Webb Therapy Uncategorized Building Shame Resilience (2018). AIPC Article Library. Retrieved July 25, 2021 from https://www.aipc.net.au/articles/building-shame-resilience-in-clients/

Building Shame Resilience (2018). AIPC Article Library. Retrieved July 25, 2021 from https://www.aipc.net.au/articles/building-shame-resilience-in-clients/

Jungian analysts have called it the “swampland of the soul”. Other psychotherapy writers have observed how it originally served to keep us safe; the tendency to shame has been a universal one in which our desire to hide our flaws from others has saved us from being kicked out of the group (the society), which evolutionarily would have meant death (Sholl, 2013). So which is it? Is shame totally pathological, or is it ever helpful to us? And how shall we deal with it in the therapy session, especially when we are faced with a highly self-critical or otherwise shame-prone client?

In a recent blog post we defined shame and provided examples of it, differentiating it from similar emotions. In this follow-up article, we identify the signs and symptoms that a client is experiencing shame, review the dynamics and states of mind relevant to it, and explore ways to build shame resilience – a capacity to deal with potentially shame-triggering incidents – in clients.

How you can identify it in the therapy room

First, let’s make sure that you are, indeed, able to spot this elusive and dark emotion. As we noted in the earlier piece, the salient characteristic of shame is that, paradoxically, it is hidden. People can experience a deep-seated shame for years that even close associates do not recognise. So how, on perhaps only a few minutes of therapeutic association, do we? The first complication of many on this topic is that shame is ubiquitous in the therapy room. This is true for three reasons: (1) nearly all clients will be experiencing some form of it; (2) clients are also likely to feel shamed merely because of the stigma associated with seeking mental health help; and (3) finally, we as therapists must acknowledge that we have our own places of shame, which in the exchange of transferences that is psychotherapy, inevitably manifest in our interactions with clients.

Physical and emotional symptoms of shame

Dearing and Tangney (2011), in drawing together the threads of multiple master clinicians’ observations on the topic, noted that therapists consistently commented on the physical and/or emotional withdrawal of clients experiencing shame. This could be seen in decreased eye contact, slumped or rigid posture, avoidance of “here and now” material, freezing, stammering, tightened voice, self-deprecating comments possibly expanding into hilarious monologues, and a micro-flash of irritation before apology for missing a session or failing to do an assigned homework. Downcast eyes, squirming in the seat, laughter covering embarrassment, and indications that a topic is somehow degrading were all nominated as signs of shame. Some therapists noted that their shamed clients tended to go blank; manifest submissive, crouched body postures; avoid topics (as in talking “around” them); become anxious or angry; or directly refuse to divulge relevant clinical material (Dearing & Tangney, 2011).

The “hidden” demonstrations of shame

As obvious as the above signs would seem to be, a common observation is that shame is easily overlooked in the therapy room. It is an emotion that clients wish to hide because they feel ashamed of having shame, and we as therapists may collude with that, partly because of our own areas of felt shame. Beyond that, though, client shame is frequently disguised by other emotions: anger and rage, envy, contempt, and expressions of grandiosity, as clients “wear” several subtypes of narcissism in order to hide their vulnerable, shamed self. Paralinguistic cues can include confusion of thought, hesitation, soft speech, mumbling, silence, long pauses, rapid speech, or tensely laughed words. Therapists not trained to recognise it can easily miss these many, more hidden, faces of shame (Dearing & Tangney, 2011).

Shame-related states of mind in session

When in a typical shameful state of mind, an individual has a sense of an exposed, vulnerable, devalued self being scrutinised and found wanting in the eyes of a devaluing other. Acute shame may be experienced as an overwhelming pang of secret discomfort associated with communication that explicitly or implicitly conveys themes of inferiority. Extremely shame-prone clients suffer from persistent, oppressive appraisal processes in which all interactions (including those with you in session) are rigidly assessed in accord with the degree of perceived criticism, judgment, or humiliation experienced. This has been likened to a computer application program which, whether running inconspicuously in the background or more saliently in the foreground, is nevertheless always present at any given moment, never completely disengaged. It can be triggered into the foreground (primary operation) by myriad interpersonal events or by internal processes such as memories, fantasies, and reactions to internal states of arousal, such as sexual excitement, rage, or even exhibitionistic urges (Zaslav, 1998).

The defences a client chooses to engage as a result of the shame may vary widely. Narcissistic clients, for example, may ward off shameful schemas about self through grandiose, inflated self-regard in the (imagined) presence of an admiring audience. But upon perceiving a lack of sufficient support or attention from the psychotherapist, the same narcissist may experience other shame-related states, such as painful emptiness or of being a “nothing”. Volatile expressions of anger can result for shame-prone clients experiencing bitter, resentful feelings of being unappreciated or even humiliated; these the client may perceive as “self-righteous rage”. Others defend against shame through paranoid states in which others are seen as tormenting or accusing the self. For still other clients, envious states or episodes of blaming self or others manifest. How can you as therapist discern these states of mind? Zaslav (1998) suggests that psychotherapists are apt to enter complementary states of mind in which shame-related themes dominate. Thus, tapping into your own feelings in the moment will provide important clues to the client’s state of mind. Note that the client may present their guilty self (guilt being an often adaptive emotion in which we experience doing something bad rather than being bad), but a shamed self is not likely to appear directly, as clients go to frantic lengths to avoid experiencing it; by its nature, it is hidden even from the client (Zaslav, 1998).

Finally, upon entering a shameful state, many clients experience a transient inability to think, referred to as “cognitive shock” (Zaslav, 1998). Thus, while a psychotherapy session may work well for guilt, which can be expressed, processed, and expiated, the sense of vulnerability and exposure that goes with shame is almost always accompanied by a direct avoidance of communication about it, and this is compounded by states including disruptive imagery, cognitive disorganisation, and emotional dysregulation (Zaslav, 1998). All of this can trigger behaviour which conflicts with any prosocial, adaptive functions of shame (such as helping an individual to find his or her place in society), and instead leads the person to cut empathic ties to others.

Shame is rich in transferences

Along with all of this comes the challenge that shame – especially because it is so difficult for people to confront directly in themselves – is often repressed and thus projected outward, to the therapist and others. Much has been written about this aspect which is beyond the scope of this article, but note that, given the painful split between the devalued self and a devaluing other, defensive operations within the client are likely to result in the shame experience being projected onto or into the therapist (in projection and projective identification, respectively). This means that you as therapist may be made to feel about yourself as the client feels about him/herself. How do you know this is happening? Again, the information is located conveniently in your own body/emotions, when you begin to notice shifts in your own self-evaluation. You become, in essence, the “spokesperson” for the client’s poor self-esteem. The client may project inadequacy onto you, systematically and unconsciously undermining and devaluing your efforts, until you begin to doubt your own adequacy as a therapist. Feelings of weakness or deficiency are common in shame-based projections. Similarly, the client may reveal contemptuous or devaluing attitudes toward the therapist that can be linked in treatment to a disowned weak or defective self superimposed upon the psychotherapist. If this happens to you and you are able to tolerate the projections openly – without corresponding shameful retreat, you provide a powerful message to the client that it is safe to examine his or her internalisation of a devalued, incompetent self (Zaslav, 1998).

Finally, we note that a different form of transference/countertransference can occur when the client unconsciously pressures you as therapist to accept a disapproving stance toward him/her. In this case you function as a spokesperson for the client’s self-contempt. Once you understand this, it is easier to maintain a supportive stance, while encouraging exploration of those self-critical attitudes that the client generally puts onto him/herself (Zaslav, 1998).

Enhancing shame resilience in the therapy room

Dearing and Tangney (2011) integrate their master clinicians’ suggestions for how to work with shame in the therapy room through a framework with four aspects: accessing and acknowledging shame, relational validation, shame regulation, and transformation of shame. We look through that framework into suggestions we have unearthed for building shame resilience.

Accessing and acknowledging shame

Numerous authors make the point that shame draws much of its power from the shadows; when we bring it into the light of shared discussion, we disempower it. The saying is apt here that emotions (and shame is one of the darkest and most intense of emotions) are like breathing: they only cause trouble when obstructed (Sack, 2015). Thus, getting beyond shame means being able to share experiences of shame with trusted others. It means exposure to shame. We have emphasised throughout this article and the earlier one that people acting from shame-based instincts uniformly want to avoid looking at it, let alone talking about it. But deal with it they must; exposure to it can be like the graded exposure techniques used with individuals experiencing panic attacks and other forms of anxiety: first a little exposure to it, then gradually increasing amounts (LeJeune, 2016).

It is useful for clients to be able to recognise their triggers. Shame is sneaky; it attacks us where we are most vulnerable, or in other words, our insecurities “prime” us to feel shame in particular areas. The aspiring writer with the freshly-minted novel is more apt to feel shamed when someone points out how compelling another novelist is than when comments are made about someone else’s car. The overweight person who hears how beautiful another (very slender) person is may take that as a hint that he or she should lose the excess weight. Research suggests that a chief shame trigger for women is physical appearance, whereas for men it is the fear of being perceived as weak (Sack, 2015).

In therapy, the mere process of naming shame helps to differentiate it from similar emotions (such as humiliation, guilt, or embarrassment) and also can help the client to normalise it (i.e., pointing out that it is a universal human experience; we all have it at one time or another). The point is to “titrate the dose” of shame-naming so that the client is not overwhelmed, but confronts it little by little as he or she is ready to accept it. As this process occurs, the client comes to see that few, if any, experiences warrant the global “smearing” of the whole personality with the tar-brush that created the global negative self-attributions. Rather, in the logical light of day, most genuine flaws, setbacks, and transgressions are limited to particular areas – and the client can either resolve them or choose to view them more kindly (Dearing & Tangney, 2011; LeJeune, 2016).

Relational validation

Talking about the shame, as above – or rather, being heard around it – is a form of relational validation as well as a way of accessing shame. Empathy is the antidote to shame, so receiving it when telling a shame-generating story can help dissolve it. Especially because of the hidden nature of shame, we can tend to feel isolated in it. Authentic sharing – with vulnerability, to someone who responds empathetically – can build the therapeutic alliance in a therapy session, or strengthen a relationship outside of it. Yes, it can be anxiety-inducing to do this with high shame. As a therapist, note that many psychotherapy writers suggest that you actually use the term “shame”, but you may wish to wait until some relationship is built before using that word (Sholl, 2013; Dearing & Tangney, 2011).

Shame regulation

Along these lines, whatever you can do to help build self-compassion in the client makes it easier for the person to self-soothe, self-validate and regulate the shame. Thus, not only your words, but the timbre, pacing, and tone of your voice – how you say what you say – may influence clients cued to experience threat or disapproval. LeJeune’s research (2016) suggests that even engendering a sense of physical warmth in the therapy room (via a cup of tea, a blanket, or a cosy office) may induce a client to greater compassion for self and therefore greater capacity to self-regulate the shame.

Certainly, psychoeducation and guiding clients in experiences of loving-kindness (Metta) meditation and practices of mindful non-judgment are shown to positively impact a whole host of difficulties related to shame. One technique is to locate where the sensation of shame manifests in the body; let’s say it’s in the pit of the client’s stomach. The client then places a hand over that area (or alternatively, over the heart) and directs comforting, affirming energy to that part of the body. When a client has enhanced self-compassion, it makes it easier to be vulnerable and engage the world from a place of worthiness, thus regulating shame, so it is a full feedback loop (Sholl, 2013).
Tied to helping the client regulate his or her shame is the capacity in us as therapists to be able to recognise and then normalise our own places of shame. Let us say this strongly: it is normal to feel shame as a therapist! We spoke before about shame being put onto or into us by the client via projection or projective identification. Beyond that, we are human, too, and may experience shame from previous experiences completely unrelated to the client. LeJeune’s Number One scientifically-based recommendation for dealing with shame is to “Love your own self-doubt; it makes you a better therapist” (2016). At least, being aware of our own shame and learning about it can help us to model self-compassion and eventual shame regulation for our clients (LeJeune, 2016; Dearing & Tangney, 2011).

Transformation of shame

Finally, we come to the question of how we can change a problematic emotional experience – that of shame – into a more adaptive, empowering, and meaningful emotion that can serve as a resource. One powerful way is to transform shame into guilt. We have differentiated between shame (“I am bad”) and guilt (“I have done something bad”). If we are inherently wrong or bad, there is no hope. But if we have done something wrong, we have the opportunity to make reparation: to apologise, to compensate, to redress whatever wrong we have somehow done. Sometimes it is only necessary to educate clients as to the difference between “being bad” and “doing bad”. Some forms of treatment already support this transformation. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, encourages members to separate character flaws from their core selves (Step 4) and make amends for what they have done wrong during their addictions (Steps 8 and 9), thus moving from shame to guilt. Taking this step is at least implicit, if not explicit, in therapies such as CBT and REBT. Many success-oriented therapies, such as narrative therapy and solution-focused therapy, ask clients to look for exceptions, so shame-based perfectionists have the opportunity to challenge excessively high standards and others’ evaluations of the self.

In some cases, such as with sexual abuse, the client had no responsibility for the shame-engendering experience and so the therapeutic goal is not the change of focus from shame to guilt. Rather, it is about appropriately externalising the blame back onto the abuser: putting where it belongs. As such clients construct new meaning for long-standing wounds, their shame may shift to anger or sadness. These emotions can be growth-producing in that they point to adaptive actions appropriate to the situation: for example, reaching out to connect to others in sadness and using anger to assert one’s right to life one’s own life without shame (Dearing & Tangney, 2011).

Summary

Much can be written about this intensely painful, complex, and often misunderstood topic of shame. In this article we have looked into how you can identify it in your therapy room, what the typical shame-related states of mind tend to be, and the kinds of transferences that typically pop up in session. We have suggested a four-component framework for treating it which includes accessing and acknowledging it, deepening relational validation, helping the client to regulate the shame, and eventually transforming the shame into other, more adaptive emotions. Paradoxically, the ultimate arbiter of your effectiveness in dealing with client shame is your willingness to be with your own shame.

References

  • Dearing, R.L., & Tangney, J.P., Eds. (2011). Working with shame in the therapy hour: Summary and integration. Shame in the therapy hour. Washington, D.C.: APA Books.
  • LeJeune, J. (2016). 20 science-based recommendations for therapy with highly self-critical or shame-prone clients. ACT with compassion. Retrieved on 17 May, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
  • Sack, D. (2015). 5 ways to silence shame. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 17 May, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
  • Sholl, J. (2013). Shutting shame down. Experience Life. Retrieved on 17 May, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
  • Zaslav, M. R. (1998). Shame-related states of mind in psychotherapy. J Psychother Pract Res. 1998 Spring; 7(2), 154-166.

Related Post

What is your intention? Why “will power” is often not enough.What is your intention? Why “will power” is often not enough.


Adapted from AIPC (2022), Institute Inbrief, Issue 363.

Oftentimes, a brand new year is used like a clean slate. We can do this any time throughout the year, however, I understand that there is an added element of our “collective consciousness” in the universal atmosphere motivating us with some renewed energy and will. At this time of year, humans perceive that everyone else is also feeling hopeful, invigorated, and full of promise. But the road to realisation of goals is littered with the carcasses of broken dreams, unfulfilled promises, and intentions that dissipated in the stress and mundane of everyday life – our goals did not receive the “oxygen” required to be sustainable.

What is our “Will”?

Have you ever fallen short of accomplishing you New Year’s Resolution? Sometimes, even before the end of New Year’s Day? People many think, “I don’t have the will power to sustain it”, however, if we look at this from the perspective of Psychosynthesis, a transpersonal psychology, we will understand why our understanding of “will power” if often incorrect. If you did anything today, you have will inside you. You have drive, motive, and energy.

While our will may not have all the “power” that we would like it to have, our will is always present with us, somewhere. Psychosynthesis counsellors, especially trained to be observant about will, acknowledge that one of their sacred duties with clients is to track their will, but all mental health professionals can tune more into the willing function of self, for the ultimate good of the client. What do we need to know to do that?

First, will isn’t just desire energy. It is not synonymous with control, it is not about “strong-arming” someone, and it isn’t merely about repressing undesirable material.

Personal and transpersonal will

At a personal level, “will” can be understood as an essential impulse toward our own wholeness. It is that drive within us which coordinates the often-conflicting parts of our personalities into self-expression. As the function closest to the self, it regulates and directs other functions, such as imagination, intuition, impulses, sensations, thoughts, and feelings. It is will which guides us toward personal integration. As we align our lives with a broader vision for what we may be, we go beyond personal will, receiving guidance from transpersonal will: the will of Self (as opposed to “self”).

Along that journey, however, people can fail to execute our will in a way which allows our goals to be realised. This post looks at the aspects of will, which, if they are not employed or are employed badly, can stunt the client’s intentions, keeping their goals from ever realising.

Aspects of will: Strength, Skill, and Virtue

Strength

When people make statements as mentioned above, decrying their lack of “will power” or “internal energy”, they are probably referring to the most well-known aspect of will: that is, “strong will”. It is believed that when we are born, we are unaware that we are separate from our birth giver. The beginning of individuation (the process of forming a stable personality) is the beginning of recognising that “will” exists. We are not only separate from Mum; we actually want something other than what Mum seems to be giving us. We come to see that we have arms and legs and a mouth, so we use these tools to explore the world the way we want to. We learn that crying will have certain needs met. It is the aspect of “strong will” that ensures that our willed act — say, crying for food — contains enough intensity or “drive” to carry out its purpose (getting us fed).

In other words, have you ever seen a really hungry baby stop crying after a very short time if it is not fed? Generally, not. It is possible that our new diet or exercise regime has failed because we didn’t elicit the intensity or “drive” to the intention to exercise or stick to our new diet. We may need to explore what situations in life are keeping us from applying greater intensity to the question. Maybe our desire to change is not worth the requisite “will” or “energy”. The road of least resistance is very common as we age and accumulate more life responsibilities.

This is not true for everyone. Some people will vehemently proclaim that do want to change. It is not lack of wanting, or lack of “will”. What is missing may be the second aspect of “will”, equally important to the first: that of skilful will.

Skill

Several sayings are relevant here:

  1. Environment is stronger than will power.
  2. When imagination and will power go up against one another, imagination wins every time.

These axioms allude to the often-unrecognised reality that we cannot generally achieve our goals through strong will, alone. Consider the alcoholic who desperately wants to stop drinking but they continue relapsing. If we put our will into competition with other psychological forces — such as impulse or feeling — it becomes overwhelmed; we end up stressed without accomplishing our goal. What we are missing in this case is likely to be the capacity to develop strategy, approaching the goal skilfully, and practically. Oftentimes, we want to achieve our goal without attaining the skills necessary to achieve it.

If you want to lose weight, for example, could think that you simply need to eat fewer calories and the extra kilo’s will start dropping off. Calories in Vs Calories out. But your role as strategist can be very helpful if you establish, for example, whether you’re often in situations where controlling food intake is difficult: say, when going out to eat or eating at private parties, or it’s the holiday like Christmas. Are you eating balanced meals, with sufficient protein (for example) to sustain yourself? Are you getting enough sleep to avoid overproduction of the hunger-inducing hormone ghrelin? How much do you know about body composition, the endocrine system, metabolism, nutrition, and exercise physiology?

There are myriad ways to be skilful around weight loss plans, and you may need to consider adopting some of them for success. For example, do you have effective interpersonal skills to communicate your needs to the people in your life that exercise and healthy eating is valuable to you, and you need their support? Or do you have the skills to join a peer group that exercises regularly. Perhaps you could improve your financial skills to budget for a Personal Trainer.

If we must merely “strong-arm” ourselves to achieve every end, we end up exhausted and discouraged, with few accomplishments. “Skilful will” allows us to use will not as a direct power or force, but as a function which stimulates, regulates, and directs other functions of ourselves so that they lead to the goal. For example, learning mindful eating skills may cultivate a relationship with bodily sensations which allows you to observe the sensation of true hunger pains as opposed to times when you eat because of boredom or wanting to feel good (temporarily). You can also learn skills to meet alleviate boredom or feeling emotionally nourished in other ways.

Even with employing strong and skilful will, however, your may not achieve your goal(s). That’s okay. Please do not judge yourself. It’s what Buddhism called the second arrow. That is, you already didn’t meet your goal (the first arrow) and then you judge yourself for it (the second arrow). You are human, not superhuman.

A third aspect, equally important with the first two, may also need to be employed. It is “Virtuous Will”.

Virtue

Is your goal something you can achieve all by yourself through prudent use of strong and skilful will? No one is an island; we all live in communities and interact with family, friends, co-workers, gym instructors, enemies, and others on a regular basis. Those willed acts that succeed in accomplishing the will-er’s goal do so because they have considered the need to choose goals that are consistent with the welfare of others and the common good of humanity. They also must be consistent with “virtuous will” to the “self”.

The bottom line here is that many people need to do serious work around having virtuous will for themselves. For example, if you “hate” yourself for weighing more than what you would like, the motivation for change is unlikely to succeed because it is born in self-hatred. It is more effective to improve your self-esteem and sense of worth as a person, independent of your goal, so that any weight loss and subsequent weight maintenance can be in the context of “something I do to value myself; I like myself as I am and want to enhance the health of that self”.

Accessing transpersonal will

According to Roberto Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, using our will doesn’t stop with developing strong, skilful, and virtuous will: the three aspects of personal will. Assagioli claims that we can manifest all three of those and still be unhappy if we do not see how our personal goals align with something greater than ourselves. Having that solid sense of meaning and purpose to achieve something beyond the benefit of our little “self” helps us to reach beyond the limitations of ordinary consciousness to more expanded, intense states of awareness.

To yearn for that and not have it is what Viktor Frankl called “the abyss experience”: the opposite of Maslow’s peak experience (Boeree, 2006). Yet it is often in the abyss and despair of meaninglessness that we feel the pull of the superconscious, activating our transpersonal will and giving us access to another level of being. And then life becomes more interesting, as we try to balance the needs of material life (our immanence) and those of our higher levels of being (our transcendence), experienced as intentions arising from our transpersonal will.

Even the hypothetical person’s goal of weight loss (seemingly a very personal goal) may be able to access transpersonal will. Let’s say you lose the weight, arriving at your goal weight. You may enjoy a slender new body for a while, but ultimately that may not be enough to sustain lasting contentment, peace, and satisfaction. Looking “good” may not be the sole purpose of the original intention. If you can transform your goal, however, to a goal more inclusive of potential good for humanity as a whole — you may find that your personal will is aligned with transpersonal will. Just look at all the people on Youtube trying to help others, or the reward and continued sobriety members of Alcoholics Anonymous are given by “helping others”. Transpersonal will goes beyond the self and comes back to support our intention. Perhaps you want to write about healthy-body image as a method to transcend your Will to others.

The Will and the End of this Article

An effective and intentional use of will increases joy, openheartedness, and equanimity. Through use of not only strong will, but also skilful and good will — and perhaps even transpersonal will — your New Year’s resolutions will be far more likely to succeed, and you can experience willing as an act that leads to joy.

References

  1. Assagioli, R. (1973/1984). The act of will: A guide to self-actualization and self-realization. Wellingborough: Turnstone Press.
  2. Boeree, C. G. (2006). Viktor Frankl. Personality theories. Shippensburg University. Retrieved on 5 November, 2012, from: Website.
  3. Mental Health Academy. (n.d.). Understanding Will. Mental Health Academy.

The ‘Triune Brain’ theory by Neuroscientist Paul MacLean — an evolutionary perspectiveThe ‘Triune Brain’ theory by Neuroscientist Paul MacLean — an evolutionary perspective

The Concept of the "Triune Brain"

In the 1960s, American neuroscientist Paul MacLean formulated the ‘Triune Brain’ model, which is based on the division of the human brain into three distinct regions. MacLean’s model suggests the human brain is organized into a hierarchy, which itself is based on an evolutionary view of brain development. The three regions are as follows:

  1. Reptilian or Primal Brain (Basal Ganglia)
  2. Paleomammalian or Emotional Brain (Limbic System)
  3. Neomammalian or Rational Brain (Neocortex)

At the most basic level, the brainstem (Primal Brain) helps us identify familiar and unfamiliar things. Familiar things are usually seen as safe and preferable, while unfamiliar things are treated with suspicion until we have assessed them and the context in which they appear. For this reason, designers, advertisers, and anyone else involved in selling products tend to use familiarity as a means of evoking pleasant emotions.