By Sheila Rubin, LMFT, RDT/BCT
(Adapted from my chapter "Unpacking Shame and Healthy Shame: Therapy on the Phone or Internet" in the book Combining the Creative Therapies with Technology: Using Social Media and Online Counseling to Treat Clients by Stephanie L. Brooke, editor.)
I begin this article about the internet with the fact that my clients think I’m a Luddite. I grew up with a wall phone telephone that, by definition, was attached to the wall. At most we could stand a few feet from the wall, with a few inches of cord linking us to the phone. This was in a time even before answering machines. I came of age and went to study radio and television in college during the time of the black-and-white Porta Pak video machine that was heavy, where we actually spliced tape using our fingers—just before electronic newsgathering. Response time to a letter was a couple of days to a couple of weeks. I’m fully aware that the words I’m writing here will likely be outdated due to technology changes before this book is out in the world. I have accepted the use of a smartphone into my private practice, along with doing therapy over the phone or Skype or Zoom if I have met the client at least once in person. I have come a long way.
Therapy on the Phone or Internet
Therapy, on both phone and internet, is with individuals or couples. When I am not physically with a client, I find that I check more often for feelings that I might be able to sense when working face-to-face. I slow things down and tend to do more somatic work, asking clients to ground and to sense somatically for part of the session. I always ask at the end, “What are you taking from this session? What was helpful?” I also give homework after each session. For example: Make a list of the coping skills from the session and put them on your calendar day by day. Or: Take the powerful objects from this session and put them out in your room at home with a note by each to remind you what we did in the session today. If the session helped them find a vision to support the marriage, we have that symbol, like a strong tree holding both of them as they deal with difficulties during the week.
Concerns about Technology
What about when technology fails? When a person just revealed something they’ve been hiding and the screen suddenly freezes? A while ago, I was in the middle of a Skype session where a husband was telling his wife why he had trouble when she touched him. Suddenly the screen froze and this tender moment was interrupted with my frantically trying to call them on Skype, which would not reconnect. I had to call them on my cell phone, and by the time I reached them, the tender moment had passed and they were fighting again. I had to slow things down and gently find the words to tell them about the negative cycle their communication was in and how to do a repair to get out of it.
As Kaufman says, shame is the rupture of the interpersonal bridge (1974, 1992). Any disruption in connection with a significant other can disconnect the person from him- or herself, or the therapist, and activate the feeling of shame. And this couple was experiencing a disruption in connection. I was eventually able to use the symbol of disconnection because of the unpredictability of the internet as a way for each of them to have a role of explorer rather than blaming each other.
What I realized was I have to let clients know ahead of time about the constraints and the benefits of using the phone or internet for therapy. It will save them time coming to my office when they are in a difficult place, but it may not be as contained as an in-person session.
One couple was struggling with the husband having had an online affair and the wife needing to check his phone in order to be reassured that he wasn’t meeting the woman. I spoke slowly and carefully to them to get agreement before we began to talk:
Because we are not face to face, I can’t just interrupt you if there is shouting. I am going to do the session slowly and have you repeat what you hear the other person saying, so that I can know you heard them and they can know that you heard them. We are going to take turns. Are you both in agreement? And because the phone is not a predictable medium, and each of us is on a cell phone, if one of us gets disconnected for any reason we need to have a plan. Are each of you near a home or office line? If someone’s line dies, we will momentarily stop the session and I will wait for the call of the person who was disconnected. Call me back on your phone and I will use my phone to accept both calls.
Shame During the Session
In my chapter in The Self in Performance, I write that “Shame can be right there in the shadows. It is easy for misunderstanding.”
When I can’t see the emotion on clients’ faces, because we are on the phone or they are looking away from the screen, I don’t know what they are experiencing and truly expressing. In the book Shame and Pride, Nathanson (1992) explained that throughout life we are balancing between pride, when we are seen in a good light, and shame, when we make a mistake or are seen in a less than favorable light. Diana Fosha (1992) later wrote that we call this our “self at best” and our “self at worst.” We strive to be seen as smart or clever or helpful, but when a mistake is made and something is unclear, suddenly the person is risking being exposed and seen as self at worst. This concept is helpful to remember when a client is sharing vulnerable revelations. I know from my own vulnerability how scary it can be to be exposed at the wrong time or without kindness and support.
Listen for Subtle Signs of Shame
In the chapter “Treating Family Systems with Shame and Addiction Problems,” Ron Potter-Efron wrote that:
Clients do not always directly communicate their experience of shame with their counselors. Rather, they may hint at their shame through relatively subtle cues, downcast eyes, sudden speech stoppages, avoidance of an apparently innocuous topic, unusual phrases, and so forth. They may also speak at length about other emotions regarding a particular experience without adding that they also or even primarily feel shame about it (p. 230).
He suggests the importance of the interactive process between the therapist and client can even be more important than the client actually disclosing the feelings of shame because the client expects that the therapist will dismiss them. He explains, “Shamed clients have a specific hope, not necessarily stated, within the counseling relationship. They desire to reveal everything within them that feels dirty, disgusting, and defective. They seldom reveal all this material immediately and may never be able to share some of it” (p. 229). He explained how the therapist needs to gently layer by layer work carefully and not reject the client as they reveal more levels of shame during the sessions.
The good news is that the internet can serve as a bridge between family members who do not live within driving distance of one another. It can also get in the way of having the direct eye contact family members long for. It proved very therapeutic for an elder client to see her grandchild over Skype, even though she believed it would not “do the trick.” She had been hurting and reported being filled with rage because her son didn’t call her as often after his baby came, and because the other grandparent was being invited over and she was not. We role-played her talking to her son, but nothing shifted. She still felt left out, like something was wrong with her for not being chosen to spend time with the new family. We unpacked all the feelings of anger toward her son for not insisting that his wife invite her at the same time as the other grandparents, and under that was the feeling of shame. She felt ashamed to not be invited and fought with him on the phone when they did talk. I asked her to role-play talking to her son in a way that invited a solution instead of blaming him for her frustration. I invited her to role play the visit with the grandchild. She rocked back and forth. Finally, I suggested that she use Skype as a way to visit her grandchild. She told me that I didn’t understand. She wanted to pick her up and rock her in her lap in the rocking chair. I invited her to try just one phone visit on Skype with her son and grandbaby. She sat in the rocking chair at her home and rocked. She was delighted to see her grandchild recognize Grammy over Skype. This experience fulfilled her longing to visit with her grandchild. There were many Skype visits thereafter. Her feelings of shame about being left out decreased and invitations to visit increased.
Please note that I only do sessions remotely if I have met with the client in my office and we have developed a solid therapeutic container first. When the client is in my office, I can observe a range of nonverbal cues and get a sense of his or her energy. Over the phone, there are subtle cues I may miss. There are ways I work with the absence of the visual modality. Because I am not seeing them, there are things I need to do to contain the energy of the session and the pace of the session. Because the client isn’t seeing me, there are ways I want to structure things to help them feel me where they are sitting.
Case Example of Phone Session
This client was feeling dark. Her boyfriend was spending time with his ex-lover again instead of going on the date they had planned.
Client: “He’s still in the role of letting his ex-wife rely on him. I couldn’t stop crying for hours. My emotions got all wacky or something. I see his side when he’s helping his kids. But every act of his kindness is an act of affection toward his ex-wife. One day it’s good between us, and the next day I feel ignored, neglected.”
Therapist: “How about if you choose something in your room to represent your feeling neglected and ignored.”
Client: “OK, this plant.”
Therapist: “Can you move it near you and look closer at it? And as you are looking at it, what does it say to you? What does it symbolize?”
Client: “You have to pay attention to a flower. You have to water it or it dies!”
Therapist: “So that’s a very powerful symbol of needing to be tended and cared for.”
I wanted to pause and have her reflect on the importance of her attachment needs. She really wanted to just rush past them in the session. Choosing an object helped me direct the session to make space for that subject. The act of choosing something took her into another part of her brain where creativity was more open to her. Having a symbol can be very powerful metaphor. Having it in front of her helped her to focus on it during the whole session.
Client: “Yes! I want to be cared for. But when I feel this way, I don’t feel like myself. It feels like I don’t exist. It’s too painful when he says he’s coming over and then he cancels because he’s with his ex-lover. Why am I punishing myself? I could go out and be in another relationship!”
Therapist: “So there’s another part of you that doesn’t want to be punished any more, that wants to find another relationship, one where the guy is choosing you instead of choosing his ex. Can you look around the room and find an object that represents this part of you?”
This is another place I want to pause the session and give her time to feel the power of what she just said. I want a symbol for that part so we can talk to that part as well, maybe have a conversation with both of them.
Client: “This candle!”
Therapist: “Can you put the candle in front of you and look at it. What does it represent?”
Client: (Surprised) “There’s a light in it! I can attract things… People! But I’m not ready to move on.”
Therapist: “Can you give each a voice? What does the flower say and what does the candle say to you?”
The candle told her that she is bright inside when she’s not so depressed, worrying what is going on with this guy she’s dating. It gives her inspiration to grow herself and step out of the relationship to a real relationship where someone could really be available for her. As she was expressing this, another feeling showed up.
Client: “I feel deep anxiety.”
Therapist: “Where is the anxiety in your body?”
Client: “My diaphragm.”
Therapist: “Can you put some space around it and take some slow deep breaths?”
Client: “I’m not being logical. I should just leave him. But I don’t want to leave him. He says kind things to me, offers to work it out. I really care about him. He’s clear about his intention that he wants to be with me!”
Therapist: “There are a lot of conflicting feelings.”
Because we are on the phone, I want to keep the connection and let her know that I am here and that I hear her.
Client: “I’m scared. Lonely.”
Therapist: “Yes, there’s a part that’s scared and lonely.”
I want to support this part.
Client: “It’s like a pouting child!”
And it feels like she is putting down that part. It is like some part of her is shaming that part of her for wanting what she is wanting.
Therapist: “I wonder… I’m curious if there is some shame around that part?”
Therapist: “Can you look around and find an object to represent the part that comes out and shames you when you talk about your attachment needs?”
Client: (Apparently looking around her room for a few moments) “A hat.”
Therapist: “How does a hat represent shame?”
Client: “I put it on myself!!! I have a hard time asking him to meet my needs and I’m scared that they won’t get met again. That he’ll cancel plans with me again!”
Therapist: “Maybe the shame comes out to put you down for feeling what you’re feeling?”
Client: “Yes. If I’d recognize those things, logically, I would leave.”
Therapist: “That inner conflict is so painful. So one part of you shames you for having normal wants and needs from him, and when you think he lies again or cancels plans, then that part shames you again for not leaving.”
Client: “He told me he couldn’t have me over because he didn’t want his neighbors to think I was a homewrecker because his ex just moved out. So now I feel shame for wanting to come to his house. It’s been over six months we’ve been dating. So when is he going to tell people?”
Therapist: “How did you feel when he said that?
Client: “Insecure! Nerves all over my body. On edge!”
Therapist: “What did the nerves say?”
Therapist: “And what did you do when you felt that strong urge to run?”
Client: “I’m feeling shame about my feelings. He’s good with his words, but his actions don’t match. Then I feel shame for wanting to leave.”
Therapist: “I wonder if this current feeling of shame reminds you of anything that happened before in your life.”
Client: “I feel so much shame in this relationship. It reminds me of my last relationship.”
Therapist: “The one where the guy was hiding his porn addiction and hiding his other lovers?”
Client: “Yes. That was terrible. But I want to give this guy more opportunity, more time to show me that he can make the life for us he is always promising. I want to give him the benefit of my doubts. I want this relationship to work.”
Therapist: “Of course you want this relationship to work. Can you turn to the plant that represents your needs? What does the plant say?”
Client: “The plant says, ‘You’re making yourself suffer!’”
Therapist: “What does the hat say?”
Client: “It says that I’m ashamed of my feelings. I’m embarrassed that I want him to visit me instead of his kids. That’s terrible.”
Therapist: “What does the candle say?”
Client: “It says that I don’t need to shame myself for my feelings. I have light inside me. I need to remember.”
I’m wanting her to stop here and reflect and to work to understand if maybe there is something here for her to be shameful for. That would be a form of healthy shame.
Therapist: “Sometimes shame can pull a person out of her deep knowing by cutting off the life force or the light. Sometimes there is healthy shame that tells a person that there is something he or she is doing or another person is doing that is actually shameful, that should be shameful. And there might be helpful information here if this is healthy shame. Healthy shame can help a person make new decisions or understand things in a different way. Here is some homework to do before our next session. Get out your journal at the end of the session and ask yourself, ‘What did I get from this session?’ Please write it down. And please write down some of these questions. Please do some journal writing to answer these questions.”
- What does the plant say?
- What does the candle say?
- What does the hat say about how you shame yourself?
- Listen to the shame and feel if there is something of value here or if it is just putting you down.
- Is there part of it that is valid?
- Is there something to listen to that is actually shaming for a reason in this situation?
- Is there something here from a past relationship or a situation where you felt shamed?
- Is there something you feel shy about?
- Is there something for you to learn about shame here?
In Dancing with Fire, A Mindful Way of Loving Relationships (2013) John Amadeo writes “Stumbling into adolescence and adulthood we may continue to hear the message that we are too selfish, needy, or flawed to be loved. The resulting isolation generates emotional suffering that is often unbearable. This begins an epic journey of scrambling to figure out who we need to be in order to win love and connection” (p.23). He writes that we lose the thread of connection with ourselves. “Shame prompts us to seek affirmation and approval rather than connection and intimacy. We look outside ourselves to sense whether we’re emotionally safe” (p 111). Many people end up looking outside themselves to find out how they feel or even what they should be doing.
See part 2 for the continuation of this article.