Sometimes it can be hard for us to tell when shame is present. It often operates in the background, driving particular action tendencies, thoughts, bodily sensations, social signaling, and memories. When someone is experiencing shame from the inside, it can be sort of like being trapped inside of a dark room without a flashlight. This is especially true in the case of overwhelming shame that may be accompanied by dissociation and disorientation. The client may believe there is something wrong with them or that they have done something terribly wrong while they are stuck in shame. In these times it can often be helpful to foster a sense of curiosity about what the experience of shame is like while it is happening.
This experience of being in the dark with shame matters for a couple of reasons. First, it’s hard to take effective action when you don’t know what you are experiencing. When the lights are switched on, the client can see, “Oh this is shame!” With that information they are then in a stronger position to decide what to do, rather than letting the action tendencies of shame decide on autopilot. Second, when the client is experiencing shame in the presence of another person or people but isn’t aware that that is what she is experiencing, she may be unaware of her shame-driven social signaling and the effect that has on other people. For example, a client experiencing shame might have the thought, “Nobody likes me,” and as a result be interacting with others in a collapsed posture, averted gaze, or flat expression. Others may respond to these social signals with decreased warmth and openness, which the person experiencing shame interprets as verification of, “Nobody likes me.” Therefore, turning the lights on around shame is empowering and allows people to engage in new behaviors.
We have created a worksheet to help clients explore their experiences of shame in the following ways, either while the shame is occurring or shortly after:
- Interpretations of the other person/people involved
- Physiological sensations
- Urges and desires
- Social signals
This process of exploring shame involves turning toward, rather than away from, this powerfully painful emotional experience. Because of this, we have also included a set of helpful/soothing behaviors that clients can try before deciding what actions to take next. The idea is for clients to become familiar enough with shame that they can catch it, engage their social safety system through responding in caring or soothing manner, and then respond flexibly as directed by their values.