NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Focusing on Your Inner Self is More Effective to Overcome Shame Than Focusing on Your Outer Looks

Although most people aren't aware of it, shame is often at the root of many emotional problems (see my article: Healing Shame in Psychotherapy and Overcoming Shame That Keeps You From Starting Therapy).  Many people focus exclusively on their appearance, in an attempt to overcome shame.  While it might help to a certain extent to deal with external issues, shame is usually deeply rooted and without getting to the root of the problem internally, it's difficult to overcome shame that's having a negative effect on your life.

Focusing on Your Inner Self is More Effective to Overcome Shame Than Only Focusing on Your Outer Looks

People often associate shame with external issues, like their appearance.  As result, they try to overcome their shame by trying to deal with these external issues alone rather than looking within themselves to discover the internal roots of their shame.

While it would be helpful, for example, to lose weight for health reasons and it might to feel better, when someone feels ashamed of themselves, focusing only on his or her appearance usually doesn't get to the root of the problem.

Our culture, which glorifies youth and beauty, tends to shame middle aged and older men and woman, especially women.  As a result, women tend to be more susceptible to feeling shamed of themselves as they are.

For instance, older women often complain in therapy about feeling "invisible" in a world that elevates youth and denigrates aging.  And, while it's probably true that not as many people are admiring a woman who is older, as compared to when she was younger, it is also probably true that how she feels about herself and what she projects to the world contributes to this feeling of invisibility (see my article: Making Peace With the Aging Process).

The solution that many people seek, especially women, is to seek products or surgical procedures, like face lifts and breast augmentation as a way of feeling less ashamed of how they're aging.

But these products and procedures usually only give temporary, if any, relief from shame. They  reinforce the idea that you're not alright the way you are and you need to continue to make changes to your outer appearance in order to feel better about yourself.

Fictional Clinical Vignette 

Focusing on Your Inner Self is More Effective to Overcome Shame Than Focusing on Your Outer Looks
The following fictional vignette illustrates these points:

Cindy started therapy because she was suffering with debilitating shame.

A year before she sought help from a psychotherapist, Cindy contemplated having a face lift because she couldn't stand looking in the mirror and seeing that her facial skin was sagging.

But after she discussed it with her husband, who still found Cathy to be beautiful, and considering the risks of surgery, she decided against plastic surgery.

Then, Cindy focused on losing weight, even though her doctor told her that she didn't need to lose weight for health reasons.  She thought she would feel better about herself if she lost 10 pounds.  But after she lost 10 pounds, she still felt ashamed of herself.

Next, she attempted temporary non-surgical procedures and creams to firm up her facial skin.  Although the procedure combined with the weight loss reduced the appearance of sagging skin, Cindy still felt deeply ashamed and it was affecting her personal life as well as her career.

She felt so unattractive that she no longer wanted to have sex with her husband, even though he still thought she was attractive and sexy.  No amount of reassurance from her husband helped, and after a while, they began to argue about the lack of sexual intimacy in their marriage (see my article: Have You and Your Spouse Stopped Having Sex?).

At work, she no longer liked to go out on sales calls because she assumed that her customers would prefer to see a young, attractive salesperson rather than an older woman.  As a result, she was making fewer sales visits to customers and this reduced her compensation.  Her boss also complained and told her that she needed to have more customer contact to bring in business.

Not knowing what else to do, Cindy saw her medical doctor to seek advice, and he recommended that Cindy attend psychotherapy.

Cindy told her new psychotherapist that, as far back as she could remember, even when she was a child, she felt ashamed of herself.  But after she went into menopause, she felt increasingly unattractive and ashamed.

Her therapist asked Cindy about her family background and she described parents who were highly critical of Cindy and her siblings.  Her mother, who suffered from low self esteem herself, was especially critical of Cindy, who looked a lot like her mother.

Cindy explained to her therapist that her mother often criticized Cindy for how she looked--her weight, her clothes, her posture and overall demeanor.

In hindsight, Cindy realized that her mother was also highly self critical. Her mother criticized Cindy for all the things she felt self conscious about herself.  Looking back on it, Cindy recognized that her mother was projecting her own insecurities and shame onto Cindy.  But as a child, she felt defenseless against the onslaught of criticism.

Cindy told her therapist that, by the time she turned 18, "I blossomed from an ugly duckling into a very attractive young woman."  Feeling attractive, she felt more self confident, especially after she went away to college and no longer heard her mother's criticism on a daily basis.

In college, Cindy overcame her shyness as she became aware that she was sexually attractive to men.  This also made her feel more confident around men, especially after she became sexual.

After she graduated college, she met the man who eventually became her husband.  She said he was "head over heels about me when we first started dating."  She indicated that, even now, he continued to tell her that he thought she was beautiful and sexy, but she didn't believe it, especially when she looked in the mirror.

Looking back on her life, Cindy realized that most of her self confidence was based on her appearance so that as she got older, her confidence began to falter again, just as it did when she felt like "an ugly duckling" as a child.

When she was younger, even though she did well in college and she was told by her professors that she was intelligent, she assumed that her looks were what got her by.  And now that she was older, she felt like she had nothing to offer.

"I know this sounds shallow, "Cindy said to her therapist, "but it's how I was raised and what I have believed for all my life.  But now these feelings are threatening to ruin my marriage and my career, so I know I need to do something to overcome them."

Cindy's psychotherapist provided Cindy with psychoeducation about shame and how traumatic her parents' criticism of her were when she was younger.  She also provided psychoeducation about how psychotherapy could help (see my article: Why It's Important For Psychotherapists to Provide Clients With Psychoeducation About How Psychotherapy Works).

The therapist explained that Cindy internalized her mother's criticism and her mother's own shame and this was traumatic.  She recommended that they focus the therapy on overcoming this early trauma.

Using EMDR therapy, over time, Cindy and her therapist worked on helping her to overcome the shame that was instilled in her at an early age (see my articles: How EMDR Works: Part 1: EMDR and the Brain and How EMDR Works: Part 2: Overcoming Trauma).

Gradually, Cindy became aware that not only was she still attractive but, more important than that, she had much more to offer than looks--she had intelligence, generosity, warmth and creativity.

Focusing on Your Inner Self is More Effective to Overcome Shame Than Focusing Only on Your Outer Looks

Eventually, Cindy began to feel sexual again and she and her husband went on vacation to rekindle their relationship.  She also felt more confident about making sales visits to her customers, which increased her compensation

Many people use their looks to try to boost their confidence and compensate for their shame.  But looks change, so they are not a reliable source for overcoming shame.

Overcoming shame requires deeper work into the root of the shame.

Shame often begins early in life and usually has a traumatic source.

Getting Help in Psychotherapy
Working through the source of the trauma in psychotherapy usually helps you to overcome shame that is having a negative impact on our life (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

If shame and trauma are having a negative impact on your life, you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed mental health professional (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Experiential therapy, like EMDR, Somatic Experiencing and clinical hypnosis are usually an effective way to overcome shame as opposed to regular talk therapy (see my article: Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs and EMDR Therapy When Talk Therapy Isn't Enough).

If you're experiencing the negative effects of shame and emotional trauma, rather than suffering on your own, you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed psychotherapist who is skilled at experiential therapy and helping clients to overcome shame and trauma.

Once you have overcome the shame and trauma that are creating obstacles in your life, you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

I am a trauma-informed psychotherapist, and one of my specialties is helping clients to overcome shame and trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.