a very good scene into a very bad one. A primary function of the therapist might be clarifying the role of defensive behaviors that mask shame, and recasting shame as an important signal that positive affect is not impossible but has been lost, and therefore, can also be regained.
When the patient experiences shame, it is also an important signal to the therapist that indicates the patient has experienced a collapse of the implicit self, and also that the affective connection between the therapist and the patient has been ruptured.
Shame is a characteristic feature of many disorders – from anxiety and depression to narcissistic personality disorder – and yet is often not well understood.
“Many clinicians and their patients are unaware that shame affect and emotion may underlie the persistent sadness, agitation, drug or alcohol abuse, anger, malaise, or emptiness reported by patients. Incomplete understanding of the emotional dynamics of any disorder creates therapeutic impasses and further shame in patients as well as therapists,” write Kelly and Lamia.
It is in working through ruptures in the therapeutic relationship where shame is triggered – and acts as an impediment to the patient’s desire for positive regard from the therapist – that shame, especially for the patient with narcissistic personality disorder, can be understood as a signal for the need for reconnection and reconciliation.
The Upside of Shame offers not just a paradigm shift in how we think about shame, but a profoundly useful tool in a clinical setting – one that is indispensable in motivating connection, attachment, and the positive emotional states we all desire. It is a book that anyone seeking a better understanding of the human condition should read.
The Upside of Shame: Therapeutic Interventions Using The Positive Aspects Of A “Negative” Emotion
Vernon C. Kelley Jr. and Mary C. Lamia
W. Norton & Company
Hardcover, 172 Pages