on shame and being seen

Pediatrician and psychoanalyst DW Winnicott has said, “It is a joy to be hidden, but a disaster not to be found.”

We love to hide, to have our own private psychic and emotional lives, but most of us don’t wish to be forgotten by the world. Most of us wish, and desperately need, to be found. But what is it to be discovered, and yet to have no power over the way in which you are seen? Is this what makes up the roots of shame, loneliness, terror, and oppression?

When shame hits, we cannot think, and we cannot stay present to our awareness. Arguably, awareness is what lets us know we are alive- we think, we are aware, we exist, and we become conscious. We can participate willingly in the world when we have consciousness. But shame is a piece of ourselves that relentlessly attempts to consume our thinking parts. Shame links up with the inner police, the inflated and punitive superego, which thinks it knows what is best for us. When we are triggered, our superegos can easily become detached from the rest of us. The part that says it's there to protect us can easily take over, becoming critical, threatening, destructive, and oppressive. It shuts out our ego, our identity, and our capacity to stay conscious and participatory. It does the "thinking" for us- but those really aren't conscious thoughts, they're obsessions and twisted demands that shuts down the complexity of who we really are. When the pieces of our self get shut off from each other, it can cause rifts in relationships and interruptions in the capacity to take in nurturance and love. There seems to be no way out. The superego, now totally overinflated and monstrous, feeds on itself and on our split off-parts, the feelings that are too hard to tolerate inside ourselves so we imagine them as other people’s feelings about us. The punitive superego grows, like when No Face transforms from a benign companion to a greedy monster in the film Spirited Away:

I think a lot about how to work with these punitive parts in my patients, in myself, in the oppressions of our social system at large: How to make them more benign, less cruel. How to offer care and love and curiosity to them, even when they are terrifying to approach. How to see for ourselves who we are, and be allowed to be afraid, but not be erased in the process. How to really get to know the parts of ourselves that want to be seen, yet are terrified of being seen—but are even more terrified of never being found.

The response and treatment is different for everyone in each situation, but when the work- including social anti-oppression work- comes from the courageous place of staying present, aware, and connected to the discomfort, there is an opportunity to change the direction and outcome of the shame process. It does not have to kill you, nor do you have to defeat it. Getting cozy with the severe discomfort may seem completely counterintuitive- after all, part of us feels like it's about to be eradicated, and that it should be/deserves to be. What could it be like to wonder if, maybe, the monsters are most terrifying when they are hidden, and that being seen, considered, and held in mind brings with it the power to really, acutely, directly be found?