How Jodi Arias’ family can deal with shame

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Editor's note: Dr. Michelle Golland is a clinical psychologist and relationship expert. She is on Twitter. She blogs at yourshrinkisin.com.

As a clinical psychologist, I deal with many emotions in my office. One of the least understood, I believe, is shame.

“If distress is the affect of suffering, shame is the affect of indignity, transgression and of alienation… Shame is felt as inner torment, a sickness of the soul... The humiliated one feels himself naked, defeated, alienated, lacking in dignity and worth,” psychologist Silvan Tomkins once wrote.

This idea of internalized family shame runs painfully deep. Jodi Arias is currently standing trial for the brutal murder of her boyfriend. Her parents and siblings have been in the courtroom listening to graphic testimony in the highly-sexual case.

Her parents are most likely ashamed of her actions and the shameful experiences Jodi shared about abuse that she says happened at the hands of her parents. Clinically, I would not be surprised if there was abuse in her past, because I know you don’t become like Jodi Arias without some sort of trauma.

Jodi Arias’ siblings may also be feeling ashamed, but they don’t need to internalize the shame of their sister or the shame of their parents. They can choose to look honestly at their home life and what may have contributed to Jodi’s actions.

One way the family members of Jodi Arias can make sure they do not internalize the familial shame is to use a technique in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) called "Opposite Action." Clinically, I have found this to be very effective in the treatment of shame with my clients.

When you have a distressing emotion, such as fear or anger, that emotion comes with an action tendency. In fear, the action tendency is to escape or avoid the threatening situation. In anger, the action tendency is to get aggressive or fight. The basic premise of “Opposite Action” is to do the opposite of the action tendency that accompanies the emotion.

When looking at shame with my clients, we evaluate if it is unjustified shame or justified shame. I ask my clients whether their actions or characteristics either violate their own moral code, or if someone knew about your actions or characteristics that they would reject you. If neither of these conditions are true, then your shame is unjustified.

It seems to me that there is justifiable shame on the part of Jodi Arias' family. If Jodi's allegations are true, then their behavior should have violated their moral code and would cause others to reject them, if they knew.

If this is a case of abuse, the family’s action tendency might be to keep the past behavior a secret. But if I were working with them as a family, I would suggest they do the opposite of hiding.

They should also have compassion for the siblings and parents of her victim and try to make amends for the actions of their family member.

They need to be at the trial, because if they hid from public view, it would contribute to internalizing the family shame.

If her parents were abusive, they should own that behavior and publically discuss how that may or may not have contributed to their daughter’s emotional issues.

It is more justified for Jodi Arias’ parents to experience shame than her siblings. But because her siblings will be judged and possibly rejected by society for her actions, they need to deal with their emotions in ways that make them feel emotionally “clean” from her acts and the acts of their parents, if the abuse allegations are true.

Doing the opposite of hiding will promote their own healing and mental health. And this can only be done with courage and honesty, even if it exposes shameful parts of themselves as parents.

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