I know the look when I see it. Eyes downcast, body either rigidly still or desperately fidgeting, discomfort clear. Some deep shame is working its way to the surface. Buried discomfort is forming into words. Sometimes the words are barely audible. Sometimes they're shouted. I sit across from the shame, offering steady eye contact for the client who is ready to meet it. When given the opportunity, I meet the shame with acceptance.
As a licensed mental health counselor, it is my job to share space with individuals and hear their stories. Often these stories have shame woven into them. By "shame," I'm referring to painful feelings of humiliation or distress, often turned towards the self (as opposed to feelings of guilt, which often relate more directly to behavior towards others). When we give voice to difficult things, as Brené Brown mentions in her TED talk, and when we meet them with empathy, we take away the power of shame.
But when shame festers without a voice, it can be isolating. And isolation, in turn, can lead to loneliness and feelings of worthlessness... which can continue to perpetuate shame. Loneliness and shame walk around, bullying our sense of human connection into hiding. In reading a recent New York Times article on the "epidemic of loneliness," we learn that loneliness is an underlying cause of many chronic conditions, both physical and mental. How did we let this epidemic develop? Where have the points of connection gone, and what happened to the voices that help us to challenge shame?
It's my opinion that we are isolated by our lack of ability to have difficult conversations. We are restricting our speech: we sometimes misuse trigger warnings as an acceptable form of avoidance; we question if an individual should be allowed to kneel in quiet protest during the national anthem at an athletic event; our social media and internet ads are tailored to match our own views, narrowing our perspective; we wonder if we can voice an opinion at a political rally without being met with physical violence. We are limiting our ability to connect with others in a respectful way. We are isolating ourselves from the person, and many times even disparaging the person, who holds a differing opinion from our own. And we are silencing our own voices out of fear of vulnerability and out of fear of retribution. We are, in effect, building the walls of loneliness and shame ourselves.
In counseling sessions, I find myself offering that steady eye contact to the clients ready to receive it. Along with an army of other therapists and helping professionals, I'm challenging shame with acceptance and staring down the epidemic of loneliness. Counseling provides an opportunity for the walls of isolation to disintegrate, for genuine connection and respect to occur in the midst of difficult conversations. It's my hope to facilitate stronger human connections both inside the office and out, so that clients may share their shame resilience and foster connection in their own relationships.
I have hope for healing in my work and in our world. Together we can heal some of the divisions between people and within people that have allowed this epidemic of loneliness to grow. We need counseling for the safe space and genuine connection it provides. We need each other, to normalize difficult conversations with respect. We need ourselves, to find our own voices and activate our own ears. We will find connection in our disagreements as well as our shared interests, and we may well help to spread an epidemic of connection.