Regulating Shame in NVR
Shame is the emotion most connected with issues of power and hierarchy in the family and often the driving force behind power struggles and relationship impasses. When unregulated both parents and child feel belittled, humiliated and unappreciated. The chapter demonstrates how interventions of NVR can regulate the shame of adolescents and their parents. Specific interventions for regulating states of shamefulness and shamelessness are described.
Shame is a key emotion in the development, maintenance and resolution of interpersonal power struggles and conflict. When shame intensifies family members often perceive themselves to be in a powerless and subordinate position. Take for example the basic interaction in which a parent demands something from the child. The demand evokes in the child shame, which derives from being in an inferior position. In case the child is not compliant with the parental demand ("I am not going to clean my room, you clean it!"), it is now the parent who is in an inferior position and who needs to deal with his or her shame. The ability of both child and parent to regulate their shame determines the quality of the relationship they have with one another.
Shame is related to the management of power in relationships and is described as the emotion one feels when one experiences being belittled, inadequate and disrespected (Greenberg & Goldman, 2008). This is exactly how parents and children feel when engaged in ongoing intense conflicts. For both sides, these escalating conflicts result in feeling the shame of being disrespected and underappreciated. As shame rises, the rigidity of opinions and mutual power-oriented behaviors on both sides increase. This leaves the system in shame-rage escalations loops which are hard to escape (Scheff, 1997).
The effects of shame on family members
When shame is unregulated, attacking the other, withdrawing (Nathanson, 1992) and striving for power become common behaviors between family members. Of these, attacking the other is the most predominant in intense family conflict. In attacking the other, the shamed person feels hurt and inferior, which in turns leads to a sense of being legitimized and even morally obligated to hurt back. In these situations, the person is trying to transfer shame from themselves to others by criticizing, blaming, ridiculing, putting down and communicating hateful comments (Kaufman, 1996).
In situations of ongoing family conflict, it is common for parents to experience intense shame. Some of these parents react to their higher levels of shame by losing control and harshly punishing the child, and others by avoidance and giving-in. The more the parent feels weak and uninfluential the more the risk of attacking, withdrawing or a combination of the two.
When family members experience shame for too long or too intensely, they try to avoid or eliminate any situation which might arouse the feeling again. Actually, many escalations in the family are efforts on one or both sides to stop the other from behaving in ways which are shaming for the other. As a result, any shame provoking interaction (any demand from another person, any remark, critique, comment or suggestion) can lead one to act out and attack (Gilligan, 2001), or leave the situation and try to avoid it altogether. This process leads to continual disruptions in relationships and to an inability to communicate authentically. Ultimately, it leads to the breakdown of dialogue, and turns verbal communication efforts into frustrating and dangerous encounters. In such situations, family members feel they must walk on eggshells, knowing very well that talking freely can lead to intense escalations. It is exactly in these situations that collaborative/communication oriented relational gestures reach their limit.
When shame exceeds a certain threshold, the capability to collaborate with others comes to a halt. For children, intense shame leads to temper tantrums, noncompliance and a myriad of avoidant behaviors. For adolescents who experience high levels of shame, aggression, self-cutting, drug abuse, school refusal and other dysfunctional behaviors are common behaviors. These teens also persistently refuse to admit to having a problem and refuse to accept help. This attitude often leaves their parents, teachers and therapists in states of helplessness, anger, and anxiety because they don't know how to move the child forward, when the main path towards progress – verbal communication – is often unavailable, blocked and even forbidden. This chapter focuses on how NVR can help such teens regulate their shame. I start by describing one major aspect in regulating shame – the need to regulate situations where it is experienced too strongly (states of shamefulness) and situations in which it is absent (shamelessness). I then present relevant NVR interventions related to regulating both states. The chapter clarifies how these interventions help the adolescent in reducing his shame (in shameful states) or re-integrating it (in shameless states). While the focus of the chapter is mainly the adolescent, the parents, who are the initiators of the shame regulation interventions do not remain unaffected. While implementing the interventions they become more efficient in regulating their own shame.
The Fundamentals of Regulating Intense Shame
Since most teens who experience intense shame refuse to enter therapy (or when they do, they can't make it meaningful), the process of change is usually led by the parents (and/or school personnel). The regulation process is tricky, for it demands two opposing actions (Weinblatt, 2016):
- Reducing the adolescent's shame when it is experienced too painfully (in states of shamefulness)
- Reintegrating/exposing shame when it is absent (in states of shamelessness)
One of the key problems in addressing intense shame states, is that they do not look like shame in the way that we expect to see it. The physical displays of shame: covering the face, lowering the eyes, and blushing are absent. Instead, we perceive behaviors we associate with rage or apathy. Acting out, loss of control and rage are a result of feeling too much shame or in short – a state of shamefulness. In such states, shame is experienced as humiliation, disappointment, vulnerability and pain, and often leads to attacking the other. When shame is experienced too strongly, the goal is to ease the pain. We do so by reconnecting with the child, even if he forbids and opposes it. The main interventions used in NVR to accomplish this are "Reconciliation Gestures"".
Shamelessness, on the other hand, is the outcome of the effort to stop caring, and is experienced mostly as apathy, disconnection and withdrawal. It is a reaction to the experience of intense pain and leads to varying degrees of disassociation (De Young, 2016). Through this process the person becomes disconnected from shame. When shame is unfelt and absent, the goal is to integrate it back into the teen's life. Since the ability to tolerate shame is a result of experiencing it in levels that enable mastery, in NVR we induce shame in ways that allow the child to manage it, and that ultimately lead to the positive outcome of shame – knowing one's limits. The exposure to shame is never welcomed by the teen, and evokes intense reactions. The two main interventions that assist in achieving these goals are the "Sit-in" and "Public Opinion" intervention.
In situations of intense shame, the adolescent shifts intermittently between the shamefulness and shamelessness. The intensely shameful reaction creates debilitating pain which can only be dealt with by distancing, disconnecting and dissociating from it, or simply by becoming shameless. This enables the child to transcend his vulnerability and to feel strong again but at a heavy price – it does not allow him or her to take responsibility for their behavior, admit their faults, apologize or try to repair the damage they have inflicted on others – behaviors which lead to connection with others. Without this connection the teen remains alone, a state which leaves him vulnerable to experiencing more shame.
NVR Interventions for states of shamefulness
When adolescents (or children) experience intense shame, their lives are often marked with many failures. Whether the failures are interpersonal, academic, or in any other domain of life they activate parents to suggest what they think are helpful corrections, explanations and educational lectures. The adolescent on the other hand, experiences these suggestions as criticism, disapproval and blame. Seemingly "neutral" requests or comments such as "please wash the dishes", "clean your room", and "if you continue to talk to your friends like that, they won't be your friends", can ignite a strong shame reaction.
The first step in reducing the adolescent’s shame is a conscious decision by the parents to reduce dramatically comments that might sound critical. Using the "Three baskets" intervention, parents are coached to refrain from mentioning failures – not cleaning after himself, not keeping a promise, leaving dirty plates at different places at home etc. At the same time parents are also coached to create interpersonal bridges which do not involve evaluation, and which make it less likely that shame will be triggered. For example, statements such as: "I’m thinking about you"; "I love you"; and "I’m sorry that we had a fight yesterday", create connections to the child without raising the shame level. Moreover, short sentences of this kind have a preventive function. They counter the tendency of shamed kid to reach conclusions by incorrectly "mind reading" the other's intentions. By providing on-going information as to what is going through their minds, the parents are neutralizing the pain related thoughts that shame is producing within their child.
Among the different NVR interventions, the "Reconciliation Gestures" set of interventions are the most effective in reducing shame. These are parental actions intended to repair the damaged relationship with the teen and prevent further escalation. They include statements expressing respect for the child, suggestions of shared activities, apologies, and symbolic gifts. The purpose of reconciliation gestures is to promote and maintain the positive aspects of the relationship. They are behaviors that continually send messages (such as we love you, we care about you, you are important, we value you even when you misbehave) that lead to shame reduction. The parents’ reconciliation gestures are unilateral initiatives that are not conditional on the child’s positive behaviors. As such they have the potential to evoke corrective emotional experiences for the teen – for example, after lashing out at his parents, as the teen expects to be attacked by the parents, he receives instead a positive and forgiving reaction. Interactions of this sort have the ability to effectively counter shameful cognitions (I am unlovable) and replace them with shame regulated thoughts (I have value, my parents care about me).
NVR Interventions for states of shamelessness
Intense shame leads ultimately to states of shamelessness which disconnect the person from experiencing shame. This significantly jeopardizes the ability of the person to feel empathy (Tangney & Dearing, 2002; Tangney et. al., 2007), and as a result also reduces his ability to communicate effectively. As the person’s capacity to cooperate deteriorates, the relational bridge that connects him to others breaks down, leaving the person alone and humiliated. Not experiencing shame can be extremely destructive and can lead either to antisocial behavior or avoidant behaviors. Thus, an effective shame regulation model must assist the adolescent in integrating shame back into his or her life, in NVR the two main interventions for doing so are the "Sit-in" and the "Public Opinion" intervention.
In the "Sit-in" intervention (Omer, 2001) parents help their child regulate his or her shame by exposing the adolescent to shame whilst regulating it. In the "Sit-in" the parents evoke shame by:
- Entering and staying in the adolescent's room. This creates a discontinuation of a pleasurable activity for him or her. Tomkins (1963) has suggested that it is exactly these types of activating behaviors that lead to the shame response.
- Focusing on a behavior that the adolescent feels ashamed of. Whether it is aggressive behaviors, school failures, computer addiction, eating disorders, self-inflicted injury, lack of safe sexual boundaries, cyber bullying or drug use, the parents bring up an issue in the adolescent's life that feels to him/her like a failure.
- Staying in the child's room without his permission. As such, the parents are not only challenging the teen's sense of autonomy but are renegotiating the boundaries of what is private. This intrusion evokes shame because the adolescent feels that what had previously been considered private has now been turned into a public domain.
After shame has been triggered, the parents' de-escalation actions foster within the adolescent improved regulation capabilities. During this process, the combination of the parents' presence and their respectful behaviors, with the inability of the child to either avoid the situation or eliminate it through aggression and force, leads to many positive outcomes (or shame regulation indicators) for both the adolescent and his parents, which include:
- The adolescent can tolerate the state of "having a problem" and "needing help". Issues which were considered taboo can be discussed.
- The adolescent permits his parents to "see" him. He can manage the feeling of being exposed.
- The parents can tolerate the shame triggered by the adolescent’s various humiliating behaviors; they do not react as quickly and as harshly to shaming messages from the teen.
- The parents experience more empathy towards their child. Parents feel that they "see" their child in a different way.
The adolescent, then, is not the sole benefiter of this intervention. Parents also change, learning that they can emancipate themselves from their patterned shame reactions to the child's shameful and shameless behaviours.
The second type of intervention to counter shamelessness is the "Public Opinion" intervention (Omer, Weinblatt & Kerwinkel, 2004). The rational for using the public rests on the assumption that just as the public can create shame it has also the power to ameliorate it. This insight has been utilized in the treatment of among others, overeating and addictions which are based on group interventions and rely on the benevolent power of the public to manage and even heal shame.
The public plays a major role in the development and maintenance of the experience of shame, as shame is an emotion that has to do with how we are perceived by others (Gilbert, 2007) and with the experience of being exposed. This is the reason why, in situations of crisis and escalating conflict, family members tend to involve less people in the affair and become more isolated. In such situations, the public and its opinions are not perceived as a resource but rather as a source of criticalness and blame, which can increase the shame for family members. This is exactly the process that is challenged and reversed in NVR.
In the “Public Opinion" interventions we cultivate the power of the public to regulate shame through two combined actions: (a) going to the public: when information which is shame related is shared with other people outside the family, and (b) bringing the public: when these people get in touch with the adolescent and share their knowledge of knowing what is happening. Both actions expose the adolescent to shame and therefore must be planned carefully. This leads to a different kind of experience, a controllable exposure to the emotion of shame, which maximizes the potential of the public for shame management while reducing potential negative shaming processes.
The ability to speak out and voice that which is secretive is an essential part in processes of empowerment and shame regulation (Sanderson, 2015). In going to the public parents are coached in sharing shameful behaviors of their child (including physical violence towards parents or siblings, vandalism, or humiliations of different sorts) with supportive others. After sharing their experiences with others, parents request these supporters to contact the child and deliver a message to him or her. This parental strategy of openness and transparency is announced to the child a head of time in a respectful way.
The messages that the public is requested to deliver to the child (via phone, email and letters) are short, concise and are composed of three parts: knowing, opinion and de-shaming. For example, a message delivered to John, an adolescent, after an incident in which he pushedt his mom can take the following form:
- Knowing – “I heard that you pushed your mother last night”
- Opinion – “That's not the John I know” or "That's not right"
- De-shaming –"What happened?" or “I care about you and your family and I still think you are a good person. Let me know if I can help”.
Such messages have been found to be very effective in reducing aggressive and disrespectful behaviors (Weinblatt & Omer, 2008). For children who are disconnected from shame the involvement of the social network arouses shame and brings it to the level where shame’s original healthy function – inhibiting hurtful behaviors towards others. What follows after such messages are actions of moving closer and reconnecting with the child. This resembles what Braithwaite (1989) calls “re-integrative shaming”, a process of justice making in which shaming is followed by efforts to reintegrate the offender back into the community. This is exactly the opposite process of stigmatization, which implies a disintegrative shaming process in which the offender (in our case the adolescent) is rejected by others.
For many families such public involvement is not an easy task. Parents and children who are involved in intense conflicts have much to hide. Parents feel ashamed of their parenting, ashamed of their child’s behavior, ashamed of needing help, ashamed of their helplessness. The child feels ashamed of his failures, often social and academic in nature, ashamed of receiving the negative attention, ashamed of his weak parents, ashamed of his own behaviors.
The decision in families of what may become public and what should remain private is thus constantly negotiated. It is usually shame that constructs and signifies the boundary between what is private and what should remain public. As shame grows, private life becomes more dominant, keeping the relationships with other people at distance. As this dynamic intensifies, the attitudes of others become threatening and dangerous. This process breads more alienation, isolation and shame, which in turn present more obstacles for people to utilize their support system in helpful ways. In NVR we challenge this process through interventions which renegotiate the boundary between the private and the public and ultimately lead to improvements in the regulation of shame.
In the process of introducing supportive others into family life and adopting a policy of openness, the parents and child need to overcome a number of obstacles which are all related to the fear of being shamed by others from the social network (Weinblatt, 2013). These fears include:
- The shame of needing help. In our culture needing help is shameful. Needing help and not receiving it is even worse. Parents often fear that their appeal for help from others will be denied. Asking for help puts the parents in a vulnerable position to be rejected. Overcoming this obstacle is crucial for the shame regulation process.
- The shame of failing. There is no assurance that involving others will change the dynamic between parent and child. Parents who are already experiencing a sense of defeat do not need another disappointment in their lives, a let-down that will only shame them more.
- The tyranny of the majority. Public will can be an instrument of inducing social control and generating conformity. Indeed, anthropologists have identified “shame cultures” which use shame as the main tool for maintaining order (Benedict, 1954). In these cultures, people fear public humiliation and shame, and their behavior is governed by the need to avoid public ridicule. This is the concern of many parents who fear that the public will use its power to shame and coerce the child or be experienced by the child as destructive shaming.
- The shame of stigma. Parents feel that going public will potentially stigmatize the child and will lead others to reject him. They are also concerned about being stigmatized themselves as “bad” parents, incompetent and weak.
These are serious issues which need to be handeled carefully. Exposure of what is going on at home should always be done in a collaborative spirit with the parents. Such a sensitive approach allows the teen as well the parents to get in touch with their shame in a way which is not destructive but leads to a greater acceptance of themselves, their weaknesses and their vulnerability.
In intense family conflict it is common for adolescents to shift from being in states of shamefulness to states of shamelessness. In NVR the combined interventions to regulate both unregulated shame states, leads to more emotional stability to all family members. On one hand the therapist helps family members replace negative and harmful shame inducing interactions with respectful and compassionate interactions, On the other hand the therapist promotes experiences of controlled exposure to reintegrate shame when absent. Such interventions help in lowering the mask of shame and encourage a living that is richer, less symptomatic and more authentic.
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