Working With Client Shame

Co-Creating the Session: Guiding the Client’s Attention – Establishing Optimal Distance – Leading From Behind

Co-Creating the Session: Guiding the Client’s Attention – Establishing Optimal Distance – Leading From Behind

Natalie would always come into therapy with a lot of energy and a million things to talk about. Judy, her therapist, was stumped. “How do I get her to stop talking long enough to help her?” she asked. Joan, another client, is different. As soon as she mentions her boyfriend, she starts to sob uncontrollably. Steve, her therapist, feels helpless to help her.

While they are responding in opposite ways, Natalie and Joan both have the same problem: Neither is able to keep an optimal distance from their feelings. Natalie skips from topic to topic to avoid going into her feelings. Joan plunges in too deeply and too quickly.

Unbinding Shame

Unbinding Shame

The session was not going well. I was demonstrating to the group how to work with a mother suffering because her son had been left back in school. Nothing I did seemed to work. After an excruciating 30 minutes, I gave up. “I don’t think I’m really helping you right now. I’m truly sorry.” She politely agreed that it hadn’t helped much. “It did help a little, I guess,” she said, trying to soften my embarrassment. She had calmed down a bit, benefitting from simply being able to talk about the situation. But the kind of calm and peacefulness I had hoped to help her achieve was far away.

Whose Fault Is It?

Whose Fault Is It?

I come from a long line of blamers. When something was wrong, my mom said it was my dad’s fault; my dad, of course, said it was my mom’s fault. It had to be someone’s fault. That was just the way things were in the world. Somehow all along the family tree there would be stories of who was to blame for what, stories that seemed to pass beyond the generations into the long distant past. Often there would be a cut-off, as in: We don’t talk to them anymore. We just talk about them!

In watching all the blame, and sensing into the unexpressed pain under it, I determined not to be a blamer. I would do something different. But what else was there?

Bound by Shame

Bound by Shame

Brody is my psychotherapy client—and a psychotherapist himself. In one particular session, he shares with me what happens when he goes into a room full of people; the distress of it for him, the sheer physiological activation of his nervous system, the sweating, his whole body being on high alert. And as he tells me more about what occurs to him under these circumstances, I listen, with care and attention.

Empathy, Compassion and Optimal Distance

Empathy, Compassion and Optimal Distance

At the age of four, Barry* had been forced to do something very much against his nature by his father, something about which he still felt great shame, and which was affecting his current relationships. Having done years of somatic work, he was ready and eager to feel into that painful memory in order to overcome it. I kept him in the present for quite a while, drawing him out and complimenting him about his competence and strength in the present, his successful career, his love of nature. Then I suggested that he could feel into that past memory. But, I cautioned, “Go back to it as you are now—a competent, resourceful adult, keeping all of your resources with you. You can be with that child that was so hurt and shamed. You can have compassion for that child.”

Transforming Toxic Shame into Healthy Shame

Transforming Toxic Shame into Healthy Shame

In working with clients, it is extremely important to bring in the concept of healthy shame vs. toxic shame. While toxic shame feels horrible and produces an amazingly unpleasant state of freeze, healthy shame can actually help you function better. A humorous example of healthy shame is realizing “I can't fly. I wish I could. It would be really nice. I really envy those birds, just soaring through the air. But I can't. I'm human. I have limitations, just as all people have limitations.” This understanding is particularly healthy shame because it can keep us from jumping off cliffs—and being very surprised as we flap our arms. While this is an extreme example, healthy shame helps us to be aware of limitations, reassess our actions and act more appropriately in the future.

Shame and Countertransference

Shame and Countertransference

My work has been focused on the emotion of shame for many years. The theme of emotions is particularly interesting for me to write about because of the role that shame plays with emotions. Often shame binds with sadness and grief to cause what used to be called pathological grief, and shame binds with anger to hold a person in a state of depression or frozen rage for years. Shame can bind with fear to create social anxiety. Shame can also bind with happiness and get in the way of happiness.

Can Imagination Heal Shame?

Can Imagination Heal Shame?

Once I was working with a woman who was feeling very lost in her life. She wasn’t sure if she even wanted to start a new job or a new relationship. I asked her what her picture was when she imagined getting a new job, and all she could picture was what happened in her last job: her co-worker and even her supervisor putting her down. I asked her what picture she imagined when she thought about a new relationship and she couldn’t even imagine that; she just kept saying over and over, “The last one wasn’t very good, so there must be something wrong with me.”

Pendulation

Pendulation

Pendulation describes the back and forth motion of a pendulum—forward and back or up and down. In the same way, humans are constantly changing mood and perspective. We're happy, then we're sad, then we're happy again. We are intensely working on something, then a thought comes: “What's for dinner?” At moments, we can be completely absorbed in something, “in the zone.” But eventually, we change. The picture shifts, our mood changes.