Helplessness and Shame, How Our Silence Betrays Us


There is often an eerie moment in psychotherapy where silence takes over. Sometimes I don’t even notice it because it is fleeting and the pace of discussion ramps up and covers it over with its tail. Perhaps there is a lump in my throat that I feel, but otherwise, the face and tone of my patient’s voice haven’t changed at all. I also feel a dread of acknowledging the ripple in time, preferring to engage in the banter. But sometimes, I’ll go back, grab a hold of the live wire and rewind time. Often that is when the tears flow.


What is it about our helplessness and shame that cause us to protect ourselves so vehemently? It is as if our evolutionary mandate to survive gets rubber-stamped when we cross into adulthood and the primitive feelings of disorganization threaten all that we have built to insulate us from our nakedness. And yet the more rigid we allow these parts of us to get, the less able we are to flex when the turbulence of life hits.


I used this metaphor the other day with a couple who have shown me what two loving human beings are capable of. Both brought up in households where emotions were taboo, they reached adulthood and had worked tirelessly to hide their vulnerability from one another. It led to a painful and almost catastrophic crisis in their relationship. For months, they soldiered on in therapy and bore the incredible pain and upheaval that was now at their doorsteps. He would often go quiet and then flip into resentment. When I would come to my senses, I would find a way to name his shame, and the very skin on his cheeks would melt, and he appeared to me as a small boy. 


Now, with those parts of him more connected, he uses his incredible strength to shed light on painful emotions that used to drive him away. He can sit, his body relaxed and open, and talk about not wanting to be a slave to his defensive responses. She in turn is learning to hear him in a different way, and even with him laying out the red carpet, it now challenges her to reach out and let him in. It is incredible work and confirms for me how subtle our longings for closeness really are. We beat our chests, we yell and scream, we can so easily articulate shortcomings in life, but when it comes down to getting naked and letting someone else in, that all melts away and the truth comes out. 


As I get older, I’m learning to pay more attention not only to those subtle cues in others, but to them in myself. They seem at odds with how we normally present ourselves to the world, but when there is silence and we really listen, our fragile hearts are waiting to be held. That is where connection takes place, not where we feel certain and sure of ourselves, but in the cracks when we are at the edge of dissolving. 

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