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Joseph Burgo: ...that we can choose whether to let shame destroy us or teach us

Laura: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Laura Owens.

Jan: And I'm Jan Black.

Laura: Have you ever felt shame? Our guest on this episode, psychotherapist Joseph Burgo, says shame is a family of emotions ranging from mild embarrassment to deep humiliation. Most of us experience varying degrees of shame every day.

Jan: How do we recognize shame, control it, and use it to our advantage? Joseph is here to help us explore those questions. He's the author of a new book called, Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem. Joseph, thank you so much for joining us.

Joseph: It's a pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.

Jan: Why did you decide to write a book focusing on shame?

Joseph: It has become, increasingly, the focus of my practice over the last 10 years. That is because it's, increasingly, become the focus of my own life, coming to terms with my own denial, I guess, the denial of my shame. I had to come to terms with the end of my marriage and a big change in my life. I don't know, it just informs the work I do, it informs the way I think about myself. I think shame is everything.

Laura: How long did it take for you to come to terms with what you were feeling at the end of your marriage? And how quickly were you able to identify that those feelings were shame?

Joseph: It took a long time. The whole thing was that my marriage, and the life I was leading, successful two-income couple on the west side of LA, lawyer, psychoanalyst. We looked really good, we had three kids. That was my defense. That whole life was my efforts to make everything look really good. When it all fell apart, I had to face what was underneath it all. It took me years to work through that, I would say. I'm better off for it now, but it wasn't easy.

Jan: How did it all fall apart?

Joseph: That's a painful question to answer, but I'll answer it. We were sort of staying together for the children at that point, we had drifted apart. We were good as parents together, we loved our children. I fell in love with a man, and that really didn't work anymore, so we separated. That was incredibly difficult, painful, and shaming for me. But we managed to work it out. I was still there for my kids, we had them half-time. It worked out all right, but it was really difficult to give up this life I had built for myself in this fiction of being a fully heterosexual male. I didn't want to give that up. I didn't give it up easily.

Jan: Don't you think that a lot of people are faced with situations like that? It's easier to live what you have been living than it is to deal with the shame that might come if you were more honest or took a different path?

Joseph: I do. I think most people find it very hard to face shame. Let's face it, shame's a really painful emotion, nobody wants to feel it. Especially in the current age we live in where everything is so image-focused, everybody's wanting to look good and to look like they have a great life. It's very hard to admit that yours has fallen apart and it's not so great. Nobody wants to do that.

Laura: What are the different types of shame and how do they vary?

Joseph: I think about them as differing along two spectrums, intensity and duration. You could have something like self-consciousness, that's a fleeting sensation or feeling, and it's not that strong. Then you can have that kind of humiliation where you're reliving the experience for days after it happened, you can't get out of it, you can't let go of it. When something really humiliating happens to you, it just permeates everything for days. There's a whole spectrum of them though. What they have in common is they all have that painful awareness of self, where you suddenly become aware of yourself in a way that feels painful or unpleasant, at the very least it's uncomfortable. It's not like, say pride. Pride is a feeling where you become self-aware, but it feels good. Shame feelings are the ones where you become self-aware and it feels uncomfortable or agonizing, somewhere along that spectrum.

Jan: I think one of the interesting things in your book is how you talk about how we all experience shame on a daily basis, maybe several times a day. Tell us more about that.

Joseph: If we're not experiencing it, we're, at the very least, thinking about it and anticipating it. I think a lot of what we do in our daily lives is about trying to avoid situations where we might feel shame. Just to give a few examples, you get invited to a party and you don't know anybody else who's going to go to that party. You're concerned about feeling left out or excluded, you'll feel really self-conscious and uncomfortable so you may choose not to go.

Or you meet somebody at work that you like, in a friendship sort of way. You might want to invite her out to lunch but you're not sure yet whether or not that feeling is reciprocated. If you make yourself vulnerable to rejection, that's a kind of shame experience. You think about how to phrase the invitation, maybe you try to make it sound casual like, "Oh, hey. You know, I was just wondering, maybe we could get together for lunch one day next week?" You make it sound like it's offhand, so you don't make yourself too vulnerable.

I think we do things like this throughout the day. You're going to a different party, what's everybody going to wear? Are you going to be too dressed up or are you going to be too dressed down? Just always trying to avoid being self-conscious in an unpleasant way.

Laura: I love how you talk about how many ways there are to use shame to our advantage. When I first was reading about this, I thought, “That seems a little counterintuitive to me.” But I loved your example of, "If you do poorly on a test that you expect you're going to do well on, it makes you study harder and you don't want to feel that shame and those bad feelings anymore." Can you think of any more examples that might relate to our audience's lives?

Joseph: I think that shame usually has some kind of a lesson to teach us. I think your audience might be used to distinguishing guilt from shame. Guilt is just a member of the shame family of emotions, it's still a painful awareness of self, it might be about something specific. If you feel guilt, for instance, if you feel that member of the shame family of emotions, it might mean you did something that you need to apologize for; you have some amends to make to a person you hurt. The way that you can tell, if that's the case, is if you're having those repeated arguments in your head where you're constantly justifying yourself, proving that you did nothing wrong and you have nothing to feel bad about, that's kind of a dead giveaway that you actually do. You need to step back from defensiveness and take a closer look.

Jan: How do you do that?

Joseph: Apart from getting help from a therapist, which is really useful, I think it takes a lot of courage, honestly. First of all, you have to be willing to bear that feeling, you have to be willing to bear the pain of shame. I think you have to be devoted to self-examination and willing to face the truth, wherever it's going to take you. We're all so heavily defended, we've all got our defenses. I think it helps to be familiar with your set of defenses and the way you use them, that's the subject of my first book, Defense Mechanisms.

I think it helps to be as self-aware as you can and also to notice those things I'm talking about, like the self-justification or the blaming of other people. I spend a lot of time in the middle of the book outlining the defenses against shame, particularly the ones in the middle about blaming, turning things around rather than feeling shame yourself, turning blame on somebody else, feeling contempt or superior to somebody else rather than feeling shame. You kind of have to know yourself well.

Laura: In your research for the book, you learned that millions of Americans agree that shame is bad when it's directed at themselves or their allies, but it's good when it's directed at people that they don't like. I'm wondering how Donald Trump has brought this to the forefront, both for his proponents and for his critics?

Joseph: It's a really good question. There's that section in the book where I was researching uses of the word 'shame', 'ought to be ashamed', 'should be ashamed' and 'I'm not ashamed' or 'I don't feel ashamed'. I think it's on both sides that you tend to insist that you have no reason to feel ashamed, your party, your particular point of view, and the other side has every reason to feel ashamed.

Because Donald Trump is so good at it, he uses shaming, contempt, indignation, and humiliation as a very blunt instrument to attack people on the other side. Of course that makes you defensive. There's no healthy message there, there's nothing you need to learn from. Shame has just become weaponized. The natural inclination is to turn tables and then to say, "No, you ought to feel ashamed." I think we're engaged in a big shame war right now, where both sides are using it, not to much good effect.

There are ways in which it's been really useful. I think shame in the #MeToo Movement has been really important, calling the perpetrators to account publicly, humiliating them, and expressing our values as a culture that this kind of behavior is intolerable. We will no longer stand for it, and if you do that, you will be excluded. That's, historically, the way shame has been used, as a force for social cohesion. You express social values by public shaming.

At the same time, you have to allow room for reform, you have to allow people to hear the lesson of shame, acknowledge the error of their ways, try to make amends, and then welcome them back into the fold. I sometimes worry that we've gone a little bit too far and it's just about character assassination. But on whole, the public shaming that's gone on has been really important and really useful.

Jan: Aren't some people more susceptible to feeling shame than others? Some people do things I would be very embarrassed about doing, but they don't seem very bothered by it.

Joseph: Either they're really healthy or they're really narcissistic, one or the other. Either they have a healthy sense of humor about themselves, that they basically have high self-esteem. If they make mistakes, it rolls off their back, embarrassments easily processed. Or they're really, heavily defended against shame and embarrassment and it just never penetrates. That's the narcissistic defense.

Laura: You just touched on narcissism and I'm fascinated by all your research on that. How can we tell if somebody is narcissistic, or if they have high self-esteem?

Joseph: I think high self-esteem allows room for other people to feel good about themselves too. I think people who really feel good about themselves actually want to help other people to feel good about themselves. It's like the expanding pie view of self-esteem. People who are narcissistic, they build themselves up at other people's expense by shaming them, by humiliating them, by making themselves look better while the other person looks worse. You can often tell the difference by how you feel around that person. Narcissistic people kind of make you feel bad about yourself. They make you feel inferior, or envious, or just doesn't feel good to be around them.

Jan: You note that children don't develop healthy self-esteem when they're shielded from experiences of shame. As a parent yourself, what advice would you have for other parents about how to help their children have a healthy relationship with shame?

Joseph: First of all, you don't want to shield them from it. We've had this messaging from parenting experts and child psychologists in the last few decades about how to build self-esteem in our children by praising them, building them up, and making them feel that everything they do is loved and appreciated. That turns out not to be effective. There's a great book called, The Narcissism Epidemic, that came out about 10 years ago that really details the shortcomings of the self-esteem movement in that way.

I think you have to let them fail, you have to let them feel shame, and then help them to learn from it. I was saying earlier that shame often has a lesson to teach you. If your child, for instance, gets a poor grade on a test, you don't go in and say, “Oh, that teacher had it out for you. I looked at that test, it really wasn't fair.” Don't do that to make it all go away. Maybe they didn't study hard enough, maybe they were spending too much time on social media when they ought to have been studying. Make them feel that they're loved and regarded, the unconditional love, that's key.

But don't tell them that everything they do is acceptable, sometimes it's unacceptable, sometimes they fall short, sometimes they need to work harder. I think that's an important lesson to learn because in the real world, when you get out into the business world, it is not the case that everything you do is acceptable just because.

Laura: If you're raising a kid, what role do you think that achievement should play in trying to help their self-esteem?

Joseph: With the whole thing about helicopter parents and parents bribing admissions officers to get their kids into college, there's a kind of pathological drive for achievement in our culture, it's really disturbing.

Laura: It's unhealthy.

Joseph: It's totally unhealthy. But that doesn't mean all achievement, all drive is unhealthy. I think it has to be commensurate with their interests and their abilities. Help your children to set their own goals rather than setting really high standards for them because you want to look good to your peer group and you want to have successful children that make you look good. Help them find their own goals. Don't discourage them from ambition, just help them to have a realistic sense of what their strengths are and how they could make use of them in their future.

Jan: What impact does social media have on shame and the way that teenagers or young adults perceive it?

Joseph: Oh god, it's terrible because of what I was saying earlier. We're all trying to make our lives look good, that's everywhere on social media. Even just setting aside the overt, cruel expressions of shaming, in which people pile on and humiliate people, that's bad enough. But even the thing that looks harmless, the people whose every picture is of this great meal, great party, great outfit, great evening out with friends, everything looks fabulous. For many people, that gives you this feeling that you're less than. You know about the fear of missing out, the popular kids are getting together, but it's not you, you're a loser, you're on the outside. I think it's really destructive. I think kids’ time on social media needs to be limited, and adults too, frankly.

Laura: Do you think that people who are posting selfie after selfie of themselves are all narcissists or would you classify them, maybe, as just something else?

Joseph: That word, narcissist, gets thrown around a lot. I like to call them, they’re everyday narcissists. It's not pathological, this is not something that needs therapy. It's just the pressures to be narcissistic in our culture are so, so strong that it's not surprising so many kids conform to it. They do try to make themselves look good all the time and if they don't, they feel anxious.

Laura: It's hard to be the cool kid anymore if you're not on social media and posting these things. Does that make them obsessed with themselves or does that just make them a normal kid?

Joseph: It makes them a normal kid in a narcissistic culture, unfortunately. To be normal, in this culture, is to be kind of narcissistic. That's what we value.

Jan: How do you help your kid who is on social media and maybe feeling shame, maybe feeling bullied as a result?

Joseph: I think parents really need to monitor their kids' usage of social media. I think you know what's happening to them. Most kids, if they're being bullied or if they're feeling bad about themselves, are probably not going to tell their parents because they're ashamed of feeling ashamed, if you know what I mean. They're ashamed of feeling like they're a loser or that they're being bullied. They want to hide, they want to become invisible. I think you need to keep tabs on it. You need to have conversations that address the sort of things that we're talking about today. These pressures to make everything look perfect and help them feel that they don't have to do that, that has to begin at home. If you're applying narcissistic standards to your children and expecting them to make you look good, then you're just reinforcing the message that they're getting on social media. You've got to be more real with your kids.

Laura: I wonder what advice you might have to people who are on the online dating apps and really want to meet somebody but are afraid of that rejection, shame in that way. What should they do?

Joseph: Gosh, it is so hard. The pressure to put up a profile that makes you look great, that you lead with all your best features. I hear this from my clients all the time, "Everybody sounds really great on the dating sites. They all sound like they're fabulous, they've got no problems, and they have so much to offer." That makes you feel like, “I've got my warts, where are their warts? I don't know." I advise my clients to keep their profiles real, within reason, paint a realistic portrait of themselves. That's going to draw people that are drawn to real people, not someone who's looking for another winner to match their winner self-image.

Jan: How do we open up the conversation about shame if we're feeling shame ourselves or if we sense that a loved one or a friend is feeling shame and wants to talk about it? How do you open up the dialogue?

Joseph: I think you model a willingness to acknowledge your own shame. I'm always doing that, I find it's liberating for me. It makes the shame feel less defining and other people like it too. If you could do it in a funny way, as well. Say you tell a joke that kind of didn't go very well, and I'll say, “Well, that was embarrassing." Or, "Well, that went over really well." Just sort of acknowledge the awkwardness of it and show that you can admit that. You don't have to run away from it. It's not so awful and they can too. I think that when you're real about your shortcomings, it encourages other people to do the same. If it doesn't, if it encourages them to feel that they're better at your expense, then look elsewhere for friendship.

Laura: I think, especially in this day and age, when everything seems so perfect online and on social media, it's really refreshing to have people who own their embarrassment and act like they have flaws. I think that's a really likable quality in somebody.

Joseph: I do too. You think more people would do it, but apparently, it's a hard thing to do. I don't see it very often. I don't see that happening around me. I still see most people trying to make it all look great.

Jan: I'm wondering how early in life people start to feel shame. Is it something that we're absolutely born with and by the time we're a year or two old, we can begin to feel a little bit of it?

Joseph: In the first part of the book, there's a couple of long chapters that get a little bit scientific. I look at the brain development and the development of healthy self-esteem in the first and second years of life. It turns out that parents actually use mild forms of shame to socialize children and to deliver lessons about what's expected, what's acceptable behavior. If it's not toxic, if it's not pervasive, then the shame message that the parent delivers is useful to the child, it teaches them how they need to behave. When they do what they're supposed to do, then they get the reward of parental joy, approval, and reconnection. That was one of the big shocks to me when I was doing the research for this book, was to find out how early shame starts and how crucial it is for healthy, normal brain development. It was an eye-opener.

Laura: How does shame relate to addiction?

Joseph: In my experience, I've worked with a fair number of people who were addicted to drugs or to sex, I guess I can generalize from my experience, I've certainly done enough research about other people's experiences. Shame is at the root of addictions. Donald Nathanson, one of my favorites, he says that one of the primary purposes of alcohol is to release us from the bonds of shame. I think the same is true of sex addiction and other kinds of drugs, the shame dissolves out with the drug.

The problem is, when you turn to it as a crutch, to relieve yourself from shame, then you use too much. Do you feel bad about yourself for having used too much, or drunk too much, acted out sexually? Because you're feeling more shame, it makes you want more of the drug. It becomes this vicious cycle, in AA they call it ‘The Squirrel Cage’. You fall off the wagon and you feel ashamed, so you need more alcohol to alleviate the shame, which then goes on and on and on. I don't know, I think addictions are all about shame.

Jan: How can we recover from shameful experiences?

Joseph: I think you, first of all, need to give yourself room and you probably need space. I think Brené Brown has a lot of helpful stuff to say about how you recover from shame. I think you need to go away and lick your wounds because it's such an intense feeling and it takes a while for your body to work through it. I think that's the first step. Then I think it's really important, and Brené Brown will also say this, it's important to connect with other people and not let shame isolate you.

You need to feel confident that there are other people that still love you in spite of that shame feeling you had. Whatever you did that made you feel ashamed, it's important to put it into context. It doesn't say everything about you, you're still a lovable person, you still have these important relationships. It's just this thing that happened, it's part of your experience, and you move on from it.

As with all things, it's the defenses against shame that are the real problem. When you get too defended against acknowledging it, or proving that you have nothing to feel ashamed of, or turning to a drug to get relief from shame, those are the real problems. If you can just sit with shame and put it in context over time, then you can move through it.

Laura: As you know, our show is called Nobody Told Me! We always ask our guests, "What is your nobody told me lesson?" In your case, you've been so deeply involved in the field of psychology for years, what do you wish that someone had told you at the start that you had to learn the hard way?

Joseph: That's a hard one. Frankly, if I answer really personally, I was in therapy in the 70's. I wish someone had told me that I didn't need to hide my sexuality and lead a heterosexual life. I wish someone had told me that earlier and I didn't have to find it out in such a difficult way. In the same, I wish somebody had talked to me about shame earlier on. You won't believe it, but I've had six years of graduate school and I went through four years of psychoanalytic training, and shame was not something I read about or learned about during my training. It was really only much later that I started encountering the literature about shame. A lot of it really interesting stuff that's just not taught, some of it's by psychoanalysts, but it wasn't taught at my Institute. I wish someone had told me about shame a long time ago.

Jan: What would you tell someone who is feeling shame about their sexuality, someone who's in the situation you were in back in the 70's?

Joseph: Oh, boy. I would say the things that I think most people say today that are reassuring, "This is not a choice. This is not something you've done wrong. You might have some shame about it, you need to work through with a therapist, probably related to your family of origin and how you were treated. There's nothing inherently shameful about the condition."

Jan: How can people connect with you on social media and on the internet?

Joseph: I'm on Twitter as @jburgo55. I very rarely tweet because it's such a toxic environment, I don't like it.

Jan: Understood.

Joseph: My website is afterpsychotherapy.com. I also have a Facebook page devoted to that website. I think where I'm most active these days is, I have a blog on Psychology Today called, Surprisingly Shame, that's where I write most things lately.

Laura: That is a fascinating blog. I have to say I found myself scrolling through far, far back. You have great articles on there.

Joseph: Thank you.

Laura: Our thanks to our guest, Joseph Burgo, whose latest book is called Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem. I'm Laura Owens.

Jan: And I'm Jan Black.

Laura: You've been listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.

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