The Inner Voices of Shame

Georgia Devita ArtworkShame is painful. When we experience shame, we live in constant fear of being rejected. We become trapped in various avoidance strategies to escape the pain. But shame left untreated grows more powerful. And it can often lead into behaviours that invite even greater shame.

To effectively work with shame, it’s important to understand the neurobiology of shame and why it’s so difficult to erase its deep tracing on the nervous system. Furthermore, we need to understand why shame vigilantly protects itself, and how traditional treatments may be sustaining shame or driving it even deeper.

 

The 3 Inner Components of Shame

Many people hold on to a deep sense of shame – a feeling that they’re just plain bad. According to Dr Richard Schwartz, founder of Internal Family Systems therapy, there are multiple parts of the self at play in the psychology of shame. One of these parts often locks the person in this negative space of feeling bad.

Dr Schwartz says that we’re all born with the knowledge that our lives depend on being accepted by our tribe. We know we’re not going to survive without the help of a tribe or family or community. “There’s a terror that comes with being shamed – a survival terror.”

To defend ourselves, then, against doing anything that might bring on that shame of not being accepted by our tribe, we develop what is commonly known as an inner critic. The inner critic is often misunderstood in psychotherapy, but according to Dr. Schwartz, it is just a part of the psyche that is desperately trying to keep us from getting shamed by the outside world.

For people who have a lot of experience with childhood shame in particular, that critic often takes on the voice of the shaming parent. It’s desperate to get you to behave the way that a parent wanted you to – so that you don’t get more shame from that parent. The inner critic says, “You’re bad enough already and if you do this other thing, you’re going to be even worse.”

Alongside the inner critic, there exists a young, vulnerable part that starts to believe you are bad and worthless. It believes the messages that first came from one of those shaming parents – and it carries them throughout life as its “burden of worthlessness.”

Dr. Schwartz explains, “There is a critic who says you’re shit, and there’s this young part that believes it.” Usually, there is then yet another, third part, whose job it is to get away from feeling the shame. Sometimes, when that third part is triggered, a person might resort to extreme behaviours that can bring on more shame – the very thing they wanted to avoid.

For example someone may go get drunk when they feel shame, or act out sexually – basically doing something to get away from that initial feeling. Others may become enraged at somebody, because feeling rage seems powerful, and masks the underlying feeling of being worthless and bad.

“The part that does the rescue from the shame then brings on more shame from the outside world, which fuels the critic. You get this viscous cycle going inside.” That’s how Dr. Schwartz sees shame.

 

Working with Shame

In therapy, it’s crucial to first work with the inner critic before approaching the parts that feel all the shame. If the inner critic is not first addressed and overcome, then when someone in therapy approaches the things that underlie their sense of shame – the inner critic can be powerfully triggered into inducing a downward spiral into further shame.

We want to do everything we can to avoid this scenario, advises Dr. Schwartz – it is unnecessarily painful and there are far more compassionate ways of working with shame.

Dr. Joan Borysenko, renowned expert in the mind-body connection, suggests one very simple and effective way of addressing the inner critic is through humour – naming the inner critic. As we start to differentiate the voice of inner criticism, giving it a name can help you gain power over it. Then, whenever the inner critic comes up, explains Dr. Borysenko, “we can say, ‘Alright. Get thee behind me, Zelda,’ or whatever your name is.”

There are many other ways of working with shame – a sense of humour certainly helps, but it takes time, compassion and patience to fully heal. Back in the mid ‘80s, Louise Hay, for example, used a simple but powerful meditation when she was working with AIDS patients. It was at a time when much of the world was shaming young men with AIDS, saying “God is punishing you for your sins because you’ve done this thing that’s wrong.”

Louise created a loving space for AIDS patients instead of shaming them. Being with her was a safe place. She ran group events that were attended by gay men, where she would sometimes give a simple meditation as a way of practicing compassion and patience toward oneself. It was a visualisation exercise where you started by seeing yourself as a baby, and holding yourself in your arms –really trying to put yourself into that baby self, with all the love that you would give to this little being. Then, you tucked the baby into your heart.

Next, you’d see yourself as a 5-year-old, and go through the same kind of loving compassionate process before also tucking the little 5-year-old in your heart. Then, when you were 10, and then 15, and then when you were a young adult or whatever age you are now.

Dr. Borysenko comments on how Louise’s meditation gave people an amazing chance to have things come up about themselves at different ages and to feel compassionate toward themselves. It helped with disarming the inner critic, because inner child work is another very important part of dealing with shame.

In future posts I’ll be sharing more ways in which you can dissolve the power structures that hold shame in place and how you can heal from the pain of shame. See you then.

 

Sources

NICABM – National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioural Medicine
Dr. Richard Schwartz – Internal Family Systems Therapy
Dr. Joan Borysenko – Mind-Body Health Sciences LLC
Artwork by Giorgia Di Vita

 

Poems of Transformation: Love After Love, by Derek Walcott

Sacred Union Alex GreyLove After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

– Derek Walcott

 

Derek Walcott, Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1992, usually writes long poems. But this poem, “Love After Love,” is different. It speaks of feasting and celebration. And of the joy of two selves, long parted, reuniting. Evoking in the reader his or her own particular experiences of separation and belonging.

There is something profoundly affirming and validating that may be recognised in its lines; we may puzzle who is this person whom we are to greet again? This stranger from whom we have been parted for so long?

As individuals born into the modern world, we aspire to create the life we want for ourselves. We strive to “make something of ourselves” in the world. Yet ancient psychological traditions would say that the pattern of who we truly are lies dormant within us from the beginning, ready to unfold, just as the oak tree is already there in the acorn. Suggesting that one’s task in life is to discern the pattern, listen for it, and make room for it to emerge, instead of trying to “make ourselves happen.”

It may take some time, perhaps most of a lifetime, before we realise that a quiet, strange voice is whispering beneath our outward efforting and labours. Speaking from a different current, which may want to go one way even while we push to go another.

Until that time, the conscious self assumes the role of sole champion of our destiny and purpose. However as we soften with experience, the conscious self comes to embrace that other one whom you also are.

Walcott’s poem touches a deep current of human experience, of exile and homecoming. It is as if you have known all your life that home is as near to you as your jugular vein, yet still distant somehow. Coming home, then, is a joyous communion with your self, a celebration and festival of your life. The time for which, the poet says, is now.

 

Artwork by Alex Grey

 

Living in Balance: 5 Principles of Integral Health

MC-S-Tetra-14As the pace of modern life continues to quicken and as the amount of information we are each required to process on a daily basis increases exponentially, it is vital to our health and well-being that we take the time to become aware of fundamental principles of living in balance.

In this series of short articles, I’ll be sharing a careful distillation of some of these principles, in a form which is easy to digest and easy for you to begin to integrate into your day-to-day life.

Living in Balance means making wise choices that do not disperse your energy excessively in one area of life at the expense of others; and that sustain your creativity and imagination and support good health and relationships. Such choices are founded upon the principles of integral health.

Integral health regards overall well-being as a function of a number of interconnected levels, including physical health, psychological health, emotional health, social health and spiritual health.

Physical health is about the biological health of the body. It is the area of health that is most often considered as healthy or unhealthy. Yet it is not the only thing that affects our state of health. Good physical health includes nutrition, hydration, exercise, rest and medical help when needed.

Psychological health encompasses the way we think and the neuroscience of how the brain works. It is a very broad area that takes into account genetic influence and innate survival needs. It factors in environmental influences and the impact of early life experiences in shaping our behavioural and relational habits.

Emotional health is being increasingly recognized as fundamental to well-being, due to the work of people like Daniel Goleman and Karla McLaren. Emotional health is about having the ability and capacity to understand your emotional responses and how or why they exist or repeat. While at the same time having the capacity to work with the emotions of others to build trust and good relationships.

Social health is vitally important too. It is to do with our human need to belong to a group. In simple terms, social health means the ability to prevent and avoid loneliness, through positive relationships, positive social experiences and a good support network. For some this means treasuring one friend who truly understands them and for others, it means a big group of good friends and vast social circles. It depends on what’s right for each individual.

Spiritual health is commonly misunderstood. It considers the ability to fulfill our innate need to be connected to something much bigger than ourselves. This does not have to be God or a deity of any sort. It can be the Universe, Mother Nature, or a Higher Power or Higher Self within us, or serving a Greater Cause that brings meaning and purpose. Recent findings of neuroscience, and fundamental spiritual practices such as mindfulness and meditation, are beginning to work together to help individuals find peace on the inside whilst the world may be chaotic on the outside. Spiritual health means the ability to see the bigger picture and our place within it, and to know the meaning and purpose of life, of yourself and others.

It is helpful to keep these areas of integral health in mind, particularly at the start of this new year, when many of us find ourselves reflecting on intentions for the year ahead. For instance you may know deep down that you have poor “work-life balance” but often do not appreciate precisely what this means, other than too much work and not enough life!

More and more studies are now giving integral health the recognition it deserves. Reflecting on the above five areas as a guide to healthy living will help you make choices that with the right support and intention will naturally lead you in to living a balanced life.

 

 

 

Mindfulness: Entering a Deeper You

Mindfulness is a secret that was well understood in the ancient world and has been kept alive by certain cultures until the present day. It is so effective that it’s now one of the preferred treatments recommended by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.

Monk SweepingThe practice of mindfulness is a process that leads you to a profound understanding that thoughts and feelings (including negative ones) are transient. Like clouds in the sky, they come and they go. And ultimately, you have a choice about whether to act on them or not.

Mindfulness practice helps cultivate a deep and compassionate awareness that allows you to assess your goals and make the best choices towards realising your deepest values. It is the beginning of a process that puts you back in control of your life.

Mindfulness-based Psychotherapy

Living mindfully has been shown to exert a powerful influence on one’s health, wellbeing and happiness. The cultivation of a mindful life is akin to learning a musical instrument, or training a system of muscles through regular and patterned exercise. The skills and benefits gradually accumulate, deepen and unfold.

It is important to have good guidance. Mindfulness-based psychotherapy provides a coherent structure within which you can observe your own mind, body and life unfolding. It offers a systematic, safe and trustworthy approach for working with, and through, whatever arises.

Through its simple yet radical practices of self-awareness and self-inquiry, you begin to see what happens when you pay attention and act with kindness and compassion towards yourself and others, even if it feels a bit artificial at first.

Emotional Freedom

An important aspect of mindfulness-based psychotherapy is learning how to simply be with one’s emotions. While we inevitably feel a little sad, anxious, or irritable from time to time, it’s not the mood that does the damage but how we react to it. . .

For instance you may have noticed that the effort of trying to free yourself from a bad mood can often make things worse? It’s as if struggling against difficult feelings pulls you deeper into an emotional quicksand.

The reason this happens is because our state of mind is intimately connected with memory. It’s constantly trawling the depths in search of memories that echo our current emotional state. These memory echoes are incredibly powerful, and once they gather momentum, they are almost impossible to shake free.

In mindfulness-based psychotherapy you learn to recognise memories as they arise and to safely and freely experience your emotions, without getting overwhelmed by the influences of the past.

Suffering is Optional!

A further benefit of mindfulness practice is the eradication of unnecessary suffering from our lives, much of which arises out of our habitual ways of thinking and acting.

Mindfulness-based psychotherapy encourages you to see and break unconscious habits of thought and behaviour that prevent you from living life to the full. You begin to see that while pain is a part of life, suffering is optional!

Sometimes the habits that cause us the most suffering are the ones we’re most unaware of. It’s as if we’ve trained ourselves to look the other way while we suffer! A trained therapist acts as a kind of mirror in which we can become aware of our blind spots. As we begin to see how we habitually block and judge ourselves, alternative paths and choices emerge.

In time, new pathways are carved out in our neural circuitry and old patterns are permanently released. It’s worth remembering that it may take time for mindfulness practices to reveal their full potential, but they lead to deep-down and lasting change, which really can make your life more joyous and fulfilled.

 

Photo by Andy Cheek of Stevenage, Herts.

 

The Inner Critic: A Pathway to Wholeness and True Conscience

Inner Critic“I can’t do it. . .”

“I’m not worthy. . .”

“I must be perfect. . .”

“I must not make a mistake. . .”

“I’m not good enough. . .”

“Nobody loves me. . .”

Any of this sound familiar?

Everyone has an inner voice like this. In traditional psychology it’s referred to as the superego, or more popularly known as the inner critic.

For many people it is the main source of immense and unnecessary suffering through shame, guilt, low self-esteem, and devaluation. The good news is that it can be fully understood and transformed into a source of inner support and guidance, instead of self-recrimination and judgement.

The inner critic serves as a kind of “false conscience.” It is built mostly through identification with judging, criticism, blaming and punishing attitudes from our childhood environment. Over time it becomes a harsh inner judge and a cruel source of self-punishment. Instead of being the light of true conscience, it develops into an inflexible part of the mind with harsh rules and commandments.

The inner critic constantly monitors, scanning you and other people’s perception of you. Whenever it detects something that it doesn’t approve of, it immediately judges and condemns you. As well as causing suffering in your day to day affairs, it can be a real problem in psychotherapy because it attacks you every time you uncover something of which it disapproves!

As a result of this many people engaged in psychotherapy can unnecessarily suffer. Or to avoid this suffering they may avoid experiencing important parts of themselves that the inner critic judges as “no good.” These parts are kept “off limits,” effectively blocking you from being fully conscious of yourself.

An essential part of psychotherapy, especially if you suffer from low self-esteem, guilt or shame, is to help you recognise your inner critic for what it is, and learn to effectively deal with it in ways that free you to reveal more of your true self. A good therapist will provide you with the support, understanding and methodology to do this, at your own pace.

This consists in learning to recognize and confront the assumptions and principles that keep your inner critic in place. At the same time, cultivating key antidotes to the self-judgement process: compassion, will, and strength. And most important, learning to disengage from your inner critic when it is most painfully active.

As we gradually become free from the inner critic and begin to experience ourselves more fully, we feel the confidence and the energy to let others see us as we are too. In time the harsh judgements and censorship of the inner critic are replaced with a sense of wholeness and a different voice emerges–that of your true conscience.

In this way, work on the inner critic becomes a pathway to your true self.

 

Sadat Malik
Phone: 07710 511 517
Email: sadat@thepracticelondon.org

 

Poems of Transformation: The Journey, by Mary Oliver

The JourneyThe Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

–Mary Oliver

The Journey is a poem of transformation. It speaks of the moment when you dare. When you dare to listen to your own truth and set sail into a new life.

It is a poem in which you might catch a reflection of your own story. It invites you to find yourself and your own experience at its centre–the experience of a kind of knowing. A knowing that may lie dormant perhaps for many years, then one day suddenly bursts into life. A knowing that reveals the true journey of your life.

Perhaps this all sounds a bit too dramatic—but this poem can speak to anyone, wherever you are on your journey. Yet it is not quite enough merely to know. You have to take that first step in the dark, you have to begin though you are uncertain and filled with doubt. The mystic-poet Rumi said,

Start walking, start walking towards Shams,
Your legs will get heavy and tired.
Then comes the moment of feeling the wings you’ve grown lifting.

It can take a lifetime to prepare for the moment when this kind of knowing comes. A lifetime of being softened, broken down, and cooked in grief or mourning, while not essential, tends to pave the way into a new life for many. A new life requires a death of some kind, a letting go. What you let go of is a way of being in the world that you have outgrown.

And yet there are no guarantees. You cannot know where the road will take you. Nevertheless embarking upon the ‘road less travelled’ is an essential human experience. On some deep level every human heart yearns to follow its archetypal path.

“The Journey” speaks to the birth of a new self, a deeper identity that was in you all along. This new self does not flee from the world, but walks deeply into it. You cannot know where its voice will lead you. But you alone can respond to its call.