“The shame tattoo.” I heard that phrase a couple of years ago, and it has stayed with me ever since. It is such a striking way to encapsulate the concept of shame: It is the insertion of something that leaves an indelible mark deep beneath the skin.
Robert* also liked to call his shame ‘the shame tattoo’. When we came to the end of our counseling sessions, he added it to the list of things he would take from our work together. He also liked the fact that a tattoo was something from the past, and it was only a mark on his skin: It was not the whole of him, and so the darkness did not define nor consume him.
When Robert first came to see me his world was a place of enemies. Every encounter involved a defensive posture, with an occasional tight-lipped smile and short, non-committal statements weighed down by negativity. The strapline to social dialogue was persistently: ‘There is a trap here, so keep your guard up.’ Given his lack of faith in mankind, I was surprised he made the initial appointment with me, let alone turn up for it. But he did, and he persisted with the entire course of therapy.
Often shame is at the heart of something else presented by a client: Addiction, anger, depression, anxiety. And so, with Robert, we examined his anger in the early sessions, and his disappointment, and his mistrust, and his anxiety, but there was no mention of the word ‘shame’. At times I struggle with the tipping point between taking the lead from a client (using their words and meaning), and offering my own insight. I continuously challenge myself on this, questioning whether I am bringing in stuff from the client or stuff from my own world. But part of our job can include imparting information, and so the information I imparted was that the word ‘shame’ has sometimes been used when other people have presented stuff that Robert was presenting. I offered it tentatively, and he snatched at it, stared at it, and then nodded.
By saying the word ‘shame’, Robert could finally identify what had been itching beneath his skin for all these years. Finally he could make sense of that nausea he felt when he looked in the mirror. He believed that people could see the shame etched across his face because he believed that what had been done to him had defined him. And he believed that this shame made him unlovable.
And that is what shame is: It is about your very being. It is about something internal, a self-belief, whereas guilt is about something external: Guilt is about something you have done (or not done). Shame often emerges in someone’s core beliefs, usually in the form of statements such as ‘I am unlovable’, or ‘I am unworthy’, or ‘There is something about me that is just not right’. Shame might make someone withdraw, whereas guilt might make someone seek forgiveness.
Once we identified shame, we looked at what Robert might need. He needed to tell his story, and he needed to be believed. That was hard enough when shame was undermining his very foundation. But as he told his story, and he saw that I continued to accept him unconditionally, he began to question the belief he had held onto for so long. Perhaps, after all, there was not something rotten about his core.
It is difficult to step away from a belief that you have held onto for so long, especially if others have reinforced that belief. When I work with survivors of sexual violence, often the perpetrator has reinforced a belief that the survivor is somehow unlovable, or to blame. A child’s sense of survival is inextricably tied to a caregiver (whether that is a parent, older sibling or grandparent). If that caregiver is abusive, they may shame the child into secrecy. The survivor is essentially given a choice: Accept this shame and survive, or face extinction. Inevitably they are going to choose shame.
In her book ‘Narrative Approaches to Working with Adult Male Survivors’ Kim Etherington warned against ‘moving too quickly towards forgiveness’, pointing out that this can be an avoidance of anger and fear. This is especially so if the perpetrator was a caregiver. It is hard, after so many years, to accept that someone you might have loved actually abused you. When I work with survivors of abuse, we often end up turning shame on its back and seeing it for what it really is: Someone else’s shame. A client who has been abused will often believe that they were somehow to blame, or they are tarnished because of someone else’s action. In reality, they are taking on the perpetrator’s shame, and often the perpetrator has been complicit in fostering this belief. It helps protect the perpetrator: ‘If you tell anyone, they will think you are the unclean one.’ Or: ‘Keep quiet because they will never believe someone like you.’
To work through shame, that person needs to feel accepted for the whole of who they are. This is where the relationship between therapist and client is so important: If someone can feel unconditional acceptance, they can start to distance themselves from the shame. But this is not a linear process. My work with Robert came to an end, but we were both aware that the process was not necessarily linear. The pressures of everyday life can have a triggering effect, so Robert knew that he would need to continuously monitor himself and watch out for times when he may need additional support.
*Names and details have been changed
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Chris Warren-Dickins LPC , Licensed Professional Counselor in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Sessions are available in-person, or online
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