When Tim walked into my psychotherapy office for his first couples session, he was scared. He was convinced that his wife would attack him in front of me, and that I’d pile on. This is a common reason why guys won’t come for counseling. Most men would rather get shot out of a cannon then walk into a therapist’s office. If they’re wife, girlfriend, or wife and girlfriend don’t force them, they’d never do it.
By the time Tim left my office at the end of that first session, he was relieved. None of what he feared occurred. In fact, I told him, and his wife, that such behavior would not be allowed in my room. “You see,” I explained, “real change can only happen if both of you feel safe. When we feel threatened, the part of our brain that can listen, and understand English, goes off-line. We can’t take in new information. And if you can’t hear your partner, nothing is going to move.”
One way that I create safety when I am doing couples therapy is by setting safety rules. The first rule is: no personal attacks, either verbal, or physical.
But, wait a minute, is there really something wrong with verbal attacks? Aren’t millions of people supporting a candidate for President, Donald Trump, on the basis of his ability to verbally attack others? Trump’s supporters must see this as a good thing, as a sign of strength, in fact, as what qualifies him to be the leader of the free world.
Let me admit a bias on this question based on my years of research and professional and personal experience. I do not believe that personal attacks have any place in our relationships, whether with your wife, child, neighbor, employee, political rival, or even your perceived enemy. It certainly doesn’t do any good in your own head, especially when you turn it against yourself.
Why are personal attacks bad? Because they engender shame.
Shame is the feeling that goes along with the belief that we don’t measure up as human beings. Shame is a feeling that we are often not aware of; it is something that lives in the background, like the hum of the air conditioner. Instead of shame, we are usually aware of other emotions – frozen terror in social situations, rage at your wife for telling you the shelf you just put up is in the wrong place, depression that comes from telling yourself that you are worthless and unlovable.
We also know our shame through our bad habits. Shame is at the core of our compulsive behaviors. Needing to medicate that pain drives our destructive use of drugs, food, or sex, and then the compulsive use feeds our shame, making us feel even worse about ourselves, leading to a self-immolating death spiral.
Where does toxic shame come from originally? The number one source is trauma. In an extreme example, my client, Rose, was continually sexually abused by her father since she was a little girl. For most of her life she was convinced that it was her fault. She still struggles with her shame, believing that if she was treated that way she must deserve to be treated poorly.
But trauma doesn’t only come from obviously awful experiences. Shame can be created by small wounds over a long period of time. Here’s where those personal attacks come in. If you are subject to chronic verbal attacks, it will eventually lead to shame. Eventually, the straw will break the camel’s back. This shame then lives under the surface, like a virus, damaging our lives in a myriad of ways.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that promotes this kind of shaming behavior. Just watch Fox News – they break all of my safety rules as a matter of course. Surrounded by this kind of behavior, all too many of us are unaware of its deleterious effects. Donald Trump is only the logical end point of a culture that celebrates destructive interpersonal behavior.
People will say that Trump is great because he says what is on their mind. But what I have discovered in my work is that the first thing that pops into our heads isn’t usually the truth. If someone points out a mistake I made, my initial reaction is, what a jerk! But this is really the angry voice of my own shame. If I dig down a little deeper I find that the truth is that I feel ashamed of myself and I’m angry at the other person for bringing my awareness to my imperfection.
The other thing we hear in support of Trump’s shaming is that people are sick of political correctness. Holding back from insulting someone isn’t a question of being PC – it is a matter of not wanting to contribute to someone’s shame and fostering the harm that ensues. It might be fun, but like a pack of cigarettes, it’s not good for you, or the people around you.
Lastly, Trump supporters would say that the only important thing is winning, and this justifies crushing others in any way you can. It is true that you can get a kind of sullen obedience by shaming others, but in the end this leads nowhere. Every one of my clients who beat themselves up relentlessly just end up in a depressed, dysfunctional inner stalemate and never do what they try to force themselves to do through shaming insults. Every tyrant creates a resistant rebel.
The scary part is that shaming must be so prevalent in our country that millions of people don’t even realize how destructive it is. Worst of all, there is scientific evidence that when you are cruel to others the same negative effects happen to you. The shamer, and this includes you, Mr. Trump, is completely consumed with their own shame. When I see the crowds cheering on Donald’s cruelty, it makes me sad to realize how much we are the United States of Shame.
Read my latest article on The Huffington Post.