Shame and psychotherapy


shame-undermines-your-self-esteemIn my years as a therapist, I have been paying growing attention to shame in working with my clients, and I must confess that attending to this feeling is quintessential to the practice of psychotherapy. Other than that, I had several other exciting revelations.

Shame eats away at self-esteem

People, either from principle or training, will tend to attend to a huge catalogue of emotions; from anger, sexuality and fear to sadness and excitement, but rarely, if ever, that deep-in-the-gut feeling of shame. In the ‘real’ world, people will devise ways of avoiding shame rather than facing it. As a matter of fact, most of us will feel shame about feeling shame. For this exact reason, most of us hardly ever acknowledge the feeling of shame to others, or even to ourselves. But as with any other emotion, denying shame will only create an emotional ‘wormhole’ that will cause even more havoc and pain in the future. When this happens, my friend, you can be certain that it will weigh heavily on your self-esteem.

But what exactly is shame?

To have a clearer picture of how much power shame holds over you and your self-esteem, it is essential to take apart the feeling of shame. What is shame? What does it entail? Who is vulnerable? Shame may be equated to the feeling of being unwanted, unlovable, worthless, or unredeemable. A victim of shame will often get the feeling of being  isolated cut-off from the rest of humanity. Unfortunately, shame is more often than not an unbearable feeling that evokes other painful and unwanted feelings such as rage at oneself or the person causing shame, or terror that is often abandoned, overwhelmed and/or fragmented with despair. Plus, shame will attack and take down anyone.

Feelings of mortification or humiliation – also classified as feelings of shame, may also cause unwanted reactions such as violence or even suicide. To quote the wise words of Silvan Tomkins from Nathanson, 1992:

“If distress is the affect of suffering, shame is the affect of indignity, transgression and of alienation. Though terror speaks to life and death and distress makes of the world a vale of tears, yet shame strikes deepest into the heart of man… shame is felt as inner torment, a sickness of the soul… the humiliated one feels himself naked, defeated, alienated, lacking in dignity and worth.”

Helen B. Lewis also voiced her views on the issue of shame, and its importance to psychotherapy. She argued that shame is no a standalone emotion, but a representation of an entire family of emotions. In the said family of emotions, you will find feelings of low self-esteem, stigmatisation, belittlement, embarrassment, and humiliation. Well, shame is the bitter concoction of unfortunate experiences of being alienated, unworthy, intimidated, rejected, powerless, shy, insecure, weak, stupid, rebuffed, dumped, hurt, exposed and ineffectual among other such like experiences.

How to identify shame

We all are privy to the lengths people will go to hide their emotions. It is normal and quite healthy to react in this way; it is natural way of protecting the psychic, so no need for alarm. Shame is, however, one powerful feeling that manifests itself in a myriad of physical forms.

Even without knowing it, victims of shame may blush, lower their gaze, break eye contact, and hide their eyes, fidget, put on a forced (fake) smile or bite the tongue or lips. Shame may also manifest itself in the form of exaggeration, defensiveness, annoyance, irritability, and of course, denial.

The feeling of shame will at many times incapacitate the victim’s ability to think. As a result, and as I have observed, the victim may experience complete blankness of mind, loss of words or utter confusion.

Sources of shame

Shame is nothing more than that deep-rooted critical voice from within, which judges whatever we do as inferior, worthless, unnecessary, unwanted or plainly wrong. In most cases, this inner voice is an exact repetition of something said by peers, parents, relatives or teachers; generally people who matter in your life. We may have been sent to Coventry by peers at school, treated with contempt by parents and relatives, or humiliated before other students by teachers. Someone may have strongly implied that you were selfish, stupid, naughty, ugly, rude, proud, etc.

Paradoxically, other people can cause us shame by evoking criticism and feelings of inferiority when our performance falls short of their high expectations.

Moreover, the feeling of shame can be attributed to the expression of certain emotions. In many cultures, expressions of such feelings such as fear, vulnerability, sadness or anger, are met with shaming reproaches such as “Be a man”, “Don’t be such a cry baby” etc. With time, such shaming admonitions are internalized by the victims, such that when they get these ‘shameful emotions’, they automatically experience shame, and attempt to mask or control the feeling, or, at the very least, try to apologize copiously for them.

At the end of the day, these shaming and critical inner voices do a lot of damage to our self-esteem. This self criticizing, that we’re selfish, show-offs, stupid, proud, etc, become how we see ourselves. It might become impossible for the victim to do anything right, telling themselves that they’re rude, selfish, aggressive consequently allowing people to walk all over you.

Remedies for shame

Psychotherapy gives the therapist a safe platform to reach through to the victim, in turn, giving him/her the chance of dealing and rising above the feeling of shame. By talking to a counsellor or psychotherapist, you are able to talk about the things that shame you without the fear of facing rejection or criticism. Psychotherapist will use approaches such as person centred therapy, psychodynamic, existentialism and phenomenology to create a comfortable and friendly counselling setting where you get to discuss and arrive at solutions through understanding, guidance and relevant care. Psychotherapist’s office setting does not create room for the therapist to turn on you by being critical, judgmental or vindictive. You get to share shameful memories in a light manner, often with light banter consequently giving you the necessary help.

Counselling and Psychotherpy in London

If you think you would find a number of therapy session useful,  I am a fully qualified, Accredited and Registered therapist offering Counselling in Waterloo SE1 and Counselling in Kennington SE11 and Lambeth and Waterloo (SE1). Feel free to send me an enquiry to schedule an introductory counselling session in Waterloo, Kennington or Lambeth. You can also use the contact form to ask me any question. I always aim to reply by email within 24 hours from initial enquiry.

Images on Creative Commons licence courtesy of SashaW.

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