Webb Therapy Uncategorized Men and Emotions: From Repression to Expression published by AIPC (2019)

Men and Emotions: From Repression to Expression published by AIPC (2019)

In our previous article (read it here), we asked why men do not seem to express emotion as easily as women do. Was there some pathology, or should we just put the differences down to male-female tendencies? We identified Dr Ron Levant’s notion of “normative male alexithymia” as representative of one side of the controversy: namely, that, yes, men do have a restricted range of emotional expression compared to women, but it’s so pervasive in society that it’s normal (Schexnayder, 2019).

On the other side of the debate were researchers such as James Thompson (2010), who – while acknowledging men’s relatively greater “stoicism” or restriction emotionally – nevertheless insisted that it’s invalid to conflate alexithymia with maleness, especially given that men’s holding back from emotional expression is largely culturally induced. Yet we observed that the issue should be dealt with, given the male-female suicide ratio in Australia, the U.K., and the United States of about 3:1 – and the fact that suicide is on the rise in all three countries.

We concluded that therapy might be able to help, and that is where we go with this article: to a discussion of just how we as mental health professionals might be able to help men deal with an outdated but strongly held socialisation pattern which has impacted their emotional expression, and through that, their capacity for growth, satisfying friendships, and intimate relationships. 

We tackle the question in two parts. First, we share psychologist Barbara Markway’s (2014) take on how to help men out of the double bind that leads to their emotional repression. Then we suggest therapies which might be able to assist.

Deciphering the code

Markway (2014) insists that dismissing men as “the feelingless gender” is not only unhelpful, but also wrong. They just, she says, express their feelings using a secret code: one which even they themselves cannot decipher. Let’s do some translation.

Men convert one feeling into another

Let’s say you’re a guy, and you’ve just found out that a good friend of yours has been cheated in business by her business partner: a business you yourself helped them set up. The cheating transactions will cost your friend thousands, and maybe her whole business. You may erupt volcanically, vowing to help your friend sue the partner for all they are worth, or maybe go threaten the partner within an inch of their life. If you react this way, you are showing anger and not a little pride, which are acceptable “male” emotions to express. Hiding underneath them could be sadness for your friend, and even a shared sense of vulnerability, but these are more “feminine” emotions, which by socialisation you are not “allowed” to express. So you convert them into “male” emotions of anger and pride.

Men may shift their feelings into another domain

Are you male, and basically an exuberant, affectionate sort? Markway claims you may not necessarily let this show in your personal relationships, but on the sports field, lookout; you’ll be hugging, high-fiving, and butt-slapping with the best of them. It’s ok in that domain, she says, for men to express strong feelings of delight (over a goal made, say) and affection.

Men may somatise their feelings

Let’s say now that you’re female, and in an intimate partnership with a guy. You make plans to get away for a holiday, but no sooner have you checked into the five-star hotel at the fabulous beach than he gets a migraine and is out of action for that day at least. What’s going on? Markway observes that, with the structure of work, many men are able to squash down feelings, but when they are away from that structure, such as on weekends or holidays, their emotions and needs surface. Not wanting to acknowledge them, many men will convert strong emotions into physical symptoms, such as headaches or back aches. If asked about it, some men would have the conscious belief that women do want them to show their emotions, but only certain ones, and only in amounts they (the women) can handle. Men who deviate from this are, as we have noted, judged to be poorly adjusted or not “manly enough”, because – at the root of it – they are bucking their whole socialisation model.

Men’s emotional expression can put us all off balance

When men do get in touch with emotions, the result can catch everyone off guard, as it may seem to come “out of the blue” and be overwhelming. In fact, for any of us, when we chronically stuff down feelings, we don’t get the practice of handling strong emotion. When it does come up, then, we are ill-prepared to deal with it. Think, for example, of the person stoically putting up with an in-law criticising their partner, probably repeatedly. At some stage, there will be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back” – just one criticism too many – and the person may unleash a massive emotional response, consisting in part of stored-up feeling from previous violations (adapted from Markway, 2014). 

It’s not that these ways of directing emotion “sideways” are bad, but if a more direct emotional expression is desired, how can we help our male clients escape from the clutches of restrictive socialisation?

Re-setting the code

It’s a big job to help someone move past lifelong “training” in a given direction. In the case where the client is keen to make changes in his way of dealing with emotions (that is, his issues with emotional expression are ego-dystonic), psychodynamic therapies and the social constructionist narrative and solution-focused therapies may be hugely helpful; we briefly highlight these, while acknowledging that other therapies, such as motivational interviewing and CBT, may also have a role to play. In the case where the man is dragged into session because his partner is experiencing huge frustration but the man himself does not see that he has a problem (that is: his issues with emotional expression are ego-syntonic), we can look hopefully to emotionally focused therapy, although family therapy and other couples modes, such as imago therapy, likely have much to offer.

We put the psychodynamic therapies right up front in our discussion. Why? If, as is generally claimed, men’s emotional responses are because of socialisation and/or attachment processes, then that therapy may be most efficacious which can take the client back to the root of those processes: the early childhood years when all of us – for better or worse – began to be socialised into our respective “tribes”.

Jung’s psychoanalysis

Carl Jung espoused the essential wholeness of all human beings, but believed that most of us have lost touch with important parts of ourselves. Life’s goal of individuation demands that we give expression to the various components – often conflicted – of our psyche. These typically repressed components cause psychological disturbance until they are made conscious. Each person has a story and when mental illness occurs, it is because the personal story has been denied or rejected; healing comes when the person recovers and owns his or her own personal story (Sonoma.edu, n.d.).

The story will include symbolic archetypes. A man could, for example, be modelling after the archetype of the Invincible Warrior, which could express part of who he is, but he may have repressed the complementary Nurturing Earthmother part of himself (due to that part being discouraged culturally). The task in therapy, then, would be to help the man discover his Nurturing Earthmother side. The two sides, harmonised together, could transcend either archetype and help such a client come into greater wholeness (Geist, 2013).

Psychosynthesis

Similarly, Psychosynthesis, a transpersonal psychology, asks clients to work with body, feelings, and mind to synthesise, or integrate, the various “selves” inside them into a harmonious whole. Psychosynthesis postulates “subpersonalities”: parts of ourselves which constellate and act out in order to meet needs or to defend against needs which seem unable to be met (Assagioli, 1965). Thus, the same man – in angst because of being constrained from tender, loving expressions or emotional sentimentality – may discover an angry subpersonality within himself: one which, he later discovers, is in conflict with its opposite number, a “Sentimental Sally” subpersonality which, while weaker, nevertheless is driving the man’s behaviour from underground because it is not acknowledged; its needs for permission to express a softer side will continue to cause it to act out in some way until those needs are met.

Thus in this mode, therapy consists of finding out what conspired to prevent the man expressing his softer side and working out how it can find expression appropriately in the man’s life. Sentimental Sally also has to work in with the angry subpersonality (as the two will vie for dominance), and both must cooperate with the man’s greater, whole psyche. Somewhere along the way of this, the man is likely to recall early events which shaped his way of being: for example, leaning into his mother for a cuddle when upset and being pushed out and told, “Big boys don’t cry”.

Schema therapy

In some ways, schema therapy would seem to combine the best of several worlds. From its psychodynamic predecessors, it inherits its basic notions that mental health troubles arise from early needs not being met. Five areas of basic human needs are outlined, such as for secure attachment and autonomy/competence. Frustration of these engenders 18 domains of early maladaptive schemas (EMS), from mistrust and abandonment to emotional inhibition (Young, n.d.). The schemas are perpetuated in a person’s life, say practitioners, through cognitive distortions, self-defeating life patterns, and unhelpful schema coping styles, which cause others to respond negatively, thus reinforcing the schema(s) (Young, 2012a). 

In the psyche’s effort to heal, individuals set up relationships similar to the unsatisfying ones which originally engendered the EMS, and thus the unhealthy object relations which stultify growth are continued. The therapist can ask the “lonely child” or “angry child” in a person to set up dialogue with the “healthy adult” in order to heal the overcompensating, avoidance, or surrendering responses that perpetuate a given schema (Young, 2012b). From cognitive behavioural therapy (schema therapy’s other “parent”), there are therapeutic interventions to reframe the cognitive distortions: irrational thoughts are collected in journals/diaries, for example, which are then refuted through rational replacement thoughts.

Narrative

Narrative therapy assumes no single absolute reality, but that realities are constructed by individuals, families, and cultures, and then communicated through language. They are organised and maintained by stories. What is true for us may not be true for another person or even for ourselves at another point in time. In the narrative, social constructionist paradigm, there are no essential truths and we cannot know “reality”; we can only interpret experience. The narrative mind frame, unlike empirical work searching for facts, exhorts us to bring forth our novelist selves. This means that we can understand our client’s story from many perspectives. The work of narrative therapy is to elicit various experiences of the client’s whole self, determine which selves (parts of the client) are preferred in the new narrative, and then support the growth and development of those new selves and their accompanying stories (Ackerman, 2017; Archer & McCarthy, 2007). 

Thus, if a male client has experienced being emotionally stifled in the interest of becoming “manly”, he can be helped to understand how such definitions of masculinity are inherently constructed by society rather than being empirically true. He can be helped to, first, find “sparkling moments” when the issue of being emotionally constricted was not as much of a problem, and then to find ways to “grow” the self – and/or the moments – that were less restrained, more inclusive of perhaps a softer, more emotionally permissive self. In doing this, he is re-storying himself and re-constructing the “reality” that he and those around him will live about what constitutes appropriate masculinity. 

Solution-focused therapy

Like its narrative cousin, solution-focused therapy emanates from a post-modernist, social constructionist paradigm, meaning that it shares with narrative therapy the understanding that there is no such thing as an objective, absolute reality. Rather, reality is co-constructed, so the “truth” of a client’s life is negotiable within a social context; fixed, objective “truths” are unattainable. Clients’ lives have many truths (O’Connell, 2006). Just as narrative therapy tries to elicit the “sparkling moments” in which the problem wasn’t as much of a problem, so too solution-focused therapy enquires into what a miracle would look like if the problem were to be “fixed” or to go away; in fact, much of the therapy has this present or future focus. 

The therapist thus elicits the client’s preferred future. Suggestions for change are based on clients’ conception of their lives without their symptoms (i.e., the healthiest, most empowering vision of themselves and their lives that clients can generate). Changes the client makes will have a ripple effect, generating behaviour to change the whole system (Seligman, 2006; Archer & McCarthy, 2007). Thus a solution-focused intervention could see a male client generating a vision of himself as a fully expressive man living in a community which accepts both his “traditional” male side and also his more emotionally liberated self. The therapy would be likely to search for times and places when this had already occurred.

Emotionally focused therapy (EFT)

Obviously in cases where it is the partner expressing angst and the man sees no problem in his flatter emotional demeanour, the therapies which may be more helpful are those which work with both partners to see how to accommodate both sets of needs and behaviours.

EFT is an empirically supported humanistic (couples) treatment that includes elements of experiential, person-centred, constructivist, and systems theory, but is firmly rooted in attachment theory. It is based on the concept that distress in intimate relationships is often related to deeply rooted fears of abandonment, as an individual’s emotional response to these fears may be harmful to relationship partners and put strain on a relationship. The insecurity may show up as partners asking questions such as, “Do you really love me?” “Am I important to you?” “Are you committed to our relationship?” “Can I trust you?” When intimate partners are not able to meet each other’s emotional needs, they may become stuck in negative patterns of interaction driven by ineffective attempts to get each other to understand their emotions and related needs. 

EFT reinforces positive bonds that already exist, and fosters the creation of a secure, loving bond between partners where there is not one. It does this through expanding and reorganising important emotional responses, which help to shift each partner’s position of interaction while initiating new cycles of interaction that are more beneficial for the relationship. In the non-judgmental environment of session, participants are able to contact and express deep emotions and experiences. In voicing their deepest concerns and conflicts without criticism, they are able to address them and move on to more collaborative, productive behaviours (GoodTherapy.org, 2018). 

Thus if the female partner is experiencing the despair of little emotional validation from a man who does not readily show emotion, he can be helped to see how, if he learns to do that in a way that is meaningful to her, it can benefit not only her but also the whole relationship. She can be assisted to recognise the ways in which he does show emotion – albeit “sideways”, such as Markway (2014) describes above – and to learn to accept how he is without criticism, asking directly at times for her needs to be met. EFT helps people learn to interact with their partners in more loving, responsive, and emotionally connected ways, which can result in a more secure attachment and – we say – greater freedom of emotional expression.

Summary

It’s easy to agree that men generally do not show as many emotions, or as intense of emotions, as their female counterparts. What we have seen to be more difficult is assessing whether a given man is pathological or not in the apparent emotional holding back. Without judging that, this article has demonstrated that there are several options for response if a man’s emotional expression seems greatly inhibited. One is to understand the ways in which men “convert” emotions: to other emotions, to other domains, or to their bodies. The other option is to encourage the man – either alone or with his frustrated partner – to attend therapeutically to the roots of the inhibition, which are likely to reside in insecure early attachments and/or socialisation against expression.

References

  1. Ackerman, C. (2017). 19 narrative therapy techniques, exercises, & interventions (+ PDF worksheets). Positive Psychology Program. Retrieved on 10 October, 2017, from: Website.     
  2. Archer, J., & McCarthy, C.J. (2007). Theories of counselling & psychotherapy: Contemporary applications. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education, Inc. 
  3. Assagioli, R. (1965). Psychosynthesis: A manual of principles and techniques. New York and Buenos Aires: Hobbs, Dorman & Company.
  4. Geist, M. (2013). Reflections on psychology, culture, and life: The Jung page. Cgjungpage.org. Retrieved on 22 July, 2019, from: Website.
  5. GoodTherapy. (2018). Emotionally focused therapy. Goodtherapy.org. Retrieved on 22 July, 2019, from: Website.
  6. Markway, B. (2014). How to crack the code of men’s feelings. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 17 July, 2019, from: Website.    
  7. O’Connell, B. (2006). Solution-focused therapy. In Feltham, C., & Horton, I., Eds. (2006). The SAGE handbook of counselling and psychotherapy. London: SAGE Publications.
  8. Schexnayder, C. (2019). The man who couldn’t feel. Brain World. Retrieved on 17 July, 2019, from: Website.
  9. Seligman, L. (2006). Theories of counseling and psychotherapy: Systems, strategies, and skills, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
  10. Sonoma.edu. (n.d.). Handout on Carl Gustav Jung. Sonoma University. Retrieved on 13 November, 2018, from: Website.
  11. Thompson, J. (2010). Normative male alexithymia. In search of fatherhood. Retrieved on 18 July, 2019, from: Website.
  12. Young, J.E. (2012a). Early maladaptive schemas. Schema therapy. Retrieved on 8 June, 2015, from: Website.    
  13. Young, J.E. (2012b). Common maladaptive coping responses. Schema therapy. Retrieved on 8 June, 2016, from: Website.    
  14. Young, J.E. (n.d.). Schema therapy: Conceptual model. Retrieved on 8 June, 2016, from:Website.

Related Post

There’s nothing ‘fake’ about ‘faking it until you make it’There’s nothing ‘fake’ about ‘faking it until you make it’

When to Fake It Till You Make It (and When You Shouldn’t)

Faking it for the right reasons can change you for the better. Here’s why.

Posted Jun 27, 2016By Amy Morin

One day, a client came to see me because she felt socially awkward. She knew that her inability to make small talk was holding her back both personally and professionally. As a shy person, she hated going to networking events. But making connections was vital to her career.I asked, “What do you usually do when you go to a networking event?” She said, “I stand awkwardly off to the side and wait to see if anyone will come talk to me.” I asked her, “What would you do differently if you felt confident?” and she said, “I’d initiate conversation and introduce myself to people.”

Right then and there, she discovered the solution to her problem: If she wanted to feel more confident, she had to act more confident. That wasn’t quite what she wanted to hear. She’d hoped for a solution that would immediately make her feel more confident. But the key to becoming more comfortable in social situations is practice.Her instinct was to wait until she felt more confident, but that confidence wasn’t going to magically appear out of thin air—especially if she was standing around by herself. However, if she started talking to people like a confident person, she’d have an opportunity to experience successful social interactions, and each of these would boost her confidence.

Acting “As If”

Acting “as if” is a common prescription in psychotherapy. It’s based on the idea that if you behave like the person you want to become, you’ll become like this in reality:

1. If you want to feel happier, do what happy people do—smile.

2. If you want to get more work done, act as if you are a productive person.

3. If you want to have more friends, behave like a friendly person.

4. If you want to improve your relationship, practice being a good partner.Too often we hesitate to spring into action. Instead, we wait until everything feels just right or until we think we’re ready. But research shows that changing your behavior first can change the way you think and feel.

The Biggest Mistake Most People Make

Faking it until you make it only works when you correctly identify something within yourself that’s holding you back. Behaving like the person you want to become is about changing the way you feel and the way you think.If your motives are to prove your worth to other people, however, your efforts won’t be successful, and research shows that this approach actually backfires. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people who tried to prove their worth to others were more likely to dwell on their shortcomings. Ambitious professionals who wore luxury clothing in an effort to appear successful, and MBA students who wore Rolex watches to increase their self-worth just ended up feeling like bigger failures. Even worse, their attempts to project an image of success impaired their self-control. They struggled to resist temptation when they tried to prove that they were successful. Putting so much effort into faking it used up their mental resources and interfered with their ability to make good choices.

How to “Fake It” the Right Way

Acting “as if” doesn’t mean being phony or inauthentic. It’s about changing your behavior first and trusting the feelings will follow. As long as your motivation is in the right place, faking it until you make it can effectively make your goals become reality. Just make sure you’re interested in changing yourself on the inside, not simply trying to change other people’s perceptions of you.

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.