Shame And Dependency

counselling for men brightonShame. There, I said it.
Shame feels horrible. I think of a hot, creeping sensation that sweeps over the body, starting in the face and travelling rapidly down to the stomach – where it stays. It’s a feeling of having been exposed and found wanting when measured against our own or somebody else’s idea of a good person. Shame sucks. And some people will do or say anything to avoid it.
I define shame as a sense of feeling bad about our self  – who we are as a person compared to others. Shame differs from guilt in that guilt is about feeling bad about something we have done rather than who we are. Telling ourselves “I did a bad thing” (guilt) is very different from “I am a bad person” (shame). Feeling bad about ourselves can become like a trap – we are caught like a fish in a net with no obvious way of lifting ourselves out.
It is possible to feel ashamed about many different aspects of our lives, most of which we have no discernible control over. We might feel shame about our gender, our ethnic origin, our accent, our sexuality – the list is endless. People who come to counselling or psychotherapy (and particularly men) often bring feelings of shame around dependency on others. We might have been brought up to value self-sufficiency – indeed, being fiercely independent protects us from the hurt of rejection and abandonment – and feel that it is wrong to need other people for comfort, support and care. Attachment theory acknowledges that as human beings we need to feel secure in order to explore the world and that this security comes from forming and maintaining good relationships with other people – and usually one special person in particular. This need for attachment is fundamentally important in early childhood but it also continues throughout  our lives. Being dependent on other people is normal behaviour for both men and women, and especially at times of stress.
The word ‘dependent’ is emotive for some people. It can conjure up ideas of being overly needy, weak or inferior. I use the term ‘interdependent’ to reflect the idea of emotionally healthy people who are able to depend on each other. So for instance with couples, both parties will watch out for each other – giving and receiving emotional and practical care and support. On the face of it this sounds wonderful – the tricky bit comes when couples are both feeling under stress at the same time. But that’s a whole other blog post…
I compare shame about dependency to driving a car with the handbrake on – we can (usually) still move forward but progress is slow and we might put ourselves and others at risk when we can’t get out of tight situations quickly. Once we are able to accept that it is normal to both give and receive support and that we need the sense of security that comes from interdependency in order to flourish, we can start to think about how we – as individuals – want to be in the world. Building a solid professional relationship with a therapist can be one way of establishing a secure base that frees us up to think clearly about what we would like from life and how to go about getting it.
Attachment source: Cassidy, J. and Shaver, P. editors. (2008) Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research and Clinical Applications. Chapters by – Slade, A., Johnson, S., Cassidy, J.
Copyright: Caroline Clarke, psychotherapy in Brighton
Image courtesy of Matt Banks /

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