A repeated saying in 12-Step groups is, “My mind is a dangerous place. I really shouldn’t go there alone.” When we try to “go it alone,” when we try to make sense of our lives on our own, we are condemned to see the world through our woundedness and fears. My joy as a therapist is that I get to reflect to people the wonder and beauty of their being. A client may come in to a session feeling worthless, angry, and unlovable. And my privilege is to hold up a mirror to that client and remind him or her of the evidence of their worth and loveliness as a human being. What I see time and again in my psychotherapy groups is that men open up their lives and share their deep sense of shame and inadequacy. What is reflected to them by other group members is that while their behavior may have been selfish and short-sighted, their true selves are of great value and beauty. Men come dragging their burdens of shame and leave with the wind of acceptance and respect blowing them to great heights of integrity, action, and love.
Psychobiology is explaining to us what happens in the brain when one person shares ones shame with another. The shame-filled person is operating out of the “hot triangle” parts of the limbic system identified by Bessel van der Kolk of the University of Boston. This part of the brain stores the memories of neglect and abuse and equipped the child to erect a wall of defenses against being hurt again. The self-belief held in this part of the brain is: “I’m not good enough” and “No one will ever love me.” Shame is the engine of all addictive behaviors. But when someone “shares their shame” (their sense of worthlessness) what they get back is a reflection of their true and valuable self. The listener (hopefully!) responds via their own prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is the part of the brain that “takes it all in.” We call it the “executive” part of the brain. That part of the brain is able to see all of the parts of our friend’s life: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The PFC can easily distinguish between the “good person” and the “bad behavior.” The shame-filled person who is getting feedback from a caring friend is, in essence, borrowing that friend’s PFC.
My wife, son, and I recently did a kitchen remodel and so I found myself borrowing tools from various friends. It would have been silly to buy a tile-cutting saw when my friend was glad to loan me his. In a similar way, we need to be in the habit of borrowing our friends’ PFCs. “Could you loan me your prefrontal cortex and tell me what you think about….?” “Could you remind me why it’s not a good idea for me to drink/look at porn/work all weekend?” This concept is similar to Paul’s exhortation to the church in Ephesus to “speak the truth in love” as they grew closer to the likeness of Christ and grew tighter as a loving community. Whose PFC do you borrow? What friends do you have that you invite to “speak the truth in love” to you?