RH: In your books, you identify guilt and shame as being at the heart of many of the dances that clients bring to therapists. Do you agree that guilt is feeling bad about what you've done, while shame is feeling bad about who you are?
LERNER: Exactly. Guilt is about doing, and shame is about being. Shame, in my opinion, is the most debilitating emotion. It's the most devastating in its consequences, and it's the most difficult to talk about. People are eager to discuss their fears and anxiety and what they're mad about; I mean, this is dinner table conversation. But it's a real conversation-stopper to invite people to share their deepest shame. If I had to define shame, I'd say that it's the belief that if we bring our authentic selves into a relationship and allow ourselves to be truly seen, then we'd be seen for what we "truly" are—essentially flawed, or ridiculous, or someone to be pitied, or unworthy of being respected and loved, and just out of the flow of human experience.
RH: Why do we hear more about women's shame than men's?
LERNER: In my experience, women tend to internalize shame and even rehearse how ugly and stupid and inadequate they are in a way that's not useful. I think men have less tolerance for shame, perhaps because they're shamed for so many things. From the time they're wrapped in a blue blanket, they're shamed for any kind of weakness or vulnerability or whatever is seen as "feminine."
I think it's so intolerable for men that, in a nanosecond, they flip shame into something more tolerable—something more "manly," like the need to dominate or control. These are generalizations, of course; there are so many exceptions to the rule.
Neither is a good way to handle shame. It's not good to manage shame by sitting folded up in a dark corner, or by bombing an entire country. I think the challenge is really to help people get out in the sunlight and draw upon their courage to speak, and show up, even when they face the possibility of feeling shame. It's not really shame that's the culprit: it's the way people avoid the possibility of feeling shame.
RH: You came into the field at a time when the Women's Movement was gathering steam. What was the influence of feminism on your early work?