Have you ever felt shame while talking to your therapist? Have they ever said or did something that triggered this feeling?
I’m hoping your therapist has never intentionally instigated shame, but it’s possible that, at some point, the way they ask a question, respond to you, or make a particular facial expression may initiate a shame response. Perhaps their eyes widened when you spoke about a fetish or sexual practice, related an argument you had with a friend, or described something you did on an interview that didn’t go well.
On one hand, maybe they were shocked. We therapists hear a lot, but even the most experienced therapist can be surprised at times. On the other hand, we may noticeably react for a different reason. Maybe we’re making an association with something in our own life. Or maybe we’re having gas. You, the person we are working with, has no idea which of these is the case. But that’s not the important part. The important part is that you picked up on something from us that caused you to feel shame.
And that is something that should be discussed.
Building Trust to Examine Our Shame
Most of us go through life learning how best to avoid shame and have likely developed (consciously or unconsciously) any number of ways to do this. One of the benefits of therapy is that it allows us the opportunity to examine and challenge a well-honed (overdeveloped?) shame response.
But of course, we can only exercise this opportunity if we are comfortable enough—and trust our therapist enough—to let them know when shame arises. Because not only are we good at feeling shame, we have also, in most cases, become very good at hiding our shame. We might get angry instead. Or we might cry. Sometimes we hold in our emotions and experience them physically, in the form of stomach pain or headaches, for example. In some cases, our shame might even be converted into a panic attack.
Telling someone their reaction to something we shared caused us to feel shame is a hugely brave thing to do. What better place for that act of bravery than in the therapy room?
Finding Relief from the Weight of Shame
Talking about shame can often open a portal, as it can serve to expose so many of the reasons we aren’t living the life we say we want to be living. Why we’re not taking a risk on a career, for example, or why we’re not opening up to a partner—even though by not doing so we could end up losing them. I can’t tell you how often I begin working with men who tell me they’re finally trying out therapy because too many partners have said they can no longer continue a relationship with them until they are able to share more. They aren’t aware yet that it’s the shame stopping them.
Talking about shame can often open a portal, as it can serve to expose so many of the reasons we aren’t living the life we say we want to be living.
These aren’t men affected by ideas of toxic masculinity, either. These are men who know they are supposed to express themselves more, men who have received all the messages supporting increased empathy, compassion, communication, and so on–everything a so-called “Modern Man” should be—but they’ve never been taught how to be that man.
But many of these men, once they begin talking about this shame and related issues in a supportive environment, begin to realize how much of their energy has been going to defending against it. The relief they experience can be astounding!
Shame isn’t everything. There are many reasons people choose to seek out counseling. Shame is no small concern, though, because the energy we put into pushing shame away could be energy spent addressing and working to heal from our anxiety, our depression, our trauma.
If you trust your therapist, take the risk.
(If you don’t feel comfortable bringing up this issue with your therapist, please remember it’s always all right to seek a second opinion. If you’re concerned your therapist is intentionally shaming you, you might consider reviewing these warning signs of bad therapy.)
© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, LCSW, therapist in Brooklyn, New York
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