How Therapy Reduces Shame and Helps Us Access the Freedom of Adulthood

Person stands in shallow water looking up stone steps water is coming over looking up at light from tunnel exitOne of the great joys of adulthood is that we have a great deal more freedom and power in our lives than we do as children. We have far more leeway to choose the people with whom we associate, the work we take on, and the goals we set for ourselves. We have greater agency in getting our needs met. By contrast, in childhood we are dependent on others for our survival and must find ways to fit our desires into the realities of what others can provide for us, realities that may be painful and disappointing. Often, this means learning to act in ways that are deferential, compliant, and unobtrusive, while authentic desires to be valued, nurtured, and seen become sources of shame and are hidden from others.

These childhood experiences create a lens through which all future relationships are interpreted and experienced. Simply growing older is no guarantee this lens will shift; for many people, psychotherapy is a necessary and valuable tool that helps them learn new ways of being vulnerable about their needs with others, reduce shame, and open up the full range of possibility available to them as adults.

How Childhood Shame Forms the Lens Through Which We Experience Relationships

Humans are social creatures who are extremely interdependent and need one another to survive. This is especially true when we are young and our survival is largely dependent on our family, particularly our parents. As a result, our first social unit—our family—exerts a tremendous influence on whether our needs to be nurtured and valued are met and the beliefs we form about what is possible in relationships.

Because life is inherently complicated and unpredictable, even the most energetic, organized, and thoughtful parents will not be able to meet all of a child’s needs—and the challenge of doing so will be further magnified for parents who are struggling themselves. Thus, children must find ways to adapt to the realities of what is available to them and what works in their families.

For example, the child of overwhelmed parents may learn at a young age to be as independent as possible and that taking care of others is a way to gain approval. While children may be able to adapt to the what of their family’s reality, they often have no real access to the why of the reality. Children are not usually able to intuit that a parent’s neglect or anger may reflect that parent being overwhelmed at work, a trauma in the parent’s life, a parent’s struggle with chronic depression, or any number of reasons that are not a direct reflection of the child. In the absence of this information, children are apt to form their own explanations for why their needs are not attended to. Children may or may not be consciously aware of these explanations, but they are usually painful, deeply felt, and shame-based. A child may imagine they are invisible and uninteresting, that they are burdensome, that they are selfish, or that on some level they are inherently unlovable and undeserving of being cared for.

Whatever explanation they arrive at, children may conclude it is better to not show their needs in the first place than to be disappointed and give credence to any of the possible painful explanations for their disappointment. A wall of shame develops over the child’s authentic desire to be nurtured, signaling to the child that this need must be hidden. Ashamed children may learn to hide their needs in any number of ways—putting the needs of others ahead of their own, not speaking up, not letting others know when they are hurt and in need of care, trying to be rational and reasonable at all times, avoiding people altogether, and striving to be independent at all times, just to name a handful. While these behaviors may be helpful in preventing further pain and disappointment in their families of origin, they can be severely limiting in adulthood. The same child of overburdened parents who goes through their life compulsively taking care of others while never revealing their own need to be taken care of may miss out on much of the richness relationships have to offer, and their painful experience of shame may persist.

How Learning to Be Vulnerable in Psychotherapy Brings Freedom in Adulthood

For many people, psychotherapy is the most effective way to reduce their experience of shame and their corresponding self-protective behaviors so they can access the full range of what is possible in adulthood. Through learning to be vulnerable with their therapist and having that vulnerability responded to in sensitive and caring ways, a person can learn that others are interested in caring about them and that they are not somehow innately flawed or unlovable. The act of coming to see a therapist is inherently about learning to how to make oneself known to another person, and for many people will be a stark departure from all the ways they hide their inner world from others in day-to-day life. This process of learning to be vulnerable with a therapist will almost certainly feel unfamiliar and anxiety-provoking to someone who has learned to hide their needs.

This process of learning to be vulnerable with a therapist takes courage, time, and investment, but can be genuinely transformative. As a person sheds the shame of the past, they can rise up into all the freedom, power, and choices that are available to them as adults.

Part of a therapist’s role is to help the person they are working with notice both the ways in which they are avoiding being vulnerable and the fears and desires that are underlying those self-protective behaviors. A well-attuned therapist will not try to force a person to be vulnerable before they are ready but instead will work to create an atmosphere of warmth and safety where it feels possible for that person to take emotional risks with them. As a person is able to open up more, they are able to see that another person—their therapist—is capable of accepting and working with all of who they are, including the parts of the person that want to be loved and the parts that are frightened and aggressive, rather than just the parts that are deferential and accommodating to others that may have been rewarded when they were younger. Shame diminishes.

This process of learning to be vulnerable with a therapist takes courage, time, and investment, but can be genuinely transformative. As a person sheds the shame of the past, they can rise up into all the freedom, power, and choices that are available to them as adults. They learn that the more of themselves they are able to put out into the world, the richer their relationships with others become. Life can shift to become an experience of abundance rather than one of shame, constriction, and struggle.

Plato famously described an allegorical cave in which lifelong prisoners were chained to one wall facing another blank wall with a fire behind them. All the prisoners could ever see were shadows of figures passing by the cave, projected onto the blank wall by the fire. Having never known anything else, the prisoners mistook the shadows for reality, not knowing they were mere reflections of the full world outside. Those of us who are willing to do the hard work of learning to be vulnerable with a therapist and with others in our lives can unshackle ourselves and step out of the cave into the light of day.

References:

  1. Clark, C., Caldwell, T., Power, C., & Stansfeld, S. A. (2010). Does the influence of childhood adversity on psychopathology persist across the lifecourse? A 45-year prospective epidemiologic study. Annals of epidemiology, 20(5), 385-394.
  2. Jacob, T. (2013). Family interaction and psychopathology: Theories, methods and findings. Springer Science & Business Media.
  3. Kovács, Á. M., Téglás, E., & Endress, A. D. (2010). The social sense: Susceptibility to others’ beliefs in human infants and adults. Science, 330(6012), 1830-1834.
  4. Plato. “The Simile of the Cave.” Republic. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974. 240-48. Print.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Alex Afram, PhD, therapist in Washington, District of Columbia

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Anna AL

    Anna AL

    August 7th, 2017 at 8:05 AM

    I identify with what you write although i perhaps don’t yet fully understand the benefits to come. Progress in therapy often makes me very anxious afterwards which I think is about how terrifying vulnerability feels. I find it difficult to know how to work harder and be more open. It feels that after a difficult childhood and marriage my biggest struggle is recognising who or what the authentic me is. Without authenticity it is difficult to shake off that feeling of being innately less than others and therefore the fear that vulnerability will show up how little of interest there actually is.

  • Alex Afram

    Alex Afram

    August 7th, 2017 at 6:35 PM

    I very much appreciate what you wrote Anna and believe that there was vulnerability and courage in it. I think that ambivalence about the therapeutic process is a natural part of it. As I’ve gone through my own work in therapy I’ve also wondered many times who I ‘really’ am and what I’ve discovered along the way is that I’m always growing and changing. What seems to be constant is that the more work I do in therapy the less need I feel to defend a self-concept of who I am and the more I feel a capacity to give my affection to others without being inhibited by my own insecurities. You mileage may vary but I hope that therapy will yield similar benefits for you.

  • Ola

    Ola

    August 8th, 2017 at 10:40 AM

    Feeling vulnerable can actually be a good things
    it shows that you allowing those walls that have been built up over time
    to come tumbling down

  • shaQ

    shaQ

    August 11th, 2017 at 3:14 PM

    Knowing that you have someone that you can trust and with whom you can share these thoughts and feelings and memories with- this can be a very real comfort to many people who have experienced childhood pain. I think that when very painful things happen to you when you are young you become very vulnerable and you feel like there is a lost trust with others all around you. Going to someone who can help you rebuild some of that trust, with others as well as with yourself, can be a positive step in the right direction of taking back your life from that pain for good.

  • Alex Afram

    Alex Afram

    August 11th, 2017 at 7:18 PM

    Very well put!

  • Rosemary

    Rosemary

    August 11th, 2017 at 9:22 PM

    I went to a therapist who did most unthinkable unethical things… I cannot believe she still has a license… but she does…. I was so sick physically and fragile emotionally… and spiritually… she took my life and soul… betrayal doesn’t even begin to explain what she did… it goes so much deeper…. my traumas my childhood traumas… my deepest darkest secrets that were not revealed in forty years… she took it all and wrote a paper with me as her subject…. all of this was done without my knowledge or permission! The devesation and betrayal is beyond my understanding… I still cannot believe this happened… I can’t understand how someone who you trust… who tells you I will be with you… hang in there we are in this together… and then one day you are on the internet searching for help with the traumas she was suppose to help you with… and you see her name… and then you see your name and your life flashes before you… in big bold lights…. you cannot believe this is you….however you realize first full sentence it is! It is a nightmare and daymare that doesn’t go away… and I don’t see it ever going away…. so what happens to me… where do I go… who do I go to… answers will never come… see I will not be so stupid ever again!!!!

  • Cara

    Cara

    August 15th, 2017 at 7:02 PM

    Therapy helped me to move away from the resentment and hate I felt towards my parents and show me that my childhood experiences made me strong, funny, resilient, insightful, and all around a pretty good egg. I actually and honestly feel a bit of gratitude towards them both. Therapy is the vigilance that has helped me value my sense of self and self worth beyond a trauma identity.
    Thank you Alex

  • Alex Afram

    Alex Afram

    August 16th, 2017 at 9:49 AM

    I am very glad to hear that therapy has been such a positive experience for you Cara. I think that a stronger sense of self-worth and an ability to see and own strengths are two hallmarks of a good therapeutic experience.

  • Anna

    Anna

    August 20th, 2017 at 2:57 AM

    I have just watched a TED talk by Brene Brown called “The power of vulnerability”. It made me think some more about reading this post.

    I found it interesting when she talked about courage and vulnerability. I can see how therapy isn’t just about confronting painful experiences but about learning how to connect. Your line “The act of coming to see a therapist is inherently about learning how to make oneself known to another person” stuck with me. I find remembering bad experiences painful and spend only a little time on this in therapy, perhaps there will be more of that in time. But a process that leads to feeling more authentic and connected and having richer experiences because of that is a hopeful thing.

    Im guessing it won’t be knew to Alex, I think much of the content ties in with this article – but other blog readers thinking about shame, vulnerability and authenticity might find the TED talk interesting. And it will make you laugh which is always good!

  • Alex Afram

    Alex Afram

    August 21st, 2017 at 7:02 PM

    I agree that there is significant overlap between this article and Brene Brown’s discussion of courage and vulnerability. I think her Ted talk is a great resource, thanks for bringing it up for others to explore!

  • Christy

    Christy

    July 26th, 2019 at 3:05 AM

    Thanks for the article! I chose to be vulnerable in front of my therapist by addressing some of what I had been filtering (due to shame) just a couple days ago. Honestly, it was very painful. but I believe that anything worth doing is going to take some sacrifice, and there is so much freedom in realizing that you don’t have to hide. Even though it is still painful, I feel empowered that I was able to find the courage to face it, which I believe has already increased my confidence. We are stronger than we realize.

  • Alex

    Alex

    July 28th, 2019 at 9:41 PM

    That’s great that you were able to take that risk Christy and felt empowered because of it. It can be hard to convince people to take risks until they start doing it and see how it impacts them. Hopefully your experience will help you feel encouraged to continue sharing your feelings even though it can be painful.

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