The Resiliency of Shame | Catherine McHugh | TEDxSnoIsleLibraries


Translator: Ken Harvey
Reviewer: Denise RQ About 23 years ago, I left a very successful corporate career
in manufacturing management and decided to study psychology. Some people thought I was crazy. In the graduate program that I went to, they encouraged us very strongly to excavate every nook and cranny
of our psyche. And as I did that, I arrived at a poignant
and rather painful awareness, that as a third generation
German American, I carried significant cultural shame
related to the Holocaust. Let me explain. I was born in Freiburg, Germany, to a German mother and an American father. We lived in Europe for 16 years, and I spent 10 years of those in Germany. I went to Army schools,
spoke English of course, and identified primarily as American,
but I spoke German fluently, played with German kids
after school all the time, and spent a lot of time
with my German relatives. In fact, I was extremely close
to my German grandmother, Omi. So, back to college. When I studied engineering,
I also studied German literature, and even though I was back in the States, it ignited my love for Germany again. And so I made a promise to myself
that if I ever had kids, I wanted to make sure to expose them
to my German heritage. My daughter Marie was born 12 years later, and when she was just a babe,
six months old, we started one of many trips to Germany. So, back to the grad school experience. As I learned, or tried to learn more about my family’s World War II experience, my questions were met with silence. It was clear that I was
in taboo territory. But slowly, the more I probed and asked, I started hearing harrowing stories from my mother, my aunt,
and other relatives of what it was like to grow up
in war-torn Germany. They were children at the time. Then, to my surprise,
I learned that my grandfather, who didn’t survive the war,
had in fact fought in Hitler’s army. That had been held as a secret
the entire time I grew up, so it was really quite shocking to me,
and I have to say, it really challenged my image
of my family and my grandfather. At about that time, I was nearing
the end of my coursework, and my dissertation adviser
thought it would be really cool if I researched cultural shame. Well, I wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but I thought perhaps I should. But secretly, in the background, I was actually coming up
with a second topic. The very day I was supposed
to commit to my topic, my daughter Marie,
who was a second grader at the time, walked through the door, burst into tears. I asked her what was wrong, and she said, “Mom, they told me on the playground
that Omi is a Nazi.” And I knew that at that point,
she did not know what Nazi meant, but what was evident was
that she knew it was a bad thing, and that she, being German-identified and having a grandmother who was German, was bad also simply by association. I was heartbroken, and it became very, very clear to me
in that moment: I had no other choice
than to research cultural shame. I have to tell you
that the experience was excruciating. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. My family wondered
what I was trying to prove. My friends chastised me for paying any attention
to the evil perpetrator population. I heard comments like, “I’m never
stepping foot in that country.” “Those Germans are still dangerous.” And of course, I took all that personally. At the very same time,
however, that period– it took about two years
of working on that dissertation and researching with my participants, was the most transformative process
I have ever been through. One thing it did is
it helped me come to terms with cultural culpability
and personal accountability. I got to the place
of being able to embrace what’s beautiful about that culture and own what was horrific about the past. I also really got to a place of having an incredible sense of humility, and felt more open,
more fallible, and quite frankly, somewhat freed from the stranglehold
of cultural shame. When I finished with my dissertation,
you might imagine, I was looking forward
to putting shame behind me. And we moved up to Snohomish County, and I started my consulting
and coaching practice, and now, 12 years later,
what I have to say to you is I think that unacknowledged
and unprocessed shame wreaks havoc everywhere. I see the effects of it in families. I see it in workplaces
where it infects the work culture. I see it create hostility in communities. It’s present everywhere. So what I’d like to do today
is spend the rest of the time talking about
the transformative power of shame. First of all, shame is an inevitable
part of the human experience. We’re not supposed to prevent it,
or avoid it, or overcome it so that we don’t have it
in our lives anymore. We wish that were true, but it’s not. The second thing is, because shame
is such a toxic experience, we have an automatic
defense mechanism to resist it, and often we don’t even know
that it’s happening for us. The third thing is that shame
truly has a transformative potential. It feels toxic, but what it does for us is it helps us develop capacities
like humility, compassion, integrity, and dignity. In order for that to happen, we just need to decide to work with it. Silvan Tomkins was a psychologist
in the 1960s. His work has been largely ignored. And he discovered that shame
is an inevitable part of our emotional DNA. It’s part of being human, and there’s no way to cause ourselves
not to have the experience. What he also discovered
was that it happens involuntarily. So you might get a criticism from somebody and then have what I call a shame attack. There’s no way to make that not happen. It’s going to happen. Tomkins called this “shame affect” – and I mean with an A, not an E – the biological part
of the shame experience. So it’s what happens in our bodies
in fractions of a second before we even know what has hit us. The other thing that Tomkins discovered was that children
– this is the amazing thing – that infants actually experience shame. They don’t have words yet,
and they know shame. He studied children all across the globe and saw this happen in children
that were just weeks old. So you might think of this
as babies come into the world knowing how to do shame. When shame is at its worst, when we have closer
to a humiliation experience, it really does make us feel
fundamentally defective. We’re worthless; we don’t deserve
to exist on the planet. And most of the time, people just want to kind of sink
into the ground and disappear from view. So now to the second point,
the whole idea that we resist shame. Because it is such a punishing experience, and we are very creative human beings, we’ve developed
an unconscious defense mechanism that essentially says “no” to shame. So it may happen and unfold
in our bodies just in seconds, and we don’t even notice that it happens, and automatically
the defense mechanism kicks in. It works like a charm. Donald Nathanson was a psychiatrist,
in more recent history, and he came up with a model
that he called the “compass of shame” that shows us
the four different maneuvers that we might use so that we don’t have
to have the experience. I think of this as “shame resistance”. So when we withdraw,
what we do is we detach. We detach emotionally;
we detach physically. I have a very well-developed
withdrawal response. If I feel criticized by my husband,
he says I retreat into silence. He’s absolutely correct. The avoid response is one
where we want to disengage and not have to experience
the sting of shame, and most of us do that by numbing. So, you know, fantasy football, TV, chocolate, alcohol, retail therapy. There are many, many ways
for us to numb ourselves and avoid the shame experience. A third mode he called “attack self”, and that’s basically
when we condemn ourselves. We become our own worst enemy,
and we do a lot of self-criticism. I think of that as bullying turned inward. And then finally,
we go to the “attack other” mode. And that one is fortified by anger and it’s one
in which we feel really self-justified in kind of externalizing the shame
and pinning it onto someone else. So when we see someone
be overtly defensive, when we see them justify their behavior, or when we see them kind of doing
the “blame-and-shame” game, blaming other people, they’re caught in the “attack other” mode. So, I’ve had a lot of experience
with this compass, and so I want to tell you a story that will tell you
just how quickly it unfolds. It was about eight years ago,
shortly after moving here, and my consulting business was young,
and I developed a proposal for a manufacturing organization
that I was really proud of. It was very, very in depth, and it would have launched my work
to the next level. So, I emailed it in, and didn’t hear back
for seven long months. Well, that gave the self-attack part of me
an awful lot of time to dream up all of the reasons
they had rejected me. Then one day,
I’m sitting at my computer in the comfort of my home office
– I think I was in my jammies – and an email comes through,
and it’s from “Steve”. And he writes, “Sorry for the delay;
we’re so ready to move forward. “We can’t wait to get started.” Well, I want to do a happy dance;
I almost fell off my chair. And I was so excited I really didn’t know
what to do with myself. So I thought, “I’m going to call —
I’m going to email my husband.” He was out of town. And so I craft this very giddy,
“You won’t believe what happened,” kind of unprofessional email,
and I even say, “They finally got their act together.” (Laughter) And then I hit “Send”. (Laughter) Well, what I still didn’t realize was I had hit “Reply”, not “Forward”. So you can imagine. I convinced myself
in about three nanoseconds that I was a failure,
my consulting practice was over, and I might as well just tell them
I’m not available. (Laughter) So you might think from my story
that shame resistance is the problem. Well, what I’d like to tell you
is that when we are aware of it, it is actually part of the solution, because when we know
we’re kind of stuck in that kind of mode of thinking
and operating, it tells us we’ve had a shame attack,
and then we can do something about it. What I have learned is
even when the last thing in the world I want to do is to turn toward
the shame experience and work it through,
that is actually the answer. And what we need to do,
and what I did in that case is, as much as I dreaded it, I called John, I relayed the story,
I experienced shame all over again. My husband, he was very patient,
empathized quite a bit, then he said, “You know, he may not have even
read the email,” and then finally he reminded me
that running away from this opportunity was not the only option. Whoops, I’ve clicked too far ahead. This would be shame moment. (Laughter) But I’m still standing. So what I have learned is
that when we’re aware of a shame attack, when we can notice it, when we can realize
we’re in the compass of shame, when we’re resisting, we have a choice. And that choice can be
the most productive thing that we do. What happens is we learn
how to move through shame attacks more quickly and productively;
they don’t keep us down as long. The second thing is we learn
to reach out for support faster so that we don’t isolate as long as shame causes us to do. And third, and this is really important, we develop compassion for ourselves,
and it’s so much easier to forgive ourselves
for, quote unquote, “being human”. I think one of the most important things
I’ve learned about working through shame is that it is
putting a nail in the fantasy that perfection is the minimum standard. By the way (Applause) if you happen to be wondering
what happened with Steve, I called him back. He answered the phone. I don’t think he had read the email. He was so happy to hear from me,
and long story short, he hired me, and eight years later, we are still doing
incredible work together. (Applause) So I liken this process – and I’m going to try to find that slide
because it’s such a good one – I liken this process to doing what
the alchemists did in the Middle Ages. They tried to turn
base metals, impure metals, and transform them into gold. And so they, in essence,
were turning dung into gold. And when we work with shame and really commit to doing it
as a lifelong process, we are opening ourselves up
to this mysterious process that has the potential to transform us. The writer Flannery O’Connor wrote that the first product
of self-knowledge is humility. What’s so interesting
is “human,” “humility,” and “humiliation” share the same Latin root. So a way to think
about the shame experience in a transformative way is to realize that it offers us
a priceless gift. It helps us develop capacities
for compassion, integrity, humility, and dignity. It helps us engage more fully in life instead of running
from situations that are difficult, and I believe it helps us
bring our best selves forward. So what I want to leave you with is, I think when we face and embrace shame, we create our future,
one shame moment at a time. Thank you. (Applause)