Shame: A Contagious Emotion

In an earlier post, I introduced a meditation on shame. The subsequent post focused on shame as a concealed emotion. In this post I want to focus on shame as a contagious emotion. Like the previous post, this discussion will draw on the work of Mary C. Lamia, my own experience and previous blog posts that I have written. In exploring shame contagion, I will discuss its effects on intimate partners, parents, children and peers.

Shame contagion in intimate relationships

Shame becomes contagious when a person in a relationship takes on a sense of diminished self-worth as a result of the projections of their partner who is attempting to deflect attention from their own “devalued sense of self”. If you value your partner and their opinion and are emotionally dependent on their opinion, you can be strongly influenced by their denigrating remarks and disrespectful behaviour. Your own shame response, reflected in a lower sense of self-worth, can reward their projecting behaviour and create a vicious circle of ever-diminishing self-esteem. The partner’s projection of their shame, whether used consciously or unconsciously, constitutes a form of “emotional abuse“.

Shame contagion in children and parents

A child who experiences distress early in life through the divorce of their parents can take on the shame that rightly belongs to one or both parents. The child can view themselves as the cause of the breakup because they have been “bad”. They can develop an ingrained sense of not being loved or lovable.

Children can also experience shame when their parents engage in what they consider to be shameful behaviour; parents, too, can feel ashamed when their child’s behaviour is criticised by others implying that the parents have failed in their parenting role.

Shame contagion from one person to their peers

Parents can engage, consciously or unconsciously, in shame-inducing behaviour towards their children. An example of this parental behaviour came to light in a workshop group I was facilitating. . The workshop group was continually disrupted by the trenchant criticism by one young woman of everything that was said by anyone else. She was highly analytical and considerably articulate.

In the first break at morning tea, I spoke to her privately and asked what was going on for her when she engaged in this destructive behaviour. She explained that her parents were academics and that even when she was a very young child, she was expected to contribute intelligently to the dinner table conversation. If one or other parent considered that she had said something they considered “stupid”, the parent placed a donkey figure in front of her (implying that she was a “dunce”). In the workshop, the young female participant was projecting her shame from her childhood experiences onto others in the group by making demeaning comments about their lack of intelligence and understanding.

Shame as a contagious emotion

It can be seen from the foregoing discussion that shame can spread across interdependent people or even people who have a low level of interdependence (such as peers). Partners can induce shame in their companions through projection, parents can contribute to feelings of shame when they belittle their children (because they do not measure up to the parent’s expectations), and peers can experience denigration from the shame-deflecting behaviour of another.

So, the contagion of shame can spread across multiple people, generate self-defeating cycles of behaviour and be sustained over several generations. As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and other mindfulness practices, we can become more conscious of our own shame, how it plays out in our lives and how it impacts others with whom we come into contact. The starting point to eliminating shame contagion is the development of self-awareness through progressive self-exploration. This, however, will require being still and engaging in self-inquiry which is often deferred because of the busyness of our daily lives.

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Image source: courtesy of KFrei on Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Naming Your Feelings to Tame Them

In the previous post, I discussed recognising our feelings.  This involved firstly, acknowledging that a very wide range of emotions are the essence of being human, and secondly, using mindfulness to get in touch with the feelings we are experiencing.  In this post, we take this process one step further by naming our individual feelings

Why name your feelings?

In his book, Mindsight, Dan Siegel argues that we “Name It to Tame It” – in other words, by naming our feelings we are better able to control them or, at least, lessen their impact as Professor Matthew D. Lieberman found in his research.

Dan argues that to say “I feel angry” is a very different statement, both in content and impact, than the words “I am angry”.  The latter tends to define us as angry person, whereas the former helps us to recognise that we are not our feelings – we are a lot more than what we feel.  Feelings come and go in nature and intensity – our essence remains.  Naming our feelings in a gentle, non-judgmental way affirms our self-worth and opens up the opportunity to master our feelings.

Naming your feelings gives you a sense of power over them and a freedom from servitude to them.  It also creates new perspectives and a spaciousness for the release of creativity.  As Dr. Ornish noted:

When you take time for your feelings, you become less stressed and you can think more clearly and creatively, making it easier to find constructive solutions.

The challenge of naming your feelings

Often we suppress our feeling or deny them because we are embarrassed to admit that we have those feelings.  Another issue is that often they come in a bundled format – a number of intertwined feelings linked together by a stimulus event or thought.  So, it is often hard to untangle them to identify and name each one.

Jack Kornfield tells the story of his encounter with a young man who said that he was depressed.  So Jack sat with him and entered into a conversation to help him to find out what was happening emotionally for him.  The young man started talking and first identified being worried, then angry, then discouraged, then sad – and finally, he was able to see a way ahead rather than being held captive by this undigested mix of feelings.  I had a similar experience recently, where I passed through a progressive range of feelings – unease, anxiety, fear, anger, empathy – only to identify creative solutions to the issue that was disturbing me.

Thus we need to take time to get in touch with our feelings and to name them.  Sometimes, we can be lost for words to name our feelings.  However, there are a wide range of resources such as the list of feelings (pleasant and unpleasant/difficult).  These feeling words open up the opportunity to get in touch with, and be more descriptive of, what we are actually feeling (rather than using a vague catch-all descriptor which does not strengthen our sense of emotional control).

Jack Kornfield suggests a meditation to help here as well.  It involves the typical process of mindful breathing followed by body scan and then identifying any feeling that you are experiencing through your body – it could be tightness brought on by anxiety, a tingling sensation from nervousness or a speeding-up of your breath resulting from a felt fear.  Acknowledging this feeling and naming it, without judgement, is the first step to dealing with it and gaining self-mastery.  After naming one feeling, you can move onto another feeling during this meditation process.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness meditation on our feelings we gain the insight to name and tame those feelings and open up new perspectives on, and solutions for, existing problems.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Goldie Hawn on Meditation

In an interview with Tami Simon, Goldie Hawn explained why she has developed a 10-year habit of meditation and the benefits she gains from this practice.  The interview is one of a series of podcasts, titled Weekly Wisdom, available free from Sounds True.

Goldie was introduced to meditation when she was challenged by her quick success – in a direction she had not planned to go career-wise, as she had intended to be a dancer and ended up as a famous actress.

This new-found and unexpected fame put a lot of pressure on her and resulted in continuous anxiety.  Her initial challenge was to live up to the expectations of her fans and the carping criticisms of her critics.

Expectations of others can create enormous pressure on anyone who is highly visible in any sphere of life.  Yesterday, for example, I watched live a soccer match between AC Milan and a lesser ranked team at the former team’s home ground.  The expectations of the thousands of AC Milan’s fans were very loud and clear.  They clapped any show of skill of their own team, but were hyper-critical of any mistake particularly where a player lost possession of the football to the opposition.  Their critique was vocal and expressive and left no doubt as to their displeasure.

Others’ expectations can be a very real stressor in the life of a famous person as it was in Goldie’s early career.  It can also be a stressor in our own lives – the unrealistic expectations can come from parents, in-laws, children or peers.

People think they know you and project onto you capabilities they think you have, along with the expectations that go with their assumptions.  It is not only the adoring fans who create this expectation stress, but critics who can often revert to cruel, unkind and unfounded criticisms.  So it is easy to lose your way and  to lose who you really are.

For Goldie, a key benefit of meditation was to achieve separation by finding her true self, not an image projected by others.  She was able to know herself deeply through meditation so she was not caught up in the never-ending trap of trying to live up to others’ expectations.  She not only realised what Meng had explained – that you are not your thoughts or emotions – but also that you are not the projection of others’ thoughts and, sometimes, needy emotions.

in finding out who you really are at a deep level, you achieve a groundedness and a strong sense of self-worth that is not captive to the expectations or opinions of others, whether fans or critics. Achievement of this inner calm and solidity is a lifetime pursuit through meditation and mindful practice.

However, as Goldie explains, the starting point is to overcome the fear of exploring your inner self – of gaining insight into you own inner landscape and who you really are.  This can be really scary but the benefits are enormously rich and empowering.  The  challenge, in her terms, is to explore “the Univerity of You”.

As Goldie explains, the benefits of meditation are deep, profound and life-changing because you are able to experience inner calm and clarity when you begin to realise that you exist independent of other peoples’ expectations of you:

…what I was experiencing then was obviously peace, a sense of calm, and an amazing ability to become more of a witness, rather than engage in things that actually I could not change.  That  was one of the, I would say, very positive effects of meditation for me.

… Beginning to separate that is really important, I think, in terms of where we go in life and how we help ourselves become more clear and more able to make much, much better decisions, when we take ourselves out of the centre of it.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindful practice, we gain a deep insight into our real selves and are able to achieve this separation of our self-identity from the perceptions and expectations of others – and, in the process, experience inner peace and calm.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)