Lynne Malcolm: Hi, it’s All in the Mind on RN, I’m Lynne Malcolm with a brand new line-up of programs exploring the brain, the mind and human behaviour for 2019. Today we explore some difficult emotions that aren’t often talked about, and this is what they physically feel like in your body.
Joseph Burgo: The classic symptoms are gaze aversion. You often drop your head and look away. You have a brief confusion of thought. There’s a desire to escape, and it’s usually accompanied by a feeling of heat, blushing in the face, neck or chest. And as I said, those could be really mild and fleeting, just a second and they’re gone, or they could just go on and on in a way that feels like tournament.
Lynne Malcolm: Dr Joseph Burgo, clinical psychologist and author is talking about shame, which is also the title of his latest book. Most of us do what we can to avoid feeling a sense of shame, but Joseph Burgo suggests that if we can gain a better insight into it we can use shame as a tool to help us understand ourselves and our relationships with others better.
Joe, at the beginning of the book you talk about how people tend to perceive shame and embarrassment as two quite distinct emotions, shame being the more potent, destructive emotion, and embarrassment being perhaps more minor or trivial. How do you understand or conceive shame as a spectrum, I guess, of emotions?
Joseph Burgo: I think of shame as a family of emotions. They all share a painful awareness of self. So the shame family of emotions are all those feelings where we feel bad about ourselves. It could be very brief and mild, we call that embarrassment. Or it could be deep and lasting, we call that humiliation. But they all share this painful awareness of self. That is, when we feel an emotion in the shame family our self comes into focus in a way that feels bad. I will say in advance that human beings everywhere in every culture and on every continent feel shame in exactly this same way, so it’s genetically encoded, we all feel it the same way.
Lynne Malcolm: In your work as a psychoanalyst, what areas of people’s lives do you see shame manifest most?
Joseph Burgo: Everywhere really. The whole middle of the book is addressing the ways that shame shows up in people’s lives in ways that it doesn’t necessarily look like shame. So what we call social anxiety would be better thought of as shame anxiety. And people spend a lot of time trying to avoid feeling that way, so they become withdrawn, they become shut-ins, they become very shy. That’s one way it shows up.
In relationships people avoid the possibility of rejection. That would be shaming, that would be hurtful, it would make you feel like you were unworthy, so people become on the one hand relationship phobic or they become promiscuous. Those ways that you avoid exposing yourself to the possibility of shame. Addiction is a lot about managing shame, especially alcoholism. Alcohol is…there’s a psychoanalyst Donald Nathanson who says that the primary purpose of alcohol is to release us from the bonds of shame. So people who indulge in alcohol and other kind of drugs often use it as a way to manage feelings of shame. I could go on and on, but that the whole middle of the book is about all the different ways that shame shows up in people’s lives that doesn’t necessarily look like shame.
Lynne Malcolm: So you talk about avoidance of shame, denial of shame and control of shame, all perhaps leading to some sort of…or in some cases a mental illness.
Joseph Burgo: I think we all to some degree try to avoid shame. Most of us will deny shame at one time or another, and we also try to control shame. Those are to some degree normal. It’s when they become chronic and pervasive attempts to manage the experience of shame, to such an extent they define our lives and our personalities, then they result in these mental disorders; addiction, social anxiety, masochism, self-hatred. These are ways in which the avoidance, strategies, the controlling strategies come to dominate people to such an extent that it becomes pathological.
Lynne Malcolm: Joseph Burgo has worked as a psychotherapist in private practice for over 35 years. To illustrate how shame can be at the core of emotional difficulty in people’s lives, he describes the case of one of his patients who experienced social anxiety.
Joseph Burgo: A client came to me pretty much paralysed by social anxiety, she was a technical writer, so she was able to work from home a lot, she didn’t have to have encounters with clients a lot, and she had managed to organise her life to such a degree that she minimised contacts with other people, so she could have her groceries delivered, her laundry picked up and returned. She really had become a shut-in because just about any encounter with other people made her so uncomfortably self-conscious that she couldn’t bear it. That is I think a fairly typical scenario for people who struggle with extreme social anxiety, and our work together was a lot about helping her to come into contact with the shame that she was avoiding and to learn gradually over time how to bear it, how to be brave really and to go out into the world and encounter shame, and to find that she wasn’t destroyed by it as she feared. So that’s a very typical scenario.
Lynne Malcolm: So you’ve written about how shame can be connected to our early life experiences and early emotional development. How does our relationship with our parents as children inform how we feel about ourselves as adults, specifically in relation to feelings of shame?
Joseph Burgo: I think there’s two ways. The most obvious way that would be familiar to people is when you have parents who are particularly shaming in their child rearing techniques where they humiliate their children, they correct them too harshly, this instils feelings of defect and unworthiness, and then in later life you become very self-protective. You either try to avoid encounters with shame with other people or you become perfectionistic to try to avoid any experience of correction that could be shaming.
But, you know, our parents’ child rearing practices, the way they use shame to socialise us will have a lasting effect on us. The more profound way, and this is something I’ve talked about in all of my books and I’ve worked with in my practices, something I call core shame, and core shame takes hold in the first months and couple of years of life when parenting goes absolutely wrong, when there is a parent who is addicted to drugs, when there’s incredible violent discord in the household, when there is an early death, when parents are just unable to fulfil their duties to parent, then the child is left with a feeling of ugliness, defect and damage that I call core shame.
The thing is, we are born into this world with an innate need and an expectation to be loved and adored by our parents, in a stage-appropriate way, during that first year of life, you know, where parents are infatuated with their babies. Babies come into the world expecting that and it turns out their brains actually need the hormones that are released during a joyful interaction to develop normally. So joy, interpersonal joy is crucial during that first year of life for the brain to develop normally. If it’s grossly deficient, for the reasons that I already mentioned, then instead of having this basic sense of self-worth that’s instilled during that first year of life you have this feeling of core shame, defect, damage, ugliness that can last a lifetime.
Lynne Malcolm: There’s an important relationship between the way we manage the emotions of shame, and feelings of self-worth or self-esteem, says Joseph Burgo.
Joseph Burgo: You know, I think there’s a common misperception that shame and self-esteem are pretty much opposites, and that shame, for instance, in child rearing has no place if you want to bring up children who feel good about themselves. That turns out not to be true. In order to understand how crucial shame is, you once again have to you let go of this idea of shame as this huge toxic horrible experience and think about it as this whole spectrum of emotions that I’ve been talking about.
So, for instance, after that first year of joyful interaction, it turns out that in the second and third years of life for babies’ brains to develop normally they need exposure to mildly shaming experience. And by that I don’t mean humiliation, I mean things like, ‘Mummy is talking to Adele’s mummy right now, please don’t interrupt.’ ‘It’s not nice to take toys away from other children, give it back to Steven.’ ‘Wait your turn.’ These mild reprimands are in the spectrum of shaming experiences and in they release cortisol. People might be familiar with cortisol, corticosteroids, they are stress hormones. And the fascinating thing is it turns out for brain to develop, to continue normally in the second and third years of life, we need optimal amounts of cortisol. So, the surprise, we actually need mildly shaming experiences if we are to develop normally. It helps us to socialise. That is, it helps us to get control over our impulses so that we can live in a community in which our needs aren’t always paramount, when other people matter and we have to take them into account too.
Lynne Malcolm: So we are reliant on skilful, sensitive parenting that isn’t always wrapping your child in cotton wool.
Joseph Burgo: Exactly. In fact, you do them a disservice if you wrap them in cotton wool. There’s been some wonderful books that have been written over the last few years about what has happened in the self-esteem movement and parenting styles that have been affected by it, and contrary to what you might have expected, that we brought up a generation of kids who feel great about themselves, instead we’ve brought up a generation of kids who are kind of narcissistic, who don’t take criticism well, they don’t deal with frustration well, they kind of expect to get what they want when they want it. They focus too much on themselves and they want to be the focus of attention. They don’t deal well with the fact that other people have needs too. So, shame in the good sense, the good shame…I know that might sound like an oxymoron, but good shame helps people to live in a world in which other people matter too.
Lynne Malcolm: You’re with All in the Mind on RN, I’m Lynne Malcolm. I’m speaking with Dr Joseph Burgo, clinical psychologist and author. His latest book is about shame. Joseph Burgo has also written extensively on narcissism. His previous book is called The Narcissist You Know. He says people tend to use three main strategies to manage difficult, shameful emotions. They try to avoid them, control them, or deny them. Narcissism is a common method for denying shame.
Joseph Burgo: Narcissists, people who have narcissistic tendencies, typically deal with shame at with a trio of defence mechanisms. First of all, they deny that they have any reason to feel shame. They tend to blame other people, treat them with contempt and feel indignant in the face of being criticised. All of this is an effort to sort of bat away, to deny any feelings of shame and really to inflict them on other people.
Lynne Malcolm: Research professor Brené Brown is well known for her work in the area of shame. She focuses largely on external forces of social shame, things like how we are supposed to look and feel and what the damaging effect of this is. How do we challenge shame that is imposed on us by society?
Joseph Burgo: Well, first of all I think you need to read her books to do that. I think her books are fabulous for giving guidance in that particular aspect of how to stand up to what she calls the social community expectations that are perfectionistic and impossible to reconcile. I think she has a lot of great guidance. My caveat there is I don’t want people to become too defiant. Shame defiance is sort of a necessary stage in reacting to this kind of shame. But you also need to go on to develop authentic sources of self-esteem to build pride in addition to simply saying ‘I will not feel ashamed because you tell me I ought to’. That’s the first step. Crucial. Then you have to go on to build pride as the core of self-esteem, that’s the whole subject of the last third of my book.
Lynne Malcolm: The wave of sexual harassment scandals in recent times in the era of #metoo has seen shame and humiliation on show very publicly. What do you get from shaming others who have wronged us or behaved immorally? How is shaming a controlling force in society?
Joseph Burgo: This is a fascinating area of research. There has been studies that have come out recently to talk about the evolutionary value of shame. Really, if shame is this horrible, toxic, painful feeling, why did evolution encode it in our genes, why do we all have the ability to feel shame? It turns out that shame evolved during the long millennia when we were living primarily in small tribal groups, and that closely adhering to the standards and expectations of the tribe were necessary if the tribe was going to survive. So if you disobeyed the tribal injunctions against certain behaviour, if you didn’t share food or if you didn’t cooperate with other members of the tribe in hunting and gathering, well then you would be exposed to shame, you might be shunned. This is such a painful experience that people naturally try to avoid it.
So avoiding that experience of shame can lead you to conform to tribal expectations. This is still true today. Societies all over the world make use of shame to enforce their particular sets of values and expectations. Sometimes that can be drawn overly narrow, like here in the United States during the 1950s when role expectations were very narrow and overly shaming so that people were made miserable by them. They can go too far. But often having appropriate role expectations and shaming those who deviate from them is an expression of our cultural values.
So, shaming people in the #metoo movement, we are saying…maybe we would say now it is no longer okay for men in power to exploit that power to manipulate and use women as sexual objects. And therefore because we feel that way it is appropriate to shame them publicly as an expression of our values. I think the challenge here is not to make the shame and public humiliation into a vindictive effort to destroy those men, as understandable as that feeling might be. In the history of shame as a social influence, it has almost always been used with the idea that there is an end to it, and if you express remorse and then conform to societal expectation you will be welcomed back into the fold. I think that’s how shame can be the most effective, when it’s not vindictive and when it contains the possibility of forgiveness.
Lynne Malcolm: But often that the perpetrator doesn’t acknowledge that shame.
Joseph Burgo: There are some really great examples. One of them is the president of the United States. Harvey Weinstein is another one, these people who continue in the narcissistic mode of denial of shame. ‘I have nothing to feel ashamed about because I did nothing wrong, and you people are to blame, for whatever reason. I hold you in contempt and I’m indignant that these charges were brought against me and I’ll fight them with every ounce of my being.’ That’s not remorse, so those people do not deserve forgiveness and they do not deserve to be reintegrated into society.
Lynne Malcolm: And in many cases perhaps those people resort to shaming others to rid themselves of their own shame.
Joseph Burgo: I think that’s absolutely true. I guess we would call that projection. I think that’s one of the primary methods that narcissists use for coping with their own shame, is by projecting it into other people, humiliating them and then making them feel like losers. That’s what bullying is about really. I’ve written a lot about that in my last book and also in various articles, that the bully is really someone who comes to the scene with a lot of shame. Bullies do not come from healthy backgrounds in which they were loved by their parents and they feel good about themselves. They are people who are burdened by a lot of shame and their strategy is to identify a target, often somebody who is already struggling with shame, and then to try and unload or offload all of their shame into that person by victimising them, humiliating them, excluding them from peer groups. So yes, getting rid of your shame by projecting it onto other people is a primary strategy in narcissism.
Lynne Malcolm: There has been a sense in recent years I think that narcissism is rising in society. Do you believe that that’s the case?
Joseph Burgo: I do, I very much do, and there are many reasons why that is so. I think it has a lot to do with the rise of social media and this relentless expectation that you will appear publicly in a way that makes your life look as if you are a winner, you’re leading this fabulous life, and you are under constant scrutiny, you are constantly aware that other people are posting pictures on Instagram of their fabulous life and their incredible meals and their vacations in an idealised way, and it’s very easy to feel like everyone else is leading this glamorous life and that you’re just a loser. So you become driven to prove that that’s not true and to constantly demonstrate that you too are leading this incredible life; ‘look at me, admire me’.
I also think that parents’ use of electronic devices, their absorption in their phones and iPods and iPads when they are around their children, I find this really disturbing, to see parents out with their children and instead of interacting in this joyful way I’ve been talking about, this face-to-face joyful expression of love for one another, they are on their phones, they are preoccupied, they are not making that baby feel like she is the centre of the universe, in a way. And it may not lead to core shame, that kind of devastating shame that I was talking about earlier on, but I think it does lead to some kind of shame. It’s like why am I not getting my parents’ attention? Is there something wrong with me? Am I unlovable, is there something defective about me? And that in the way that narcissism is the defence against core shame, I think narcissistic tendencies come to the rescue when there’s this kind of feeling of emptiness and unworthiness left behind by parents who just kind of are off in their own world, not paying attention to you.
Lynne Malcolm: So what determines how individuals respond to shame?
Joseph Burgo: I think it has to do with their personal level of self-esteem. Someone who is already struggling with shame, someone who is on the narcissism spectrum, they will respond in a defensive way instantly to any kind of perceived attack, which is the way they experience shame, anything that stirs up shame is an attack and they will retaliate. Some people will…people who are more in the controlling shame spectrum, they might take delivery of that shaming experience and then go on to brutalise themselves with it, really just sort of to maximise it, but in a way to take control over and internalise it so they are the ones who are shaming themselves.
I think a really healthy response, the response of somebody who is able to manage shame without it destroying their sense of self-worth, is humour. I’ve noticed in my work and in my research that narcissists have zero sense of humour about themselves. I think it’s a characteristic feature. And to me a defining sign of healthy self-esteem is the ability to laugh at yourself, to see, okay, I’m not so perfect, I’m actually kind of funny and it’s okay to laugh at myself because I’m still a worthwhile person, it doesn’t destroy me to see that I’m imperfect.
Lynne Malcolm: So why is it that we find shame so difficult to acknowledge or confront, more so perhaps than other uncomfortable feelings like anger or hurt or pain?
Joseph Burgo: Shame hurts, you know, it really does. Other feelings like anger or sadness, they hurt too, but there something about the focus on ourselves that makes shame feelings particularly excruciating I think. And I also think there’s a message out there in society that there is something shameful about feeling ashamed. Many shame researchers have pointed out that we are ashamed of feeling ashamed and I want to tell people don’t feel ashamed for feeling ashamed, that’s just normal, everybody feels ashamed from time to time. And instead of denying it or running from it, tune into it, see what it’s telling you about yourself, use it as an opportunity to grow.
Lynne Malcolm: We don’t tend to talk about shame much. What do you hope that by focusing on shame it will help us to overcome this sense of perhaps narcissism in society?
Joseph Burgo: Well, most of all I want to change the conversation about shame because shame is like…it is a word that is everywhere in the media but it’s always in this really negative, punitive, destructive way. And I want to show people that, yes, that’s shame, but shame is also much more than that and it’s an inevitable part of daily life. It’s a lot of what preoccupys us even if we are not aware of it. So we are always trying to avoid rejection, we are trying to anticipate criticism, we are trying to avoid feeling left out or excluded, all of these potential ways we can feel bad about ourselves, those are varieties of shame. And if I can help people to say these are inevitable parts of my life and I have to learn how to manage them rather than running from them, rather than avoiding them, rather than denying them, that will help me to become more resilient in my life, it will help me to deal with criticism better, it will help me to feel better about myself.
And then the other thing I would like is for people to understand that shame isn’t always a negative experience, that sometimes shame has a lesson to teach us about who we are and who we expect ourselves to be. And if we can tune in to those experiences, if we can bear feeling ashamed because we let ourselves down in some way, well, then maybe we can work harder, maybe we can strive to be the person we want to be, and these will all contribute to our feelings of self-respect. If we deal with every encounter with shame by batting it away and denying that we feel shame, well, we lose an opportunity to grow, to build pride, and to feel better about ourselves as a result.
Lynne Malcolm: Dr Joseph Burgo, clinical psychologist. His recent books, Shame and The Narcissist You Know are published by Pan Macmillan, Australia.
Thanks to producer Diane Dean and a special thanks and a fond goodbye to sound engineer Judy Rapley. It’s been great to work with her. She’s one of the best. I’m Lynne Malcolm. Catch you next time