What I’ve learnt is that the less we talk about shame, the worse it gets.
I’ve considered my own motivations for why I became a clinician and have wondered whether there was something more to my initial reasoning about wanting to help others and wanting others to benefit from the lessons I’d learnt. In wanting to be a clinician, was I avoiding vulnerability?
When you are a therapist, you are in the unique position of being witness to other people’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, as well as their own expressions of shame. Our job is to empathise and to support our clients toward recovery by helping them to identify the blocks that stand between them and their healing. We are trained to withhold information about ourselves and, in many cases, to present an opaque mirror of reflection back to our clients. There has always been something about this that has sat uncomfortably with me… I didn’t know how I could be congruent and empathic while at the same time withholding so much of myself from another human being. Had I become a clinician as a way of maintaining a level of detachment from others? And if so, why?
As therapists we have a duty of care toward our clients, but also toward ourselves. We need to make sure that we are mindful of being in the best state of mental health as possible in order to help and support others. Our own personal therapy is not only a formal requirement but absolutely vital in making sure that we get to know ourselves as well as possible. I can only show someone the way through the storm if I’ve been there myself, right? This voyage of self-healing and self-discovery can uncover some painful truths and, as many clinicians will know, the experience of undertaking your clinical training can be a painful one.
As part of my journey of both training and healing, I processed childhood trauma and grief. I resolved resentments and found ways to forgive both myself and those around me that I felt (real or otherwise) I had been injured by. What I was left with, and particularly struck by, was that I was still immersed in a prevailing sense of shame and a fear of my own vulnerability. I realised that I hadn’t become a clinician to avoid intimacy with others, actually the opposite, it was what I was craving and I realised that I needed to learn how to heal my shame.
We live in a fractured world that focuses so much on the differences between us, and what is so often overlooked is that we are all human beings, with shared interests, who are suffering in some way. So many of us are tortured by a sense of being unworthy or flawed in some way. We privately see ourselves as failures. We feel stifled and unable to share our true selves with others because the idea of being seen as we really are, is just too painful to bear.
Shame is a toxic and all-encompassing emotion but it’s very difficult for us to identify. We often react to the ‘triggers’ that our shame elicits, rather than the core problem of the ‘shame’ itself. We develop destructive tools for coping with our shame in order to manage it but these tools fuel our sense of feeling unworthy and tormented.
Before we explore how we can heal our own shame, it’s worth considering what some of these destructive tools might be. For me, the only way I’m ever able to work on anything is when I understand what it is I’m trying to change. There are a number of shame management strategies but I’ve honed in on the 4 that I feel are most common:
1. Being defensive
Living in a defended state is a way of trying to protect ourselves from the shameful feelings that we store within. I am actually a naturally very shy person, and in new social situations I used to feel so ashamed at my struggle to interact that I would behave in a cool and aloof way in an attempt to distract from the vulnerability that I felt was triggered by these situations. Of course when I left afterwards, the critical voice would shame me further for being unfriendly and inadequate.
2. Silencing ourselves
Shame convinces us that we are unworthy and as such it denies us any right to feel seen or heard. Many sufferers will often feel guilty for simply existing and will often overcompensate by being apologetic and compliant as a way of trying to placate or avoid conflict with others.
Our attempt to achieve perfection is actually an attempt to find a solution to the feelings of self-loathing that we can feel immersed in. We cannot bear any sense of our own vulnerability and so making mistakes no longer becomes an option. We set unreasonable expectations for ourselves and are never satisfied with our own efforts or achievements. We find it almost impossible to receive compliments or love from others. We become consumed with how we are perceived by others in an attempt to protect ourselves from the toxic shame that lurks within.
When we feel unworthy, we have no confidence in ourselves to do or achieve anything. This leaves us with no motivation to commit to anything fully or to follow anything through. We are so paralysed by shame that the idea of ‘failing’ prevents us from ever trying or moving forward. We exist in this state of limbo where we find it impossible to become unstuck.
Shame is often the result of trauma that has occurred in childhood. We all want to believe that we have some sort of control over what happens to us but when we have been victimised as young people, we feel humiliated and take on a sense of responsibility… that we somehow should have been able to control or stop what happened to us.
We carry that shame and humiliation with us into adulthood and it becomes impossible for us to really explore who we are and to develop our special gifts. More than this, we become stuck at the age that the initial trauma occurred and we tend to repeat patterns and experiences, thus ensuring that the abuse occurs again and again throughout our lives. Recognising destructive patterns in my own life through self-exploration was the first step in taking positive action to change the course of my existence.
Once we’ve identified that we’re living with unresolved shame and we start to recognise how this is impacting our choices, we can start to move forward. Shame relies on a strong critical voice to survive and once we work on developing and exercising an internal voice of self-compassion and kindness, we can heal these wounds and move forward.