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Shame in Counselling and Therapy

Shame in Counselling and Therapy

Shame so disturbs the functioning of the self to the extent that there is the wish to no longer exist. On the other hand shame can subtly intrude on many events in the lives of a many people. In my view few people have never experienced shame and the issue is often very poorly or never dealt with in the therapy situations.

Mild shame arises when feelings of deep embarrassment occur, when we feel reddening of the face, reluctance to maintain eye contact and wish to withdraw. This can happen within work or social settings or indeed almost anywhere. Acute shame is experienced as not wishing to exist, hiding away or wanting the ground to swallow up the individual in order to avoid these feelings. The feeling of being exposed opens the self to external and internal scrutiny that at this time has to be avoided. This self consciousness becomes paralyzing and silencing. Lee (1994) has outlined a list of shame variants: shyness, embarrassment, chagrin, humiliation, low self-esteem, feeling ridiculous, sheepishness, discomfort, disconcertedness, abasement, disgrace, ignominy, dishonour, mortification, degradation, self consciousness, discouragement, guilt, and more. He goes further writing that ‘any situation in which a person’s feelings, desires, or ways of being in the world are not noticed, validated, or responded to respectfully has the potential for engendering shame’. Shame is ubiquitous to say the least.

Jacobs (1995) has highlighted what she terms as ‘Shame Anxiety’. Here an individual approaches contact with expectations that shame will be the result. These anxieties will have a debilitating affect or effect on that encounter and may well result in the loss or reduced effectiveness of the contact moment. These moments may well occur in the therapeutic situation. The therapist may well shame the client who could well be in a vulnerable position by admitting to need therapy. Further the therapist may well be concerned about being shamed themselves. The need for the therapist to understand their own feelings around shame have to be acknowledged and worked through to avoid detrimentally influencing the therapeutic relationship. It may well be easy for a therapist to blame the other for things that go wrong within the relationship to avoid these feelings.

Because of the way I was brought up within my family I could easily feel a deep sense of shame. I was unlovable, unworthy, incapable and bad. All instilled over a long period of upbringing, starting when I was very young. These feelings I could also hide very well, first with the refusal to admit that I was experiencing shame and then with the skill of being able to hide it from others. The reasons being that it is shameful to admit to being ashamed. Imagine the feelings to being exposed by peers in the play ground to being ashamed. This experiencing being very much the double bind situation.

As I have outline above, my experiences fit well with theories of how feelings of shame attack the very fabric of our sense of self (Wheeler 1995) and how this sense is what can be summed up as very low self esteem. I will not say more here  but I acknowledge and agree. Subsequently, because the self is the medium of contact shame is considered a relational problem in that the experience happens in relation with another or more than one other. The importance of this for the Gestalt model will become apparent later.

The above gives an overview of what shame is. I should at this point briefly outline what I see as the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is the experience of having hurt or injured someone, or done wrong with also the fear of being found out or punished. Often talking about the event or owning the part played, leads to a releasing of the guilt and even a dedication not to repeat the event. If the guilt is interjected and exaggerated then this could lead to a sense of shame that then becomes more of a feeling of an attack upon the self.

Now we can look at how therapy can help those suffering with feelings of shame. The Gestalt method holds the dialogical relationship in high regard. With this methodology the relationship between the therapist and client is viewed with significant importance. The relationship is one of equality to the extent that it can be in therapy and can be examined in the moment and as a developing process. The looking at and emphasis on the relationship is carried out in a gentle inclusive manner; what is happening in the between, what are the feelings and experiences in the contact moment. Attention is directed to the shame as it occurs in the moments of therapeutic dialogue, and not with the expressed wish of going looking for shame. The therapist needs to practice inclusion and presence bringing themselves into the world and being of the client. Further, problems in the relationship could be examined from both sides and not with the view that it is always the responsibility of the client.

Support for the clients internal process and external foundations will be highlighted. The environment outside of therapy and history (Field Theory), of the client could be viewed for contributory factors to the feelings of shame. If apparent these factors then have an opportunity to be dealt with and also changed or avoided. The propensities to hide and to feel shame are factors that should not be lost when working with shame. Not forgetting that the very process of therapy could be shameful and taking new awareness out into the world could again result in being shamed. Difficult questions will need to be asked; can the field/environment be changed or different interactions be found to support the new awareness and methods of interaction that the client is attempting to initiate.

This process of therapy can be long, slow and needs to be very sensitive. I remember in a therapy situation smiling when I was told by a client of an encounter. This smile of mine was experienced as shameful by the client and took a while to repair. The client will need to experience being seen and regarded as human in the moment of contact, counter to the usual experience of wanting to avoid being seen. The client will need to experience validations, respect and a sense of being worthy of the encounter. Polar opposite to the shame potential outlined by Lee above.

The therapist’s ability to being sensitive to even the subtle moments of shaming is important. The therapist will need to look at and acknowledge their own defences and openness to themselves being shamed. All aspects of the therapeutic encounter will need examination and stringent attempts made to recognise what is taking place. The client will need new ways to experiencing contact and seek approval for feelings, desires and needs. These will be required in order to give the client a new sense of themselves. In turn the client will hopefully begin to trust in the encounter, feeling a degree of boldness in order to bring new initiatives and try new ways of being, all based on the trust felt in the relationship. A trust in that no matter what the nature of the contact, the relationship will survive and the therapist will still be there.  The feelings of ‘I am unfit for human company’ will hopefully be transformed into a self-perception of an individual who is worthy of being met and seen, and of one who can experience the feelings of freedom resulting from such an experience.