Dealing with chronic shame
Dealing with chronic shame
I believe shame is at the heart of many presenting issues clients bring to therapy, whether it be anxiety, depression, trouble at work, or in personal relationships. In this article I define what shame is and how, with supportive therapy, clients can overcome shame on their way to emotional well-being.
What is shame?
The word shame’s origins are in meaning to 'hide' or 'cover up'. Shame is about a debasing or humiliating sense of loss from loving connection, a need to hide for one’s survival. Shame feels intensely lonely and painful, but in fact originates in relational trauma. It can be defined as a diminished sense of self arising from a relationship.
Why do humans feel shame?
Charles Darwin noted that humans are unique among animals in being able to feel shame. He believed it was our species’ way of protecting young children from danger. Whilst other mammals have an innate fear of fire or deep water, humans do not. Thus shame can have a useful function in internalising survival messages and the need to control impulses. It can help us develop a conscience and operate in a social context.
However, shame can go terribly wrong when it attacks the individual on the basis of who they are rather than what they have done. It can be debilitating and hold us back from risking further relationships.
Shame can link strongly to sexuality. As a toddler’s sexuality develops s/he will begin to want to touch, caress, suck and impact another relationally (usually the mother). The way this is received will depend in part on the mother’s value system. If this relational dynamic is curbed (as it must be eventually) it may be communicated to the toddler as something to be ashamed of. The child may interpret this as he or she being the source of shame, or that his or her body is shameful.
How to tackle chronic shame
I believe that, as shame is relational in origin, it needs to be dealt with relationally in a therapeutic setting. An empathic, attuned and caring therapist can be of great benefit in helping clients deal with shame in the therapy room.
Helping clients recognise and identify shame is crucial in getting them to resolve or transform the painful feeling, bringing clients out of hiding and concealment.
Verbalising shame-inducing events and experiences can help reduce the pain of shame, allowing clients to bring more into the logical thought process which helps them to re-evaluate their negative self attributes.
However, drawing attention to shameful experiences can also intensify the impulse to avoid and shut down emotionally. It is often helpful if therapists reflect back and empathise with clients’ discomfort and normalise their desire to hide.
Survivors of abuse are especially prone to shame, feeling somehow responsible for the abuse. Helping survivors to appropriately put the blame back on perpetrators where it belongs and emerge with empowered anger and pride can overcome this.
Difficulties and opportunities in tackling shame
Some directive forms of therapy can be detrimental in working with clients with chronic shame; for instance, it can play into a client’s “there is something wrong with me” script. This can just send clients deeper into hiding.
However, even with a more empathic or relational approach, there can be difficulties. Shame can lead to anger and resentment, and therefore considerable blame and hostility may be expressed during therapy. The important thing to realise is that this is OK - and inevitable. A good therapist is able to tolerate this, and working through these feelings with the client can be tremendously healing.
As clients feel more relaxed in being able to be themselves in a supportive therapeutic relationship, shame lifts and they are more able to be themselves in other relationships in their lives. In turn, this tends to alleviate other presenting issues such as stress, anxiety and depression.
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About Matthew Robinson
Matthew Robinson is a qualified psychotherapeutic counsellor practising in East London. He is currently completing his MSc in Transactional Analysis Psychotherapy at the Metanoia Institute.