Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer


Posted by Dr. Vollmer on August 8, 2012

“I don’t like my kid,” Eloise, seventy-four says about her thirty-year old son. Her tone and lack of eye contact speak to the horrendous shame she feels as she gives sunlight to these feelings. “I think my husband should take a long extended vacation away from me,” Annabelle, thirty-two says in a similar way to Eloise. The discomfort that both of these women feel makes me think that coping with these negative feelings is complicated by their sense that they are bad people for feeling this way, as opposed to accepting that negativity is part of relationships. The fairy-tale notion that one loves their children and their spouse, without an ounce of negativity towards them, is an idealized view which seems to grow out of a childhood in which disturbing feelings were shunned and turned into representing the quality of the person having the feelings, rather than emotions which come and go. Mindfulness has gained huge popularity countering shame in that the practice of mindfulness teaches acceptance which attempts to neutralize the judgment, the shame, associated with difficult thoughts and feelings.  Although I support Mindfulness, I also think that we need to focus on teaching parents to help their children bifurcate negative thoughts from negative self-esteem. In other words, the message is “you may be mad at your sister, but you are still a good person, and maybe you will be able to work through your anger with her,” as opposed to “you have to love your sister and be nice to her because she is your sister.” The latter is bound to make the child feel bad about himself for being mad at his/her sister, whereas the former accepts the fact that relationships are complicated. Old ideas, needing to be brought back to public awareness. Inner lives are complicated. Let us embrace that and be awed by that. Let us not feel bad about ourselves because of that.

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7 Responses to “Shame”

  1. Jon said

    According to the Buddhist tradition, correct mindfulness is the seventh element of the eight fold path. There has always been a strong element of truth in that path that has resonated well with me. Modern Western thought has appropriated the concept of mindfulness to become, in par, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” This is yet another way in which the wisdom of the ancients helps us in modern times.

    That stated, there may be more that can be done in the cases of Eloise and Annabelle. In addition to accepts the fact that relationships are complicated one should attempt to understand why they feel as they do. Feelings may not have reasons – they may just be; however, there may be valid paths to understanding a deeper reality to those feelings. The exploration of these feelings and understandings may lead to important insights.

  2. Shelly said

    What a supportive therapist you are. Too bad there are so few shrinks like you. I’ve had experiences where the therapist made me feel terribly guilty for taking a trip to visit a loved one, saying that leaving my husband was a means of punishing him, and how selfish I was for doing so. I should have shown her your post and brought up the word “mindfulness.”

    • Judgmental therapists create guilt, as you say, meaning that the job of the therapist is clarification and understanding, rather than judging. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  3. Ashana M said

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with feeling ashamed of ourselves from time to time. I imagine that is the essence of mindfulness: I will feel proud of myself sometimes and other times I will feel ashamed. Both are part of life and part of the human experience and they are both complex emotions that come and go. Neither is anything to be afraid of and neither is permanent.

    • Yes, but shame feels bad.

      • Ashana M said

        Of course. Sometimes we’re going to feel bad and sometimes we’re going to feel good. That’s how life is–sometimes good, sometimes bad. Nothing lasts forever, everything passes, and it’s best if we appreciate what we have when it’s there. Shame is a problem when we feel it all the time or as who we are.

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