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Three Steps to Healing Shame (and Trauma)

Separating shame from other emotions.

Key points

  • As with trauma, shame creates a freeze state, a sense of deadness.
  • When an emotion is bound with shame, it is hard to see and challenging to work with.
  • Any incident that triggers shame is important to look at and explore.

By Bret Lyon, Ph.D.

Shame is unique in that it is a binding emotion, latching onto and interfering with the free flow of other emotions, such as anger, fear, and grief. Most emotions have a natural rhythm and path to expression. I believe that emotions are expressions of our natural vitality. If they are bound with shame, however, they cannot complete.

Shame, like trauma, creates a freeze in the nervous system—working against expression and release. And shame around the incident of trauma and the sense of powerlessness and weakness that trauma causes, can reinforce the trauma freeze. A sense of shame can also keep humans from discharging trauma in the shaking and body release that animals engage in, all of which can make trauma even more difficult to work with.

Shame is a major factor in depression. When an emotion is bound with shame, it is hard to see and challenging to work with. Our job is to help people separate shame from life-forward emotions. The concept of “Both-And,” developed by Ann Weiser Cornell, becomes very important here. “I feel anger and I feel shame” can allow the client to orient and get a better sense of the battle going on inside. We can then help them allow the life-forward emotion to flow as they notice and welcome whatever emotions have been merged with their shame.

Exploring Incidents of Feeling Shamed

Just as trauma is not what actually happened to you but rather how you experienced it, shame is triggered internally. An incident that would produce outrage in one person or a mild sense of regret in someone else might trigger enormous shame in someone who is carrying childhood trauma. Any incident that produces shame is important. As with trauma, the shame can be very intense or dismissed and only mentioned in passing in a session, perhaps with words like: “It was really nothing. I don't know why I was so upset.” It is important to catch the moment and work with the incident slowly, detail by detail, being careful to allow oneself to feel and regulate one's emotional response.

Working with clients, it is important to help them find the moment when they felt the shame and what happened just before. If another person shamed them, it is important to explore what was going on for that person—perhaps a need for power or control, or a speaking out of their own shame. The goal is to help them understand and reframe the situation, with emphasis on what was going on for the other person, which helps counter the freeze and pulling in that accompanies shame. In many cases, we can help them see that the other person, consciously or unconsciously, is putting their own shame on the client. Shame is an incredibly unpleasant feeling. It can be a hot potato, passed from one person to another, often to one who has less appetite for conflict or is weaker in some way.

Shame Comes From Being Shamed

While there is a built-in physiology to shame, it is important to understand that we don't feel shame unless we have been shamed. In the same way that we must normalize trauma—given what you went through, no wonder your nervous system shut down— which allows the client to feel that they had good reason to act or feel the way they did, we need to let them know that shame was imposed on them; it was not their fault. The belief that there is something wrong with me usually comes from the words and behavior—often unconscious—of those with power over them. In addition to obviously shaming messages, any disconnection, dismissal, or neglect can easily produce shame in a child. Later incidents can easily and quickly trigger that storehouse of shame.

People often shame others when they feel shame. Unfortunately, the shame cycle just makes things worse. Often the person we shame is just someone who has triggered our shame from the past. While it is important to work with any experience of shame, ultimately, we need to go back to the original shaming and original source and really come to understand what happened. Usually, it is a generational transmission of shame.

Parents are rarely truly conscious of what they are doing and the terrible, unintended lifelong consequences. It is important for your client to understand what happened and to reverse the early belief that “It's all my fault, there's something wrong with me.” As so beautifully expressed by Robin Williams, playing the therapist in the movie “Good Will Hunting,” they need to hear, over and over again, “It’s Not Your Fault” or words with similar meanings such as "Where were your parents when you needed their help" or "A child can't be expected to be a little adult" or "everyone makes mistakes, nobody's perfect" until something about those words gets through. Hearing such messages from a therapist or from ourselves can go a long way toward helping us heal from past shaming, and even traumatic, experiences.

More from Bret Lyon, Ph.D., SEP, and Sheila Rubin, MA, LMFT
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