Addressing Cultural ShameOn May 3, 2021 by sarmientoverano
By: Lucia Sarmiento Verano
Shame is now a subject that is widely discussed as one of the most complex and deep processes we can go through in the therapy room. It has been conceptualised as relational, coming from a lack of connection, acceptance or mirroring, and a process of retreat of the self from attempts to connect for fear of future lack of acceptance (De Young, 2015; Lee & Wheeler, 1997; Schore, 1998).
This makes shame a tricky thing to hold in therapy, as it prompts us to retreat. Robust and seasoned therapists are more than capable of providing a relationship safe enough for this work.
Now, cultural shame is not quite the same, as it does not have the same origin, but it does have a similar effect of wanting to hide the shameful aspects of the self. Nevertheless, it is seldom considered in therapy and in my personal experience, it is usually not held appropriately by the therapist, especially when they are unprepared. And let’s be honest, most therapists are unprepared for this, because cultural shame is not a personal individual experience, it is a collective one and its presence links us directly to global systems of privilege and oppression in which the therapist is also embedded. This can become quickly unbearable for both parties involved, preventing the therapist from providing a holding space for it to emerge safely. Moreover, therapy frameworks will often reinforce cultural shame in very subtle ways.
Colonial Centre and Periphery: an introduction
Before I address cultural shame in therapy, I think it’s necessary to explain its geopolitical roots. If you are a white European therapist you might want to read this section slowly and carefully, paying attention to what emerges within you, without jumping to judgements or conclusions to whether you agree or disagree with this. This part of the process is important.
As you may know, or not, for the past five hundred years Europe and the West have positioned themselves as the centre of the world’s economic, intellectual, cultural and political activity. The West derives this centrality from the fact that it has colonised, violently exploited and marginalised the rest of the world and all non-white peoples, effectively positioning them and their cultures away from the centre of power, in what we call the periphery or the margins.
Colombian philosopher Santiago Castro-Gomez calls this centrality of Europe the “hubris of the point zero” (2005). European perspective, modes of knowledge and world view have been centred as the right and true ones for the past 500 years. It is an epistemic colonisation at the same time as an economic and political one. It is this epistemic colonisation that to this day, creates a sense of inferiority, felt within colonised subjects. In turn, this fosters shame. We’ll come back to that later.
The level of exploitation that European countries carried out in their colonies, and the violence towards people of colour (including instances of systematic torture and mutilation, genocide and the transatlantic slave trade), were justified in their time by the conceptualisation of racial superiority of the white race, and their duty to “civilise” other nations. From this directly stems the notion that not only the white race but also white culture (as in European culture, languages, traditions, aesthetics, knowledge etc.) is superior to all others.
It is important to know even though believing in the superiority of the white race and expressing it openly is no longer socially acceptable in most instances, it is still widely accepted and acceptable to believe in the superiority of white cultures. It is in fact, still explicitly justified by talking of democratic systems, economic success and capitalist accumulation, cultural production and technological advancement (of course without taking into account that these were only achieved by plundering the rest of the world, and not from Europe’s own merit).
So, it is still very much acceptable to believe and say, and even encouraged, that a white culture is superior to others. Saying so, supported by the “evidence” of development and technological advances, seems natural and yet, it is not only wrong, but deeply damaging. As a global narrative it is actively used to maintain and justify increased exploitation and subjugation of the South and a level interventionism that will not let us be truly independent.
As I briefly described in a previous article, most of the people that live across the colonial divide, in what we call the Global South, live surrounded by all the cultural production and the shows of economic, political and cultural power coming from the Global North, specifically Anglo societies. This cultural imperialism has permeated our education systems, our values, ideals and our minds. We too, grow up believing in the myth of European cultural superiority, and, our own culture’s inferiority. We are mentally colonised.
Some authors use the term Cultural Racism to explain the marginalisation and inferiorisation of non-white cultures. This has been critiqued and I am personally not comfortable with using the term racism in this way. I believe is it more helpful to maintain the specificity of racism based on skin colour, even if it is connected to this issue, because even though all people’s from colonised cultures carry cultural shame, our experiences of navigating the world are very different depending on our skin colour. I think it is more helpful to be specific and call this cultural discrimination, colonisation, marginalization, etc.
Nonetheless, authors using this term have explained how Cultural Racism directly stems from biological racism (Helms, 1993; Jones, 1999).
In addition, Ramón Grosfoguel (1999) explains that dominant culturally racist views hold that the poverty and unemployment prevalent in some ethnic minorities can be explained by their own cultural values and behaviours instead of structural discrimination. Claiming that marginalised communities are at fault for their own problems (e.g. violence, poverty etc) which is today’s dominant discourse, contributes to the inferiorisation of ‘other’ cultures and feelings of internalised racism and cultural shame held by people from those communities. It is a common scapegoating strategy.
Internalised Cultural Inferiority and Shame
Because the West is the centre, and we all see the world through its gaze, we all have internalised these ideas and values as aspirational and the idea that our own different cultural attitudes, beliefs and expressions are inferior. A somewhat similar process of internalisation of the dominant perspective of internalised racism.
In turn, people from colonised cultures may have internalised the messages that:
- Their ways of expression of ideas or emotions are shameful, inappropriate, less than optimal.
- Beliefs and cosmologies inherited from non-white cultures are mere superstitions held by uneducated people.
- Our conceptualisation and relationship with time and time boundaries are inappropriate and a show of laziness and irresponsibility.
- People’s aesthetic preferences show lack of sophistication.
- Our ways of relating to one another show issues with our boundaries.
- Collectivist mindset or familism linked in psychological thought with unhealthy dependency and toxic shame.
These are only some example of possible internalised beliefs we may hold as people from colonised cultures.
Not only that but this cultural shame leads us to believe that our cultures are truly flawed in these ways, and that the social problems we encounter in our countries of origin are nothing more than the expression of our flawed cultures and collectives. We hear and even hold disparaging discourses such as “we’ll never develop with a society full of uneducated undisciplined people like us”. a very clear example of this explained from a psychological perspective can be found in Martin-Baro’s essay on The Lazy Latino (1994).
Frantz Fanon has explained this subjective experience well in his work (1952, 1961), especially how racism and abjection of the black body permeates an individual’s subjectivity to the point of building identities structured by shame. For some of us, cultural identity comes embedded with a sense of disrepute.
This may be easier to understand in second generation immigrants who grow up in a white majority society. It might be more complex to get why people born and raised in the Global South also feel this way. History and memory have a function within global colonial relations. In some regions, coloniality has lasted for 500 years. In that time, all of our institutions, our education and our systems are geared toward the reproduction of this mentality, these cultural values, effectively participating in the construction of our cultural identities through generations and as we grow up. This is how a sense of cultural inferiority will enter the subjectivity of people from colonised countries to this day.
Not only this, but our learned history as reproduced by the education system is riddled with stories of humiliation, subjugation and defeat, in comparison with the “great achievements” of the Global North, without linking these “achievements” to the subjugation of others. It is not hard to grow up thinking we have little to be proud of, if anything. Not only that, but if I take the example of Peruvian history as taught in schools, whatever success we’ve had is often attributed to the white Europeanised minority of the population. Indigenous peoples and other communities such as Asian-peruvians and Afro-peruvians only appear in our collective stories in their subjugation. This is a major influence in our collective imaginary and our internalised ideas of who and what is desirable and respectable.
Eurocentrism is a cage, and our minds become trapped in it through the influence of education and socialisation. We then observe the world and ourselves through this Eurocentric, degrading lens which can have the effect of tainting our self-concept too.
From my observations, reactions to this range from passively accepting that we’re inferior, hopelessness and owned shame, to defensive counter attacks by way of being loudly proud of our country. Nationalism and xenophobia are also often expressed in aggressive and inappropriate ways.
This results in the mental colonisation of many people even within the Global South. We grow up aspiring to be more like you, because it is thought to be the only way to escape the clutches of violence and underdevelopment.
One last thing that is important to consider is how a person living in this white supremacist society while holding cultural ‘otherness’ needs to assimilate and hide their different culture in order to survive and succeed. White culture is so aspirational in the Global South that the more we can assimilate it, the more chances we have to succeed. This is even more obvious for people residing in the Global North, where discrimination and reduced opportunities await those not willing to discard their culture to assimilate into the dominant one. Every day, this necessity for surviving and thriving in a deeply othering world reinforces cultural shame for the people who hold non-white cultures.
Therefore, unlike what many white European therapists seem to believe, addressing cultural shame is not just an issue of letting it go and celebrating our different cultures. If we continue to live in a society where we are required to hide cultural expressions and attitudes in order to not be ostracized and just survive, we need to acknowledge this need for survival that is not only a figment of the client’s imagination.
In this case I would argue that rather than just healing from this, like one could heal from individual shame, therapy is a space in which we can gain awareness of these shame dynamics. We can express the emotions that emerge, such as grief, rage, etc. with the help of the holding presence of a therapist who will understand, honour the client’s difference, and will not reinforce shame inducing norms.
How Therapy Theory and Practice Reinforce Cultural Shame
We know that the origin of psychology and psychotherapy theories is profoundly racist. I am not going to explain this as it is outside the scope of this article. I do recommend looking at the work of Suman Fernando (2010), Farhad Dalal (1988), Alan Vaughan (2019) and Fanny Brewster (2017).
The effects of these influences are felt today in the theories and practices of psychotherapy which are designed to feel safe and holding and to explain the experiences of people from the dominant White European middle-class culture. As such, it is not adapted to accurately conceptualise the experiences of people of other races and cultures.
I need only think about my experience to find an example. I’ve been raised in a very western cultural mindset. In many ways, psychotherapy has been helpful and life saving for me, especially when it came to healing from childhood trauma and learning to self-regulate. The problem arises when I attempt to explore my cultural and ethnic identities and my relationship with my heritage, two things that are important to me and to understand my familial system. I can honestly say that after 12 years of therapy, from which 10 have been continuous, I hadn’t come closer to understanding what went on with this issue and why my relationship with my identity was so painful. After countless retelling of my family’s and my story, countless hours of crying, attempting to explore it under different lenses, different modalities and techniques, and countless reframing exercises, chair work etc. I did not feel differently about it. I had started to think something was wrong with me, because neither the therapist nor I could understand the source of that pain, or how to begin the healing process. It all quickly became about meaning making on an individual level, without accounting for historical events, and attempts to reach acceptance for what it is. However, we cannot accept and find peace with what we do not even begin to understand.
This is through no fault of the therapists. Simply, whatever they had learned and practiced for so many years, their therapeutic framework and theory, do not give anyone the tools to begin understanding issues arising from racial and cultural mixing under a global colonial system. It did not help that my therapists did not have similar backgrounds and didn’t have to explore similar issues themselves. Understanding that therapy had no possible way of helping me in this journey, I eventually turned toward other disciplines, sociology and philosophy more specifically. There I found the answers I was looking for, and I understood that therapy as we know it would not help me identify the deep contradictions that live within me and their historical and cultural origin and meaning, nor it would ever help me learn how to hold those contradictions in a non-pathologising way.
Therapy theory and practice for people who do not mostly ascribe to white western cultures is full of constant demands to adapt and micro-aggressions, each of which will reactualise and reinforce cultural shame and internalised colonialism/racism. All of this may be going on under the current, through unconscious communication, which is why it is so hard to break from that and understand these dynamics. They are often unseen.
Some examples of elements that may implicitly reinforce cultural shame are:
- Rigid time boundaries (If the client does not rigidly ascribe to them, exploration of their behaviour may be initiated by the therapist, in a way that is often subtly pathologizing or shaming)
- Use of language (appropriateness, exclusivity of the “talking cure” over other forms of communication)
- Individualistic practice (one to one work, individualisation in the conceptualisation of issues)
- Encouraging independence and individuation in the client (pathologising collectivist mindsets)
- Dismissal of other forms of knowledge and experiences (different cosmologies or spirituality for example)
- Use of racist concepts (jungian archetypes are an example)
Each of these examples may of course impact individuals differently or not at all. These are subtle and pervasive ways in which therapy silently demands someone to adapt to its western norms.
This is not to say we need to discard everything we have learned and the ways we practice. It is simply important to keep in mind who the discipline has been created for. We might be called to adapt with the support of peers and supervisors more experienced in intercultural work.
Cultural Shame in the Therapy Room
Shame is increasingly popular topic in the production of psychological and psychotherapeutic theory. Much has been said about its interpersonal origin and the process of healing. However, individual shame born of early interpersonal failures is not the same as cultural shame. Two important differences between them need to be understood:
- The historical and global origin of cultural shame
- The collective nature of its experience
I have already explained how cultural shame is rooted in the history of colonisation. I think it’s necessary for therapists to understand this, and to let go of the idea of an interpersonal and intrapsychic dynamic originated exclusively during the client’s lifetime. Not understanding this will strip the experience from many layers of complexity and from its weight. Having said this, we should never adopt an attitude that implies that this is an issue from the past, so it should be easy for the client to let go of it by reframing it. I’ve seen this way of working and it is harmful.
Cultural shame may be a historical dynamic, but the shame we feel is not from the past. Its internalised messages are reinforced every day, globally. Wherever we are, social norms adapt to the Eurocentric perspective, reactualising and reminding us of the inferiority of our cultures. These dynamics are of course nuanced, not explicit, but they are nonetheless felt in some part of our consciousness whether we are aware of it or not. Conversely, Europeans are continually reminded of the superiority of their own cultures over the rest.
What I also believe is markedly different between personal shame and cultural shame in the therapy room is that the former is an internal individual experience while the latter is a collective one. It is part of a dynamic between collectives. In this sense, holding cultural shame when it emerges in the room is much more complex for both the therapist and the client.
As I said, cultural shame is directly tied to colonial history and present day coloniality, a history and a system in which the therapist is also embedded. Whether it is consciously or unconsciously, the client’s shame is connected to the therapist’s own shame and guilt. This can be experienced differently whether the therapist sits on the same side of the colonial divide as the client, or the opposite side. It quickly becomes unmanageable if the therapist has not previously examined their own position and relationship to global and historical oppression.
When working with issues of oppression, anything that comes imbued with historical significance rooted in colonialism lives deeply in our unconscious and lives in the in-between. What happens is when cultural shame emerges and comes closer to awareness, and even worse, when it is named as shame, or at least a dislike for the person’s own culture, it automatically emerges in both therapist and client, as well as in the space between them. As a result, shame/guilt will arise simultaneously in both people present, and this regardless of the therapist being aware of this or not.
I suspect too often this joint process is taken as transference or countertransference. Although it is always true that these dynamics are present and we need to unpick what is ours and what is the client’s material, I do not believe I am describing a process of reaction to what the client is bringing, nor a process of projective identification. The shame and guilt the therapist might feel in these occasions are very much their own, rooted in their unconscious. It is the guilt and shame they would feel in any other situation which suddenly reminded them of their exact position in this global system and the profound negative effects of their existence on other people’s lives.
Support by a supervisor with experience in working with issues of privilege and oppression will be very helpful to help us unpick the transferential material from our personal process so we can do the work of examining our own relationship with privilege and oppression.
My experience of trying to bring up cultural shame in therapy with European therapists in the past is that it’s usually met with skepticism, lack of understanding of where it comes from and why it’s there. This, even though I didn’t label it as shame because I did not have the words for it yet. It’s often been glossed over, met with appeals to love myself and my culture, not acknowledging that this is a structural problem instead of an individual one. In retrospective It was being treated in the same way as one would explore and respond to someone expressing very low self-esteem and personal shame.
In this way the depth of the issue is minimised and avoided. I believe this is in part due to lack of knowledge and awareness from the therapist side, and also discomfort with the subject. Examining my felt sense of the inferiority of my culture would equate with accepting/examining the counterpart to it, which is the felt superiority of the therapist’s own culture. This, I suspect, would have been unbearable.
This is not to say that work with cultural shame is impossible.
First the therapist needs to build a robust understanding of these processes thanks to reading and learning on the historical and social realities of colonisation and modernity. Get acquainted with the dynamics of global power and the hierarchy of cultures. Secondly, they need to process the difficult feelings and discomfort emerging from these explorations in their own time, before letting that affect negatively their work with a client. Extensive use of personal therapy, reflection and support groups, and supervision is encouraged when going through this process. Do remember we’re not meant to undertake this journey alone.
After this work has been done, the principle for working with cultural shame in the room can be roughly the same as working with other issues of privilege and oppression, especially when the therapist is the one holding privilege. Acknowledgment of the therapist’s position in regards to the client is important for the exploration of how that may be affecting the therapeutic relationship. This, with care not to centre the therapist’s cultural experience and perspective again. A resource that has been helpful for me to learn this was the work by Dr. Isha McKenzie-Mavinga (2009, 2016).
It is important for Westerners to examine their relationship to colonialism, racism and white supremacy, and process the feelings that emerge. It is possible to learn to bear the discomfort and slowly starting to discard the “hubris of the point zero”. A lifelong process, but very much worth it as it is the only way we will be able to properly accompany people who do not hold the same privileges as us.
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