While it is not unusual for people to enter into psychotherapy knowing they wish to understand their experience of, for example, anxiety or depression, it is less common for them to identify shame as something they wish to explore, even when their lives have been significantly and unhelpfully impacted by it. For me, this suggests something of the deep-rooted, underlying nature of shame, which can lie close to the heart of our relationship with self.
Shame has been variously described as, “an enemy of well-being” (DeYoung, 2015) and “the dark mirror within” (Gilbert, 2011), capable of reflecting back to ourselves feelings of anger, disgust, loathing or self-hatred. Common ‘hooks’ for shame-based feelings include: appearance, weight, intelligence; personal histories; our sense of purpose or perception of achievement; sexual and/or hunger drives; interpersonal needs; our internal emotional and cognitive worlds.
A person who is shame-prone may hold a perception of themselves as any of defective, inadequate, not enough, helpless or hopeless. Powerful core-beliefs may underlie such perceptions, including “I am unlovable”, “There is something wrong with me”, “I am bad”. It isn’t hard to imagine how such perceptions and beliefs cause suffering, create difficulties in relationships and/or undermine our capacity to realise our potential. Indicators of shame include low self-esteem, having a powerful inner-critic and a tendency to be anxious or insecure in relationships.
Early shaming environments may have lacked relational attunement, or been any of neglectful, abusive or abandoning. In such environments we may have developed strategies to defend ourselves against shame-based feelings, which otherwise would have been overwhelming to our early, developing selves. Strategies originally created to help us survive and defend against shame will potentially continue to play themselves out unhelpfully in our adult lives. Indicators that we are managing or defending against shame-based feelings include: a tendency to quickly anger if/when we feel criticised; a capacity to feel envious of, or easily threatened by others; a tendency to avoid, blame or withdraw from others; a capacity to be hubristic or grandiose. The presence of internal shame may also be indicated by addiction, perfectionism or a potential to dissociate as we manage the tension arising in the gap between our ‘real’ and ‘ideal’ selves.
We can see how tendencies, born out of an original need to protect the self, might no longer serve us in adult life and relationships. It has been said that one thing chronically shamed people have in common is a feeling of profound loneliness. Judith Jordan (1997) powerfully captures this painful truth when she writes, “…shame is most importantly a felt sense of unworthiness to be in connection, a deep sense of unlovability, with the ongoing awareness of how very much one wants to connect with others”
Shame-based wounds were originally established in relationship, and so it follows their healing can best be supported in relationship with another. Based upon my experience, and with reference to contemporary shame theory (Brown, 2007; Gilbert, 2011; DeYoung, 2015; Sieff 2015), there are a number of what might be called ‘antidotes to shame’, which can be found and/or co-created within a good therapeutic alliance, and have a potential to support a process of ‘de-shaming’. Antidotes include: the attuned presence of another, who can offer empathic listening, curiosity and compassion; making authentic connection with ourselves and with other, supported by our capacity for mindfulness, self-compassion and self-expression; critical awareness, which can support increased consciousness and the cultivation of shame-resilience.
By cultivating our capacity to be mindful and compassionate towards self, within an attuned, empathic and compassionate relationship, we are supported to come into a more authentic relationship with ourselves - including our feelings, needs, internal conflicts, vulnerabilities and inherent health - and with others - by connecting with and sharing our emotions, negotiating relational needs, and lowering our relational defences (De Young, 2015). A good psychotherapeutic relationship can provide the antithesis of a shaming relationship, where empathic curiosity offers a safety in which we may become more self-aware, open and less defended, where attunement supports us to connect with our relational needs, and where compassion and acceptance supports our discovery of a greater spaciousness and equanimity around all that shames us.
At the heart of Core Process Psychotherapy there lies an inherently healthy and de-shaming intention: to deepen into experience rather than seeking to change it. By holding this intention mindfully, and bringing an attitude of curiosity and openness to all that arises within ourselves and in relationship, we are already embarking upon a process of disentangling from shame-based beliefs, which might then allow us to come into a gentler and more spacious way of being.
REFERENCES – FURTHER READING
Brown B. (2007) I thought it was just me (but it isn't): Telling the truth about perfectionism, inadequacy, and power, Penguin Group: New York.
De Young, P. (2015) Understanding and treating chronic shame: A relational / neurobiological approach, Routledge: London.
Gilbert, (2011) The role of compassion focussed therapy, in Dearing, R. L. and Tangney, J.P. (Eds.) Shame in the therapy hour, American Psychological Association: Washington, DC.
Jordan (1997) Relational development: Therapeutic implications of empathy and shame, in Jordan, J. (Ed.) Women’s growth in diversity: More writings from the stone center, pp.138-161, Guilford Press: New York.
Sieff (2015) Understanding and healing emotional trauma, Routledge: London.