We all practice psychology. Whenever we are unhappy with ourselves—the way we act or feel—we automatically begin a process of self-reflection. Unfortunately this process is often fueled by self-criticism, bumper-sticker diagnoses, and efforts to make changes destined to fail.
Consider the following examples:
- A student always waits to the last minute to write his papers. He labels himself a procrastinator, and tries to begin his writing earlier so that he can spread it out over time.
- A woman sometimes resorts to buying shoes when she is unhappy. She tells people she has a compulsive disorder and tries to stay away from malls.
- A man says he gets drunk once every two weeks upon which he behaves in an intimidating and threatening manner to his spouse. He concludes he has an alcohol problem and seeks out counseling and books so he can stop drinking.
- A woman gets hurt by her friend. She keeps asking herself, “Why am I so sensitive?” She resolves to be tougher and not show her pain.
- An attorney is having a hard time staying focused lately; he complains of this problem every few weeks. His diagnosis—he needs to strengthen his ability to concentrate. He does concentration exercises and meditates to focus his mind.
- A woman keeps trying to lose weight but always gains it back. She believes something is wrong with her; she believes that if she felt better about herself she would keep the weight off. She goes to therapy and workshops aimed at building self-esteem.
In each of these cases a person is unhappy with themselves and proceeds as if they have a kind of illness that needs treating. They self-diagnose concluding they have low self-esteem, weak concentration, addictions, compulsive disorders, procrastination problems, or sensitivity issues. Where do their diagnoses come from? None of these people have done any research on their perceived problem. None have made a point to discuss the problem with others who share similar experiences in order to learn from them. None have even examined their own inner and outer lives over time giving them a minimal level of understanding of what is really going on. Their diagnosis comes from ideas they learned from television shows (ranging from Dr. Phil to sit-coms); radio talk show hosts who promote their favorite bumper-sticker solutions; magazines that promote such narrow ways of acting, feeling, and looking that almost everyone who reads them feels somewhat abnormal or undesirable; parents who look at their children more as a reflection of their own egos instead of unique individuals; and scores of self-help books, blogs, and counselors that buy into these diagnoses. The problem: all of these people are practicing shame-based psychology. All of them are unhappy or critical of themselves, conclude that something is wrong with them, and begin treating themselves accordingly. They treat themselves as if they have a psychological weakness or inadequacy. In short, they “make” themselves sick.
What’s Wrong with Shame-based Psychology?
1. Critical thinking, or psychological thinking plays almost no part in shame-based psychology. People who practice shame-based psychology never ask, “What’s so good about buying shoes?” or, “Perhaps I am not focused because my work is too rigid and I want to be more creative and free thinking?” They rarely consider the beauty and gift of being sensitive in a world of so much coldness and brutality. They certainly don’t think that doing their homework the night before class forces them to summon all their intelligence and passion into a burst of energy that allows them to do their best work.
2. Compassion almost never enters into shame-based psychology. Though shame-based self-reflection is almost always self-critical in tone, people fail to notice how harsh and hurtful their “analysis” is. Further, people don’t take time to care for the injury inflicted by their friend’s “insensitive statement.” They don’t share how difficult their law practice is on their spirit and creative impulses. They don’t take a moment to notice how good it feels buying those shoes, and how many other moments of their lives are filled with more suffering and less joy. They don’t notice how tired they are upon finishing their homework in the early morning hours, or how it feels to add insult to injury by beating up themselves for being tired.
3. Sustainable solutions rarely result form shame-based psychology. Diet programs work for days or weeks; addiction programs work maybe for a few months. No matter how many times people call themselves too sensitive they continue to expose themselves to further hurt. No matter how many times hard working attorneys (or other hard working individuals) try to force themselves to work harder, they still seem to lose focus. Regardless of how many times people tell themselves to stop buying things that make them feel better, they still find a way of making just one more purchase. And, no matter how many times students tell themselves to start writing their paper days before it is due, other activities still interfere and they find themselves writing it the night before.
A Love-based Psychological Perspective
Love based psychology proceeds as if what people do or feel is an expression of a profound and deep intelligence; trying to make changes can only occur when this intelligence is discovered and supported. When this intelligence is denied, ignored, or simply unconscious, it manifests in ways that disturb us and our usual habits and patterns. In short, we are disturbed by ourselves not because something is wrong with us but because we don’t really know ourselves and how to live according to our more authentic natures.
Consider the cases from above:
- The student who waits for the last night to do his school papers learned that he does his best and most creative work under pressure in a short burst of energy rather than in a measured way over time.
- The woman who bought the shoes realized that she lives with a husband who is quite wealthy but equally stingy, financially and emotionally, with their family. She learned she simply wants to “do nice things” for herself.
- The man who drinks once every two weeks learned that he needs to be more assertive about his needs with his spouse on a regular basis instead of once every two weeks when he is drunk.
- The woman who thought she was too sensitive learned that she needs to trust her own judgment about her friend’s critical attitude.
- The attorney learned that he needs to stop working so hard and “de-focus” and instead take some time for his artistic interests and spiritual life.
- The woman who kept trying to lose weight learned to appreciate herself, including her body, for who she is.
These people are all of us. We have become so used to addressing everything that bothers us about ourselves with armchair diagnoses drawn from television, radio, friends, family members, and popular psychology. These mainstream notions have taken root in our psyches, impairing our vision, blinding us to the seeds of growth which we have learned to see as symptoms of illness. We have substituted being critical for genuine critical thinking. We have grown so accustomed to treating ourselves harshly that we no longer feel injured or offended. In short, we “make” ourselves sick.