When I’m working through an emotional diagram with clients, we start with the facts of the situation, then we identify the emotion they were feeling. Often the first emotion they identify is anger, frustration, or annoyance. It’s only when pushed that they can move beneath the anger to the emotion they actually felt first – sadness, fear, loneliness, hurt.
Anger is a considered a secondary emotion. It’s an emotion felt in response to another emotion. Sadness, fear, and loneliness are deeply uncomfortable emotions. They suck. They make us feel weak and powerless. We don’t want to feel that way so we quickly react with something that makes us feel powerful and aggressive – anger.
The biggest problem with anger – the behavior it inspires (yelling, arguments, fights, aggression) generally leads to another emotion. One that’s even more crippling than sadness, fear, and loneliness.
Shame adds to the bank of pre-exisiting emotional experiences and beliefs about ourself – that we aren’t worthy of love, that our needs are too much, that our emotions are unacceptable. Shame makes it nearly impossible for us to get the needs of the primary emotions met. When we’re ashamed we don’t ask for comfort, reassurance, or affection, which is what those emotions really need.
Shame informs the story that we tell ourselves that causes those emotions in the first place. Someone who believes they are unlovable will look for evidence that they are, in fact, unlovable and will be able to find it in almost any interaction. Feeding the cycle to continue ad infinitum.
The point of modeling our emotions is to recognize the way that we can break the cycle. One of the most difficult things to help clients see is that the first entry point into the chain isn’t challenging the story or their pre-existing vulnerabilities and beliefs about themselves – it’s the shame. Sometimes I feel that clients hold onto the shame because they think that its the only way they can motivate themselves to change – if I don’t constantly remind myself that I should feel badly about my reactions, what will ever inspire me to change them?
But shame is a terrible motivator. To see it, just think about how Brene Brown defines shame, “believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection” Shame stands between us and the things we need to feel better. To feel worthy of seeing our relationships and interactions differently. Shame leaves us wounded animals, always ready to lash out.
Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.Yoda
We’re suffering and shame keeps us from feeling better, from getting the help we need. This is not to say that we can’t be sorry when we overreact or get angry. We absolutely can and probably should. But we also need to offer ourselves some forgiveness and grace for the reaction if we want a chance to react differently. Remorse is NOT shame. Remorse and guilt make us want to improve, to react differently. Shame says can’t.
I once heard Brene Brown (again!) say that the difference between shame and guilt is that guilt tells us we DID a bad thing, but shame tells us that we ARE bad. If we ARE bad, what’s the point of even trying to be different? We have to learn to let go of the sense that we’re hopeless or that we can’t change. We have to let go of the operating thesis that we are unlovable – otherwise confirmation bias will just lead us to find evidence that this is true everywhere we look.
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