by Sarah Alexander, LCSW
John F. Kenney Jr.’s fatal plane crash in 1999 made an impression on me. I was baffled by the speculation that he died flying nose-down into the ocean. Even in poor visibility, I didn’t understand how that could happen. Wouldn’t gravity tell him which way was up? It turns out that John F. Kennedy Jr. found himself in that predicament due to a commonplace enough condition: vertigo. Many of us have experienced it when looking down from a great height. Without the benefit of solid ground under his feet to help orient him, JFK Jr. experienced it when his inner ear miscalculated his position and movement in relation to the surface of the ocean.
When our sense of balance is impaired (physical or otherwise), we have difficulty maintaining our orientation to reality.
Pilots have to be specially trained for this inevitability in flight because the necessary skill for this situation goes against their natural inclinations. In their training, they are instructed to make decisions based on their flight instrument panel, rather than the temporarily impaired gyroscope within their own head. This phenomenon is as inevitable in our self-evaluation as it is for pilots in flight:
Shame is the vertigo of life.
Where the confusion of vertigo arises from a physical sensation of whirling and loss of balance, the confusion of shame arises from an emotional sensation of being fundamentally flawed and less deserving than everyone else. In eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder, shame can rise to the level of actual delusions (i.e. fixed, false, mental beliefs that are resistant to reason, even when confronted with actual fact). We as humans are susceptible to developing shame (if for no other reason) due to the fact that we must navigate childhood before arriving at adulthood.
An un-traumatized one year old is fully in her body. She ambles around with her belly stuck out for everyone to see, not a care in the world about what others think of it. She feels her feelings deeply and thoroughly, experiencing and exhibiting every ripple and tsunami of emotion as it passes through her. Then she is slowly domesticated across the next two decades. Usually the motivation for this is well-intentioned, sometimes self-serving (for those around her), and (hopefully) only rarely malicious. She is instructed to be quiet, sit still, not cry, stop pouting, hurry up, slow down, pay attention, speak up, not talk back, be polite, stand up for herself, not be so sensitive, take care of others, not be a burden, be grateful, not be angry, be self-sufficient, not be selfish, and hundreds (if not thousands) of other do’s and don’ts (many of which, you may have noticed, contradict each other). By the time she reaches adulthood, she looks up and finds herself disoriented as to who she is in relation to “reality” and what direction she is headed. She’s not sticking her belly out for all to see anymore; she’s hiding it out of shame and placing her value as a human being on its size and shape. Metaphorically, she may be banking and diving at high speed (for example, fueling suicidal thoughts with delusions that she is unattractive, worthless, and unloveable), yet firmly believe she’s perfectly level (“I feel unattractive, worthless, and unloveable, so therefore it must be true!”).
When evaluating self, shame misinterprets messages sent to the brain via two primary inputs: 1) your emotional feelings (which you may be inappropriately interpreting and/or ignoring), and 2) the thinking (values and perspectives) taught to you by others that are unworkably rigid and/or aren’t authentically your own. These inputs tell you who you are in relation to everyone else.
When your eyes are open (with the help of your emotions-as-allies), and your feet are on the ground (i.e. you are stabilized in your own body as well as your own values/perspective), you have clarity in deciding which direction to go next, even when it’s not easy and there’s a lot at stake. If your sense of Self is impaired, however, then you have to build up to that.
Part of the difficulty when it comes to shame is that our culture is invested in perpetuating some of it (for example: the “thin ideal,” “nice girls don’t get angry,” and “doing it yourself is better than asking for help”). To help navigate the disorientation of shame, I’ve come up with a particular “flight instrument panel” to help determine which way is up:
1. How do you VIEW those you love most in the world when they struggle with this situation? If the way you would view someone you love in this situation is GENUINE (not just “polite”) then trust that that view applies to you too.
2. What ADVICE would you give them in this situation? If the advice you would give someone you love in this situation is SINCERE (not just “the right thing to say”), then trust that that advice is valid for you too.
3. How would you TREAT them through this process? If how you would treat someone you love in this situation is in line with your AUTHENTIC VALUES (not simply the values you “should” have), then trust that that treatment is appropriate for you too.
When you think you are unattractive because of your weight, ask yourself, “Would I think the same thing about my daughter/sister/best-friend?” When you want to hurt yourself for having needs, ask yourself, “Would I hurt my beloved pet for having these needs?” When you don’t know what the answer is for yourself or how to treat yourself, ask, “What would be the answer for my favorite person in the whole wide world?” and “How would I treat my beloved?”
It is shame (the belief that you are categorically flawed and, therefore, different from everyone else) – not reality – that holds you back from accurately evaluating yourself.
The advice that pilots use to fly level through vertigo can be adapted to apply to you and I maintaining balance through shame:
- Understand the nature and causes of your shame;
- Avoid (when sensible) the conditions which tend to trigger it;
- Obtain training to work with shame and maintain those skills;
- Build trust in your instruments through regular application and practice in a variety of conditions;
- Ensure that when outside references are used, they are reliable;
- Be physically tuned for unfavorable conditions (that is, ensure proper rest, adequate nourishment, suitable hydration and, if on medication, stay stabilized on medication); remember that illness, alcohol, drugs, pain, fatigue, stress, and mild hypoxia (i.e. inadequate breathing) are likely to increase susceptibility to disorientation;
- Know that this can happen to ANYONE (i.e. it is not a personal failing); and
- Most importantly of all, when your senses seem to disagree with the instruments, trust the instruments and do what they tell you to do; they may save your life.