We all carry shame from our childhood and it’s not the easiest thing to face. As we acquire it early in our life through interaction with parents and the environment around us, it affects us greatly at a key developmental stage where exploration and pushing boundaries is age appropriate. To curtail that boisterousness, we are often subjected to shame based parenting and we subdue the parts of us that our parents find difficult to handle and they stay hidden.
What we do to cope with this is to produce shame screens in order not to face the most pervasive of emotions. An emotion that goes to the very core of our existence and overwhelms us. Most issues that we suffer from in adult life (codependency, narcissism, anxiety, procrastination, depression, among others) can be said to have shame at the base of their formation and sustainability.
To be able to deal effectively with the effects of shame, we need to bring it into the open and face it. This is difficult for us to do because this usually re-invokes shame as we are trying to deal with shame. Hence, the elaborate methods we come up with to keep it out of our conscious awareness. Shame is often skipped over in therapy and not truly dealt with in an effective manner. However, a therapeutic space is a wonderful environment for accepting and tolerating shame and its effects and and balancing this with positive aspects of the self and healthy pride in achievements and competency. The key to dealing with shame is to understand its origins bring it into conscious awareness and apply effective methods to reframe and reapportion negative experiences around shame. Here are the key elements of dealing with shame:
Education by therapist: Clients in therapy do not often link shame with their issues. One reason is that, as stated, we do our best to hide it. Secondly, as also stated, its effects are mostly out of conscious awareness. This often calls for some teaching about how shame is acquired, how it affects our thinking and behaviour and crucially, the difference between short-lived healthy shame, seen as an internal conscious and toxic shame that is deep set and avoided. This will only be accepted, of course, if the therapeutic relationship is in the right place.
Shame Awareness: This means bringing layers of shame that are implicit to the surface in order to identify shame triggers, shame screens and shame scripts of behaviour. This can be done in a number of ways but best is always, what is comfortable for the client. There are various scales and tools available but these would need to be consolidated with a caring, compassionate approach from the therapist. Alternatively, a client could be asked to keep a shame inventory to document how they felt about a certain experience and how they feel now. This will help to identify the impact of shame.
Bringing Shame To The Conscious Mind: Many people are not aware of shame because it is right-brain focussed and not easily accessible to left-brain cognitive and language processing. This clearly, makes it difficult to recognise and talk about. One powerful exercise is through visual imagery and free association of thoughts and feelings. Using an image of protective shame ( a child huddled in the corner with hands over face), clients can be encouraged to talk about physical sensations, memories and feelings that are elicited. Additionally, clients can be encouraged to talk about where they feel shame in the body. This helps to identify shame through sensory channels.
Releasing Shame: Shame can be released by bringing it back into the conscious awareness and unmasking it by breaking the silence and secrecy that shame thrives on. Clients will need to gain self-assurance and feel comfortable talking openly about shame. Talking about the effects of shame is an essential part of the process. This can be openly moved on to reframing shameful events and reapportioning shame, (understanding that others criticised, abused and fail to note the difference between action and child)
Self-compassion And Healthy Pride: Being compassionate with self can happen when shame has come to the surface and is dealt with. Once we realise that shame acquired was shame from someone else (who was also likely shamed), we can have a more realistic view of ourselves and relinquish core beliefs and irrational thinking. This leads to the “real” person emerging who can take healthy pride in achievements and competencies. Part of this process is to remind ourselves that we are human, have flaws but we can accept ourselves anyway. The promotion of healthy pride is one that should ideally work parallel to working with shame. An effective way of doing this is to journal on strengths, achievements and sources of pride.