Superwoman: a feminine ideal

Superwoman can do it all. She can have a successful career. She can be a sexual partner and intimate companion of her husband’s. She can be a sensitive, available, and caring mother. And she can have a group of close, “best” female friends. Of course, many - maybe most - women would not subscribe to this remarkable ideal in its fullest. For those who do, failure to achieve this entire ideal way of being would trigger disappointment, shame, and humiliation. Or others, who maintain the ideal but have to abandon one or another of its components, would feel like a humiliating sacrifice had to be made. When she would see or imagine a woman who she believed “had it all,” she would feel the shame of inferiority. Especially painful for many women is failure in mothering. Women who are unableto have children - either to become pregnant or to carry a pregnancy full term - often experience feelings of disappointment and shame and a deep sense of their body letting them down. Whether pulled by career or a demanding husband, a mother of children whom she finds she cannot fully love and/or know how to care for will oscillate between shame, guilt, and resentment, with depression as a frequent outcome. Another pitfall of the goal of doing it all, even only some of it all, is the strain it puts on marriage. Often couples whose sexual rhythms and appetites coincided richly during courting or early marriage later find it difficult to get in sync with each other’s desires. Shame may be triggered for refusing and/or for being refused - shame and humiliation at feeling not sexy enough or not attractive enough for the other is a depressing inhibiter of sensual pleasure and orgiastic excitement. Boys and girls, men and women rely on same gender friends for a particularly satisfying type of intimacy - whether sport teams, social clubs, or weekly lunches or drinks together. However, we believe that for girls, especially beginning in early adolescence, “best friends” are particularly significant for a sense of deep comradery. A woman’s desire for this deep intimacy can, and often does, continue throughout life. Women who don’t have women friends, who can’t form, or who can’t maintain those friendships are apt to wonder shamefully what is wrong with them, sometimes jokingly saying “do I have BO?” - a clear reference to the embarrassment of rejection.

We need to add several caveats to what we state here about male and female ideals. Women in combat, as soldiers and nurses, may experience PTSD and similar conflicts and shame as men. Some men also may have issues of “wanting it all” similar to what we describe for women. Comparable to boys not wanting to be shamed as a tattle-tale, woman regard leaking a friend’s confidence as a source of shame and guilt. An important caveat is that I have essentially used descriptions and examples that apply to heterosexual relations. If we examined the experiences of homosexual and transgender men and women, we would find both similar and different avenues for the triggering of shame, embarrassment, humiliation, shyness, disappointment, and guilt, with homophobia as an additional source of shame.

In many instances of pathological shame, the groupings of past and present pride memories will be few. In other instances, like for Mr. T and Mr. W, the past and present pride memories are frequently dissociated. Because of the dissociation, an experience of being successful in carrying out an intention has little or no effect on the amount of or receptivity of shame. In therapy, the analyst needs to recognize and emphasize any experience in which a goal that would have led to shame is implicitly or explicitly dealt with adaptively - like, say, an adolescent turning off the computer game and doing his homework. As we explore a patient’s shame sequence, we can bring into focus the feelings and details of that experience. To do so is itself shaming. So sharing with empathy and compassion what has been brought into focus is a step forward. Then what? Does the patient alter the shame-activating pattern (begin to come on time)? Or does the patient continue the pattern, thereby adding to the shame? In treatment, both repeating the shame pattern and acting to reverse it will occur. But with what frequency does acting to reverse the pattern occur, and what may be the determining factor? Let’s return to Johnny’s, mother who stayed with him after the shaming episode and said “We will get something to clean it off.” We believe a parent responding like that provides a selfobject experience that serves as an internalized model of constructive repair of both the damage to the wall and to the relationship. As shame appears in the treatment, either as reactivated in memory recall or as enacted in the present, does the patient experience the therapist as Tom’s mother seeing him as bad, or as Johnny’s mother staying with him during and outside the session to help him make a repair? If like Johnny’s mother helping him make the repair, the underlying affect tone of being a bad, unlovable child will diminish and the possibility of seeing himself as worthy of praise and love will rise - probably ever-so - gradually.

Ever-so gradually? Why does it take so long? Why is pathological shame so difficult to treat? With other dystonic affective experiences, such as sadness or pain, we are naturally motivated to be free of the negative state. But the state of being ashamed and whatever was responsible for activating that feeling tend to make the patient feel more ashamed as the issue surfaces in the course of the treatment. Openness to regard the new experiences as shameful is strong and the expectation is high. This reverberation of conscious and underlying shame results in a motive to hide and avoid rather than to access the feeling and context. And repetitive shame is more than a feeling we experience in the cognitive realm; pathological shame is experienced deep in the body, affecting facial expression, with head and eyes downcast, droopy body posture, and slower pace and movements. Equally insidious is the penetration into the generalized holistic sense of self, of identity, of low self-worth, of badness. Additionally, living with chronic shame has a secondary effect of souring the individual’s disposition, often leading to a depressive irritable, emotional cast and a resigned, cynical approach - a state of mind that says “What is the use of being around people? They won’t want to see me the way I am, and I don't want to see them and feel rejected and more ashamed.” This negative drag, both physical and emotional, may coexist with an entirely different split-off adaptive productive mode of being and functioning. However, the negative, downward feeling state is most often triggered in relationships - especially intimate relationships. Consequently, in the exploratory treatment of patients with chronic shame, the emergence of the patient’s shame emotions combined with his or her reluctance to expose the feelings and the triggering events in and out of the treatment will test the therapist’s patience and resourcefulness. A therapist’s positive hopefulness will at times be helpful in carrying the treatment forward. At other times, positive hopefulness will come across as denial and a failure to appreciate empathetically not only the patient’s conscious and underlying feeling of being stuck, but also the influence on the dyad of the depressive irritable emotional ambiance. “Being with” when a downward cast intensifies is difficult for both patient and therapist, but is crucial for the work of intersubjective understanding and establishing a benign intrapsychic presence that leads to the patient’s emergence from repetitive shame state experiences and alteration of an underlying affect tone of feeling bad, unloving, and being unlovable - with little hope for change.

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