I’ve been thinking a lot about shame recently, and what a painful emotion it is to experience. I had a situation recently where I made a mistake at work, and it really filled me with shame. It wasn’t something that caused harm, but unfortunately it also wasn’t a situation where I could easily make a repair and keep moving forward. Even knowing on an intellectual level that my mistake was understandable didn’t keep me from experiencing a pretty intense level of shame; and that intensity really drove some powerful urges for avoidance. I wanted to run and hide especially from my colleagues; caring people who I have worked with for a long time, and who I know support me and believe in my ability to do good work. Thankfully, I was able to move through that experience and come out the other end relatively unscathed, but it did leave me thinking a lot about what it is like for others, and how I can support them when they experience shame.
As a parent, I know that part of growing up means that my kids are going to make a lot of mistakes along the way. I don’t want them to avoid experiences out of fear of making mistakes, nor do I want them to shirk responsibility when they do make them. It’s important to me that my reaction to their mistakes is not one that engenders shame. This isn’t always easy because the reality is that sometimes I am really angry about their behaviors, so I need to work on being mindful of my immediate reactions in order to strike that balance between anger and compassion. I don’t think that their feeling shame will help them to gain insight or change their behavior in a meaningful way, and instead will only serve to make them feel badly about themselves, which is pretty much one of the last things I want as a parent.
The same is true of the clients that I work with, both adolescents and adults. In fact, it is shame that so often prevents people from coming into therapy in the first place. When people carry with them the belief that they are somehow inherently bad or damaged, it leaves them with little hope that they can change and create a better future for themselves. As therapists, we see firsthand the long-term damage that shame creates. The experience of feeling shame myself recently was a powerful reminder of how important it is to offer our clients a non-judgmental safe space where they can begin to heal from the shame that many have carried with them for much of their lives. As the skill of opposite action teaches us, we must stop shame from being hidden in order to reduce it. Clients must be able to be supported while they work through this emotion that has paralyzed them or otherwise impacted their lives.
The reality is that both our clients and ourselves are fallible beings that have made, and will continue to make, mistakes throughout our lives. While sometimes therapy is about avoiding the pitfalls and hopefully not making the same mistakes multiple times, often it is about learning how to move through our mistakes with grace and compassion. Being stuck with shame that festers within us prevents that movement, and the personal growth that comes with it. One of the most powerful things we can do for ourselves and our clients is to offer the type of support that brings shame out into the open, so that healing and change can happen.