blame

Shame and Contempt, Part 3: The Flipside

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

In an earlier blog, I explored Shame and Contempt as unhealthy and unproductive mutations of Guilt and Judgment, respectively, and how we live as though we believe them even though they are profoundly untrue.

Here, I would like to discuss the ground that Shame and Contempt grow from.

Self-Righteousness

The most obvious and familiar feeling that engenders shame or contempt is self-righteousness.  We are most often aware of self-righteousness in others, especially when it is directed at us.  It is identifiable by our reactions to it: “How dare you look down your nose at me!?”  “Little Miss (Mr.) Goody-Two-Shoes” (I know I’m dating myself here.)  “What a stuck-up jerk!”  “Think you’re better than everyone else, do you?”

It seems apparent to me that we would regard self-righteousness as a negative character trait or behavior when we see it or experience it from anyone.

However, most of us actually practice this at some point ourselves. We experience self-righteousness in ourselves when we say or think things like, “I would never…” or “How could you…”.  When we shake our heads and “cluck our tongues” to say “Tsk, tsk, for shame.”  When we say, “THAT person deserves to be…” . It is at its core an internal feeling of being better than the other person.

What makes self-righteousness distinct from contempt?  Self-Righteousness is the soil from which Contempt grows and flourishes.

Contempt is the external expression of the fundamental (and often unquestioned) internal belief in our own goodness (self-righteousness).

The trap of it is that we tend to highlight the things we are good at or things that we think make us look good, and exclude the things we are less good at or embarrass us.  When we operate from self-righteousness, we act as though we have the right to determine the worth of another person.

Other-Righteousness

Other-Righteousness is a term that I am pretty sure I made up.  I use it to describe the sensation that others are by nature better than oneself.  It functions in relationships when we “know” that our significant other is smarter, better, wiser, etc.  We put them on a pedestal that says, “You know more about XYZ than I do, so I will always yield to your opinion on this.” Socially, we experience the sensation that everyone who sees us is judging us or pitying us.  We feel that they are worth more than us.

Not only do we have this feeling, we believe it.  Not only are we judged, but we deserve to be judged.   We automatically believe that others have no real compassion when we make a mistake, that they are laughing at us or scorning us, and that we deserve it.  It is the core belief in our defectiveness and shame.  It is a wearisome way to live.

What makes “other-righteousness” distinct from shame?  The answer is the same as to the similar question above:  Other Righteousness is the soil from which our sense of defectiveness grows.

Shame is the external or surface expression of the core (often unquestioned) belief in others’ superiority.

Also similar is the trap.  When we believe in our own worthlessness, we highlight and expect all the screw ups and shortcomings and exclude examples of our genuine goodness.  When we operate from other-righteousness, we live as though everyone around us has the right to condemn us.

My next blog will look at how to counter these formidable foes.

Shame and Contempt, Part 1: What are they?

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

Shame and Contempt.  These are feelings we have a hard time making sense of.   Both are loaded words, powerful concepts to consider.  As internal feelings, they are more common than we realize, and often shape our worlds more than we know.

Shame (v. Guilt)  (see this blog for a more long-winded examination of this distinction)

Shame is a feeling of being defective.  This is different than guilt.  Guilt is the knowledge of having done wrong.  Shame is the sense that “I am wrong,” or that “Something is wrong with me.”

The clue to distinguishing these two feelings from each other is the verb.  

Guilt uses action verbs: did/didn’t, acted, failed to act, etc.  Shame uses State-of-Being verbs: am, is, was, were, can/can’t, etc.  Guilt says “I did [a thing that was wrong].  I crossed a line, I lied, I acted in this way or that”.  Shame says, “What was I thinking?  What is the matter with me?  Why can’t I …?”.

Distinguishing between shame and guilt is important for two reasons:

  1. Guilt is a healthy emotion that leads us to learning to do better things and resist doing harmful things.  We appropriately don’t like how guilt feels, and because we don’t want to feel that way, we make different choices.
  2. Shame is always a lie.  Shame never results in real change or learning, it only self-reinforces.  “What did I expect?  This is what I get.  I am such a screw up.”  Most often when we evaluate ourselves in this way, we are evaluating our whole being on the basis of our bloopers reel.  It is to feel worthless, pointless, and without value to the world at large.

Contempt (vs. Judgment) (see this blog for a more long-winded examination of this distinction)

Contempt is at its core the shaming of another.  In similar fashion to Shame, Contempt uses being verbs, whereas (like Guilt) Judgment uses action verbs.

It is to measure the person or thing as inherently defective.

Judgment is objectively or subjectively describing something.  “I like/don’t like this thing/person”, or “You hurt me when you said…”, or “I like/don’t like how you talked to me.”    Contempt makes the evaluation about the being of the person or thing itself.  “You are such a fool.”, or, “What is wrong with you?”, or “What were you thinking?”

Again, this distinction is important for two reasons:

  1. Judgment itself is not a bad or hurtful thing.  Contempt is the sentiment most folks are referring to when they say “don’t judge”.  We all make judgments every day, and these are healthy and needful assessments of our world.
  2. Like shame, Contempt is always a lie.  It is to speak as though we are authorized or have the capacity to determine the worth of another human’s existence.  To express contempt is to say that the person or thing is worthless, without value, and that destroying them would be a non-issue.

So What?

Shame and contempt shape our worlds more than we know.  My next blog in this series will look at how we use shame and contempt in our daily lives to describe ourselves and others.

My Most Recent Parenting Blunder

My Most Recent Parenting Blunder

I just decided to look up the word “blunder” since it is the word that seems most appropriate for this parenting mishap, and according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, blunder means “a stupid or careless mistake.”  Yep, that captures this situation in a nutshell!

blunder1740-correction

About 2 weeks ago some friends and I were about to watch a movie called The Hunger Games.  Have you seen it?  If not go here to learn about the premise of the movie – basically, kids and teenagers have to kill each other to live.  These movies are very well done, but the storyline is a bit jarring.  So back to my blunder….my 8 year old son (almost 9…if that helps my case any?!?!) wanted to watch the movie with us.  He often loves to watch things with my friends and me.  I think he genuinely enjoys the shared experiences.  When he first asked to watch it with us I was hesitant.  I polled the room to see what others thought.  The overall consensus was that he would be okay, though I think we were all a little hesitant!  That still wasn’t enough for me.  Then I thought about other movies he’s seen – Harry Potter, Star Wars, Home Alone (does this even count among the other movies listed?), and I began to think he could handle it.  He and I talked briefly about the movie’s storyline and then jointly decided he could watch it with us.  He was ecstatic!

Can you guess what happened?  When the killing started it was too much for him.  He announced, “This is too much for me.  I’m gonna go to my room.”  And he walked into his room, shut the door, and about 2 seconds later the crying began.  Blunder.

He was very upset.  While crying he said, “How could people do that to each other?  How could the president guy get away with that?  I just want to go get him and kill him.  What he is doing is wrong.  The people need to get together and get rid of him (pretty amazing considering that is exactly what happens in the story!).”  He said many more statements like the ones I just wrote, and as I hugged him and listened I began to learn more about my son.  Here’s the first thing I learned:  My son loves justice and hates injustice.  Immediately many instances flooded my mind of times when this character trait showed itself in his words and actions.  It was a blessing to see this so clearly.

He also said this, “I am so mad at myself for choosing to watch that movie.  I should have known better.  It was too much for me.”  After he said this my heart broke a little.  I hated that he was taking responsibility for this decision when clearly I am the parent and I am the one who is in his life to protect him from making “blunder” types of decisions.  So I immediately set the record straight and told him, “You are not to blame for this, I am.  I am your mom.  I am here to protect you, and I didn’t do my job very well with this decision.  You are 8.  You aren’t supposed know how to make decisions like this yet.  But I am.  And I messed this one up.  Will you please forgive me?  Please don’t be mad at yourself.  If you need to be mad at anyone be mad at me.”  His whole demeanor shifted.  A weight had been lifted.  The shift was as clear as day.  He was relieved to be reminded about what is his responsibility and what is mine.  He was allowed to be 8, and this was good for his soul!

So here is the other thing I learned:  I will make blundering types of mistakes with my kids and its not the end of his world or mine.  The mistake isn’t the most important thing, but how it’s handled IS!

So I think I’ll wait a few more years before trying to watch The Hunger Games again with my oldest son, but I am thankful to have learned so much about him through my blunder!

 

by: Lianne Johnson, LPC

3 Essential Questions to Ask Yourself When Big Feelings Happen

3 Essential Questions to Ask Yourself When Big Feelings Happen

(#3 is the real kicker!)

If you’re looking for a way to keep from losing your mind when big feelings happen, I’m going to suggest these 3 essential questions to ask yourself.

First let’s define “Big Feelings”. These are feelings that swell up and burst in a nanosecond. It happens as quickly as a reflex (because they usually *are* reflexes, not choices!).   A sudden, very intense feeling of anger, offense, rejection, hurt, or other similar powerful emotions.   Often you may be able to recognize that the intensity you are feeling seems out of proportion to the thing that seems to have caused it.

Avenues Counseling

 

The Big Feeling is generally accompanied by a strong reaction of some kind: you erupt in anger, you run and hide, or maybe you shut down and withdraw. Whatever you do, it seems automatic.

So the three questions are a tool you can use to get underneath the reflex and understand what is pushing you around. The end goal is to gain enough understanding and distance from the feeling that you can intelligently choose what you are going to do next, rather than letting the feeling dictate your actions.

Question #1: What is the feeling? This seems simple at first: “I’m ANGRY, you idiot!! Isn’t that obvious?!”   Not so fast. Usually with an emotion like anger or offense, there is a softer feeling that comes first. Think of a parent that sees their child playing in the street. They react in anger: “What have I told you about playing in the street??” But the first feeling is fear: “I’m afraid you are going to get hurt or killed!!”

The key to mastering Question #1 is volume: wrap *a lot* of words around the feeling. Go into as much detail as you can. What does it physically feel like? Where do I feel it in my body? Is there motion to it? Does it rise or fall? Move forward or retreat? Burst or crush? It’s probably more than just one feeling, so what else is there? How many synonyms or clarifying words can you come up with to describe this feeling? These are just some examples, but hopefully it’s enough to get started.

Question #2: Why is it there? This question moves from what’s happening inside you to your immediate surroundings. What just happened to trigger this feeling?   Again, it seems obvious at first. “I’m pissed because you’re a jerk.” This part may be true, but let’s go a bit deeper, shall we? Get into the layer of meaning. What is it about that word, that action, that tone of voice that makes it so intense? Does it tell you they think you’re worthless? That they don’t respect you? That they’re not going to hear anything you have to say no matter what? Again, get into as much detail as you can.

Question #3: Where does it come from? We’re still dealing with the feeling that you named in question #1. Answering this question can be extremely informative, as well as kind of scary. The goal of this question is to discover where in your story, as far back as you can remember, have you felt this feeling before? Often, as you think about the physical sensation of the feeling, the answer comes quickly. It may be a specific story or event. A moment that, though it happened 10 years ago or 30 years ago, is crystallized in your mind so clearly you can remember what you were wearing.

It may not be a specific moment, but rather a type of moment. The feeling might be connected to something that happened often enough that specific moments are lost in the sheer number of them. What remains is the impression of “always”. “We always had to… He always said… It was always like this… Whenever I saw/heard/felt this, I knew…”.

Discovering your answer to Question #3 can sometimes be like a bomb going off in your mind and heart. All of a sudden you realize that you are connecting two different stories together, and that the old story is what you’re really angry at (or afraid of). Maybe the two stories are similar enough that they feel the same, and it’s the kind of story you never want to be a part of ever again.

Gaining this understanding is absolutely essential to developing the capacity to thoughtfully respond to the triggering situation rather than reacting out of the power of your emotions. Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting you ignore what you feel, but that you seek to understand what you feel clearly so that you can deal with it intelligently.

Big Feelings are tough to handle. They always will be. But you don’t have to blow up or disappear when they happen. The Three Questions are intended to help you be able to stand up, speak your peace, and seek resolution in a healthier way. Rather than getting lost in the fog of confusion, fear, or anger, you can engage with openness, clarity, and self-control.

-by Jonathan Hart, LPC

Relational Trauma

By: Andy Gear, PLPC

I recently read a book entitled Your Sexually Addicted Spouse that I found very illuminating, and I wanted to pass on what I learned to you. In it Barbara Steffens specifically seeks to help partners of sexual addicts “survive, recover, and thrive.” But her ideas can be helpful for anyone dealing with pain from damaging relationships.

One of the most helpful ideas she brings up is the concept of relational trauma. When many of us think of trauma, we think about physical wounds. But she points out that victims of betrayal have also experienced very real trauma. This relational trauma is often just as painful and life altering as physical trauma. Many people even experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress as a result of being betrayed or emotionally victimized. The pain is increased when done by someone we should have been able to trust.

I have found this concept extremely helpful, because I have noticed that many people who have experienced consistent relational trauma tend to minimize what they have been through. People often believe that because they cannot locate one definitive trauma in their life, then they have no reason to feel hurt or traumatized. But Steffens helps us realize the lasting impact of chronic relational trauma.

The rest of the book proceeds to explain what it looks like to begin the journey of healing. If your life has been impacted by a damaging or hurtful relationship then I would encourage you not to ignore its impact. Please take the time to begin the journey of healing, because relational trauma is significant and your pain is real.

 

 

 

Theology Now

or, “When Faith Kicks in for Real”
by Jonathan Hart, LPC

I went on a 20 mile hike with my 9 year old son last weekend.  We took a couple of days, camped overnight, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Except the last four miles.

It started with two rumbles of thunder.  The rain turned on like a faucet. This was not wholly unexpected.  The forecast had predicted “scattered storms”.  We donned our ponchos and put away our lunches.  We, wisely or foolishly, chose to hike through it, since we were pretty close to the end.  I believed the storm would be over quickly.

I was wrong.  The rain persisted.  Thunder and lightning rolled, becoming if anything more frequent.  We hiked off the hilltop and were working our way down into the valley.  My son was nervous about the rain and the lightning, especially the close ones (I was too, but I tried to keep a brave face on for his sake).  Half an hour into the storm when the hail started falling, he became terrified.

We found a  fairly large bent tree trunk to hide behind.  It was enough to deflect most of the hail, but not all.  Both of us took a few hits. That had to have been the longest ten minutes of the whole trip, when dime-to-quarter sized chunks of ice were falling around and on us, lightning blasting overhead followed by deafening thunder and torrential rain. I seriously considered getting out our cooking gear and wearing the pots on our heads.

I knew that hail typically lasts only about 10 to 15 minutes, if that.  I did not know if we could expect larger hail than that which was currently pelting us. I didn’t know if there was a tornado in the vicinity.  My son was crying and starting to seriously freak out.  I was well on my to “Really Frightened” myself.  One of my most immediate thoughts was, “REALLY, God?  This couldn’t wait another hour or two?”  And then I thought, “What have I done to my son?”

I had been praying since the rain began.  Finally, faith kicked in.  I had a “Theology Now” moment.  I took my son’s face in my hands, looked into his eyes, and said (speaking as much to myself as to him), “As much as I love you, and would do everything I could to protect you and keep bad things from happening to you, God loves you more than I ever could.  He doesn’t always keep us from getting hurt, but he Always, Always loves and protects his children.  He is looking out for us right now, even though it might not seem like it.”

The hail stopped a few minutes later, as I knew it probably would.  The storm continued for another two and a half hours.  We survived, though we were thoroughly soaked and very, very tired of rain and lightning.

Theology Now is when the rubber meets the road in faith-land.  It is when what you say you believe meets up with what you really believe deep down.  It is the moment when the truth of doctrine pushes on and stretches our limitations and grows our capacity for real, honest-to-goodness trust.

The funny thing is that these moments don’t usually happen in the sunshine.  They usually happen right in the middle of an obnoxious storm.  We must be challenged, stretched, and tested painfully in order to grow our faith.  In this way, God often allows storms and painful times into our lives because he loves us. We must come to the end of our own strength in order to find and believe in His strength on our behalf.

–JH

The Characteristics of Abuse and Control

by Jonathan Hart, LPC
I recently spoke at the Women’s Safe House on the subject of identifying and avoiding potentially abusive relationships.  The presentation was called “How Not to Go Back:  Finding a Different Kind of Mate”.   What follows are a few of the ideas presented at that meeting.
Very often, as people move from relationship to relationship, they find themselves attracted to the same kind of person.  They leave one relationship for whatever reason, and find themselves in a relationship with another person who looks, acts, thinks, and speaks in similar ways. The problems of the previous relationship happen all over again in the current one.  This is especially troublesome when the other person is abusive or controlling. 
Often “number one” on the list of criteria used to judge the suitability of a mate is their appearance, but what needs to be considered most carefully is what is on the inside.  Charming behavior and kinds words all too often give way to harshness, belittling, demands, and even physical altercations. 
While there is no single characteristic that guarantees that a person is an abuser, I have assembled a list of characteristics that are common among abusive or controlling partners.  What follows is not exhaustive: I have tried to assemble a representative list of suggestions on how to see into a person’s character regarding how they will likely view and relate to a mate or partner.  
I use the male pronoun because unfortunately, the vast majority of abusers are male.  I do not in any way seek to suggest that “all men behave this way”. There are indeed men “out there” who are good, honorable, respectful, kind, and loving. 
Warning signs:
  • Easy frustration or quick temper
  • Jealousy or possessiveness (indicates a sense of ownership rather than partnership)
  • Getting “carried away”, even in little or positive things (lack of control over impulses)
  • Lies, excuses, cover-ups: “I didn’t mean it! I was drunk: it wasn’t me! It was the alcohol.”
  • What happens when you say “No.”?  If it is disregarded or discounted, take warning!
  • Parent/Child relationship (you have rules and consequences for breaking them)
  • History: Has he abused before?  Does he use force to solve his problems?
  • Pushing blame/lack of responsibility:  “I wouldn’t have had to do that if you hadn’t…” “You brought this on yourself. You made me mad.”
  • Giving orders/making demands versus making requests or seeking your opinion. 
  • “I’m sorry, but…”  The “but” undoes whatever came before it!
Areas to look at:
  • Church/Faith/Religion: how is the language of  “headship & submission” used? If being the “head” means “I get my way over yours” there is a potential problem!
  • Family Patterns: What is his parents’ relationship like?  How do his siblings relate to their significant others and children?  How does he treat his mother?
  • F.O.G.: Does he use Fear, Obligation, or Guilt to get his way? (‘You owe me! Look at all I do/provide for you!”)
  • H.A.L.T.: Who is he when he is Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired?  These are not valid excuses for lashing out!

Two Laws of Relationship:

  1. You ALWAYS have the right to say what happens to your body. Nobody can tell you that “You have to take it”.
  2. You are ALWAYS responsible for how you use your body. “You made me do it” is a lie.
I hope some of these ideas are useful as you think about your relationships or as you consider new ones.  As I said before, no single characteristic or idea listed above guarantees that a person is abusive or controlling (or not so!).  These are ideas to help you see what is on the inside of the person you are attracted to, and to hopefully help you choose someone who will treat you with the dignity and honor that every human being deserves.
Some reading this post may come to understand for the first time that you have experienced a relationship like that which is described above.  Some already know it and feel it deeply.  Some may realize that these are ways in which you habitually relate.  Please understand that hope is real and change is possible.  If you would like to discuss this post with me in a confidential manner, please contact me at jonathan@avenuescounselingcenter.org so we can arrange a time to talk.