Why Is Shame Important To Talk About in Therapy?

As I get more immersed in learning about trauma and attachment, I’ve started to understand the importance of addressing shame, which is intimately tied to the other two.

Some symptoms of shame are:

Shyness, embarrassment

Strong inner critic

Judgement of self and others


Being controlling and rigid

Feeling very defensive when confronted

Feeling defective

Keeping secrets and feeling isolated, different, less-than or unworthy

Fearful of opening up with others

Shame can leave us feeling as though we want to drop through the floor, propelled by a strong desire to hide, curl up and become invisible. We may often try to cover up our feelings of shame by acting sullen and withdrawn or by lashing out with anger, hostility and defensiveness rather than sharing the deep vulnerable core of ourselves.

Shame by its very nature is an elusive and confusing emotion to work with in therapy because clients will sometimes try to hide it. Sadly, some therapists fail to recognize the signs and symptoms of shame due to its hidden nature, resulting in clients who finish therapy but still judge and criticize themselves and others – a result of continuing to feel defective or unworthy.


Healthy Shame vs. Unhealthy Shame

Shame is a universally hardwired emotion that probably has to do with keeping families and communities intact. Healthy shame occurs when a scary adult voice tells us to not run out into the street or not to call other children names. Shame can be understood as a way to civilize and socialize us. However, shame gone wrong turns out to be a terrible, scarring experience for most people.

Shame becomes unhealthy when the message goes from what you did was bad, mean, hurtful, etc. to who you are is bad, flawed and defective. This is communicated to us as tiny children through words, tone of voice and facial expressions. When you’re on the receiving end of shame, you might see an expression of disgust on your parent’s face or hear an authority figure yell in a hostile tone of voice “you are such a clutz, don’t you ever watch what you’re doing?”

If you were shamed regularly as a child you might have started to believe something was inherently “wrong” with you. This belief can be internalized in children and still be active in adulthood. As adults, shame often comes out as our inner critic: I’m such an Idiot! or can be directed toward other people: you are such an idiot, what’s wrong with you!


Links Between Attachment Trauma And Shame

The kinds of families we grow up in can determine the beliefs we carry as adults. Deep wounds to our healthy sense of self can result from situations in which children are ignored, neglected or treated as if they don’t matter. In an emotionally abusive family, there might be humiliation, teasing or general mocking of feelings; in a controlling family, fear and punishment are used to instill order; Narcissistic parents might expect their child to be there for the parents needs, unable to see and give the child what he/she needs. In all these situations the child struggles with developing a healthy sense of self, and there is no way to do this if the child is not nurtured, listened to and cared for unconditionally. If a primary attachment figure chronically shames us over time, we will start to feel unworthy and unlovable at our core (this is attachment trauma). Expressions of disgust or impatience in response to normal child behavior also elicits feelings of shame. Similarly, sexual abuse (violating and betraying at the most basic level) creates a deep sense of shame, secrecy, confusion and fear all bound together. As a result of these experiences, negative inner critic voices usually begin developing early on in childhood and can berate us for being wrong or stupid. Eventually we don’t even need anyone to actually say these negative things to us because our inner critic is doing all the work!


Couples and Shame

Shame can frequently manifest in couples, sabotaging their relationship. Here’s an example: Joe feels hurt and disregarded because Mary was late, so he says something in anger about it. Mary can’t tolerate the horrible feeling brewing inside her;  she may fear being wrong or feeling defective or bad, and will do anything to turn the argument back on her partner by not listening, walking away or accusing Joe of being crazy, stupid or overly emotional. Mary now appears to be attacking Joe, but in reality she is trying to hide from painful feelings of shame that resulted from being late and feeling wrong.

If scenarios like this occur repeatedly in your relationship, over time your partner may feel you don’t care about his or her feelings because you are defensive instead of being able to actually listen. A non-shaming response to your partner’s feelings might be to just hear them as your partner’s worries, fears and frustrations rather than as attacks that you need to defend against. When you try to protect yourself, your partner may feel alone and disconnected from you. Couples play this out all the time if they’re caught in a shame/blame trap.


How Will Therapy Help Me to Deal with Shame ?

Shame is hard to work with because, by its very nature, it doesn’t want to be found or seen; it wants to hide and disappear. So, how can we deal with this tricky emotion that often we aren’t even that aware of, but which affects our lives and relationships in such profound ways?

  • 1)  Education: In order to recover from shame issues and stop repetitive, negative patterns in your relationships, it’s important to learn about the purpose of healthy and unhealthy shame and to understand that you are not alone. We all struggle with this difficult emotion. Many of us have internalized shame from home, school and culture in general. By learning about shame in therapy sessions, you’ll learn to recognize the difference between healthy and unhealthy shame and will hopefully come to recognize how pervasive shame is in our culture. Hearing about the universality of shame helps many people feel better. One of the antidotes to shame is understanding the emotion and feeling less isolated.
  • 2)  Recognizing Negative Patterns: During therapy sessions you’ll be able to examine how shame can contribute to negative patterns occurring in your relationships and work to develop skills, tools and strategies that can help you express yourself through healthier forms of communication. You can learn to listen to your partner with compassion and in turn have your partner listen to you, resolving arguments in  productive ways that feel good to both of you. The more we can understand the process that is sabotaging your relationships, the more awareness you can bring to your life. Being able to identify how shame is holding you back—or causing problems in your relationships—is potentially very healing. Instead of attacking your partner or yourself for being defective, you can start to have a choice in how you react.
  • 3)  Learning About Your Shame Triggers: In my practice I help clients learn  how shame creates our reactions – whether we are freezing up or conversely are attacking or defending. By talking through your experience and understanding how shame triggers you, you can lessen its grip and begin to feel forgiveness and compassion as you begin to create a healthier sense of self.

I have been certified by Bret Lyon and Sheila Rubin to work with shame. They have created a series of trainings to help therapists identify shame in effective and creative ways so that clients can begin to heal from this toxic emotion. I  continue to pursue my interest in working with this most difficult of emotions.

I always strive to create a sense of safety in my work. You’ll have a professional, nonjudgmental and compassionate therapist by your side who knows and understands what you’re going through. Shame is something we all have felt, and you do not have to be alone with it.

Please call me at 503-242-0233 so we can talk and see if I can help you with these feelings. In the meantime, to learn more about how shame can affect your relationship with yourself and others, please visit my attachment and trauma pages.