Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Further Thoughts on Shame

Shame is a central concept in understanding the traumatized children with whom we work. Our work becomes more sensitive and thoughtful when we remain aware of the profound shame operating in our children, and remember how it affects everything they do.

When I was training with Laurie Pearlman, Ph.D. (Trauma and the Therapist: Countertransference and Vicarious Traumatization in Psychotherapy with Incest Survivors; written with Karen W. Saakvitne, Ph.D.; and last week, she added some further thoughts on shame.

The first concept is that the opposite of shame is contempt. Or, to put this another way, contempt is the escape from shame. When a person feels unbearable shame, he lessens the anguish by moving into contempt: I feel less horrible in comparison to you if I can act as though you are worthless, beneath my notice, not worth caring about. If you can be made contemptible, I will feel relatively all right. Therefore, if we do not address the shame, the children may treat us with contempt.

Laurie also quoted Donald Beere ( as describing shame as composed of two parts: being disconnected and being less than. A person feeling shame feels separate from the human race. I am other, I am uniquely bad and unlovable. And the person feels not only separate, but less, worthless, lower.

It follows from this that shame can be healed in two ways (preferably both). The first is to establish the connection- you are like us, you are part of us, we care about you, keep our caring in your heart even when we are not physically with you. All the methods we know to form, honor, intensify and internalize relationships address this part of shame- the disconnected part.

The “less than” part can be healed through any development of competence and self worth, and also by information. We give information about trauma and its effects, for example. Your symptoms are not signs that you are crazy, they are the expected human reaction to trauma.

Isolation, restrictions, and banishment would seem almost designed to reinforce both aspects of shame- separate the child from connection, and re-affirm for him through punishment that he is definitely less than others.

If shame is not healed, the person continues to act to prove how awful they are, and continues to reject caring and closeness as impossible to achieve.

Both parts of shame are healed through authentic relationships.

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