Shame is a primary emotion. The role of shame is to warn us and protect us. Our nervous system shuts down and we actually lose cognitive ability when we are feeling ashamed. Two indicators of shame are confusion and stuckness. Shame can freeze both mind and body. Shame is so difficult to see and cope with because it often hides behind other emotions. Shame is wired into our nervous system to protect us by lowering our emotional intensity and capacity to act. It is important to differentiate healthy shame, which can help us pause and rethink, from toxic shame, which can produce paralysis and leave a person so frozen that he or she is incapable of action and clear thinking. Healthy shame can lead a person to take responsibility for his or her actions, reassess, and make changes.
Daniel Hughes, in Attachment Focused Family Therapy, writes that shame places a person in a fog that gets in the way of the intersubjective experience of being understood with empathy that can help a person gain understanding and acceptance. Also, shame itself can prevent a person from being able to reflect on their behavior or experience (p. 184). In the Eight Keys to Safe Trauma Recovery (2000), Babette Rothschild notes that “shame, quite simply, tells us that something is amiss” (p. 87) and that “Rather than discharge, as an example in yelling or crying, shame dissipates, when it is understood or acknowledged by a supportive other. More than any other feeling, I find that shame needs contact to diminish” (p. 92). Rothschild describes a process for deciding when to address shame, understanding the value of shame, apportioning shame fairly, and sharing shame (pp. 98–100).
In the book The Authentic Heart, John Amadeo explains shyness can actually be a friend. “Shyness is an entrance into a tender fold within your authentic heart” (p. 110). But shame can cut both ways. “shame can be debilitating when you’re ashamed of your shame” (p.70). By replacing control with trust and by beginning to trust and express feelings, shyness can serve as a guide to use shame in a healthy way. One of my clients reported the comfort of shame like a blanket, like a burka, covering her grief after the sudden loss of her father and the shame of friends who expected her to just return to work after her three days of mourning period. Many clients let this feeling of extreme shyness, even social anxiety get in their way of making friends or living their life.
In the chapter “Psychodrama” by Antonia Garcia and Dale Richard Buchanan in Current Approaches in Drama Therapy by David Read Johnson and Renée Emunah, editors (p. 396): “Moreno believed that the self emerges from the roles we play. He postulated that when people learn a new role, they follow a particular pattern of role development. The arc of the learning curve begins with role taking and proceeds to role playing and role creating.” The authors also say: “Dysfunction occurs when a person has a lack of either social roles or psychodramatic roles, and function is seen as having a balance of both.”
First, a person can’t imagine a certain role, so I tell them a story about someone who had that experience. Then I may suggest a conversation that that person may have. Moreno wrote that “In order to develop functionally, each of us must first be doubled as newborns” (p. 43). So much of the work I do in the therapy session is about mirroring the client.
This list is from my chapter “Almost Magic: Working with the Shame that Underlies Depression” in The Use of the Creative Therapies in Treating Depression, edited by Charles Meyers and Stephanie Brooke. I wrote a series of therapeutic processes to work with shame that can be used over the internet as well, as I describe in the case that follows (p. 236).
Working with Shame
- Counter-shaming: Help the client experience a series of successes. Focus on strengths.
- Contribute some personal sharing to join with the client and show humanity, join them in imperfection.
- Provide psycho-education about shame.
- Mindfulness or observing ego
- Use objects or symbols to externalize shame and process current shame.
- Separate shame from other emotions. Objects or scarves or pillows can be used as symbols.
- Use projective or embodied processes to explore where the shame may have originally come from.
- Introduce a protector.
- Find aesthetic distance for the client to work with the shame.
- Use projective or expressive processes to work with the shame.
- Find the person’s true voice.
- Give back the shame to where it came from.
- Witness the powerful healing taking place.
- Embody the new role, the new voice. Try a posture or movement.
A teenaged client complained of feeling “a presence watching me sometimes.” As we worked, I wanted to understand about the presence she sometimes felt while undressing and also when she got home from school. I wondered if it was perhaps an externalized voice of her inner critic, so I asked general questions about how she felt at school, at home, and listened for something that said she might feel judged or criticized. I asked when she felt the presence most strongly. She said she felt it most strongly in school when, even though she knew the answer, she felt shy to raise her hand, worrying that the other person would be thinking that she would give the wrong answer and that maybe wasn’t smart. She had fears of letting herself down and letting down her family. Over time I normalized her concerns by telling her that some of the developmental jobs of this particular time in her life were about comparison and finding her way socially as well as academically. I shared briefly about my shyness in high school and ways that I overcame it. This helped to normalize what she was going through and model that it was possible to get through it.
I helped her begin to feel inside her body by doing grounding exercises and stomping her feet. At some point she could feel inside her body and began to feel lighter and more hopeful. The next time she felt the presence was on a trip, and she was able to use coping skills to put her attention on other things. During one Skype session we used symbolic imagery to represent the part of her that was afraid that if she showed up as her real self in school, and people still didn’t like her, then she would feel destroyed. Describing the imagery helped her to develop empathy for the part of her that needed protection.
In one session I asked her to imagine a movie or play with similar characters to the situation the client is coping with in her life, like a waitress and a customer. I said, “Let’s say the waitress made a mistake with the order. And in the first scene, let’s say the customer is a mom who used to work as a waitress. How would the girl who was a waitress feel? Terrible, just terrible. And if the customer left a big tip then the waitress would realize that she had gone through the whole dinner remembering her mistake and thinking about it.” I asked, “Would you have compassion for the young waitress? You know how hard a job that is and she is just learning.” My client replied, “Yes, but you know, if the woman gave her a big tip it is because she probably thought she was a loser.”
“Wow,” I said, “That’s pretty critical. Let’s change the scene. Same kind of scene, but a different movie. Let’s say it’s the same waitress and the customer is someone her same age. Let’s say he’s a guy this time, a cute guy. So how would the waitress feel if she made a mistake at his table?” “Even worse,” she said. “So much worse, because he’s someone she wants to impress. That would be horrible!!! She probably would just feel like she’s wrong for even thinking he was cute, if she made a mistake with his order.” “And what about the tip? What if he left a big tip?” “That would be the worst,” she said. “Why?” I asked. She sighed and said, “If it was someone her own age and she made a mistake, that would be horrible.” “Why?” I asked. “Because he would know how awful she really was.”
As we discussed the imaginary scenes and went into detail exploring the different levels of imagining embarrassment, my listening to her rather than judging her allowed her to share the level of inner criticism she was coping with.
“So is there something you could tell the waitress about each of those scenes?” I asked. “Given that it’s a new job with a high learning process, what would you tell the waitress, if you could, to reassure her?” I asked her to replay the scene one more time, then said, “If you could go back and change one thing after the mistake, what would it be?”
For the first scene my client had the waitress tell the female customer how sorry she was, and that she was just learning this new waitress job. I asked her to imagine how the woman would respond. She said, “She might laugh in a kind way and say that she remembers what it’s like to learn something new.”
I asked her how that felt. She paused and said, “Not so bad when we talk about it.” I had her go back into the second scene with the cute guy. She imagined telling him later that it was her first day, so of course the job was new. She imagined the waitress then joking with the guy and both of them laughing! I asked, “How does that feel?” “So much better,” she said. I asked, “So how does your body feel?” She replied, “Lighter… A little more space.” “Where is the space?” I asked. She pointed to her chest. We both breathe a sigh of relief together over Skype.
As we unpacked the scene, she admitted surprise at how easy it was to imagine the waitress talking about her mistake and saying what was happening for her instead of keeping it all inside! I asked about the feelings of embarrassment. She said they were much less. And she couldn’t wait to practice this next week. I ask what she’s taking from the session, and she reports feeling lighter and less worried about the pressure she has been feeling.
I explained that we were working on several levels. One level was giving her tools to cope with the experience of the presence and the shyness. On another level we were working with symbols to understand the role that the presence had for her and other ways to relate to it. On another level we were working developmentally about what it is to be female in high school and all the issues of dating, finding her place with the other kids socially and intellectually. She began to understand that the presence was something she could gain more control over, by shifting her focus away from it by talking to family, friends, and getting busy with schoolwork. Eventually she realized she had gained a different relationship to it and it bothered her less and less. As she became more comfortable with saying what was going on with her instead of hiding behind her shyness, friends started to reach out to her more and she didn’t feel as alone.
The power of somatic imagery helped. Role plays that we did over Skype helped. The eye contact we had over Skype helped her feel normal and that this was part of her life journey. She reported learning to laugh at herself, something that had been very hard, in a way that was counter-shaming for herself and the other person. She reported that it took the pressure off of herself and the other person when in an uncomfortable moment. She said that sometimes she wasn’t worried what the other person was thinking.
Along the way we found things she could say in her new role of power, taking her locus of control back: “I’m committed, I’m ready, I’m in control. In sessions she felt a calmness in her body and a relaxedness. That’s how I would track. I would track her aliveness returning in the sessions. She first felt like a cold fish. After each session she felt a little more hopeful and a little surer of herself. Her somatic awareness also increased. She became more hopeful and began taking a few risks by sharing more what was going on with her. We found a way for her to talk to herself in a kind counter-shaming voice inside.
Imagination Activated via Drama Therapy and Expressive Arts Therapy
From our workshops and from an unpublished paper on “Healing Shame in the Imaginal Realm,” Bret Lyon, Ph.D. and I present that:
When a person gets stuck in shame, the most powerful way to get unstuck may be to activate his or her imagination. In the imaginal realm, logic and time are fluid and flexible. What actually happened can be explored and changed. What was stuck can be reexamined and shifted. Shaming situations from the past can be revisited, excavated through writing and expressive exercises, and thereby shifted. There are ways to give back the shame to where it belongs—through drawing, writing, and imagining past shaming experiences and saying now what you wish you had said then. Structured writing and expressive processes can symbolically give back the shame. This is where to find resilience.
This work needs to be done with extra care when the session is over the internet, because the person can quietly slip into the shame vortex. I develop exercises to help them have something to hold on to during and after the session.
Renée Emunah, in her book Acting For Real (1992), writes about “Drama Therapy as the intentional and systematic use of drama and theater processes to achieve psychological growth and change.” Psychodramatist and child psychiatrist Adam Blatner, expounded in “Foundations for Psychodrama” that psychodrama can offer a place for expressing unexpressed feelings and even replaying scenes of the past, expressing feelings now that have not been expressed, and for opening new possibilities for the future.” There is the idea of surplus reality in which a person can play with and change a conversation or an event that happened in the past where they felt shame and replay it to take a new role. The idea of act hunger that can be explored where unexpressed parts of a person can be invited into the psychodrama scene. Sometimes I use psychodrama just sitting with a client and ask them to imagine some things.
Conclusion: Working with Counter-Shaming Metaphors
There is much to be explored in this new world of online therapy. There is much to be explored. There is much to be created. I am excited about being able to reach people who don’t live near me and to do work online. I am excited about developing ways to work through shyness and awkwardness and shame using a combination of drama therapy, expressive arts and attachment work/psychotherapy. What I realize is that because they are home or at work when we do the session, they can actually have a power symbol or drawing or object on the shelf that we work with during the session and put on their desk or shelf behind them to help them keep ahold of the changes between sessions.
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