Thursday, May 18, 2017

How My Therapy Client Taught Me About Shame

During our final session together, one of my therapy clients asked if she could give me some feedback. I welcomed her perspective, though internally I felt cautious.  She shared an observation: I always apologize when my vision loss enters the room. She brought up several examples, such as when I get out a magnifier to read her weekly homework.  She candidly poked, “I find it quite ironic that we focus on radical acceptance of oneself and the importance of asserting needs for interpersonal effectiveness and YOU’RE the one constantly apologizing for an unchanging fact of life that you have no control over.”

Unbeknownst to my client, she served as my therapist today. I hadn’t realized I apologized for when and how I use assistive technology in the therapy room. I often feel embarrassed about and apologize for myriad facets of my vision loss:  zooming in and out when I share my screen, providing the inappropriate order of content during a presentation because I cannot see the presentation or my notes, engaging in various social faux pas ranging clumsiness (spilling, dropping, tripping). I had, erroneously, believed apologizing was the appropriate response given the inconvenience I was creating for those around me.

Before elaborating on the ties between apologizing and shame, I need to distinguish the type of apologizing to which I’m referring. I am referring to the tendency to apologize to communicate embarrassment. I am not referring to the tendency to apologize to communicate comedic self-deprecation. I believe the latter, humor, is instrumental in reducing the tension of an otherwise challenging situation. For example, when a friend asks if she has spinach in her teeth, I’ll retort in jest, “Ha, sorry, Blindy is absolutely NOT the one to ask about that.” The former, embarrassment, however, denotes a broader narrative riddled with self-doubt. For example, when I can’t find a location where I’m meeting a friend, I’ll text or call saying “I’m really sorry, I'm failing miserably and can’t find my way there.” 

Apologizing for how I see – or do not see - signals my continued battle with shame. As a researcher of emotions and as a clinician, I am often in the position of explaining the utility of shame and other self-conscious emotions (e.g. embarrassment, pride, and guilt). Shame, like any emotion, motivates and guides behavior. Shame serves a prominent function in social relationships and is a common response to doing something that signals not being enough, such as failing to meet expectations or encountering rejection or criticism. In these situations, shame teaches us to avoid the behavior that elicited the unpleasant reaction.  The desire to avoid shame can prompt us to engage in socially and personally desirable behaviors. And at the same time, feelings of shame can lead to a pervasive sense of self-blame. 

Although I genuinely feel confident about my strength and capabilities, my behavior of apologizing whenever my vision loss impacts those around me is indicative of lingering shame. And, not only does this behavior reflect my underlying emotions about myself as someone who is visually impaired, it communicates to others that I am not enough, that I am broken, and that I need to apologize for who I am and how I navigate the world. Apologizing denotes responsibility; I m not responsible for my vision loss, nor am I responsible for others responses to my vision loss and its repercussions. 

When my client shared this feedback, I took the opportunity to self-disclose and normalize: I, like everyone, have work to do on my thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. We laughed at the irony and proceeded with our end-of-therapy goodbyes. I proceeded with other meetings and work, and at the end of the day felt the need to process. I found my place on a sunny grassy knoll and reflected on shame.  I cried tears for myself and for the countless others who feel the need to apologize for our unique ways of existing.

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