Working With Shame in Counselling and Psychotherapy

We held a workshop on Shame in the Therapy Hour with Christiane Sanderson examining shame in counselling and psychotherapy, and came away feeling we had a deeper understanding of shame in a professional and personal context.

We were buzzing with information from the day, and have condensed some of it below…

What is shame?

Shame is a primary emotion. If we sense disapproval from another person, we feel shame. Shame is also a social emotion, necessary in developing a sense of social cohesion.

What does shame feel like?

This may feel like an obvious question, but each person feels shame differently. Ask yourself the last time you felt shame, and try to describe what it felt like…

Often people will use the words “embarrassment”, “awkwardness”, or “humiliation” in the place of shame. This seems to diffuse the emotion, meaning that the fully blown shame is not felt, and is replaced by a less intense negative emotion.

How often as therapists do we use the words awkward/embarrassed with clients, yet avoid the word shame?

Shame is often described in terms of embarrassment and humiliation.

When do we start feeling shame?

Shame starts when a child is about 8 months old. When the child does something that the mother (or primary care giver) doesn’t like, they can see disappointment in the eyes of the mother. The child feels shame. Yet, if the parent’s disapproving look has been quickly changed into a loving look, the shame goes away quickly. In this way, the child can learn “I did something bad” rather than “I am bad”. Healthy shame is quickly defused if it is correctly handled.

So, shame can be useful?

Shame is meant to be useful, and healthy shame develops with our compassion and empathy for others. It helps us learn to regulate our behaviour. We feel shame when we do something that is not accepted by the people around us, but shame can go away quickly if we have a healthy relationship with shame.

When does shame become chronic/toxic?

I’m sure we are all familiar with the feeling of shame when it feels impossible to shift. Chronic shame can develop due to rejecting or hostile responses from a parent.

For example, when a child knocks a cup of water over, their parent could respond with anger. If this is quickly regulated and the child is forgiven, then the shame response is diffused. Yet a parent could be angry and rejecting due to the accident, meaning that the child internalises this response and begins to feel that “I am bad“, rather than “I did something bad”. If a child is used to this type of response to their behaviour, they can develop an unhealthy sense of shame – chronic or toxic shame.

Unlike other primary emotions, shame lacks a channel for discharge. When we are sad, we can release this by crying; with anger, we shout and lash out; yet shame stays inside and intensifies without an easy channel for release.

As an adult, we can become trapped in the cycle of shame. We feel shame, and then associate it with childhood experiences of shame. This leads to us responding to the shame feeling with our usual behaviour (such as using drugs, lashing out, or dissociating). All of this further intensifies our shame.

One exercise at the workshop had us look at the shame spider and the web of shame.

Does our social context make shame worse?

We can feel shame about a wide range of areas; such as our achievements, gender, sexuality, body, culture, as well as the trauma of abuse. Some of these shame factors are intensified if we are living in a highly judgemental and unaccepting environment.

The rise of social comparison means the rise of comparison inducing the shame response. This is now very prevalent in social media: our Facebook status is made for the view of others, and we can feel shame if we do not fit the mark. If a person is ashamed of a personal attribute, the rise of social comparison may intensify this feeling.

The many masks of shame

Some of us are conscious of our shame, yet for others, shame can be masked or covered up in various ways. Often, if a person seems arrogant or narcissistic, they may well be covering up a deep sense of shame. If a person lashes out, or is aggressive, this may be their tactic of releasing some of the shame – externalising the feeling and transforming it into aggression. If a person is self-destructive, they may be channelling their shame into inward attack.

The topic of shame was explored in Steve McQueen’s 2011 film of the same name. Michael Fassbender’s character feels a consistent sense of shame related to his sex addiction.

Defences against shame

People respond to their shame in different ways, such as moving away from relationships, moving towards others (such as being clingy to avoid rejection), or moving against others (directing anger and rage at the perceived source of shame) – those who’ve studied Karen Horney’s work on neurosis will be familiar with these patterns. Other responses include withdrawal, self-attack, avoidance or shame deficiency.

What can therapists do about shame?

As therapists we need to be aware of our own shame, and work with this to learn about how we might respond to shame, uncovering what our shame mask might be, or how we defend against shame.

We also need to be open about our feelings with clients. Self-disclosure of our own experiences of shame can be helpful for clients to see that it is not only them who experiences shame. This can help the client to realise that shame is a universal emotion felt by all, helping to normalise the emotion. If the therapist accepts their own shame, this may help the client to do the same.

Another workshop exercise looking at feelings and effects generated from shame.

What is the antidote to shame?

Breaking the silence! Often, the word ‘shame’ has not been used in the therapy room. Silence and secrecy can intensify shame feelings, so help the client to release them. Try to facilitate a discussion around these hidden feelings. Have an open conversation about shame, yet avoid re-shaming and try to balance the discussion with positives. Just like the child, who needs a loving look from their mother, the adult needs empathy and compassion. Be gentle!

In order to help somebody to build resilience against shame, encourage authentic pride. Pride is wrongly seen as a bad thing in our society; one of the deadly sins. We need pride in order to build resilience to recover from shame. Pride can come in all sorts of forms about all sorts of areas of life; help the client find things they can be proud of!

We’ll leave you with our top tips…

  • Break the silence
  • Recognise shame where it isn’t obvious (in arrogance or aggression)
  • Shame can be healthy or chronic
  • Pride can be a good thing – it builds resilience
  • Understand that we live in a new era of social comparison
  • Acknowledge our own shame (we all feel it!)

Some feedback about the training…

This workshop has opened my eyes to the whole subject, both personally and professionally.

Chrissie is a first class trainer – informative and easy to listen to.

Excellent presentation – authentic and generous with her work.

Chrissie was extremely knowledgeable, articulate, enthusiastic and engaging!

Thoroughly enjoyable – interesting and informative. One of the best training days I have attended.

The trainer was fantastic! Knowledgeable, enthusiastic and very engaging.

The trainer had deeply impressive experience and knowledge.

For more information, visit Chrissie Sanderson’s speaker’s page

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  1. Jacqueline Light on 2018-12-12 at 11:05 AM

    Are there any more training events booked for Christiane Sanderson and working with shame?

    Jacqui Light

    • Brighton Therapy Partnership on 2018-12-13 at 5:47 PM

      Hi Jacqui

      Thanks for your comment! Full details of our forthcoming workshop schedule can be found here on the BTP website under the Training Tab and then by going to current events. You will see there a training on Shame with Christiane Sanderson taking place in April 2019.

      Alternatively you can email us on

      best wishes
      Brighton Therapy Partnership

  2. Paul on 2022-12-18 at 7:20 AM

    This was really useful. Thanks.

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