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Sense of shame adds to personal setbacks

Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts.

There have been thousands of self-help books dealing with shame. In our field of chemical dependency, this is a key thinking or feeling pattern that can hold clients back in recovery.

The simple definition of guilt or shame is “guilt is I made mistake, shame is I am a mistake.” What many clients fail to understand is that some of the systems they come out of — families — are shame-based. Many systems and people reek of shame and try to control us by hooking us and then getting us to play their game by trying to control us through shame.

In REBT, we try to teach people to change their behavior by changing their thinking. To some clients, they can change their behaviors, but can’t change their core belief of who they are. Compulsive behaviors, sexually addictive behaviors, overeating, chemical abuse, addictive gambling are shame-based behaviors.

Clients caught in shame-based behaviors often have been brainwashed by hearing things like “don’t think,” “don’t feel,” “don’t grow or change,” “don’t live life,” don’t be alive,” “be ashamed.” People that think and feel this way may feel shame when they have a problem or someone they love has a problem. They may feel shame for making mistakes or succeeding, having certain thoughts or feelings, or when they have fun, feel good, or show who they are to others.

As one of my 17-year-olds at Friends of Casenovia Manor stated, when I asked him what he wanted put on his tombstone, he stated “nothing, I don’t want anyone to know I was ever here!” If that’s not shame, then I’ll give up my license.

Learning to reject and attack shame can change the quality of people’s lives. How this is done is a key. Telling clients their feelings will never be as good as them discovering those feelings for themselves.

Since most shame in clients is a form of self downing, the end goal is to get clients to distinguish between their behaviors and their self-worth as a human being.

We encourage clients to rate their behaviors and not their worth for being human. They hear me say it over and over, “you are not your behavior. Because if you were, you would have to do that behavior 24/7, and it’s irrational to think that people do that.”

Two of the most widely used assignments in REBT are risk-taking and shame-attacking. Risk-taking encourages clients to re-evaluate their definition of certain behaviors as terribly dangerous, when in fact they are not.

In treatment, avoidance is another form of low self-worth. Thus, I may ask someone who has difficulty taking social risks to take those risks they have been avoiding. The unique part of this aspect of REBT is that many times the exercises are designed to have clients experience failure, especially in cases of perfectionism and fear of failure. In coaching and counseling, I feel that players and clients learn by experience.

If they have never experienced failure, they will be unlikely to change their “core belief” about it and their avoidance of it. The old slogan “experience is the best teacher,” rings true.

Next week: Part two.

Mike Tramuta has been a CASAC counselor for more than 30 years and currently runs the REBT program on Thursday nights at the Holy Trinity Parish Center from 7 to 8:15 p.m. Call 983-1592 for more information.

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