Tori Olds, a therapist at Deep Eddy Psychotherapy in Austin, TX, talks about why we feel shame and how we can repair the overuse of shame.
Shame is a Very Powerful State
Shame is a very powerful state. There’s a reason for that that has to do with evolution, of course.
When children are about to go towards something very dangerous, a snake for instance—they just don’t know that could be dangerous yet—often, it’s new and they’re really excited and they’re like “Wraaaaaahh!!!”, and running, and joyful, and they’re curious and they’re going and it would be hard to stop them in that moment unless there was this thing called shame.
What is Shame?
Shame is when the child is going for something, they’re running onto the street because they’re just enjoying running, and there’s something the parent can do fast that’s gonna take them from a very high, excited state, to complete collapse, just kinda like to stop all that energy.
That’s why if a child is going towards something and the parent says “No!”, really strong like that, it’s suddenly like the child just freezes. Shame is totally okay if it’s used for survival purposes, cause it’s a real neurological event that can happen in someone that parents can use productively to shape behavior.
Shame Can Be Completely Overused
However, they can also completely overuse it, because it’s a strong tool, and it can be overused. Things that shouldn’t be shamed, get shamed. In the example of running out into traffic or something, let’s say the parent says “No!” and it causes a shame reaction. Then, the parents still need to go there and say, “Hey, you’re okay, I love you, I was just scared in that moment” and then the kid will not have an issue, it’s just a learning moment.
Often, parents don’t know how to make a repair, though, and they overuse shame. They’ll use it when the kid is wanting connection, is wanting to share something, or is angry, or anything that is authentic and real and should be embraced. We want that connection to be, “Okay, I still relate to you, I still care about you.”
Parents can do things that are shaming, even like just not paying attention. If you’re a child and really excited and you hit against something you didn’t expect but your parent is not there it can trigger a shut down really strongly. The negative of that is that it’s such a horrible experience that then every time we have that life force come again—when we’re excited, we want to show off, we want to share something, just connect—we’re primed to be worried because it’s associated and linked in our mind to shame.
We Uncover Our Shame Blocks in Therapy
People can have issues that develop where shame blocks them. It’s a really important piece of work in therapy to see where our shame blocks are and see which part of us was shamed in the past. We want to go on a rescue mission for the shamed part, which is not always easy work. It takes some guts to stay with the shamed part and really stay with it long enough to see what’s underneath that. What part that’s not bad—sometimes it’s very beautiful—had a rejection that then got linked to shame?
Therapy is Going on a Rescue Mission to Save a Part of You
Sometimes just talking about it will uncover that there is a true part of you that we need to save. There’s a true part of you that’s behind that shame-barrier and so in therapy, we go for it. We go on the rescue mission. When we can let the shame go, then there’s a part of us that can emerge that’s wanting to do something. Perhaps it wants to reach out to someone, or share something.
Shame could look like a time when you were a kid and you drew something and you say to your parent, “Look what I drew!” and the parent is distracted, which can be a deflating experience for the child. So, our rescue mission is to find that kid and encourage them to come out, show them that it’s now safe.
What does the practice of finding your shame blocks look like?
Just the other week I was watching this happen with a woman. Something had happened to her, just that week. She had anger towards her partner, but instead of allowing herself to experience the anger, she shamed herself and just kind of shut down. Even as we began talking about it, she just wanted to look down.
The word shame means, to hide. It really wants us to hide, look down, and tuck our tail. We think that if we look up and see the eyes of someone, they’re going to be ridiculing us.
Using Therapy to Court a Little Connection
In therapy, one thing we’ll do is begin to court a little bit of connection. I’ll explain to them, “Probably at some point, you had this expression of anger or something that you were hoping to express to your partner and that got shamed or rejected. So, let’s let that part of you know that that did not happen because it’s innately bad, but now it is going to be gun-shy, it’s going to be hesitant—it’s going to have this gut-sense of badness.”
When we are young, our parents are like God to us. So, there’s this experience of “God wasn’t there, I must be bad,” and we really take that in as a child. In therapy, we try to just talk very kindly, while providing some context. When someone is looking down, I might ask them if they can look up at me to see the acceptance of them in my face. What we’re aiming for is to get that part of you to peer around the shame, to see if you can see beyond the shame just a little bit.
Sometimes, just being able to connect with your therapist and seeing how accepting they are towards you, how they feel towards you, while you’re in that vulnerable spot can be a counteracting force.
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