Shame in Psychotherapy


Shame in psychotherapy is one of the most powerful emotions clients can experience, and perhaps the most contradictory and difficult to work with as a therapist.

One of the most powerful reflections on shame was quoted by AdamAppleton a writer of personal development books who had suffered an abusive childhood;

Share whatever it is you're ashamed about. You may think you can hide your shame by not talking about it, but in reality, it's your shame that's hiding you”.

Many clients come to therapy feeling shame which has been ‘pre-programmed’ from other people such as lovers, parents, teachers or abusers.Shame is like an internal voice which criticises, judges and repeats what may have been said to you by others such as you are ugly , stupid , bad , or ‘if it wasn’t for you ’.

The reason shame can be hard to work with is that it is surrounded by a set of very able ‘bodyguards’ such as anger, fear, embarrassment, denial and love.

All of which provide a very effective mechanism to deny the client access to their real self and as importantly their ability to self heal.

Shame can take many forms, physically a person may not make eye contact with you, or avoid you gaze. blushing, being defensive, anger, denials as well as affecting the individual’s ability to think or see the world rationally are all the products of feeling this strong and self esteem corroding emotion.

Exaggeration or a desire to overly please can trace their roots back  to a shamed psyche, which impacts on our ability to form intimate relationships or know our self worth.

As a therapist I have become a lot more aware of how shame can manifest itself in the therapy room,a few years ago I was working with a *client whose father had regularly hit her since she was a child, now a woman in her middle age she looked stunned when I reflected back to her that he had been abusive.

She said that she had been a ‘difficult child’ if she had behaved better this would not have happened before adding “how else do you discipline your children?”

It took 10 more sessions before she reflected that her father’s abuse had a massive impact on her life, I reflected that she had used the ‘A’ word, for the first time and we both acknowledged that she was being herself, no longer the ‘shamed’ child thinking she deserved to be hit. 

The psychologist Carl Rogers, wrote a lot about the non judgmental attitude of the therapist and how it helped defeat ‘Conditions of worth and Introjected values’ others attitudes which we take on as our own and use to emotionally beat ourselves up.

Rogers who as a child was brought up on a farm and by all accounts was shamed on a regular basis , reflected in his later years that a therapist must provide “the  soil of a different kind ‘  which is experienced by the client as a non judgmental approach by the therapist .

In his elegant theory Rogers hypothesises that along with empathy and a genuine approach by the therapist, being non Judgmental, provides the emotional nutrition for the client to grow and flourish.

When this is experienced by the client, in my experience the ‘bodyguards of shame’ fade in to the shadows of the past, and shame itself slips out of the back door , leaving only the client and their newly acquired self worth behind.

It’s lovely to see..........but you have to dodge the bodyguards !


* Some details have been changed to protect the identitiy of the client