Shame – The Forgotten Emotion

Shame, more than any other emotion, can be seen as the enemy within.  It is for many the forgotten emotion.  Indeed in research for this article, I was starkly reminded of the of the little that is written in the literature on the consequences of shame or even what shame is as an emotion.  Freud, for example, concentrated on the subject of guilt rather than shame and from my own discipline it is only in recent times that Transactional Analysts have written on shame in any real depth.  In some ways this is a strange phenomena, that so little has been written on the subject.

Perhaps though, the major reason for the ignoring of shame in this sense is that most often a person’s response to shame is to hide and withdraw, to retreat and remain isolated.  The last thing a shamed person wants to do is to open up and be ‘seen’ by people.

“Shame is an internal, excruciating experience of unexpected exposure, it is a deep would felt primarily from the inside, it divides us from ourselves and others” (Erskine 1993)

Or, in T.A. terms we can see shame as an: “internal expression of an interpsychic conflict between a reactive child ago state and an influencing parent ego state”.  (Erskine 1993)

Shame is the consequence of a rupture in early relationships, it is one of the most painful of emotions and for most people who feel shame, they want so desperately to ‘not be seen’, to many it is the very focus of attention that is so crippling for them in their everyday lives.  Indeed the moment attention is solely focused on them, they fight so desperately to withdraw and will do ‘anything’ to not feel the feelings that are around by ‘being seen’.  The defences to the above may include freezing, trying to be perfect, intellectualising, smiling or creating another self to deal with the world.

The major script belief for dealing with shame is “something is wrong with me”.  This decision that something is basically wrong with their very being was made by the person early in their life in response to being traumatised by the ‘other’ in the significant relationship.  It is the internalisation of the ‘shamer’s’ message “something is wrong with you” which is changed significantly by the shamed person/child to “something is wrong with me”.  This process usually begins early in childhood and it may take the shamed child numerous traumatic experiences before the “something is wrong with you” message becomes the “something is wrong with me” decision.

The parent in this process, by placing the total responsibility for the rupture of the relationship on the child, will by definition set up a process where the child will be faced with great internal/external pressure to decide that there is something wrong with them.  The alternative to voice or even feel that it could be the parent that was wrong would be so overwhelming, especially as they were dependant on their early survival from the significant other.

This internal early belief system “something is wrong with me” then becomes the basis or core of the script system.  It becomes the base from which the child then builds on in their development.  It is based on the myth to which the shamed child has bought into and becomes pervasive throughout their life.  Indeed the myth becomes, for the person, as powerful as any existential decisions about themselves.  This is how they see and feel themselves to be, this is what they are and how they exist.  They fundamentally believe that: “something is wrong with me”.

The question then, for any therapist/counsellor in dealing with a person who feels so shamed and so fundamentally believes the above, is how we facilitate the person to realise that something is right with them, not essentially wrong, and how we do this in a way that is not reinforcing the shame or replicating the early ruptured relationship?

The answer lies in the relationship between the therapist and the client, it is through this relationship that the person can tell their story. It is through the relationship with the therapist that the person can, maybe for the first time, feel that they are validated for being them – that they are normal and that there is not anything wrong with them and never has been. It means the therapist attuning with the client, validating even their smallest hurts and anxieties, it means for the therapist to somehow get themselves ‘into the skin of the client’.  Most of all it means that the therapist stays alongside the clients in a respectful contact oriented manner.

It may also mean that the therapist actively takes the responsibility for any break in the therapeutic relationship.  Most therapeutic breaks occur when the therapist fails to attune to the client’s affective or non-verbal communication.  Thus it may be necessary for the therapist to take full responsibility for not understanding the client’s phenomenological experiences, for not validating or valuing the person in front of them.

The methodology then for therapy with a person who feels existentially and irrevocably shamed is through Contact, Inquiry, Attunement and Involvement, the four basic tenets of any relationship contact oriented therapy.  It is through the above, with respectfulness, that the antidote to shame will be found.

Bob Cooke

Bob Cooke

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Bob Cooke is Psychotherapist, Trainer, Consultant and Supervisor with an international reputation.  In 1987 he founded the Manchester Institute for Psychotherapy (to the present day), of which he is the director. He is also responsible for the Institute’s training programme and oversees trainees from first year to full clinical membership of the UKCP.

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