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Dr. Osbo’s Bridge Club — Shame, Guilt and the Damage Done

| Jan 5, 2009
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Doctor Maureen Osborne

Okay, I know this sounds like a downer for starting off the New Year, and I apologize for that. The fact is that I got confused about when my next column was due and had no time to write a brand new one, so I’m recycling a paper I gave at IFGE a year or so ago. I’ve had lots of requests for copies from attendees, so I think it contains some food for thought.

In a 1996 paper, psychologist Anne Vitale remarked that the emotions of guilt and shame, so often a subject of examination in psychotherapy, are particularly powerful factors in the lives of individuals dealing with transgender issues (and, I would add, in the lives of their loved ones).

From the earliest memories related to me by clients of feeling “wrong,” “different” or “crazy,” to the elaborate ways in which this particular condition is obscured or denied throughout the individual’s life history, to the accusations of deception and selfishness that are often leveled recklessly by friends and family against the trans person attempting to come to terms with gender dissonance, to the ongoing internal and external struggles he or she faces after making the choice to transition, to the fears of social ostracism experienced by significant others – the emotions of guilt and shame are painfully familiar and often debilitating companions on the transgender journey.

What are the meanings and origins of these emotions and how do they differ from one another? Shame is perhaps the more primitive of the two emotions, and possibly the more damaging. It can be described as the experience of the Self being judged and found to be inadequate, or wrong, or unacceptable, or unlovable. It is about Who We Are, not what we’ve done or haven’t done.

Shame is often accompanied by a feeling of exposure , that of being examined by a critical Other and held up to be unworthy. The feeling of shame makes us want to hide, to curl up, to go inward, to be silent. Shame isolates us ““ it makes us feel separate from others. When we call to mind a shame-based situation, it always involves real or imagined exposure to an audience who looks at us with disapproval, pity, disgust, or revulsion.

Shame is a highly debilitating emotion.It creates a sense of being alone and cut off from others.If the sense of shame is prolonged, it can develop into self-hatred, a sense of helplessness, and a loss of perspective on social reality.It is much more devastating than simple embarrassment, which we can recover from more quickly, and laugh about later.

Shame is an emotion which is so shameful that we can barely bring ourselves to mention it in the sanctuary of the therapist’s office. The word alone evokes early and painfully helpless feelings of inner badness – “shame on you!” But not being able to bring it into awareness and talk about it can prolong shame and cause it to fester.

Shame can also be experienced secondhand, when someone we are close to is the source of shame and we feel that it reflects on us. Any parent of an adolescent has experienced how something we do can absolutely mortify our kids, no matter how slight or unintentional. Conversely, parents often shame their children as a result of secondhand shame, as, for example, when they behave badly in public. Shaming behavior can be a vicious cycle.

The origins of shame lie in our early experiences in the family, but also depend heavily on social mores ““ whatever our culture or subculture stigmatizes or misunderstand becomes part of the shame of individuals, especially in families that rely heavily on shaming as a socializing method. Although modern parenting theories tend to downplay shame as a technique by focusing on particular behaviors, most of us have experienced some form of shaming language in our families of origin ““ “you bad boy” “you little brat,” “you crybaby”.

Holding a child up to compare negatively against others is another way to invoke shame, “why can’t you be more like your brother?,” or “none of the other kids suck their thumbs like you do”. Parents generally resort to shaming when they are frustrated or irritated or fearful, which adds to the child’s experience the threat of parental rejection or abandonment.

Shame experiences can harm self-esteem for years to come. The child who is chronically shamed grows up to feel unimportant, unworthy, powerless, self-conscious, inhibited. There is even evidence to suggest that shame inhibits all emotional expression, with the exception of anger. People who carry a great deal of shame tend to move between two polarities of emotional expression: inhibition and inner numbness, or episodes of hostility and rage.

Shaming children around gender-based expectations is a time-honored way to socialize gender roles, e.g., “don’t be such a sissy,” “boys won’t like you if you act bossy”. Parents who don’t generally rely on shame-based socialization methods can still convey shame indirectly when they place undue emphasis on the importance of social status, external appearances, and conformity with social norms regarding gender. Even conscientious and well-intentioned parents can unwittingly induce shame in children if they do not explicitly allow for the experience and expression of non-normative gender behavior. This is because the society at large is a powerful regulator of gender role expectations. If a child’s inner gender experience conflicts with that defined by the social environment, shame can be internalized with little or no direct provocation.

As a gender therapist, it is hard to miss the cues of a client’s inner shame. How many times have we heard clients say that they had not mentioned this lifelong dilemma to a human soul before entering our office? Or that they had spent months or years in therapy with another therapist without mentioning the gender issue? Or that they had been holding onto a referral or our business card for months or years before making the call? Or that they would transition in a heartbeat if it weren’t for the social ostracism it would bring to them and loved ones? Or that they would definitely transition if only they could pass better? Or that they don’t like to be seen in public with other transgender folks? These are all manifestations of transgender shame.

Individuals who react with anger to their inner shame might present as hostile, blaming, passive-aggressive, or self-destructive, turning their hostility on themselves. In my 30 years as a therapist, the only two completed suicides among my clients have both been young transwomen. I have also experienced clients whose shame is so deep that they are unable to see the way in which they project it onto the external world. While it is true that transgender folks are not always well-received in the social environment, there are some who are so caught up in the perceived injustice of their plight that they generalize hostility to the entire world, essentially taking on a paranoid position. Others try to cover up or compensate for buried shame by perfectionism or acquiring all the external trappings of success.

Another unfortunate outcome of excessive shame is that is interferes with the development of empathy toward the feelings of others, which is an important source of morality. When a child is labeled as bad, he or she becomes self-preoccupied, and misses important social cues. When the person is focusing on: “what is wrong with me?” it is difficult to learn about one’s behavior impacts on others. This is a problem that I see frequently when individuals in committed relationships decide to transition ““ they have great difficulty balancing their own needs with those of their relational partners, in part because their empathic capacity has been stunted. Social relationships characterized by shame-based conformity and submission may appear agreeable on the surface, but they are rarely grounded in real mutual respect.

Turning to the emotion of guilt, we can define it as the way that we feel internally when we behave in a way that violates our core values and beliefs. It is an emotion that is more developmentally advanced than shame, because it presumes the existence of core values and beliefs. Guilt usually involves behaviors we are not proud of, or failing to act in accordance with our core beliefs.

Unlike shame, guilt is about what we do rather than who we are. Appropriate guilt can be a healthy social emotion. It can mobilize us to take action, to make amends. Corrective action motivated by guilt can actually result in people being brought closer together, whereas shame sets us apart and isolates us.

Some forms of guilt appearing in transgender folks can be misguided and excessive. In a common example, an individual contemplating transition may feel guilty about having violated the core value of honesty for having withheld information about transgender feelings and experiences prior to marriage. The guilt feelings may be intensified by the spouse’s vocal outrage at having been deceived. However, closer examination might reveal that the transgender spouse had genuinely fallen in love and fully believed that marriage and family would either permanently banish the gender dilemma or create a firewall against troubling manifestations of transgender behavior. Can we truly call this dishonesty?

We can contrast this type of excessive or misguided guilty feeling with guilt that is appropriate, because it results from behaviors that are consciously known to violate core beliefs or commitments. Some examples might be secretive expenditures, lying about or misleading people about one’s transition agenda, shirking family responsibilities, infidelity aimed at satisfying transgender curiosity, or exposing children prematurely to one’s other gendered life to meet personal needs for acceptance. In my work, I have seen all of these behaviors and many more that would justify feelings of guilt and a need to address and make reparations.

Guilt and shame are almost always present on the transgender journey. How do we manage and combat their effect on our lives? Are there antidotes? Guilt is more easily dealt with. We need to learn to recognize and face up to behaviors that have caused injuries to others, for which we have accountability. We need to ask ourselves, what have I done that violates my core beliefs? We need to let the people we have injured know that we accept responsibility for our behavior. We need to find ways to redress the injury and to repair trust by re-examining spoken and unspoken promises and expectations in the relationship, and establishing contracts that we know that we can fulfill. All of this requires openness to dialogue and willingness to negotiate.

In the case of inappropriate or excessive guilt, we need to discern the difference between guilt based on our personal assessment, and that imposed by others who are acting out of their own agendas and hurts. We also need to examine and learn to understand the difference between pain caused to others over which we have no control, and those events and behaviors which are within our control. Guilt over others’ feelings and interpretations over which we have no control is not useful, and should be relinquished. The number one thing over which a transgender person has no control is being transgender.

Shame is more deeply rooted and more difficult to combat. The first step is always to become aware of situations in which shame is the basis for feelings and actions. Awareness is always where we start. Identify the bodily feelings, thoughts, and images that are associated with shame, and learn to recognize when they are operating. Pay close attention, and instead of shrinking inward or avoiding, or finding a way to numb yourself, stay focused on the feeling. The natural impulse is to avoid, so this is not easy.

The next step is to enter into an investigation of the sources of shame in your life and look at them with a critical eye. It might begin with your family of origin, and might require facing them with a better sense of your own entitlement to happiness and human dignity. It will almost certainly extend to an examination of the attitudes of the dominant culture which you have internalized. Separate yourself from the attitudes that are not consistent with your lived personal truths.

Come out of hiding. Secrecy perpetuates shame and transparency is the antidote. In the words of Jameson Green, become a visible human being. Cultivate openness, and be open to others. Be willing to speak up about your experience, but also be patient with those who haven’t walked on your journey ““ look for teachable moments. If people in your social world make mistakes in the use of pronouns, correct them gently, and compassionately. If they do it repeatedly with malice, make it clear to them that their behavior is hurtful and insulting. Don’t expect to change everybody’s view on gender change, but don’t let them set the agenda with misinformed and bigoted language and behavior.

With regard to self-disclosure, try to make informed, thoughtful choices about what and how much to tell, how to raise the issue, to whom it is appropriate to disclose private details and according to what timing. Be as factually prepared as you possibly can, and try not to be defensive if people show signs of discomfort.

At the larger societal level, live your life in a way that fights the cycle of stigma, shame, and secrecy. You don’t need to stand on a soapbox or go on Oprah in order to challenge social shaming. You can speak up when you hear a joke that is a putdown to a certain group, or express your discomfort with derogatory gossip about people who cannot defend themselves. You can examine your own biases and try to purge them from your everyday thinking and behavior. Most of us are trying our best to live our lives in the best way we can. Be aware that your own empathy may have been compromised by exposure to shaming words and practices, but it’s never too late to learn how to imagine the perspective of others. Try it, and you may be surprised at how less fearful and anxious you become.

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Category: Transgender Body & Soul


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