Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2004 edition of MeadowLark, the magazine for alumni of The Meadows.
Rigorous Honesty: From False Pride to Authentic Self-Respect
By Kingsley Gallup
While in our disease, we may have prided ourselves on many things - perhaps even our "honesty." In recovery, however, we come to see the truth about ourselves - namely, that when we pride ourselves on something, it is likely something for which we wish we could take credit, something we wish we could claim as our own... but something that is not truly us. We discover in our lives the toxic presence of false pride. In our adapted ego state (the modified ego state in which our addictions flourish), we prided ourselves on being everything to everyone... all the time. This was our badge of honor. We were chameleons, forever flexible. At all times adaptable. And we believed it is precisely this malleability that makes us good people - people who deserve to be proud.
In recovery, we discover just the opposite to be true. While in our addictions, we had been indubitably dishonest. Our malleability had been intrinsically deceitful. (Would it seem logical to pride ourselves on that?)
We now find that our pride had been nothing but a mask... a false front. It was simply another brand of denial. It was a facade of self respect. Pride was our pretense. It hid our shame.
Now, this is not to say we were in no ways honest while in our disease. But let's face it: When it came to the critical points, the truly consequential details of our lives - like who we were and what we wanted and needed - the inherent dishonesty of our disease reared its head. And we paid the dearest price. Simply stated:
The deceitfulness of our codependence - and our resulting addictions - may indeed bring us embarrassment and shame. Even so, we must not allow ourselves to remain stuck in this place of indignity and dishonor. (We have been there far too long!) In order to heal, let us instead find in this shame a motivation to change.
As we learn in recovery, much of the shame we have been carrying around is not our own shame. It belongs to others. At the same time, however, we learn that some shame is healthy shame. It is our conscience speaking, motivating us to grow and to change. Responding to this personal shame, while at the same time releasing the carried shame that has been nothing but an albatross around our necks, is the hallmark of the functional adult. It is about taking responsibility for our choices. It is about owning our dishonesty. It is about getting honest with ourselves and others - and choosing to do things differently as we move forward.
Rigorous honesty is nothing short of hard work. It takes courage, after all, to speak our truth. It takes strength to be vulnerable, readily admit wrongs, stay current with the people in our lives and acknowledge the truth of who we are. Disciplining ourselves to share our realities and to attend to what we want and need - when we want and need it - is the liberating work of our recovery.
Interestingly, maintaining our dishonesty had been hard work as well. After all, keeping up appearances was exhausting! Keeping all those balls in the air all the time was arduous and draining. The feeling of wanting desperately to flee (and from a situation, no less, that we perpetuated through our deceitfulness), and yet remaining amid all the craziness, certainly felt like hard work. But doesn't hard work usually pay? Were there any payoffs from our dishonesty? Or were there simply trade-offs?
Our disease has robbed us of our integrity for long enough. No longer must we live in that proverbial "pressure-cooker" of codependency - namely, that adapted condition in which the pressure of external demands and the pain of our own dishonesty inhibit our ability to truly thrive. In recovery, we learn to consistently release "steam" from that pressure-cooker by speaking our truth. No longer must we operate in crisis mode. No longer must we seek simply to survive in an environment from which we want to run. We come to embrace life, rather than flee from it! Getting honest involves acceptance and vindication. We acknowledge that our addictions served a purpose in our lives. They helped us to survive in less-than-nurturing environments. Next, we accept where our addictions took us by confronting the dishonest patterns of our disease. The addicted life, after all, is inherently dishonest. (This by no means implies that addiction is a moral issue, but maintaining the addicted life demands a degree of deception.)
One of the greatest - if not the greatest - fruits of recovery is intimacy, the path to which is self-knowledge. To achieve true intimacy in our lives, we must challenge each and every message that has led us astray, that has taken us away from ourselves. In doing so, we come to know ourselves... perhaps for the very first time.
We need no longer cling to false pride. Rather, we now love ourselves justifiably as we nobly strive for rigorous honesty. We learn to love ourselves, if only for the effort we make, as true valor is found in progress, not perfection. We love ourselves for being honest about our fallibility and our weaknesses. We love ourselves as we walk down the perfectly imperfect path of recovery... two steps forward, one back... two steps forward, one back...
Honesty is nothing short of an act of love - for ourselves, for others and for our higher power. It is in this place of honesty that we truly connect. It is here that we genuinely feel a part of the human family. It is here that we not only survive, but thrive. Simply stated, the language of recovery is truth. May we speak it now with honor, dignity and love.
Note: This article was first published in the Winter 2003/04 issue of MeadowLark, the magazine for alumni of The Meadows.
Whores & Madonnas
By Maureen Canning-Fulton, MA
A friend of mine, who knows about the therapy I do with female patients in the area of sexual dysfunction, had sent me a movie review. He wanted to know how I would react to it. The review was of The Magdalene Sisters, a film by Scottish director Peter Mullin that had debuted in London in February 2003 and opened in New York in August. The review by Mary Gordon, a distinguished essayist and novelist, ran under the headline, "How Ireland Hid Its Own Dirty Laundry."
The film follows three young Irish girls who, in 1964, are sent to one of the Magdalene Asylums, institutions founded in the 19th century, primarily in Ireland, and run by nuns. They housed girls who got pregnant outside of marriage or who were considered too sexual, too flirtatious or even too active. With the legal consent of their fathers, they were incarcerated in these asylums, which doubled as laundries.
The kind of outrageous injustice that sent the women there is shown in the opening scene at a raucous Irish wedding. A young woman named Margaret is lured away from the party by a cousin who rapes her upstairs. He returns to the festivities and continues to drink with the other men.
When Margaret comes down, she is flushed and disheveled and so clearly upset that a girlfriend shows concern. We see their lips moving as Margaret tells her what happened. The friend accosts the young man, shouting at him, and then goes to an older man for help.
Margaret just sits there, her eyes darting as the gossip makes its way around the room. It becomes increasingly obvious that Margaret, rather than the young man, is being singled out as the problem. She's the one who will be punished, not the rapist. The next day, Margaret is packed up and shipped off to one of the Magdalene laundries.
Always exploited and, in many cases, sexually abused, Margaret and the other victims work, unpaid, seven days a week, 364 days a year, with only Christmas off. Most of the laundries had closed by the 1970s, but the very last did not close until 1996; 30,000 women had passed through their doors.
In her review of The Magdalene Sisters, Gordon writes, "Didn't any of the women who escaped or left legitimately (any adult male relative could rescue them) tell anyone - a family member, a friend, a sympathetic confessor - what they had endured? The answer seems to be no, and the explanation lies in the particular flavor of Irish shamed silence. The moral horror of the Magdalene laundries is that the abuses perpetrated were not the outgrowth of simple sadism or even of unmindfulness, but of the belief that they were intended for the victims" own good."
The grotesque and terrible injustices suffered by these women, while all different, reveal that they were victims not so much of deep, unflinching religious beliefs, but of a deep-seated contempt for and fear of - female sexuality.
When I read this article, I was personally touched. It reminded me of my own Irish Catholic heritage, and how my mother was so ashamed of her sexuality. On another level, I was reminded of the widespread malaise in our country that makes women either whores or Madonnas; it is one of the poisonous results of America's shaming of female sexuality.
I remember when we were growing up in the ´70s, all of the girls were getting bikinis, wearing halter tops and baring their midriffs. I really wanted to be part of that scene and to be part of my peer culture. My mother absolutely refused. I had to beg her to get a two-piece swimming suit, because, for my mother, bad girls do those kinds of things - good girls don't.
Speaking to my mother's history and culture, the review of The Magdalene Sisters addresses the Irish belief that women's sexuality is shameful, and the fact that men control the issues of women's sexuality. They control it to the exclusion of a woman's own humanity.
In America today, women's sexuality is afflicted by what I call the "Madonna-Whore Split." There are good girls and bad girls; and sinful girls should be shunned. The Madonnas are the childbearing wives and daughters. We put them on a pedestal, and we can't think of them as being sexual and "sexy," because we need them be pure and virginal like the Madonna herself. Then we have the whores: the girls "we can play with." These girls are promiscuous and sexual, and we think of them as wrong and bad. And by calling them wrong and bad, we make them scapegoats and transfer our sexual shame to them. We think they are kinky curiosities, seducers and nymphos. These labels dehumanize them. Our contact with them is physical only or based in pornographic imagining - there is no intimacy. We think they are beneath us, while it is we who have paid the price of grandiosity by denying their humanity and our own lust. We cannot have them in our everyday lives. In our everyday lives, we want Madonna, and our women have learned to be Madonnas - all at a terrible cost.
In other words, we have J-Lo and Britney Spears acting that out for us, becoming sexual caricatures. In our culture, they become icons, but we do not let the sexuality that they imply, and which we affirm with their celebrity, take place in our own bedrooms. That would be shameful.
In our culture, the burden of sexual shame is most brutal to the women whose Madonna-hood has been forced upon them by the male dominance of sexual mores, as so vividly portrayed in The Magdalene Sisters.
I see this all the time in my practice; women come in who have the "Madonna-Whore Syndrome." I ask them if they have ever had an orgasm, and they tell me they never have. I ask why. They tell me they don't enjoy sex. I ask if they have ever masturbated, and they tell me no. They don't know how to masturbate, and the idea sounds dirty and shameful. They tell me they are afraid to try.
Some women who come in are the other extreme: women who have acted out and are the bad girls. They feel shamed and dirty. Often they are depressed because of this shame, because of their inability to embrace the human reality of their sexuality and to know how they have been abused.
We have been conditioned to deny the human totality of our sexuality. This is no less a delusion than denying our reason, compassion, hunger or need for friendship and intimacy. So sex becomes this horrible split between the pure and the sinful. Why is it that many women cannot have fun with their sexuality? Why is it they cannot freely orgasm? Why is it they cannot feel good about their bodies? It is because of the shame. Because good girls don't do that.
We Americans are not really looking at this cultural shame; we are not really addressing what goes on in women's bodies, minds and souls, and what they want sexually. Because most women don't know. They have been shamed out of their sexual gift, and this shaming away of female sexuality is epidemic.
Certainly the women I treat are not getting a sexual education rooted in the fullness of their perfect-imperfection - that acceptance of the truth about their humanity that enables self-esteeming sexual vitality. I don't think we are aware of how we have scapegoated women and how we have not allowed them to be the full sexual human beings they were created. The Magdalene Sisters will powerfully compel us to such necessary reflections.
Note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2005 issue of MeadowLark, the magazine for alumni of The Meadows.
An Expense of Spirit and a Waste of Shame
By Lawrence S. Freundlich
There is so much about her that I admire. Her knowledge of Western culture is vast; she is one of the best-read individuals I have met - including at the highest levels of academia - and she seems to remember it all. But her book learning hasn't isolated her from the world. She has a rich social life. She attends premier art openings and theater and music events. Her circle of friends includes the business, cultural, and social movers and shakers in America and Europe. Many of them have been her lovers.
But all of these virtues are awash in alcohol. She has partied all over the globe and left a trail of real and metaphorical broken glass and stained gowns. She is famous or infamous (depending on whether she is your friend or your foe) for her scurrilous mockery of pomposity among the rich and powerful. She is afraid of no one. She is welcome in as many circles for her sanitizing iconoclasm as she is unwelcome in others for her preposterous rudeness. For some she is a culture hero - for others a dreadful boor. She has not spared her several husbands or children the spectacle of her shaming grandiosity.
When I was drinking, this woman and I were often in one another's company, bonded by alcoholic gaiety and amused by one another's provocative hostility. Neither of us would have recognized a boundary violation if we were hit over the head by it.
When I sobered up, after I had worked hard at making what I learned at The Meadows a part of my life, I came to see my friend for the adult wounded child she was, and my heart went out to her. I was particularly touched by her admiration for my own recovery. Because she often expressed how much of a better person I had become, I thought that I could lead her down the path of recovery.
I wanted very much to change her - to make her want what I had. I encouraged her to tell me about her upbringing, and she did. It was a very painful tale in which the false empowerment of privilege and the disempowerment of abandonment left their morbid residue of grandiosity, shame, and worthlessness over all her relationships and trapped her in alcoholic denial of her own immaturity.
During a recent vacation retreat at her home in France, at which several of us were her guests for a few days, we were the recipients of her usual hectic generosity. Then the liquor began to do its work: slurred speech, repeated anecdotes, insults, confused lectures. She was always on stage, leaving hardly any air for me to breathe. Once again, I was the little child in the presence of his shaming parents - too frightened to speak the truth for fear of being abandoned. I should have left, but I did not. Instead, I sulked silently, and my carried shame began to grow like a tumor. My authentic self shriveled. I masked my worthlessness in a constant interior monologue of contempt for her bad behavior, when it was my own shame, fear and powerlessness that were torturing me. Before the week was over, I alternated between wanting to scream in her face or hide in my room with my head under a pillow.
In the months since that sad event, I have reflected on how ill-advised it is for us recovering people to think we can save friends and partners from their addictions. Since so many recovering people have had childhoods in which their wounding involved not being heard, they are vulnerable to post-traumatic stress when their active friends and partners mock their advice by continued dysfunction. When they inevitably fail to understand us, our own shame wounds are opened, and it is we who put our recovery in danger.
The model upon which our recovery is based will often leave us feeling on the outside. This loneliness is not a personal failure. Accepting it is the difficult but healthful gift of having become a mature adult. The wound of "not being heard" creates an abnormal need to hear things discussed intelligently and straightforwardly. I say "abnormal" because such boundaried and conscious behavior in relationship is abnormal for the species. We may be forced to accept our need for and insistence on boundaried and conscious relationship as an idiosyncrasy spawned by our own trauma histories. To fall into self-pity because we harbor a delusional notion of recovery according to our standards is an expense of spirit and a waste of shame.
The First Step is for the addict to take - we cannot take it for him. No one took it for us. If modeling sober behavior for our addicted friends does not lead them in the right direction, perhaps the only other thing we can do is to pray for them. Prayer, after all, doesn't require their understanding or willingness.
Note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2005 issue of MeadowLark, the magazine for alumni of The Meadows.
Healthy Sexuality One Step at a Time
By Maureen Canning
There is a saying in AA that reminds newcomers “to fake it until you make it.” The belief behind this advice is that you can act your way into good feelings – that proper behavior nurtures healthy emotions.
Boundary practice, which is the practice of sober behavior, relies on this insight. As Pia Mellody has said, ”Boundary practice re-creates the conditions under which truth and respect are possible.” During the “re-creation” stage, sober behavior is consciously practiced and may seem unnatural, since we still are feeling the uncomfortable emotions associated with our disease. But despite our discomfort, we notice that the results of our acting sober are all positive. Positive builds upon positive and, at last, boundary practice yields a satisfactory (healthy) portion of inner peace.
In therapy, recovering sex addicts discover that what they think of as sexual pleasure is, in fact, the reduction of anxiety they feel when they use manipulative sex to obliterate or ameliorate the fear, shame and powerlessness wired into them by childhood sexual abuse. Disconnection from the authentic self has caused them to make a monumental mistranslation in which danger, intensity, fear, shame and powerlessness have come to mean “sexual pleasure.” Undoing this perversion of emotional truth and recovering for addicts their Authentic Selves are the aims of recovery. When in recovery, we reconnect to our Authentic Selves, we feel the safety that we lacked as children. In this feeling of safety, we begin to build what I call “congruent” selves, in which, on all levels of our being, we move toward living in the truth and taking the first steps toward healthy intimacy in relationships.
One Step at a Time
Sex addicts had to disconnect with their feelings as children, because to acknowledge the betrayal of their parents' role of caregivers would have been overwhelmingly threatening. So they adapted, stuffed their feelings, and lost contact with the care and nurturing they genuinely wanted and needed. Since sexual urge is the energy source of our selfhood, sexual abuse caused them to lose contact with their creative identity. In order to get back in touch with their healthy needs and wants, they have to rediscover what it feels like to be authentic - free of traumatic intimidation - and vulnerable. This reconnection will be a careful and specific process of reflection and practical exercise. It is a step-by-step process. The goal is to rediscover, in the everyday events of our lives, the healthy bond between pleasure and sexuality. Only then will it be possible to see how spiritual truths and sexual energies are connected at the highest level of our being.
For example, music is one thing that can provoke the awareness of such positive bonds between bodily sensation and pleasure. When you connect with music that seems to speak to you, that is the kind of restorative reconnecting between pleasure and self-esteem that I speak of. The music and who we really are seem to be congruent; we fit together as part of a force greater than ourselves.
Another example of an activity, which, like music, reconnects us and makes us feel whole, is sensuous dining. You go into your favorite restaurant and order your favourite food, and, in that moment, you are so present and connected with the experience of taste, smell, texture and comfort that you feel complete. You feel that pleasure is what you deserve. Pleasure loses its connection to danger.
People damaged in this way must be coached in the techniques of self-care and pleasure if they are to recover from sexual addiction. I coach recovering sex addicts to identify the everyday things that give them pleasure. It might be burning incense, the sound of a fountain they listen to as they sleep, or bedroom walls, newly painted in a color that is soothing. As they act practically and habitually to cater to their sense of pleasure, they reawaken their sensitivity to pleasure and learn that it does not have to come with fear, intensity, powerlessness and shame. They learn that pleasure is not the reward of manipulation and control; it is something they deserve, in and of itself, and only because they are precious. They learn that the experience of pleasure exposes them to no danger. But it can be terrifying for sexually addicted persons to open up to such restorative activities. Their original fusion of pleasure with abuse makes the opening of oneself to pleasures as innocent as music, eating or decorating the house in favourite colors, a traumatic pathway back to pain and shame.
This is where the maxim "to fake it until you make i" is put to work. Overcoming the reluctance to listen to our favorite music, to linger over our favorite foods, to decorate our rooms in our favorite colors, soon bears fruit. We learn that pleasure does not need to plunge us back into memories of abuse. We may feel anxiety when we pleasure ourselves in these healthy ways. But we do it anyway, with a little help from our recovering, healthy, like-minded friends – friends with whom we can share our fears and our reluctance to let go and become vulnerable.
The goal of sexual recovery is not to make music, food or interior decorating healthfully available to the recovering addict. The goal is to liberate the sexual energy at the core of our being. When I talk about sexuality, I am not just talking about genital contact. I believe that sexual energy is the core of who we are; it is our life force, our passion and our creativity. From this sexual core of our being resonates our unique selfhood.
Maureen Canning, Clinical Consultant of The Meadows and Dakota, was recently featured in an interview on iVillage. In Tiger Woods in Sex Rehab: What Really Goes on in There, Anyway?, Canning described some indicators of a sexual addiction, and what goes on during a typical day of sex addiction treatment. Canning was also quoted in a Time.com article, What Happens in Sex Rehab?
On a related note, the work of The Meadows Senior Clinical Advisor Pia Mellody was described in an article on love addiction on Albany.com. The article outlines Mellody's book Facing Love Addiction: Giving Yourself the Power to Change the Way You Love , and describes the symptoms, causes, and steps to overcome love addiction.
For more information on the treatment of sexual addiction, visit The Meadows, The Meadows Dakota or Maureen Canning’s Sexual Addiction Blog.
Maureen Canning, Clinical Consultant for The Meadows Addiction Treatment Center, was interviewed January 6th on Good Morning America. In a story on the death of Johnson & Johnson heiress Casey Johnson, Canning explained the difficulties that high profile families face when their adult children have trouble with substance abuse.
To read more about the story and view the Good Morning America video, visit at abc.com.
Note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2005 issue of The Meadows‘ alumni magazine, MeadowLark.
Dissolving Fear and Nurturing Joy: the Personal Story of a Recovering Agoraphobic with Panic Disorder
By Charles Atkinson, MA, MSW, LCSW
Hello, my name is Charles Atkinson. I am a 55- year-old recovering agoraphobic with panic disorder. The term "agoraphobia" derives from the Greek language. The interpretation of "agora" is marketplace, and a "phobos" is defined as flight. Hence, agoraphobia literally means "flight from the marketplace." Further examination of the word agora reveals it was not only a place of intense commerce where goods were sold and bartered, but also the social hub of town for the exchange of exciting new ideas and concepts. Consequently, an agoraphobic could not venture into the marketplace for fear of overstimulation in unpredictable and chaotic surroundings. Therefore, at an unconscious level, the marketplace represented to the agoraphobic a mirror image of his childhood environment.
Today, the definition of agoraphobia has been refined to include an avoidance of a specific place or situation in which one feels trapped and may experience embarrassment. The terms "panic attack" and "anxiety attack" can be applied interchangeably. Panic attacks occur when the sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive and generates a cognitive distortion of second-order fear, or "fear of fear." This emotion of fear is felt on both the conscious (physical) and unconscious (emotional) levels. The results are panic attacks that feel as if the sufferer is going to lose control, go crazy or die.
It is not fully understood if agoraphobia with panic disorder has its fundamental inception in biology or is a learned behavior. I believe this disorder has its roots in both theoretical paradigms. However, additional schools of thought can be applied.
Dr. Shelley Uram, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist at The Meadows, helps articulate a layperson's perspective of how the neuropsychiatry model of the mind and body adapts to stress and trauma. She explains that our amygdala is located in the limbic system of the brain. The limbic system is located in the midbrain, where our emotions originate. Constant stresses, such as childhood traumas, rattle and sensitize our amygdala, which is also referred to as the "smoke detector," a moniker indicative of its function. It does not gradually activate the sympathetic nervous system for the fight or flight response. It spontaneously stimulates the adrenal glands to flood the body with adrenaline. This results in a state of arousal for the body and mind. If the brain continually perceives the message of an external threat, whether real or imagined, it will create an internal state of perpetual hypervigilance and angst. It is analogous to revving your car's engine to the highest RPMs while in park.
Pia Mellody's longtime work in the area of trauma and addictions has resulted in a behavioral model called "Developmental Immaturity." This model addresses the problems of being relational and achieving intimacy. To gain a better understanding of Pia's model, imagine a tree.
The roots of the tree are the childhood traumas, including physical, sexual and emotional abuse. The trunk of the tree allows the core issues of immaturity to fester and impede personal growth. These core issues include problems with self-esteem, boundaries, reality, dependency and containment. The branch of the tree denotes the secondary symptoms of unmanageability. This is the stage when addictions, depression, fear and panic disorders appear. The leaves of the tree represent the final outcome of all of the dysfunctional stages and an inability to establish and maintain healthy intimate relationships.
My first panic attack occurred at age 27, six weeks after I was married. It as if I were losing control, going crazy and having an emotional breakdown. A visit to the emergency room ensued. The hospital medical staff said I was having an anxiety attack, gave me a tranquilizer and sent me home. Not only did I feel emotionally trapped and ill-equipped to engage in an intimate relationship, but the sense of overwhelming fear and impending doom was ever-present. I tentatively speculated that marriage was the problem. It was too incomprehensible to think that the problem was endogenous to me. So began my journey through life, filled with hidden shame, fear and depression spanning the next three decades.
After two years of visiting a myriad of psychotherapists and experimenting with numerous psychotropic drugs, I was still battling depression, fear and anxiety. Fortunately, at 29, I found a psychologist who diagnosed my condition as agoraphobia with panic disorder. He explained that my disorder stemmed not from my perception of marriage, but from the cognitive distortions and childhood trauma embedded in my psyche due to physical abuse. Recalling the physical abuse experience was so powerful that it felt as if my heart and soul were being suffocated. I could not address my childhood abuse issues.
However, as I developed more psychological ego strength and better coping skills, I gradually reflected back to my childhood. I was physically battered multiple times between the ages of 5 and 13. I tried unsuccessfully to stave off my father’s abuse with my feeble attempts to express anger. My retaliation was met with scorn, disdain and an escalation of violence. This violence would trigger my body to mobilize and prepare my internal milieu for the most primitive response: survival.
Today, my father would be labeled a "rage-aholic." His impulsivity and inability to contain his rage were equivalent to a ticking time bomb, ready to explode at any time, for no reason. Since I was the oldest male child in the family, I was the focal point of his outbursts. This dysfunctional
behavior perpetuated the male rite of passage in our family. The sins of the father were being passed to the next generation as an acceptable form of discipline.
After decades of therapy, I found that the model that helped me grasp and understand my problems most clearly was Pia Mellody's. Her approach illustrated that my father had an extreme failure in maintaining his boundaries, contributing to my feelings of being exceedingly vulnerable and without boundaries. His constant verbal and physical abuse was an edict to our family; he was the boss. If he was in the perennial position of one-up, we were always one-down. Being one-down all the time obviously had a negative impact on my self-esteem. Also, he emphatically and without question demanded obedience, putting himself in a position of omnipotence. This eventually distorted my reality, dislodging me from the spiritual path to my higher power. My father was continually on the verge of being out of control. His lack of control influenced my behavior, as I always tried to be in control and perfect.
As a survival technique, especially during the physical battering, I dissociated my emotions from my body. If I felt any feelings, I cognitively appraised them as anxious feelings. This psychological tactic of turning my anger at my father into anxiety within myself allowed me to function in a chaotic and unpredictable home.
Consequently, after decades of dissociating from my feelings, convoluting and twisting my emotions, I was unable to identify and appropriately express emotions. Therefore, every time I had a feeling, I assessed it as anxiety - and only anxiety. This increasing accumulation of stress and inappropriate processing of emotions provided a fertile environment for the onset of panic attacks. Pia Mellody would call this psychological process "carried feelings" or "carried shame." More pointedly, during my father's rage attacks, I felt shame, and he was shameless. As a vulnerable child, I symbolically swallowed all of his emotional frailties and inadequacies. The psychological process of feeling my shame, fear and anger, plus my father's feelings, was too overwhelming. A panic attack was the result of the carried fear and shame.
Healing the sins of the father is a Herculean effort. Many therapists employ traditional talk psychotherapies, which are extremely helpful. However, traditional talk therapies primarily engage the higher cortical portions of the brain. Some research indicates that childhood trauma seems to be locked in the more primitive limbic system. One of the most effective ways to access the limbic system of the brain is through modalities that stimulate the midbrain, or our seat of emotions. An example of this modality is guided imagery used to re-experience the childhood trauma as an adult. Pia Mellody uses this technique and others that bridge both portions of the brain, the frontal cortex (thinking) and the limbic system (feeling).
In closing, the abatement of the carried feelings is not the end; it is the beginning of one's spiritual path. Ironically, recovery is not only achieved with the dissolution of fear, but with the nurturing of joy.
The newest edition of The Cutting Edge, published by The Meadows, is now available. Feature articles include Emotional Incest and What's Wrong about Being Special by Debra L. Kaplan, The Next Step... Life Pleasure in Advance Recovery by Steven Hoskinson, and an excerpt from The Intimacy Factor by Pia Mellody and Lawrence Freundlich.
Also included are two staff spotlights and information on a featured workshop (Sexual Recovery), additional 2010 workshops, free lectures, and other upcoming events.
The Cutting Edge is available in HTML and PDF formats.
Note: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2005 of MeadowLark, the magazine for alumni of The Meadows.
The Electricity of Carried Shame
By Lawrence S. Freundlich
Children need and expect love and nurturing from their parents. This expectation is built into the genes of the human infant, who needs affirmation and protection as much as milk and warmth. Pia Mellody believes that, when parents fail in their role as caregivers to their very young, such behavior is "shameful," - essentially the betrayal of trust between infant and parent.
The reason most parents who act "shamefully" do so is not because they are overtly evil, but that they are "immature" and have become baffled and/or overwhelmed by the complex and emotionally taxing task of parenting a young child. This is not an unusual human phenomenon. Most of us have had to deal with the inheritance of immature parenting. Some of us have been immature parents ourselves.
The irritation that parents feel with their children may be expressed through anger and/or neglect. Such demeaning behavior gives the parent relief from the stresses of caring for the child. However, it makes the child feel frightened or worthless. The child thinks that something is wrong with him and becomes, in Pia Mellody's phrasing, "allergic to his own humanity." The mechanism by which this "allergy" is transferred from parent to child is what Pia identifies as "carried shame."
It is important to differentiate one's own shame from Pia's concept of "carried shame." Pia views shame to be both a gift from God and a legacy of abuse. When it's a gift from God, the experience of our own natural shame makes us aware that we are fallible. But shame as a legacy of abuse ("carried shame") has to do with the devastating and crippling experience of induced shame, as it diminishes our sense of inherent worth, making us feel less valued than others. According to Pia, "When we experience our own shame, we believe that someone has seen us as we really are - human and imperfect. When we feel our own shame, we know we are not a god or a goddess. Our own shame makes it possible to be relational, a gift our body gives to us, as we have to consider the impact that our behavior has on other people."
When Pia and Pat Mellody first began to discuss the concept of "carried shame," Pat provided a useful metaphor from the physics of electricity. He likened the transfer of a parent's shaming of a child to what happens when one coil of electric wire is placed next to another coil, and one coil is charged with an alternating current. The adjoining coil picks up the energy from the charged coil, even though the coils are not touching. Since human emotions, like electrical currents, are energy fields, they can be transferred from the person who is feeling the emotion to another person in close proximity. Of course, the emotional energy must be powerful enough for effective transfer (in physics, this is called "induction").
It was Pia's startling insight that the emotion of shame reaches the crucial "voltage" for "induction" when the person acting shamefully does not acknowledge that his/her behavior was shameful. The shame energy unabsorbed by an act of conscience or contrition has no where to go but out into the atmosphere to be picked up by the "adjoining receptor" that "adjoining receptor" is the child. The child then feels the parent's shame as if it were his own. What he feels is not the result of something that is wrong with himself, but something that is wrong with his parents. If the child were a mature, rational adult, he would recognize that his feeling of shame could not be alleviated by trying to figure out how he himself is inadequate, worthless, or"bad." The mature, rational adult would have to learn how, in Pia's terms, "to release the carried shame."
I believe that "carried shame" is one of the more difficult concepts in recovery. Many of us acknowledge that we are "shame-based," and we try to modify our behaviors so that we can have a sense of value. While the effects of carried shame live within us, the origins of shame do not belong to us, and attempting to fix our shame identifies the wrong transmitter. The shame belongs to the original shamers. And it is only by releasing it that we can rid ourselves of carried shame.
Many of us feel uneasy at the prospect of laying the blame of disastrous careers on our parents. We have been taught to take personal responsibility for our failures. Didn't our parents try as hard as they could to raise us? As culturally admirable as such reflections may seem, they are psychologically delusional. A child is in no position to take responsibility for his parents' shamelessness.
It has been the experience of many patients at The Meadows that the release of carried shame contributes to a sense of balance and moderation. And yet, we have come to understand that some pathways back to the pain of our carried shame traumas can, from time to time, be triggered. It is at these painful moments that we can shield ourselves from the effects of the voices of the past. We have learned to take time out, we have learned to breathe into the pain, and we have learned the skill and art of boundaries. We have learned that our pain is not evidence of our worthlessness. And, if we can do these things most of the time, we are reminded that we are okay, even if it has been a long journey back to believing it.
Note: This article was originally published in the Fall 2005 issue of MeadowLark, the magazine for alumni of The Meadows.
Remembering Who We Are: Tools to Gain Clarity
Kathleen O'Brien, LCSW
"I want to change, but I don't know how."
How many times have you heard yourself utter these very words? Most people come to counseling knowing that their lives need to change, but they often don't feel confident enough in their abilities to make that happen.
Confusion about what is most important can lead, at the very least, to poor choices and mildly co-dependent behavior and, in the extreme, to serious addiction problems.
It doesn't work for us to behave in ways that go against our own values. We can suffer depression and/or anxiety when we ignore what we believe to be most important. We then "treat" our unhappiness with self-destructive behaviors, such as dysfunctional relationships, substance abuse, irresponsible spending and so forth. One poor choice leads to another, and soon we find ourselves at the bottom of a very deep hole.
That downward spiral is daunting, to say the least. My experience both personally and professionally has shown me that, in order to make a significant life change, we need to remember who we are, i.e. to have clarity about what we value most.
The truth is that most people know intuitively what is most important to them. When a client finds herself in a predicament, I ask what she would tell a son or daughter to do in the same situation. Almost without fail, she has an instant answer for the problem at hand. It is as though she can access her wisdom for someone else's benefit (especially her child's), but not for her own. It's not that she doesn't know the answer; she just doesn't feel entitled to act on her own behalf. As a result, she usually doesn't develop the skills necessary to get her needs met in a healthy way.
Take a few moments to ponder the following:
The point here is to focus on remembering who you are. Pia Mellody calls this "remembering that you are precious."
Over the years, I've tried many techniques to help clients clarify how they feel and what they value. I call this "accessing one's own wisdom." Here are some techniques I've found helpful:
In conclusion, remember that the way to heal yourself is to know who you are and to live according to what is true for you. When a person acts in truth, it resonates down to the cellular level. You are your own best healer!