Palo Alto Counseling, Psychotherapist in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol Campbell, MFT
706 Cowper Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301 • (650) 325-2576
License MFC 28308
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Shame as a Barrier to Success

by Carol Campbell, MFT

One of the most painful conditions that my patients sometimes manifest is an obvious under-achievement in life. How could it be that someone so intelligent or artistic or athletic or whatever, has never come close to reaching his/her potential in life? What has interfered with the natural progression of life to prevent a full blossoming of an apparently healthy bud? Instead of being able to feel satisfied and fulfilled, these patients tend to be angry, sad, sarcastic, self critical, bitter, glum, pessimistic – and riveted to their bad feelings. Sometimes it is as if they are daring me to try, just try, to do something that might result in an uplifted spirit, but there seems to be no way they can join with the cause of seeking healing and health. I become the enemy to be outwitted.

When a patient is unable to release a grip on unhappiness like that, I look for how it might be that in the patient's unconscious mind, there is in fact an urgent requirement that for psychic survival, the patient must stay permanently suffering. The unconscious belief is that the only way to stay alive is to endure a masochistic existence. Let's think about how that rigid belief may have developed.

Every baby comes into the world expecting certain things – not in the sense that they can yet think about them, but expecting them nonetheless. Most importantly, the baby is expecting that there will be something hard (a nipple) that will fit into something soft (his/her mouth). Babies laid on their mother's belly at birth will wiggle their way toward the breast, because nature has endowed them with this instinct. When the expectation is fulfilled and the breast is made available, the baby experiences a sense of fulfillment of the anticipated experience. This satisfaction lays the initial groundwork for the baby to gradually develop a sense of trust in this frightening new world.

However, when there is a delay or an absence of the breast, the baby has a very different sort of experience. Distress ensues. The baby is forced to have a thought: "Something is wrong here, and I might die." Of course this does not happen on the level of verbalization, but at a primitive sensory level. In this way the baby's brain has to figure out what to do now. The expected did not happen. The baby must learn to think.

As time goes by, the baby has countless experiences of anticipating certain outcomes, and if he/she is lucky, most of the time they will be met in a reasonable way. But the times of delay, frustration, change of routine, etc. are what gradually help the baby learn to think, to adapt, to regulate emotions, to tolerate not knowing, and to have hope and trust in a world that does not stay the same.

Babies learn that their survival depends on the parents. Without proper care, babies die. The level of dependency of human babies is profound and very long term. When things go badly for one reason or the other, babies and children try to lessen their vulnerability by assuming that in fact they actually are in control of things themselves. If mother comes running when they cry, they assume they have caused her to come. If mother does not come running when they cry, they are in a terrible bind. They can't allow themselves to imagine that there could be something flawed in the people they depend on for survival. How dreadfully shaming to have inadequate parents! So to protect themselves from feeling that level of horrific shame, the little ones turn things around. Instead of having shameful parents, it must be that they themselves are the flawed, shameful ones. The parents must be held as just fine, but the young self takes on being undeserving, flawed, and shameful. In this way, the child can cling to the fantasy of being in control, which is preferable to believing that incompetent parents are in control.

Shame is perhaps the most painful of all emotions. It casts a dark cloud over the inherent goodness of the person shamed. A child who feels ashamed of him/herself learns to hate him/herself. The unconscious mind becomes committed to a belief that success in life is therefore undeserved, and an Internal Saboteur takes hold. The result over time is a person who just can't get it together to finish the class, complete the application, request the paperwork, ask for the date, move out of Mom's house, commit to the team, etc.

The good news is that there is effective treatment for such people. My experience in doing psychoanalytic psychotherapy and psychoanalysis has shown me multiple examples of how the Internal Sabateur can be gradually subdued. The patient's attention can then turn to the helpful support freely available internally when the functioning of the therapist is gradually internalized. When that happens, the patient is liberated from shame and can embrace life's opportunities to strive for success in the world.

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Calls regarding appointments are welcome at my private voicemail: 650-325-2576.

Carol L. Campbell, MFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist providing psychotherapy and psychoanalysis for individual adults and couples in Palo Alto, California. She has degrees from Brown University and Santa Clara University and has been licensed since 1991. Carol is a graduate of the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Training Program sponsored at Stanford by the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis and was a candidate at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California in San Francisco from 2010-2011. She is also a clinical member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology.

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