Trust in Therapy: Examining and Addressing Feelings of Shame

Young adult with short hair, facial stubble, leaning on one arm looking out windowed door during rainHave 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 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, MSW, LCSW, Topic Expert

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

  • Leave a Comment
  • Calista

    August 2nd, 2017 at 11:41 AM

    I would say that I have spent more than half of my life running away from the feelings of shame that I have felt after experiencing abuse as a child. It weighs me down so much at times that it really makes it hard to go through the day to day motions of living.

    I have sought help for this recently because I am just now beginning to understand that this is no way to live, but saying out loud the things that I have always worked so hard to hide and never share with anyone is slightly terrifying.

  • Eric

    August 3rd, 2017 at 1:18 PM

    Having that kind of trust in therapy that someone needs to make a real impact in their own lives can feel like a real trust fall. You know that at the end of it there will be someone there to catch you and help you back up again, but it can be hard to trust others when you have spent so long not having those kinds of feelings.

  • Janet Y

    August 4th, 2017 at 7:43 AM

    Worst case scenario- you can always change therapists

  • Jane

    August 4th, 2017 at 5:11 PM

    Thank you for writing. It’s so hard to find articles about experiencing shame in therapy. Whilst I studying Counselling I decided to go on my own counselling journey for about 3 yrs. It wasn’t until I stopped going to counselling and reflect on my experience that I began to wonder why was I so messed up for 3yrs? Did I have that many problems? Why were there only 2 or 3 sessions when I didn’t end up a crying mess and then take 3 days to recover? I found myself just going along with everything because I thought if I want to be the best counsellor that is what I had to do. It wasn’t until several months later when I found the courage to talk to a supervisor about it when my supervisor explained that my Counsellor was projecting her shame on to me and violated my emotional boundaries. Apart from feeling a whole range of mixed feeling towards the other Counsellor and the toxic relationship, I was so relieved to find out that I wasn’t messed up & that I am more than OK. I certainly learnt a lot from the experience and it has made me more aware of my own boundaries when I am working with my clients.

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