The Role of Shame and Blame in Families

by Nathan Chua

It was in the 1980s when a game show called Family Feud caught my attention. It was a game of guessing the top answers that a survey of 100 people revealed. I think what added to the excitement was pitting one family against the other. I remember how this show became something of a cultural exposure for me. I was amazed at how patient and loving the contestants were with each other, even when their family member would give the wrong answer. Of course, there is no telling if the contestants were coached into how they should behave when such misfortunes occur. There are times when the family is split about which answer they think should be given.

I was amazed at how positive everyone was toward each other, even when a member of the family stubbornly went against the wishes of the others. I thought to myself, I find this hard to imagine if my family was playing this game.

I have met many who have shrunk from themselves, and made major life decisions based on the fear of being shamed or blamed by others, especially by family members. This can be even more difficult when decisions involve careers and marriage. It probably is quite common to know that someone makes important decisions, not based on what they want, but on what ought, or what was expected from them.

All this can be traced to the fear of responsibility. This is most evident in people who come to the counseling room with the same questions in mind, “What should I do?” “You are the expert, just tell me what your opinion is and everything will be fine,” are ways to escape responsibility.

In my experience though, this manner of seeking counsel for life’s issues, hardly offers any easy answers, to that thing that they most want to get from a counselor or therapist. In the end, people end up staying with the same issues of indecisiveness and lost lives, or lost selves. People have lost themselves in pursuit of what was expected of them. In exchange for seeking what ought, over what it is that they want, people lose their sense of meaning and purpose in life.

In Kierkegaard’s words,

“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”

Is it wrong to think bad thoughts? Video Version (With Voice)

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Is it wrong to be thinking bad thoughts?

By Nathan Chua

I can’t remember the last time I was going to write an article, that I felt will be too long for a single blog post. This is a topic that many of my clients find to be surprising and liberating.

I often meet people who have trouble with their thoughts. Many of us imbibe what we had been taught to fear in childhood. This is what psychoanalyst Erich Fromm referred to as our authoritarian conscience, as opposed to our humanistic conscience. We may think it is our own conscience dictating what is right and wrong to us, but it is actually the voices of people in our past still ringing in our minds.

Here’s an example from another psychoanalyst, Nancy McWilliams:

“When one of my daughters was a preschooler, a nursery-school teacher promulgated the idea that virtue involved “thinking good thoughts and doing good deeds.”  This troubled her.  She was much relieved when I commented that I disagreed with her teacher and felt that thinking bad thoughts was a lot of fun, especially when one could do good deeds in spite of those thoughts.”

I often self-disclose to my clients about what this quote means to me. I tell them how many jeepney, bus and taxi drivers I have assaulted in my mind. What we confuse most of the time is that we do three things every moment. We think, we feel and we do. Most of the time we do as we think or feel. We become our thoughts and feelings. It is important that we separate the three activities. What we feel or think does not make up who we are. It is what we do that matters in the end.

Emotions are not bad. They spur us into action. Our anger helps us defend ourselves against predators and abusers. Our fear and shame tell us to stay away from harmful situations. Our guilt stirs us towards doing better in the future. Our sadness helps us say goodbye to people or things, that were not meant to be forever.

Let me end this post with a quote from the champion of unconditional positive regard, Carl Rogers:

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change. I believe that I have learned this from my clients as well as within my own experience – that we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.