I see a lot of different emotions when people come into my office. But one of the most predominant emotions that I’ve seen is the emotion of shame. Nine times out of ten people come into therapy with regrets and burdens that have caused them a lot of problems over the years. This shame, however, tends to cause problems with recovery due to the fact that many people tend to doubt whether or not they deserve to have good things or be well. This shame can also make them believe that they need to be consistently punished for just even existing sometimes, which can lead to self harm or even self-neglect. One of chief challenges that we face is to help individuals combat or resolve the shame. How do we do that?
First, we focus on helping an individual with learning how to take care of themselves and treat themselves with kindness. Individuals that have a long history of abuse or neglect have no idea of how to take care of themselves or even look at themselves with any sort of kindness or compassion. This can not only impact their relationship with themselves but also with other people. Teaching individuals that it’s okay to show kindness to themselves first is essential to being able to show kindness to others.
Second, we teach individuals new ways of coping despite going to shame as a primary means. For many individuals who have been abused, shame was a way to survive and to cope with an angry or irate abuser. Having new coping strategies in the “proverbial tool belt” such as grounding, positive affirmations, writing down our emotions in a journal, can be very effective in helping individuals with understanding that their emotions are not the enemy or a bad thing. These coping strategies can also help with building emotional resiliency and emotional control in order to help individuals with seeing that they are safe, they can take charge of their own safety, and they treat their emotions like the warning signs that they are instead of as an enemy.
Third, we teach the importance of individual responsibility. I see two things happen often when I’m working with clients. Either one party refuses to take responsibility of any kind for any situation, or the same party will take all the responsibility for things both good and bad. Taking personal responsibility is taking ownership over things that are ours to own. This means both good and bad things. While it may be difficult for us to do sometimes, it is still necessary. For those who tend to take too much responsibility, it is important for us to teach these individuals that they are not at fault for everything bad or everything good that happens to another person. This involves breaking down a situation and helping them see who is truly responsible.
Fourth, we teach individuals about what abuse really is. Abuse all about power and control to the point where an individual’s person-hood is disregarded. Abuse also involves a person’s dignity, self-respect, their body, even down to their mind are brutally treated to the point where the victim does not have a shred of identity that is truly theirs. Abusers use shame, physical, sexual, or emotional violence in order to get the victim to comply with their own agenda. Many times, the victim tends to be too afraid to speak up and speak out about the abuse because of the violent tendencies of the abuse. Other times the victim has no idea that they are being abused. Showing what abuse is and what it isn’t can help individuals who have been victimized see that they did not deserve to be treated like that, and they can set boundaries with similar behavior.
Finally, we help individuals understand the true function and purpose of shame. I’m going to say something that will sound slightly controversial on the surface. Shame can actually be a very useful emotion if it is managed in a healthy way. Like all emotions, shame serves a purpose and that purpose is to keep us from doing things that we will inevitably regret at some point. Shame can also help us with taking proper responsibility for our actions that may have hurt other people or even ourselves. The problem that many people run into with shame, is the fact that this emotion can get completely out of control and we can use it to beat ourselves up over things that are not really our fault or responsibility.
Shame can be a tricky emotion to deal with or understand especially in the context of trauma. It does not, however, need to be a constant reminder of what happened or be used as a tool to block recovery. Understanding shame, its function, how it can be problematic, and ways to combat it can open doors in terms of developing resiliency and overcoming past pain.