Updated: Jul 6, 2021
A few months ago, I was either listening to an old interview on YouTube or reading an article where Carl Rogers, the renown psychologist, was asked why he thought WW II veterans were not seeking the psychological help they needed. His response? Shame. For the majority of those with a psychological health concern, little has changed.
Presenting oneself as "having it all together" is a universal tendency and the psychological toxin behind the mental health pandemic. The perceived winners at this cultural image game are
1. the best actors/suppressors,
2. those who, by no fault of their own, are repressed, and
In other words, group three has learned to self-medicate in socially acceptable ways thus keeping their mental health concerns well concealed.
At best, pathological shame keeps us trapped in a Cult of One that insists on a doctrine of toughing it out. The Cult of One will distort self-help adages such as "Fake it 'till you make it" and "Act as if", reinterpreting them to mean, "Hide and pretend, everything will be fine".
When situations rarely turn out 'fine', some realize they have been listening to the wrong internal messages.
When our thinking is processed through a shame-based filter, so goes the decision making process as well.
Shame-based decision making masks the self inflicted wounds of a self punishing internal narrative and destructive decision making is the result. Shame whispers we deserve to indulge in a substance or behavior that has proven toxic to ourselves and our relationship to others. The abuse of substances or behaviors act as temporary numbing agents for the raw brand (stigma) that still burns in our psyche. A numbing agent is masked to disguise themself as the friend who protects us from the pain of a childhood wound that may never have been addressed or even acknowledged.
A Sidebar Before we Proceed...
Establishing baseline definitions for words and common catch phrases:
Toxic Shame or Shame Based is generally defined as feelings of self-loathing intrinsic to one's identity (i.e. Healthy Shame: I feel shame. vs. Toxic Shame: I am shameful).
Stigma: branded, tattooed; literally, a mark of shame.
There may be a feeling of shame if your peers notice you are anxious over something they consider benign (i.e. a large crowd).
Stigma may be felt when diagnosed (Grk, gnosis, to be known, or distinguished between) with agoraphobia. A professional diagnosis is a defining Brand X (stigmatos) that sets you apart from the herd. For some, the scar tissue of their distinguishing mark is always raw. In part, this analogy explains the reluctance to be seen and diagnosed by a mental health professional. Being set apart to be known (gnosis) with a branded X reinforces an existing condemnatory view of the Self.
An Overview of the Field
Over my lifetime I have observed drastic changes in attitudes and revelations regarding all manner of mental health concerns and different ways of learning (aka, disabilities); consider:
B. A deeper understanding of the anxiety/depression continuum and its relationship to childhood trauma, adverse experiences, and how these offer insight into behavioral/substance addictions, juvenile delinquency, and criminality.
D. conclude the soft sciences are firming up.
For some, firmer may not mean less confusing; to others, all these seemingly tangled revelations are logically traced back to attachment theory where the foundation of shame-based identities are laid.
An Historic Shame-Based Decision
Immediately after typing that last paragraph, I flashed back to 1972 and George McGovern's presidential campaign. An anonymous caller contacted McGovern's campaign headquarters prompting the staff to further vet his choice for vice-president, Thomas Eagleton.
It was discovered Eagleton had three separate psychiatric hospitalizations in the late 60's for "manic depression" (bipolar II disorder) along with "shock treatments". With his medical records now outed and fear the Nixon campaign would exploit the information, Eagleton was deemed too much of a liability. McGovern subsequently had Eagleton bow out.
The question was begged: How did the McGovern campaign manage to miss this red flag in the vetting of Eagleton?
Answer: While Eagleton and his wife were en route to his first interview with McGovern, they agreed to keep the extent of his mental illness secret.
In essence, the stigma of a mental health diagnosis imposed the Eagletons' silence.
In contrast, a Washington Examiner article this past June, entitled, Politicians Admit Mental Health Struggles, reflected a degree of candor unthinkable but a few decades ago: "Presidential candidate Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., recently delivered confessions that are rare for members of Congress: They once struggled with and were treated for mental health conditions: he for post-traumatic stress disorder and she for depression."
The article goes on to quote Patrick Kennedy, son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, referencing a car accident as a result of his prescribed medication:
"I never chose to be out," Kennedy said, reflecting on the diagnosis of addiction and bipolar disorder. "I thought I kept my illness under wraps, and that’s the big problem with stigma today is that we shave the truth here and there, and next thing I knew I was getting another DWI. ... Secrets make you really sick."
Comparing Patrick Kennedy's candor with a quote attributed to his grandfather, Joseph Kennedy Senior, "It isn't who you are that counts, it's who people think you are.", we have a glimpse into a generational value of image over substance. Patrick's humbling experience and subsequent revelations about his generational pattern of secrets over truth was broken.
Enough, we get it: Shame Bad, Transparency Good
By now, most understand stigma is thee issue to address. From Helen Block Lewis, Silvan Tomkins, John Bradshaw, Gershen Kaufman to Brene' Brown, they each explored this universal struggle along with some practical approaches to healing the shame that binds you.
Excellent. We are obliged to acknowledge their work with all the respect each are due. But, a tipping point exists where...
Knowledge's shelf life expires when you neglect its application. And shame-based decisions have a way of neutering the notion of knowing better.
Cases in Point
...a brief anatomy of shame-based decisions.
Many are shocked when professionals requiring a high degree of training and education, or both, fail to apply their learning, i.e., the licensed electrician who violated code and burned down a customer's house; the investment broker who comingled his clients' funds with his own, then filed for bankruptcy; a doctor arrested for prescribing fentanyl for razor burn.
The refrain, "They should've known better!" misses the more salient, "I wonder what motivated them to ignore their knowledge and training?"
Let us propose each subject ignored rules and laws in a gamble to increase their profit. To arrive at the conclusion, "They were greedy." is no different than asserting they should have 'known better'. Proposing they each enjoyed an upper middle class lifestyle, their engaging in high-risk behavior for monetary gain begs more analysis.
Family Values Dictate Self-Worth
...and, these 'values' inevitably define our priorities and perspectives.
Imagine each of our three subjects' families inculcated their children with the message: "Acceptable members of society attain success by accruing money and assets."
In the interest of fairness, all family systems, for better or worse, consciously or unconsciously, shape the following generation by fusing their values with a sense of Self. Our three subjects happened to be taught the equation: Wealth + Goods = Validation.
The Deeper Why?
Since self-acceptance for our three friends was equated with having, then having too much can never be enough. So much so that illegal behavior was easily rationalized to satisfy the family dogma. If we consider street gangs, the Sicilian Mafia, and the Italian American La Cosa Nostra we see this 'family' dynamic reflected on a larger scale.
Receiving the basic human need for acceptance from primary care givers, regardless if it takes deviant forms, can dwarf any punishment meted by a court. Shame is unwittingly leveraged in organizations like these by insisting on codes like omerta, literally manhood. Obedience validates their person, anything less is shameful - stigme, branded as a disgrace.
To various degrees, our subjects are us. At one time or another we have all made careless mistakes violating our internal moral code. And to buffer our shame, consciously or unconsciously, in thought, word, or deed we shifted some or all of the blame onto another.
Shame as Tool for Control
The dynamic of shame is a tool. It is applied in coercive/abusive relationships, organizational change, sex trafficking, cults, witnesses flipping, coercive mind control, sales, etc..
A common abuser wields shame as a club, crude but effective. Mugging a psyche this way leaves the obvious marks of blunt force trauma. However, instead of a bludgeon, many forms of coercive control fashion shame into a scalpel. Honed for surgical assaults on the will, few are aware they are being probed. The effectiveness of this type of surgery hinges on the level of milieu control, the demographic or individual being subjected, tactics applied, and the skill of the surgeon[s].
The sum of these considerations play off of each other to determine whether the victim was skillfully incised or had the equivalent of a battlefield amputation - less the morphine.
Some who perpetrate coercion and undue influence are cunning and systematic, but their tactics are brutish compared to menticide by a thousand strategic cuts. Choice few would be aware these violations were being attempted in real time.
"Thought reform is accomplished through the use of psychological and environmental control processes that do not depend on physical coercion. Today's thought reform programs are sophisticated, subtle, and insidious, creating a psychological bond that in many ways is far more powerful than gun-at-the-head methods of influence."
"The essential strategy used by the operators of these programs is to systematically select, sequence, and coordinate many different types of coercive influence, anxiety and stress-producing tactics over continuous periods of time. In such a program the subject is forced to adapt in a series of tiny "invisible" steps. Each tiny step is designed to be sufficiently small so the subjects will not notice the changes in themselves or identify the coercive nature of the processes being used."
Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D, Coercive Mind Control Tactics
Where Jason Bourne Met the Manchurian Candidate
Sharpening the scalpel:
The Genesis of Second Generation Mind Control
While it is common knowledge some Korean war POWs were psychologically coerced into (at least temporarily) renouncing their U.S. citizenship, there were others held at the Peking prison who "willingly" remained in China and Korea after the war. The U.S. Intelligence community was impressed enough to assign psychologists (Singer, Schein, Ofshe, and Lifton, etc.) to debrief our POW's on methods employed by their captors. Others were recruited to replicate, if not exceed, the results of the"...more highly motivated and skilled " Peking personnel.
The POW's who chose to remain lived out the majority of their lives overseas. Those who returned decades later retained their political/philosophical conversions. The remarkable takeaway is that threats of physical violence were not used in the Peking group's "re-education" process.
Note: The Peking POW's are not be confused with others who offered 'confessions' under physical and psychological duress.
The Precision and Depth of the Incision...
and the point of the segment.
"Their similarities, however, are of more importance in understanding their ability to influence behavior and beliefs than are their differences...They shared the utilization of coercive persuasion's key effective-influence mechanisms: a focused attack on the stability of a person's sense of self..." (further reading, Schein, Singer, Lifton, Meerloo)
Organizational Change Tactics ...
and Velvet Boxing Gloves
The unsettling commonalities of organizational change tactics and second generation thought control...
"The next mechanism requires leaders to motivate group members to want to change their behavior by creating discomfort, that is, a level of anxiety or guilt...it is also essential to understand that there is a fine line between acceptable levels of discomfort and too much. If a leader creates too much distress, group members will leave."
(Managing Organizational Change, Leadership in a Global Context: Pennsylvania State University, 2020).
Creating and imposing guilt is psychological destabilization.
A few questions:
1. What methods were being employed to 'create...anxiety or guilt', or in Ofshe's unequivocal words, 'attack' a person's 'stability'?
2. Is it 'acceptable' or ethical to impose 'discomfort' on employees?
3. What is the definitive criteria for this 'fine line' between 'discomfort' and 'too much'?
a. Since individual discomfort levels are obviously subjective, would not this ethical mean 'line' be established through psychological testing?
b. And, because cost would rule out testing, why 'create' more 'discomfort' to destabilize employees further?
c. How does this modality fit into the notion of psychological safety in the workplace?
ANSWER: The objectification of "human" resource is self-evident in the phrase "...group members will leave". This 'thin' and amorphous 'line' between safety and discomfort is where equivocation lives. A more honest assessment: If a 'leader creates too much distress, then the employee's psychological safety was indeed violated.
4. What if the employee[s] in question are not in a position to simply "leave" the company?
By default, employees of any company are subject to a degree of milieu control. But without the option to escape, distress is multiplied.
When employees are subjected to invasive training/retraining processes, the feeling is one of being vaguely intruded upon, as if some 'fine' yet invisible line was violated. Akin to finding items out of place after arriving home from a night out, to the touchy office guy stealing yet another strange fondle to your shoulder, direct lines are drawn from those tangible/physical experiences to the feeling of violation. But, when stealthy encroachments on the psyche' are made without discernible entry points, the internal boundary markers in place the week before, now feel out of place. Because you cannot describe at which point you were incised, self-doubt accuses you of suspicion or even paranoia. This is the zone where plausible deniability lives.
The concern is that facilitators well trained in forms of coercive influence perform surgery without informed consent. Their paternalistic rationale (intent) is rooted in the notion of knowing what is best.
How to Insulate Ourselves
Leaving Your Cult of One
Accusatory voice/thought-loops, subtle or otherwise, are designed to
1. castigate, which
2. actively destabilize our thinking, with the goal of
3. a rejection and evisceration of the self.
These three steps are examples of a psychologically invasive unfreezing or remolding process. When one is trained to leverage these steps against the self, by the self, this internal self-mutilation is no different than cutting and scarring one's own flesh.
What Captivates Us...
...when we can simply leave the relationship?
What is it about our distorted knowledge of the self that we find irresistible? Why do so many return to this abusive relationship?
Rife with half-truths and unrelenting attacks on our own person and as a dog chases its tail,
the shame spiral is the vortex that fuels a dependence on numbing agents.
But, when this new found knowledge of our wounded self is outed to a trusted friend[s], that is the first step in building your supportive community.
At Times, Healthy is Difficult
Hard questions to ask ourselves are:
What external or internal props have I used to hide or avoid my core insecurities. Have I extrinsically validated my sense of self through my job, intellect, looks, material possessions, power, education, etc.?
Would losing our largest fig leaf crush our person beyond recognition? Or, do we possess the self-governance to reject intrusive and accusatory thoughts of being a less-than?
The question is unfair unless we have been challenged with a devastating loss.
The real question then is this:
Over the course of your life, have you lost a defining attribute or an expectation that validated you as worth it?
If so, do pangs of grief still encroach upon your thoughts and feelings over this loss? Do you actively identify and healthily process these thoughts with friends, family, or a mental health professional?
If the answer is yes, your story, as inconsequential as it seems to you, can be liberating for another.
When self-awareness and self-government are satisfied, our past wounds are freed as a resource of strength and insight for others.
Shame is then used against itself to liberate those still bound by its grip.
Simple concept, but not easy to apply.
Healing Shame & the Wisdom of Self-Sacrifice
A sub-culture of wounded healers
Being part of the solution involves a willingness to sacrifice.
Martin Luther King, Jr. could have chosen to lead from the lectern by merely instructing on the theory of nonviolent resistance. But calling out the entrenched societal shaming of an entire race across the nation meant rallying those empowered by the same conviction. The sacrificial tactic of choosing to walk a gauntlet of fire hoses, dogs,
and clubs inevitably displayed the rawness of our Nation's stigma on national news. The American public was then compelled to fixate on the shame of its moral disfigurement. King's act bifurcated the difference between healthy and toxic shame and placed it back on the conscience of those who had the power to act. King had no guarantee a collective conscience would coalesce and act, but it did.
King's success was borne by the former generations who chose to trade comfort for adversity.
With that in mind, the war against stigma does not always require the shedding of blood. Though for some, having to tell the truth about themselves feels as if they are walking to their death.
Some who are high on the narcissistic scale are simply incapable of this exercise. Their truth telling is a narrative filled with faults like, "I care too much." or "I'm too generous." In reality, these self-atoning 'sacrifices' flounce a false humility. Self-casting themselves as the martyr/hero is an inverted way of maintaining control by bleeding the room for their narcissistic supply.
Challenging stigma requires we relinquish the option to control what others think about us.
The solution for the pervasive issue of stigma resides in us telling others about our best hiding places. The story others need to hear is how we hid toxic shame from ourselves. Such narratives begin the process of enlightening listeners as to how common insecurity and self-punishment are.
Who will go first?
Is it psychologically safe?
The qualifications are embodied in the following:
Have we honestly assessed our own shame-based thoughts, their influence on our decision making processes, and the repercussions we sustained as a result?
Telling Me a Story vs. a Fact
The vivid color and dimension of a true story can illuminate the listener's understanding of self and rekindle a hope long abandoned. The power abides in a storyteller's candor, not an innate talent for public speaking. The latter can be developed, but the former is earned by facing an internal enemy from which there is no escape.
As much as human experiences differ greatly, universal themes bridge cultural divides. I have witnessed listeners stunned when the story of a stranger felt as if it was scripted with their situation in mind. Shame thrived in recesses of that listener's thought life where they remained isolated and bound, until the story liberated them to feel known and understood.
This form of inclusion leaves no one behind.
Thematic emblems embedded in the personal narrative of others become rallying points for mutual understanding and radical connection.
The vibrant spectrum of experiences in the personal lives of willing storytellers are like arrows piercing the most formidable defense mechanisms. When fired with the sacrificial intent to liberate another, they find their mark in the heart, as "love is a man of war, and can shoot, and can hit from afar."
Truth and shame both have a story to tell, one weakens and enslaves, the other rescues and empowers.
Wounded healers rarely have to ask, "Where does it hurt?".
Marsha Linehan who developed Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) tells a portion of her story in the link below