Many of my clients whose initial presentation is depression, anxiety or trauma reveal that they are carrying much toxic shame. Here I will give a little theory about shame and show how I work with this hard-to-reach state. I will then use a fictionalised account based on aspects of different people I have worked with, leading from shame to self-acceptance.
Anyone who suffers from shame will recognise an overwhelming suffocating and stifling feeling of being bad, irredeemable and wholly un-lovable. Shame has been described frequently as a feeling of wishing that the earth would swallow you up. We are often counselled to love ourselves, practice self-love and have a respect for our own well-being. For someone who suffers deep shame this advice may seem as impossible as going to the moon. Shame seems to hold the opposite place in the emotional world to this healthy sense of self regard.
Whilst low self-esteem is an ongoing trait which may seem to operate in all sorts of behaviour, shame seems to pop up unbidden from nowhere, as a kind of sickly embodied monster which is emotionally paralysing. Shame seems to be the dirty unseen underdog. It often lurks in the background and underground.
A bit of theory
There are many theories of how shame develops and here is a very simplified potted version of one such theory:
According to Attachment Theory caregivers need to be able to provide adequate mirroring and attunement in order for a child to gain ‘good enough attachment’. With such attachment the child will go on to develop a healthy attitude of self-regard. Attunement, in attachment theory, is the description of the process of how much the caregiver is in tune with the needs of the baby. Mirroring describes how the carer responds – with looks, handling and sounding – to the baby’s needs. In good mirroring the carer makes loving gestures and the baby internalises the attitude as belonging to him or herself. Conversely, if a caregiver looks angrily at the baby or handles her roughly or is somewhere else altogether emotionally, the baby also internalises these attitudes as her own. At the extreme end of the scale a care giver, with mental health issues, may be angry or hateful and communicate this to the child who later will experience himself as worthless or even worse, worthy of hate.
John Bowlby the creator of Attachment Theory, showed that children are exquisitely conscious of every move their caregiver makes. If a care giver does not give ‘good enough’ mirroring and holding, the baby internalises bad feelings. They feel not only that they may have done something wrong, but that they are ‘wrong’ in their very core. This is the birth of shame. The biological urge to maintain attachment is so strong that in the baby’s internal world, it is safer for her to believe that she is bad and wrong rather than that she has an emotionally abandoning carer.
My work with shame and Internal Family Systems
In shameful states we seek to hide our true selves from others and even ourselves. Hence shame is deeply buried and hard to access. I take pieces from many different theories which I find useful in dealing with shame. One such theory is Internal Family Systems. We internalise relations between ourselves and our carers. Here is just a small selection of the inner characters or parts we may internalise: a punishing father, a bullying sibling, an abandoning mother or a judgemental teacher. There may also be vulnerable child, a rebellious child, or a withholding or manipulative child. One such relationship between the judgemental or abandoning carer and the abandoned vulnerable child is crystallised in the internal relationship between the internal critic and the vulnerable inner child. Internal Family Systems refers to these internalised states as parts. When these parts are not conscious, we can end up exiling or repressing them because they highlight our vulnerability or narcissism or other aspects of our personality that we do not find attractive and wish to hide from ourselves and others. They do however end up unconsciously driving our behaviour. The parts are usually in pairs and act out together, for instance the punishing father and the vulnerable inner child. Whilst this internal relationship remains unconscious or unexamined the internal father goes on persecuting and the inner child hides herself under the cloak of shame.
We therefore work to externalise these parts and to enact them in a kind of psycho drama. We then begin to see how they interact with each other to keep shame locked in and we also begin to see a way out of the toxic deadlock.
A brief case study
I worked with Billie who had an absent father and a clinically depressed mother. She grew up as a wild child with abundant life energy which became destructive to herself and those around her because her energy was not channelled or held constructively. She grew up with an external shell of toughness, forthrightness and fiery exuberance. She loved to entertain and was extremely funny, often playing the jester. She could be blunt to the point of rudeness. She alienated many people and could not keep a job or a relationship. My hunch was there was a deeply buried vulnerable child beneath this false self. On entering therapy, she realised former strategies were not working for her. However, because of her sharp internalised parts, she now mercilessly criticised herself, turning her aggression on herself. I saw shame as a big player that was keeping her stuck. I suggested we work with parts from Internal Family Systems. I asked Billie to personify in her body/mind attitude and the traits of the parts she identified with. It became clear quickly that she was more in touch with her judge and her performer, than her vulnerable child. She played with the physical and characterological aspect of each personality and began to see how they related to each other. Someway into the work, after sessions where Billie deeply relaxed, she also identified a ‘wise woman’. She saw how the judge persecuted the other internal parts and how, when she identified with the judge, she persecuted others and herself. She also began to see how the vulnerable child was exiled – not allowed to surface into the light of day. She saw how the robust character was the manager. This part had helped her survive and organise her other parts or sub-personalities, but now with the help of the wise woman she recognised that the robust manager need not be so in control. It turned out that the vulnerable child felt deeply unloved and unlovable and ashamed to her core. She became critical of the judge himself and wished him gone, but now she also realised that the judge too, was in some ways helping and managing. This part was not allowing the vulnerable child to surface until the adult in her was ready for the sorrow and pain, so the vulnerable child would not be exposed. It is an important part of the work to learn to be open and to relate to our vulnerability as well as our strength. Billie began to realise, beneath her blustering surface was a frightened abandoned child. We began to explore how she had been silenced and overlooked and she began to embrace her vulnerability. As we did this internal work and Billie began to connect to all her parts with love and compassion, she found that externally her work and relationship life improved. Although she could still be critical of herself, the deep toxic core of shame was greatly diluted.
It is important when doing this work to be open and curious about the parts and to work to find out what function they have played and to see if you now still need them to be holding you back. Rather than blaming your parents, fate or the government this attitude of openness and curiosity is most beneficial for healing.
We are creatures of connection, and at our best, deeply connected to each other, the earth and all human and non-human life. Shame is a disruption of this connection and to a sense of entitlement to belong within the fellowship of life. The opposite of shame is a friendly and loving connection to yourself, to others and all living beings and it is your birth-right.