What is Shame Therapy? Shame therapy is a safe space to identify, explore and heal from feelings of shame. Shame is a common emotional experience amongst human beings, but it often thrives in secrecy and isolation- a private experience we somehow all share. By definition, shame is an emotional experience involving a sense of feeling unacceptable, defective, or that you are fundamentally failing in some way. Shame says, “you are not good enough”, and “you are not worthy of love.” And despite the fact that making mistakes is a part of being human, under the influence of shame, you experience deep embarrassment, humiliation or “otherness.” Since human beings are inherently social creatures, it’s especially painful to feel as though you do not belong. When we carry a deep sense of shame it becomes an obstacle that gets between us and the life that we want to live. This life may include fully potentiating at work, in relationships, or just wanting to feel at ease in yourself, worthy of good things happening in your life. Dealing with shame in therapy is a common occurrence, as shame is a nearly universal experience. Dealing with shame in therapy can reshape the way we view ourselves.
The way we speak to ourselves when carrying shame is often negative. Through this negative self-talk, we put ourselves down silently, or aloud in front of others. We might reject compliments from other people. Shame influences us to keep ourselves hidden from others, hurting our ability to connect and feel like we belong in our relationships. We might feel like we don’t belong at our job, experiencing the all too common sense of “imposter syndrome.” We might sabotage relationships because we don’t believe we are deserving of connection, or we feel incapable of the vulnerability needed in order to connect with others. There is too much to hide when carrying unhealed shame. What’s so painful about shame is that it creates the tendency to isolate, when we really need to feel accepted and seen by others in order to heal. Sometimes this acceptance can start when revealing your shame to a trusted therapist who can hold space for you and remain non-reactive. Dealing with shame in therapy is a safe way to address it without overwhelming yourself.
Although shame in and of itself is not a mental illness, the pain it brings can be debilitating- bogging us down and influencing the ways in which we live our lives. Shame can cause symptoms of depression and anxiety, like hopelessness and social wariness. Shame is like carrying a secret around that you hope no one will find out about. Shame will tell you that “if people find out about the real you, then you will be rejected.” And because shame is such a painful and all-encompassing experience, you might avoid facing it. This is understandable because it can be scary to face something that we’ve ran from for a long time. However, numbing behaviors like drinking alcohol, staying busy all the time and avoiding situations that may trigger shame altogether does not resolve the shame itself. Although facing shame can be frightening, dealing with shame in therapy can also be rewarding, brave and give you a new lease on life.
Shame and Society We live in a society, in which life is well documented on social media platforms. We see other people “living their best lives”, but we don’t often see the struggles behind the perfect selfie or vacation picture. We end up comparing our worst days to someone else’s highlight reel. And we’re under constant pressure to fulfill socially imposed expectations. Although the body positivity movement is gaining traction, there’s still a lot of shaming that happens towards people’s physical bodies, leaving some of us filled with shame and suffering simply because of how we look. There are social expectations around gender, sex, race, culture, sexuality, relationships and more. The list goes on. It’s hard to say what the true “ideal” even is anymore, and because no one is perfect, and diversity is beautiful, resolving our shame can be viewed as a brave act of courage and rebellion. You are allowed to own your story and revel in who you are.
Shame and Trauma Trauma is any overwhelming event or experience that leaves you unable to cope during and in its aftermath. The effects of trauma worsen when you don’t receive support in the aftermath. Sometimes trauma is repetitious and complex, like the trauma of repeated child abuse, child neglect or an undiscovered perpetrator of sexual violence. When we are young, we learn about ourselves and the world through our primary caretakers, and the experiences we have that leave us feeling safe or unsafe in the environment we exist in. If you’ve experienced childhood trauma, it’s likely that you carry a heightened sense of shame. If you were neglected as a young person, you may have internalized the message that “you are not worthy of care”, or that “you do not deserve basic nurturing.” Although this is heartbreaking, it’s vital to understand that the shame you carry is not your fault, and it comes from being traumatized and trying to make sense of your world as a child. A qualified therapist who understands the shame and trauma connection can help you to process your experiences, facing the shame and rewriting your story. At the Center for Growth, we have shame and trauma specialists who understand the complexities and can help you heal. Dealing with shame in therapy can be a game-changer when working on your mental health and releasing trauma.
Toxic Shame In its most extreme form, shame can become a debilitating experience of worthlessness and intense self-loathing. Toxic shame can result in severe isolation, and even suicidality. Toxic shame often develops when a child is vulnerable to the messages they are receiving from those around them. It is the kind of shame that can take the shape of a critical parent. The “voice of shame” in this case can sound a lot like an abuser. Toxic shame can leave the person with a sense of self that is caught in shame. Toxic shame is less like an experience and more of an embedded part of someone’s identity. This is often the case when someone has unresolved trauma that started at a critical time of life and development. Toxic shame is often harder to deal with on one’s own. Dealing with toxic shame in therapy can not only help with the deeply painful feelings, but can also help in rebuilding a stronger sense of identity outside of the shame.
Healing Shame We have to remember that shame is not the enemy, but rather, it’s more like a doorway. Just as triggers are leading to an unhealed wound, shame is an opportunity for growth. When we stop running from our shame, we often discover its gifts. Healing through shame can feel like a spiritual experience to some because it can leave us feeling more connected to other human beings, and our imperfect humanity itself. The attempts to run from shame only create more barriers, as we frantically try and escape something that’s already here. Dealing with shame in therapy can allow you the safe container needed to stop running from your shame and face it head on
Healing Shame in Therapy When dealing with shame in therapy, it can help to have a guide who understands the terrain and can help you to feel safer in this process- especially if you’re a trauma survivor. Here are some examples of what a therapist will help you work through in the context of healing shame.
Increasing Self-Compassion It’s been proven that an increased level of self-compassion actually helps people to reach their goals faster and with more precision. This is because self-judgment, negative self-talk and shame itself serves as an obstacle to reaching our fullest potential. Avoiding shame decreases our willingness to take risks. When we are going for something big, be it a job promotion, a college degree, an artistic endeavor or a relationship, we will inevitably meet some “failures” along the way. We will not succeed 100% of the time, so increasing self-compassion is not only necessary, but quite practical. However, learning to live your life with increased self-compassion is a practice. Your therapist might help you to practice self-compassion by directing love inwardly during a mindfulness meditation. They might challenge you to do inner-child work, recognizing the parts of yourself that really needed that love and care in your younger years and delivering that care in the present as a wise adult.
Healing Loneliness Because shame thrives in isolation, sometimes even the act of telling your therapist about the shame you’re experiencing can create some relief. Your therapist can help you to identify safe people in your life, and safe communities where you can share yourself with more openness and freedom. Therapy can be “practice” for more authentic communication outside of therapy and in your “real life.” When you begin to let others in, you will realize that you are not alone in anything you’ve ever thought or felt. You might spend your time with many people, but still feel lonely if you’re hiding your true self.
Understanding Your Triggers Understanding what triggers your shame is important for everyone. You might experience shame when your boss criticizes your work performance, as it reminds you of the feelings of inadequacy or the story of “I don’t belong here.” Or, your shame triggers might be more pervasive, bringing you back to a place of childhood trauma. The possible scenarios are endless, but it’s imperative that you learn to understand when you’re triggered and what that’s like for you. You can become more familiar with the landscape and less avoidant of negative feeling states. There will be “Ah-ha!” moment in your life when you start to recognize that shame is not who you really are, and that a trigger is in fact something that can be traced back to a source. We feel better when we know what’s going on with ourselves, even if the experience is difficult. Part of recovery from shame is really getting to know ourselves and learning how to work with our triggers so we feel less of a need to avoid them.
Increasing your Capacity for Vulnerability Because shame is a difficult experience to feel, and you may be in the habit of avoiding any emotions associated with it. Shame can come with a degree of hopelessness, anxiety, fear of being found out, sadness and depression. Your therapist can help you to experience these tough emotions in a safe way, and you can actually learn how to feel them and become less avoidant of them. This allows you to be more self-contained, comfortable with whatever comes up for you. When you learn that you can handle what you feel inside, you can share more easily with others and feel an overall increased sense of confidence. When you share your true feelings with others, you open yourself up to more profound connections, deeper relationships and you give yourself the chance to be known and accepted for who you are.
Healing Self-Sabotage Unresolved shame can work against you in the form of self-sabotage. Because shame tells us that we are not worthy of success, we might sabotage opportunities to reach our fullest potential or accomplish goals. We may sabotage as we approach milestones in life, or at the dawn of new endeavors. Self-sabotage can sometimes be in the service of keeping things the same, and avoiding any potential triggers that, say, applying for a new job may bring. We might avoid risks because of shame, trying to maneuver our way around the potential emotions of both success and failure. Self-sabotage can work as a feedback loop: we feel “not good enough”, then something good happens, but we get in our own way and destroy an opportunity, thus finding our evidence that we don’t deserve good things. Your therapist will help you identify patterns regarding self-sabotage and help you to take the necessary risks in efforts to create the life you want to live.