We will feature a new article here each month written by one of our group members.
SHAME, and Our Selves in Relationship
What is shame?
Let us note that shaming may be legitimate as a tool of last resort, when there is literally no other way to stop an injustice. However, in the normal course of our lives we have alternatives to shaming, and being shamed, in assigning or accepting responsibility for the harm we may do to each other.
In recent years many in our profession have begun to question the emphasis on the “separate self” when talking about mental distress, in favor of the “self-in-relation” – the connections, disconnections and reconnections that mark the experience of relationships between people. From this perspective, shame can be defined as “a felt sense of unworthiness to be in connection, as deep sense of unlovability, with the ongoing awareness of how very much one wants to connect with others. “ (Judith Jordan, 1989, as quoted in Hartling, Rosen et al, 2000.)
Humiliation occurs when a person who commands authority denigrates or deliberately ignores the humanity, intellect, or feelings of another person. Humiliation is the generator of shame. Repeated humiliations are held in our minds as powerful “relational images.” They predispose us to be hyper-vigilant for signs of new humiliations, and to preempt them.
Strategies of Disconnection
Moving Toward – pleasing or appeasing by "keeping important parts of their experience out of relationship in an attempt to earn or keep connection…” -- a strategy often employed by adults in abusive relationships.
Moving Against – “directing anger, resentment and rage against those whom they believe to be the source of their shame or humiliation.”
Resistance and Engagement
As relational therapists, we want to collaborate with our clients to build a measure of resistance to these “power-over” arrangements. At the same time, we work to move both our clients and ourselves to engage more assertively with partners at home, at work, with friends and with the wider community, regardless of the existing arrangements of power. In addition, we strive to reduce the distance between the client and ourselves as experts, by being vulnerable and emotionally responsive to our clients – and by learning from and with them what works, and what does not, in finding a path to mutual respect and reciprocity in their relationships.
The conversation in therapy might begin by learning about those old relational images that have kept a client stuck in shame, and then explore the ways that one partner in a current relationship – even a therapist in the therapy session – might unwittingly be reproducing the dynamic which shamed the person in the past. Ideally, the conversation allows for new kinds of responsiveness, as ideas, feelings and stories are shared between therapist and client. The aim is to create a space that is alive with humor and with humility. If we’re lucky, we’re moving together toward designing a strategy of re-connection with others that can move beyond the legacy of feelings of humiliation and shame.
Anita Frankel practices marriage and family therapy in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles, California. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. You can contact her at 323-661-0297, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2014 by Anita Frankel.
Copyright Independent Psychotherapy Network 2008-2014