I’ve noticed a fascinating phenomenon recently in my work with clients.
Not long after settling into our session they’ll share how frustrated they feel about a variety of behaviors and symptoms they’re experiencing. They feel stuck and hopeless because of this never ending cycle they find themselves in. It seems that no matter how hard they try they can’t seem to find the insight and solutions they need.
At this stage, I know where we need to go, and I fully anticipate the responses and reactions that will meet us there. Along the way I’ve discovered somewhat of a guideline with specific steps that have served to shine a light on the dark places, and lead us back into the light again. Here’s what I’ve found:
1. Be Curious
We begin taking inventory of these less-than-desirable behaviors they’ve mentioned, and even in these moments I can feel the shift in their demeanor. We start being curious about what the meaning behind their behavior could be. I ask, “What are the benefits you think you might be receiving from these behaviors?”
“Umm, benefits?!” Their concept of these behaviors feel so negative they’re almost shocked that I would ask such a question. I say, “Yes, benefits. No matter how negative these behaviors may seem, we engage in them because, on some level, we are receiving something we desperately need from them.”
As their curiosity evolves into exploration, I start to see the mounting frustration in their voice and discomfort in their body language. There appears to be some sort of invisible wall that is blocking them from accessing the answers to this question. Then it happens. After running into that invisible brick wall for the hundredth time, the client erupts in frustration and says, “I don’t know!” with an intense sadness and exasperation in their voice.
This was the moment I anticipated. Their exploration gave way to discovery. At this point, I slow everything down and explain that when we’re asked questions we don’t readily have answers to, we are met with intense feelings of shame. The invisible wall that was blocking their curiosity was shame, and the sure way to bring it to the surface was through exploration. When we explore on this level, we become painfully aware that we don’t have the answers to questions that have been plaguing us. Instead of answers and solutions, we’re met with the shame that’s been hiding and controlling our hearts the whole time.
The spotlight is now shining on shame and it has nowhere to hide. Just like in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy’s little dog, Todo, pulls the curtain back to discover that “the great and mighty oz” is actually a scared old man, we can now see shame for what it is–a lie.
In these pivotal moments, it’s important to externalize the shame so we can see that IT is the problem, not US. Shame lies about who we are, whereas guilt condemns us for what we’ve done. So, if we can start to see and experience shame as something separate from us, we can begin to find freedom from its loud and debilitating messages. Once a client realizes this truth their whole demeanor softens and relaxes. Now that shame has been exposed and externalized, we start talking about the prospect of facing these same questions with curiosity and compassion.
Brene Brown in her book, Rising Strong says the following about curiosity:
“Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty. It wasn’t always a choice; we were born curious. But over time, we learn that curiosity like vulnerability, can lead to hurt. There is a profound relationship—a love affair, really—between curiosity and wholeheartedness. How do we come to those aha moments if we’re not willing to explore and ask questions?”
We start to understand that over time and through painful experiences we traded our curiosity for shame. Curiosity became an enemy, and shame vowed to protect us from any further pain. Now, any time we try to explore things we don’t understand, we’re met with shame reminding us it’s not safe and to retreat right away! If we can identify shame and expose its lies, we can rediscover our child-like curiosity. This curiosity opens and relaxes the mind and body so we can access, with compassion and kindness, the answers and solutions that exist below the surface.
Shame can only remain powerful if it stays hidden. However, if it can be exposed and externalized it loses its grip on us. When we take the first few brave steps and begin exploring, be ready for it to show itself, but once it does we can call it out and challenge its lies with the truth. Once we’ve seen shame for what it is we can begin facing our questions and pain with curiosity and compassion.
Brene says, “Curiosity is a shit-starter. But that’s okay. Sometimes we have to rumble with a story to find the truth.”