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Energy theft: toxic forms of shame and guilt

[Democracy is coming] From the homicidal bitchin’/That goes down in every kitchen/To determine who will serve and who will eat. 

—Leonard Cohen, “Democracy”


Sarah, 27, who is about to finish graduate school with a PhD in engineering, hates to call her mother…and does so, dutifully, and with dread, every week. Saturday mornings come with a call that her father always picks up. “Hi Dad, how are you?” She’s not close with her father, who has never seemed that interested in her. “Well,” he says, “Retirement is better than not. Doing some golf. Things are going ok,” this being a version of what he always says before, “Oh, here’s your mother. Be well.” She wishes him well as her stomach knots and her mother gets on the phone. “Hi, honey.” “Hi, Mom, how are you?” “Well, you know, it’s not easy getting older and your father is watching too much TV, and your brother never calls. I just can’t believe how he can treat his mother that way. His mother! I’m glad you’re such a good daughter…” Sarah goes silent as her mother complains and gossips about her life, until Sarah, after an hour of little speaking (and not being asked about herself), reaches that dreadful moment: “Mom, I have to get going,” and then the silence, the pause, and the, “Oh, really? So soon?” Sigh. “Well, I guess you have your own life.” This plays out each week, and the few times when Sarah couldn’t call were met with the basic message of, “What, are you like your brother, selfish and cruel?” And the other time or two when Sarah has challenged her mother to be more positive, or to recognize her own needs, have been met with, “You need to just listen to me and stop being so selfish, critical and judgmental!” Feeling no win is possible, Sarah has sunk into resignation.

Human relations are, to say the least, complex, and one dimension that often is submerged under the more obvious features (e.g., typical arguments, desires, boundaries) is that of “energy.” We usually think of energy in terms of physical systems: gas in our car, electricity for our appliances, food for our bodies. But there is also the energy of human relations: does someone induce stress in us by being abrasive? Does a loved one give us a hug or a criticism? Do we feel unsafe with a certain person, and not with another? Does a certain belief system, as enacted in a group, support love and growth, or fear and frozenness? All of these have energy aspects and consequences, which, if we ignore or miss them, can have dire consequences, especially when it comes to depression (see the last two articles: here and here).

So in this article I’ll focus not on the healthy version of energy relations among humans-where there’s a give and take, a mutuality, and respect of and for each others life energy, and a basic trust that there’s enough energy to go around-but on the much more problematic way in which energy can be taken, or stolen, from each other. Two primary ways in which individuals and groups do this is through manipulating guilt and shame.

Shame and Guilt

As short definitions:  shame is that experience of “I am bad” that tells us we are on the margin of what is acceptable to our tribe (here is a past article on shame). Guilt is that experience that “I’ve done bad,” that tells us that we have broken codes (ours/our groups’).

Basically, every emotion and emotional state are there to tell us something, and orient us to something. Sadness lets us know we feel we’ve lost something; anger tells us we are registering our boundary being violated. So too with guilt and shame: they serve to signal us about when we are out of alignment with our group, and to repair relations. Given that we “grew up” as a species in small hominid bands, we had to be tightly wired to each other to survive, both outside threats and intra-tribal conflicts. How our tribe saw us, what they thought of us, and our relative status (determined by the mores of the group) was literally a survival issue. Get tossed out of your tribe for bad behavior and you had hostile tribes and predators to get snapped up by.

However, emotions, as with all communications systems, can break, can go haywire and send too many, or the wrong, messages. And they can be hijacked by others who want to manipulate us towards their own ends. There’s nothing wrong with guilt and shame per se, since they give us valuable information about something very important: how am I misaligned with my group, and what do I need to do to repair those relations (restoring safety)? But their problem is that they are very hard to hold as neutral information, because their power in aligning us with our group is in their ability to reach in to our sense of self, our identity, and scorch it. I analogize shame to one of those electric dog collars: when we get too close to the perimeter of what’s acceptable, we get shocked (our self is threatened with “badness” and abandonment), and thus we learn to not go there.

Healthy and Toxic Shame and Guilt

That powerful access of shame and guilt to our core sense of self is what makes it such a powerful sculptor of behavior, both for the positive and the negative, for social cohesion and self-growth, as well as for exploitation and predation.

For instance, if guilt is authentic, meaning that the rules we are breaking are actually our own, our core ethics, then to feel guilty is to actually tell us we’re out of alignment with our own integrity. Which is pretty useful to know (similar to a chiropractic problem, when we are not aligned with our core, it throws our whole system off). Or with shame, as the philosopher Ken Wilber points out, if we don’t have it early in our development (regardless of our age), then we don’t have the information we need to be a functioning member of our group, knowing the rules and able to integrate, and can get stuck at a “pre-moral” stage of development. Which is miserable for everyone involved.

However, these same useful (if painful) mechanisms can be turned against us by others who know (usually unconsciously) how to exploit them, and serve to drain off our own energy for their use. Guilt can be, then, inauthentic, like a computer virus, which hijacks our own circuitry for its purposes. Or shame becomes triggered not when we are doing something inherently anti-social, but rather when we are doing something that runs against the particular needs of an individual/group/family to have us hew to its rules, in order to have us accessible as an energy resource. In other words, the shame is not signaling that our behavior is anti-social (against social connectedness and cohesiveness), but rather is a chain that’s being yanked to keep us in line with another’s needs.

Sarah and Mom:  A Case of Energy Theft

Take the vignette with Sarah-how is this “energy theft” happening? Well, Sarah, as evidenced by her dread in calling each week, does not get much out of the calls to her mother. Her mother, on the other hand, gets to monopolize her attention (attention is a form of energy for our nervous systems), and download her complaints and discontents into Sarah, which frees up energy, like offloading heavy packages to someone else. Which is not a problem per se, except that it has not been negotiated on the basis of respect for Sarah’s energy (which would sound like, “Sarah, do you mind if I vent for a while?” and then Sarah gets accepted whether she says yes or no). I.e., it’s not consensual. Instead, the access to Sarah’s attention and energy is maintained by threats to her sense of self. Basically, Mom has learned to hold a dart gun to Sarah’s self, filled with the toxic versions of shame and guilt; if Sarah moves in a way that Mom doesn’t like-meaning that makes Sarah less available as a source of energy-then Mom pulls the trigger, leaving Sarah writhing in guilt and shame.

Now, admittedly, this is a fairly stark and ugly way of breaking down the exchange that happens between Sarah and her Mom, but if you use this as a template to do an “energy audit” (like the electric company might do of your house) of your own relations, you are more than likely to find instances of this kind of “energy theft.” Maybe not as severe, but there. As part of what we humans do, we look for “free energy” and finding a way to secure it, and when we’re living under a sense of threat (external or internal), we become less and less ethical in grabbing it. Sarah’s mother, for whatever historical reasons, apparently doesn’t feel she has enough energy, in herself or in the world, and so justifies herself stealing it from her daughter, through manipulating the behaviorally modifying mechanisms of shame and guilt, and then blaming her daughter.

Ugly as this mode of human relations is (especially among those who are supposed to have our best interests in mind), it has to be seen and assessed if we are to live full, authentic lives.

Energy Theft and Depression

This is especially true when it comes to depression, which (as I described in the last newsletter, here) has an essential function of monitoring our energy levels and, if it sees us not responding to diminishing/excessive energy, will shut us down. If our relationships are perpetually draining, in which there is a theft going on, a taking without giving, then depression will likely come in to balance the equation. Ironically, depression, if actually listened to and studied, will point us (like some kind of gas-leak detection device) to where energy is leaking out of our systems.

Sarah, who has settled into a resigned, and at times depressed, position in relation to her parents and mother, has to learn to protect her own energy if she is to avoid depression. Given how we’re built, and the “energy regulating” function of depression, it’s simply not possible to keep bleeding energy, or allow others to steal our energy, without triggering depression. Depression is trying to tell us where our energy balance is untenable, and if we don’t listen, we will suffer.

As usual, if we don’t manage ourselves consciously, depression will do it unconsciously.

(As a final note: this focus on energy and social bonds, and theft, is very complex and multifaceted, with huge issues around culture, developmental maturity, ignorance vs. sociopathy, etc. Who owns an individual’s energy is going to be answered differently in different cultures and families. So, not denying this complexity, nonetheless, in relation to depression, we can hold a belief that our family is owed our energy, but if that energy is not balanced by a sense of social belonging, or duty fulfilled, i.e., if there is a net loss of energy, depression usually comes calling. At this level, it’s much more an issue of physics than culture.)

Marty Cooper

Marty Cooper

Marty Cooper specializes in working with depression and anxiety. He helps clients gain insight but also practice skills for overcoming depression and anxiety.

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