Working with Shame in Therapy

Shame is a problem in itself

Shame is both complex and very painful.  Clients never walk in and say ‘ I have a problem with shame’, yet many do.  The fact is, we all move away from our shame because of the awful feelings generated by it.  This makes it an elusive problem to deal with.   I decided to write a bit on this topic because many other problems manifest through shame.  I will highlight only a few of these issues.  One, in particular, is, ‘acting out’ (covered further below).

Before I start I should say I have been deeply influenced recently by the work of Dr. Patricia Deyoung and her work ‘Understanding and treating Chronic Shame’.  Her work makes a lot of sense to me since her ideas tie into relational psychology, emotion-focused therapy, self-psychology and interpersonal neurobiology (all fields that I am interested and involved in). A problem that may relate to shame? Contact me.


Many ideas

In the therapy world there exist many forms of understanding relating to shame.  If for example, we look at how we connected to others in childhood, we may find we had difficulties in relationships with our caregivers.  It’s well known by therapists that very young children internalise other peoples problems and environmental situations as their own.  If the caregiver is in turmoil the sense becomes ‘it’s because of me’.  This creates a sense of  ‘there must be something wrong with me’.  Shame then enters the picture.

So shame will be present in what is termed ‘attachment injury‘ or ‘attachment trauma’.  Since research suggests 50% of the population are insecurely attached, I could safely wager that a very large number of people carry some form of shameful feelings.  Before we go too far I should highlight that a little shame is ok, it has a function that can help us.


Chronic Shame

Chronic shame occurs because of repeatedly being made to feel ashamed (implicitly or explicitly), the shame can then become a problem since its roots are in the past and are not teaching us anything about the present moment.  How we feel about ourselves becomes problematic.  This leads to behavioural problems (acting out).  Because we are relational beings, to be disconnected from others is painful.  In the disconnection, we cannot be understood.  This leads to a sense of self that has failed.  In our isolation and shame, we feel more like an object than a person.  Lastly, abuse comes in many guises and shame often is part of the picture.


Acting out

Acting out can take many forms.  The issue, however, is most commonly found to be, shame.  I often see this during couples therapy (note, it’s not just couples therapy). There is actually a model that highlights the shame/acting out cycle. It goes around in a circle through the following sequence:

  • Something about me is wrong/unacceptable/different
  • Shame
  • If other people know this about me they will reject me, so I will have to find a way to hide it and cope with these feelings
  • Acting out / Using – addictions / Compulsive behaviours and thoughts
  • Something about me is wrong/unacceptable/different.  Return to the top of the cycle and so on round and round.

If you recognise this cycle in yourself then why not pick up the phone and give me a call today.


Just the tip of the iceberg

I have only briefly introduced this topic, there are many different ways that shame can become a hidden problem.  The thing to remember is this, shame is like an iceberg, a big part of it remains submerged.  Nobody likes to feel shame, we try not to acknowledge it and we move away from it, this is because shame can have a damaging effect on who we are as a person.  So in summary, yes shame is ok if its adaptive (teaches you something) in small amounts, however, chronic shame is disorganising and corrosive to your sense of self.  Chronic shame leads to maladaptive behaviour, internal fragmentation of ‘self’ and dissociation from feelings.

For therapist reading this brief blog, I cant recommend Dr. Patrica Deyoung’s book enough! (available on Amazon).

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