You should be ashamed of yourself.” How many of us have heard — or perhaps even used — that phrase? Being on the receiving end of such a pronouncement is never pleasant. More important, experts firmly believe that attempting to wield shame as an instrument of change is both ineffective and harmful. In fact, many clinicians say that shame is intertwined with an abundance of issues that typically bring clients to counseling. Furthermore, it often stands as a significant barrier to healing.
In her book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), Brené Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” The research professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work believes that shame has become a kind of silent epidemic in society that serves to isolate us and thus damages our sense of connection to others.
Thelma Duffey, the immediate past president of the American Counseling Association, agrees. One of her main initiatives as president focused on issues surrounding bullying and interpersonal violence, both of which can leave people struggling with a deep-seated sense of shame. “I see shame as a deeply painful feeling that people experience when they feel exposed, inadequate or especially vulnerable,” she says. “Unforgiving and powerful, shame can leave many people feeling unworthy and incapable.”
Bullied into shame
The practice of actively shaming others, particularly through bullying behaviors, is all too common in our culture, says Duffey, a practicing licensed professional counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist for more than 25 years.
“Bullying can trigger feelings of shame, leaving people feeling defenseless, embarrassed and confused,” she says. “Some feel such a strong sense of self-consciousness and become so preoccupied with avoiding shame-inducing situations that they withdraw from others, which can lead to an excruciating form of isolation.”
Without the consistent presence of love and support in a person’s life and the provision of a realistic viewpoint from others, there is no counterbalance to shame’s narrative.
“Imagine holding a broken mirror of yourself and believing that the distorted image is what you truly look like,” Duffey says. “Your perception would be off, wouldn’t it? Now imagine you are holding a broken mirror that reflects a distorted image of who you are as a person. If you believe this distortion, it won’t be easy to feel good about yourself or to connect with other people who love you. It will probably lead you to see the world as an unsafe place. In all likelihood, you’ll have to create ways of coping with these images just to survive. Too many times, these coping strategies ultimately keep us from the very connections we desire.”
Duffey says there is an antidote. “I believe that developing a sense of self-compassion is at the core of conquering shame,” she says. “Unfortunately, self-compassion is not always easy to come by, particularly when a person has been mistreated, publicly mocked or hurt, as is generally the case with any bullying situation. In fact, introducing the idea of self-compassion can actually make people wince when they live with feelings of shame, because it sheds light on their self-loathing perceptions.”
Counselors can use a variety of methods to help clients develop self-compassion, but a strong therapeutic bond is the most essential ingredient in that process, says Duffey, who is also a professor and chair of the counseling department at the University of Texas at San Antonio. One of the interventions she uses is Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT).
“EFT has been described as a type of psychological acupressure that can help unblock distressing situations,” Duffey says. “The idea is to restore balance to the body’s energy field to move negative emotions that can keep us stuck. I also see it as a way for people to center themselves when they are in their uncomfortable emotions and to connect with themselves in a more soothing way.”
Duffey says that EFT in its traditional form has a sequence that involves identifying the problem — for example, shame — and then having clients ask themselves how they feel about the problem right now. Clients then rate the level of intensity of the problem, with 10 being most intense and zero being least intense. Next, the counselor and client come up with a “setup” statement that acknowledges the problem and follow that with an affirmation. Clients then repeat the statement and affirmation while performing a kind of “psychological acupuncture” that involves taking their hands and tapping five to seven times on the body’s “meridian” or energy points.
“A person experiencing shame and with memories of bullying might say something like, ‘Even though it is not always easy for me to see my own value, I deeply and completely love and accept myself,’” she says. “Or, ‘Even though I can still remember the horror of being made fun of, excluded and shunned, I can be on my own side now. And I am not alone. In fact, I am working on loving and accepting myself.’”
Once a person connects with the problem and the idea of loving, self-compassionate affirmations, he or she can use those affirmations to process all sorts of experiences, Duffey says. “The idea, of course, is not about thinking positively or practicing self-delusion,” she notes. “Rather, it is about really being honest about what hurts and confronting these feelings, [and then] offering affirmative statements of hope and compassion while tapping into the body’s energy using acupressure points.”
Duffey recommends the website thetappingsolution.com for those who would like to learn more about EFT.
The trauma-shame connection
At the ACA 2017 Conference & Expo in San Francisco this past March, licensed mental health counselor Thom Field presented “For Shame! The Neglected Emotion in PTSD.” In the session, he explained that shame is a significant component of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), particularly in cases of interpersonal trauma, such as child abuse and intimate partner violence.
Because PTSD’s most common symptoms — hypervigilance, nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive memories and physiological hyperarousal — are all related to fear of external danger, experts in the trauma field have traditionally focused on fear as the primary emotion in PTSD, noted Field, a member of ACA. Using this assumption, therapy techniques for PTSD have focused on methods such as exposure therapy, he said. In exposure therapy, clients are asked to revisit the trauma multiple times because repetition has been shown to help lessen the physical and emotional effect of these memories.
However, new research suggests that trauma survivors often also fear being rejected and exposed as weak. This fear engenders a sense of shame, said Field, an associate professor and associate program director of the counseling master’s program at the City University of Seattle. He explained that the shame is fueled by a persistent negative self-appraisal in which clients who have experienced interpersonal trauma often berate themselves with statements such as “I am weak — an easy target”; “Something is wrong with me if I can’t prevent these things from happening”; or “Why didn’t I do something?” Trauma survivors often feel inadequate, inferior or powerless to affect their own environments, he added.
Field believes that counselors must understand the role of shame to help many of these individuals who are living with PTSD. “Shame is an emotion that arises when a person feels inadequate or corrupted by an irredeemable act or a contaminating event,” Field explained. “The person feels undesirable and unattractive and fears the perceived judgment of others.”
It is also important for counselors to differentiate shame from guilt, Field noted. He defined guilt as regret for a specific action that is bound to external circumstances. It is a feeling connected to what one has done rather than — in the case of shame — what one is, Field emphasized. Whereas guilt can motivate prosocial actions such as reparation, shame usually motivates self-protective actions such as withdrawal or lying to protect secrets, he pointed out.
Among the factors that increase feelings of shame in those who are experiencing PTSD or interpersonal trauma are the attribution of responsibility (such as the perception that having HIV or AIDS is that person’s “fault”); the level of visibility and an inability to “hide” (because of circumstances such as physical disability or disfigurement); and being marginalized, Field said.
Feelings of shame may prevent some people with PTSD from seeking counseling, and even those who do seek counseling may deny the presence or impact of trauma if a counselor asks them about it directly, Field said. Harboring a sense of shame may also make it difficult for clients to trust others, he added, so counselors must take care to proceed slowly and focus on developing the therapeutic alliance. These clients need to be made to feel safe enough to reveal their secrets and process their fear of rejection, humiliation and judgment by others, he emphasized.
An important step in the process is for counselors to facilitate client autonomy with what Field termed “pre-questions.” For instance, a counselor might say, “It seems like it might be helpful to revisit this event. How ready are you to face that?”
“If you dive in [yourself as the counselor], it feels [to the client] like it’s not voluntary,” Field explained. When counselors press the processing of shame before clients are ready, it can cause clients to, in essence, feel shame about their shame.
Counselors should also let clients know what to expect when they decide to share their trauma. For instance, Field said, “The client is going to feel physiological symptoms.”
Through client mirroring and active listening, counselors can help establish a sort of holding container for these clients’ emotions. This takes away the pressure of having to “do” anything with those emotions, allowing clients to feel safe simply “sitting” with their feelings until they are completely ready to process them, Field explained.
Like Duffey, Field thinks that self-compassion is essential to overcoming shame. The ultimate goal is to teach clients to accept their current and past experiences without self-judgment, he said. Field recommended that counselors use some of the exercises developed by psychologist and self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff. These include having clients imagine how they would treat a friend who was in the same circumstance, writing letters to themselves from a place of compassion, changing critical self-talk through reframing, keeping a self-compassion journal and practicing loving-kindness meditation.
The lasting shame of abuse
For clients who were sexually abused as children, the sense of shame is almost primal, says ACA member David Lawson, who has worked with trauma victims for more than 25 years. Time after time, women in their 30s and 40s have sat in Lawson’s office and insisted that it was somehow their fault that they were sexually abused as children.
“They say, ‘There must be something wrong with me.’ ‘I’m bad.’ ‘I’m contaminated,’” says Lawson, a counseling professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas who has conducted extensive research on trauma. “I’ve even had several people say, ‘I must be evil in some way for this to happen to me.’”
When parents are the perpetrators of sexual abuse, the abuse survivors’ sense of shame is particularly strong, Lawson says, because humans are wired to seek attachment with parental and other caregiving figures. To maintain this attachment, child victims must rationalize the abuse. As a result, these children often tell themselves that they are bad rather than accepting that the parent is not good, Lawson explains.
Another factor that contributes to these children’s feelings of shame is the perceived “benefits” they received from their abusers, Lawson says. He recounts the story of a female client in her 20s.
“She was abused from the ages of 5 to 16 by her father [until] her mother finally left the father. Years later she came into therapy, and I said, ‘Tell me about some of the best times in your life.’ She said that they were with her father: ‘At times I felt like I was my father’s girlfriend.’ There were benefits for her. He would buy her things and take her places, which he did not do with her siblings. Then, at night, the abuse would happen.”
The woman went on to confide to Lawson that the worst times in her life were also with her father. “He would tell her, ‘No one else will love you. You are worthless. No one will have you but me,’” Lawson says.
Abusers often use this technique, aware that if their victims feel there is nowhere else they can go and be accepted, there is a greater chance they will stay in the only place they seem welcome. This “acceptance” increases victims’ sense of connection to their abusers, Lawson says.
These patterns are distinct and specific to what Lawson calls the “trauma subculture.” The behaviors and beliefs of survivors of sexual trauma are so antithetical to most people’s expectations that outsiders — including many counselors — often find their reactions difficult to understand, he says.
“One of the hardest things for my students to get over is the way that [sexual trauma survivors] look at the world and the way they think about themselves,” Lawson says. “We just want to run over and hug them, but that just ramps up their shame because they don’t believe that they’re worthy.”
Early in his career, Lawson learned how premature sympathy and acceptance could backfire. He told a client that the abuse the client had suffered was not his fault, and the client got quite angry with Lawson, rejecting his help because he genuinely thought that Lawson didn’t know what he was doing.
What Lawson learned with that experience is that in immediately trying to correct clients’ beliefs about their abuse, counselors threaten to take away a major part of the identities that clients constructed as a way to survive. Today, Lawson urges counselors to move slowly with these clients and first work toward establishing a strong therapeutic bond.
“It may take many sessions just for them to feel comfortable,” he says. “These people don’t trust anyone, so to think that they’re going to trust in a few sessions is naïve and counterproductive.”
Start by accepting these clients where they are and reflecting on the dilemma they are facing, Lawson advises. “On the one hand, they feel an enormous amount of allegiance. On the other hand, they have strong feelings of hate,” he explains.
After counselors have established a relationship, they can introduce the idea of talking about the client’s experience. A counselor could say, “Talk to me about your relationship with your father and how you came to the conclusion that you’re not worthy of anyone else’s love,” Lawson suggests. He adds that counselors must give clients time to reflect and reconstruct how they came to their conclusions about self-worth.
Lawson says that once he asks those kinds of questions and lets clients unpack and narrate their experiences at their own pace, they are usually able to begin seeing how their erroneous, negative self-beliefs were shaped by what happened to them. He cautions, however, that intellectual understanding is not the same as emotional acceptance, which can take additional time. Lawson notes that some experts view this kind of shame as an annihilation of self. Survivors may feel that there is no part of themselves that is worth forgiving, he explains.
In the process of helping clients see themselves as redeemable, fully acknowledge the abuse that happened to them and grieve what was lost, counselors should be supportive, but they must also modulate their affirmation to a level that the client can handle, Lawson cautions. “If we’re too warm and nurturing, the client takes that and rejects it and sees us as incompetent because we don’t understand,” he says.
For that matter, trauma (and shame) may not be the stated concern that brings survivors of sexual abuse into counseling in the first place. Instead, the presenting issue may be depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties or something else, Lawson says. “I deal with whatever they present with and try to help them get some relief from those things,” he says.
But along the way, Lawson introduces the idea of addressing and processing the trauma with clients. He may approach it in a very general way at first, perhaps by asking clients to talk about the trauma as if it happened to someone else.
Lawson may also use a “lifetime line.” He starts by asking clients to pick a year of their lives and talk about everything they can remember about it — good and bad. By doing this, clients are not only processing trauma, but also remembering that there were positive events in their lives too, he says. Lawson also has clients write down all the positive memories to help remind them, as they construct their life narrative, that the abuse does not encompass their entire life.
Lawson says he finds narratives, either written or spoken, vital in treating clients’ shame. By showing compassion for their narratives, counselors can help clients start to feel compassion for themselves, he says.
Gray Otis, a licensed clinical mental health counselor in Cedar Hills, Utah, believes that shame is typically a component in traditional mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. In fact, he says, shame likely underlies most issues for which clients come to counseling.
“Typically, the individuals who come for treatment have strongly held negative core beliefs about themselves,” says Otis, who has extensive postgraduate training in trauma treatment. These negative core beliefs are not just about behavior, he adds, but actually inform people’s sense of who they are.
Otis, whose counseling approach is centered on positive behavioral health, thinks that these beliefs stem from incidents that evoke a sense of shame in the person. Such events typically take place in childhood or adolescence, but adults can experience them too. These incidents may or may not be described as “traumatic.” Negative core beliefs can be caused by an accumulation of painful events, such as consistently being criticized as a child or going through a divorce. The resulting beliefs can take many forms, Otis says, but they generally revolve around reinforced themes — for instance, a person growing to believe that he or she is stupid, unworthy, undeserving and unlovable.
Otis believes the key to addressing clients’ mental health issues is uncovering and dispelling their shame-based negative core beliefs. The difficulty counselors may face in unraveling a client’s core beliefs will vary depending on the person and the complexity of his or her presenting issues. However, Otis says he finds it relatively straightforward to uncover many of these beliefs. When he asks clients to identify some of the things they believe about themselves that are not positive — Otis directs them to use “I am” statements — they can usually identify five or more negative beliefs, he says.
What is particularly potent about the beliefs underlying these “I am” statements is that people tend to perceive them as being inherent, unchangeable personal traits, Otis says. Many of these core beliefs are subconscious, he adds. By helping clients bring them to the surface and recognize that they are beliefs, not traits, counselors can assist clients in replacing negative beliefs with positive core beliefs.
Otis does this by having clients explore the origins of one of their negative beliefs, asking them when they started believing this internalized truth about themselves and what happened that contributed to that belief. Otis then asks clients to focus on one of their most distressful experiences and “freeze” it, as if it were a photograph. He then urges them to describe the emotional sense of the experience, identify their degree of distress and state the shame-based negative core belief (such as “I am never good enough”).
The next step is for clients to specify the positive core belief they desire. Otis then helps them identify life events that reinforce the new, positive core belief. He asks clients to remind themselves of these reinforcing events daily as a way to continue strengthening their positive belief. Next, Otis has clients revisit the experience that engendered the negative belief, and he talks with them about how the event was misinterpreted.
Otis says he also uses methods such as sand tray therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, and cognitive behavior therapy not only to help clients develop more positive beliefs but also to become more resilient. He emphasizes, however, that the most important factor when working with shame-based negative core beliefs is a strong therapeutic alliance.
Ultimately, he says, helping clients rid themselves of persistent shame is what opens the door to healing.
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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