Shame, more than any emotion, can be seen as the enemy within. It is for many the forgotten emotion. Indeed, in research for this blog, I was starkly reminded of the little that is written in the literature of the consequences of shame or even what shame is as an emotion.
Freud, for example, concentrated on the subject of guilt rather than shame. 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 and to feel exposed.
“Shame is an internal, excruciating experience of an expected exposure. It is a deep wound felt primarily from the inside. It divides us from ourselves and others.” (Erskine, 1993)
In TA terms, we can see shame as an “internal expression of an intrapsychic conflict between a reactive child ego 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 been 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 wrong with their very being is 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 shame as a message that 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 is facing a total responsibility for the rupture of the relationship from the child and will by definition set up a process where the child will be faced with great internal/external pressure to feel that there is something wrong with them. The alternative voice or even feeling that it could be the parent that it wrong would be so overwhelming, especially as they were dependant on their early survival from the significant other.
This internal belief system, “something is wrong with me”, then becomes the basis of core of their early decisions and their script system. It becomes the base from which the child then builds on in their development. It is based on the myth to which this shamed child has bought into and become evasive throughout their life. Indeed the myth becomes, to the person, as powerful as any existential decisions about themselves. This is how they see and feel themselves. 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 ashamed and so fundamentally believes that the other is how we facilitate the person to realise that something is right with them, not 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 this relationship with the therapist that the person can maybe for the first time feel that they are validated for being themselves. They are normal and there is nothing wrong with them and never has been. It means the therapist attuning with the client, validating even the smallest hurts and anxieties, it means the therapist can somehow get themselves “into the skin of the client”. Most of all it means that the therapist stays alongside the client in a respectful contact-orientated manner.
It may also mean that the therapist actively takes responsibility for any break in therapeutic relationship. Most therapeutic relationship 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 the person who feels existentially evocably shamed is through contact, enquiry, attunement and involvement. The four basic tenants of any relationship contract or therapy. It is through the above with respectfulness that the antidote to shame will be found.