Currently, I’m enrolled in a 10-month counseling training program in San Francisco called Interchange. The sessions are comprised of lectures on therapeutic theories and techniques, as well as a lot of practice as both clients and counselors. This update focuses on how shame prevents true intimacy.
The instructions were simple enough:
“Find someone who you’ve wanted to connect with, but who you’ve felt some kind of resistance toward.”
Once we located our person out of the 160 or so to choose from, we were tasked with sitting with them for about 20 minutes – each person getting 10 minutes of client time — and tell each other what makes us want to avoid them.
We were encouraged to begin the conversation with something like, “I want to be closer to you, but these are the judgements that are getting in the way of that.”
I couldn’t think of anyone that I wanted to be closer with – connecting with anyone at all sounded like effort that I didn’t want to exert. So, instead of seeking someone out, I thought it’d be amusing if someone approached me with some drama to air out. I remained stubbornly planted in my seat. Passive and planted.
Then she walked up and sheepishly asked if I had a partner. We were among the few left in the room who weren’t already seated face to face with someone else airing judgments. I smiled in a way that comes about when I feel curious and nervous, but I’m not sure how that smile came across to her – how can we ever know how we come across to others without asking them? We sat down and began the session.
Without agreeing on who would play the client role first, I began talking. She listened intently and made me feel heard in a way that seemed so genuine that I couldn’t trace her skill back to instruction we’d received at Interchange. Her empathy and presence seemed truly innate. I told her that I didn’t want to connect with anyone which I apologetically admitted made me feel like an asshole. And, no offense to her, I said, “I have no desire to connect more deeply with you, but here we are…”
How we went from me not wanting to connect to me taking up all 20 of those minutes sharing about shame that coaxed out tears is beyond me. But that’s what happened. Vulnerability is almost always what happens at Interchange weekends.
Historically, I’ve perceived my apathy and disinterest in human connection as a personality trait, the way I was born. This weekend, however, I realized that my avoidance of human relationships has much more to do with shame than it does with personal characteristics.
But what is shame?
The way I’m learning about it, shame is layered and mysterious, often disguising itself as guilt, embarrassment, humiliation, hurt feelings, feeling judged, feeling like a failure, rejection, shyness, vulnerability, discomfort, disappointment, etc.
We all react to shame differently, but usually do one of four things:withdraw; avoid and/or distract ourselves; attack others; and/or attack ourselves.
Put very simply, shame happens when we are enjoying or loving something and are then interrupted.
She was listening and loving me so well, but our intimacy was interrupted by my feelings of guilt (she is not my girlfriend, so it’s inappropriate to reveal so much about myself), embarrassment (I am being too real), shyness (I don’t want her to really see me), and discomfort (how do we maintain this connection after time’s up?).
We all need love – it’s what draws the truth out and drives the fear out – but shame is love’s greatest obstacle.
Watch how shame surfaces when I ask what you are afraid people will find out about you. What is it? What are you afraid others will come to know about you?
Shame hides the truth, and it can also hide you. The only way to beat it is to expose it, and exposing it involves a great deal of love. For me, it arrived in the form of a stranger, who I never wanted to connect with, choosing to see me as I truly was, in spite of my efforts to hide.
Peace and good,
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