Excerpt: Shame-Attacking Exercises

This is a brief excerpt from the new book The Philosophy of CBT by Donald Robertson, discussing the similarities between “shame-attacking” exercises in modern REBT/CBT and ancient philosophical training in “shamelessness.”

Shame-Attacking Exercises in Ancient Philosophy

Diogenes-the-Cynic-Billboard_thumb.jpgThis is a brief excerpt from my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy.

Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2010. All rights reserved.

In certain concrete practical respects, REBT also contains therapy interventions that resemble techniques familiar within ancient philosophical therapy. Ellis was known for what he described as REBT’s “trademark” use of various “shame-attacking exercises”. In order to help clients overcome self-consciousness, social embarrassment and inhibition, Ellis would prescribe changes in behaviour which were designed to forcefully and directly challenge their sense of shame. For example, he refers to the technique of asking clients to repeatedly stop a bus without getting off, or asking strangers in the street to give them money, etc.

I realised, soon after I started REBT in 1955, that what we call “shame” is the essence of a great deal of our emotional disturbance. […] Seeing this, I created my now famous shame-attacking exercise in 1968; and perhaps millions of people, especially psychotherapy clients, have done this exercise and trained themselves to feel shamed or sorry about what they did, and about the public disapproval that often went with it, but not to put themselves down and not to feel humiliated about their personhood. (Ellis & MacLaren, 2005, p. 95)

Ellis further explains the exercise as follows,

Here clients deliberately seek to act “shamefully” in public in order to accept themselves and to tolerate the ensuing discomfort. Since clients do best to harm neither themselves nor other people, minor infractions of social rules often serve as suitable shame-attacking exercises (e.g., calling out the time in a crowded department store, wearing bizarre clothes designed to attract public attention, and going into a hardware store and asking the clerks whether they sell tobacco). (Dryden & Ellis, 2001, p. 329)

This aspect of Ellis’ work is strikingly reminiscent of the practices of the ancient Cynic philosophers who appear to have adopted, albeit in a more extreme manner, controversial lifestyles and behaviours in order to liberate themselves from social conventions.

The Cynics break with the world […] was radical. They rejected what most people considered the elementary rules and indispensible conditions for life in society: cleanliness, pleasant appearance, and courtesy. They practiced deliberate shamelessness – masturbating in public, like Diogenes, or making love in public, like Crates and Hipparchia. The Cynics were absolutely unconcerned with social proprieties and opinion; they despised money, did not hesitate to beg, and avoided seeking stable positions within the city. […] They did not fear the powerful, and always expressed themselves with provocative freedom of speech (parrhesia). (Hadot, 2002, p. 109)

Ellis seems unaware of this precursor to his “shame-attacking” exercises. However, the Cynics themselves specifically refer to the deliberate practice of “shamelessness” (anaideia) as a psychotherapeutic exercise. In the case of Diogenes, this was referred to metaphorically as his “defacing the coinage” of social conventions, which inevitably shocked others. So notorious were the shameless acts of Diogenes that Plato allegedly called him “Socrates gone mad”.

According to the Greek biographer Diogenes Laertius, the famous Cynic, Crates, who trained Zeno the founder of the Stoic school, was nicknamed “Door-opener” because of his habit of inviting himself into people’s houses to lecture them somewhat abrasively on philosophy(Laertius, 1853, p. 250). He also mentions another practice of Crates which sounds like an even more provocative version of Ellis’ shame attacking exercises, ‘He used to abuse prostitutes designedly, for the purpose of practising himself in enduring reproaches’(Laertius, 1853, p. 251). Epictetus seems to imply that Diogenes and the other Cynics, whom he greatly admired, deliberately broke wind in front of people, presumably also as part of their practice of shamelessness (Discourses, 3.22.80). Indeed, I am indebted to Still and Dryden for the following illustration drawn from Montaigne’s account of a quite surprising Stoic anecdote,

In the midst of a discussion, and in the presence of his followers, Metrocles let off a fart. To hide his embarrassment he stayed at home until, eventually, Crates came to pay him a visit; to his consolations and arguments Crates added the example of his own licence: he began a farting match with him, thereby removing his scruples and, into the bargain, converting him to the freer stoic school from the more socially oriented Peripatetics whom he had formerly followed. (Montaigne, in Still & Dryden, 1999, p. 157)

Crates’ exercises in shamelessness, or the overcoming of social anxiety and inhibition, can be seen as a practical training in his maxim, ‘That a man ought to study philosophy, up to the point of looking on generals and donkey-drivers in the same light’ (Laertius, 1853, p. 252). Zeno appears to have assimilated some aspects of his mentor’s philosophy into Stoic therapeutics, although moderated by a greater respect for society than the Cynics allegedly displayed.

Like Crates, Diogenes the Cynic, who was revered as a Sage by some Stoics, reputedly tested prospective students by instructing them to follow him around carrying a salted fish, or a piece of cheese, in their hands. When some refused, out of embarrassment, he would chide them: “See how a piece of salted fish was enough to dissolve our friendship!” (Laertius, 1853, p. 230). Notoriously insolent and iconoclastic, he once asked the Athenians to erect a statue to him, and when asked why he had done so, replied, “I am practising disappointment.” (Laertius, 1853, p. 235). These and many similar popular philosophical anecdotes illustrate the striking parallel between the ancient Cynics’ psychotherapeutic technique of anaideia, or shamelessness, and the “shame-attacking” exercises made famous by Albert Ellis within REBT, precursors of certain more modest “behavioural experiments” used to challenge social anxiety and inhibition in modern CBT. Beck and his colleagues also refer to “anti-shame exercises” and observe that cognitive therapy provides opportunities for clients to deliberately expose themselves to feelings of shame in order to conquer them (Beck, Emery, & Greenberg, 2005, p. 282). Indeed, there are many more parallels which can be drawn between the principles of REBT and those of Stoicism.

This is a brief excerpt from my new book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, published by Karnac and available to order online now. You can also now order The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy from Amazon, where you may preview a sample of the contents online free of charge.

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3 thoughts on “Excerpt: Shame-Attacking Exercises”

  1. I think they actually did get beat up sometimes, yes! The term “shame-attacking” actually comes from modern therapy, where it’s very popular with clients, who often report finding this one of the most powerful techniques in therapy. It’s not difficult to construct the case for the defence as shame-attacking is similar to exposure therapy, probably the single most robustly established mechanism in the whole field of psychotherapy research. You don’t have to set yourself apart from society to do these (modern) exercises: thousands of people are probably doing similar things in cognitive and behavioural therapy every week, around the world.

  2. Did Cynics get beat up a lot?

    I think it is important to remember that back then, followers of philosophic schools lived those philosophies, adopting them as a lifestyle. Contrast this to today, where we all fit a social norm, and the philosophy professor, the insurance salesman, and the engineer cannot be so easily distinguished in a crowd. Philosophers, from all schools, deliberately set themselves apart from society, as a lifestyle. Given that context, I do not know if shame-attacking exercises for the modern adult really apply. We all have to go back to work on Monday, we all have to go to the local shop to buy bread. We are not ancient philosophers, walking around in humble tunics, wearing long beards, supporting ourselves by teaching or begging. We do not wish to conspicuously set ourselves apart from society.

    As a personal note, I spent four years in college doing shame-attacking exercises every weekend, usually after last call. Didn’t seem to do me any good.