Shame, who among us does not feel it (at least) sometimes?
And who among us has not felt the urge to escape or fight against this so painful feeling? But… this has a price: the research in the field of ACT has demonstrated that, by fighting against our painful thoughts and feelings, we may lock ourselves in increasingly handicapping patterns.
To illustrate this, let’s look at some common ways of avoiding shame:
– Who among us does not try, at least sometimes, to neutralize this feeling by saying, “No, I’m a good person!” ? Just like we have the reflex to say such words of encouragement to a friend who feels ashamed … The risk, then, is that our friend feels that shame is not bearable, or that it is shameful to have shame. And thus he will feel even more alone with and burdened by his shame.
– Who among us does not sometimes have the tendency to blame those around him, in order to feel “better”? Sometimes there actually are good reasons to oppose behaviors which are humiliating. But .. what if such protests also serve to devalue the other and thus to feel “better than …”, “greater than”, in the hope to get out of a feeling of inferiority? The consequences for human relationships of such contempt tend to be quite harmful …
– Who among us does not at times have the tendency to condemn himself, to be very hard on himself, rather than compassionately accept his faults? Such acceptance may be less “glorious”, more modest, but also more authentic and liberating.
– And finally: Who among us has not dreamed of having a “priviledged” relationship with someone we idealize? An idealized connection with someone we consider “greater than us”, which fill us with pride. But by doing this, we not only risk to infantilise ourselves a bit, but we also lock ourselves in unrealistic expectations and do not accept others as they are, with warts and all, they too.
So are there more beneficial alternatives for the fight against shame?
More than ten years of studying, writing about and teaching trainings on “A healing relationship with shame” allow me to respond with a big “yes.” Under a few conditions:
– That, in therapy, we have built a strong enough mutual trust, where the client feels free to share his impressions, both positive and negative, of the therapeutic process and of the therapist. There obviously will be misunderstandings, irritations and disappointments, and it is essential to deal with these. This is partly how we develop the courage to be vulnerable, the courage to get out of the idealization of others and the courage to be ourselves, even if we are not sure in advance that this will be appreciated by the other.
– Whether the client has learned some effective means to compassionately welcome and “digest” deep emotions.
In the following you will find a brief description of such means I acquired over the years and/or developed myself, and made coherent with the overall ACT model.