NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, July 26, 2020

Overcoming Shame With Experiential Therapy

In my prior article I began a discussion about shame being at the root of most psychological problems.  In this article I'll give a clinical vignette and discuss how experiential therapy helps clients to overcome shame (see my article: Healing Shame in Therapy).

Overcoming Shame With Experiential Therapy

Clinical Vignette: Shame is at the Root of Most Emotional Problems
The following clinical vignette about resolving shame in therapy with experiential therapy is a composite of numerous cases:

When he first came to therapy, Joe told his therapist that he felt he wasn't where he wanted to be in his life, "I'm not satisfied with any part of my life. I'm going to be 35 years old in a few months, and I'm not where I should be in my personal life or in my career. By the time my older brother, Sam, was my age, he was already married with two kids and he was one of the top salespeople at his company.  I feel like a loser."

Joe went on to say that whenever he got together with his family for Sunday dinners, his parents talked about being proud of Sam, but they never talked about about being proud of him.  He said, "Ever since I was boy, my mother and father talked about feeling proud of Sam, and I just had to sit and listen to them gloat about him.  They never said they felt proud of me."

From Joe's description, it appeared that Sam was the "golden child" in the family and Joe was the neglected child.  He said he felt he never measured up to his brother's accomplishments (see my article: Growing Up Feeling Invisible and Emotionally Invalidated and Children's Roles in Dysfunctional Families).

He felt his parents didn't love him as much as they loved Sam, and he could understand this because, compared to Sam, "I'm nothing" (see my article: Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

It was clear that Joe felt deeply ashamed of himself and he was stuck in the negative perception that he was "a loser."  It was also evident that he felt he had to earn his parents' love by accomplishing things rather than just being loved for himself.

Based on his description of the family dynamics, his feelings of toxic shame were rooted in his childhood emotional neglect (see my article:  What is Childhood Emotional Neglect? and What's the Difference Between Healthy Shame and Toxic Shame?)

Joe had lots of "shoulds" that he used to beat himself up with, "I should've tried harder to make something of myself" and "I should've chosen a profession that would have made my parents proud of me" and so on.

Although he loved being self employed as an illustrator, Joe felt ashamed whenever his father described his work in a dismissive tone as "just drawing pictures" when the father talked to family friends.  Joe compared this to how his father described Sam as being "a go-getter who is the top salesperson at his firm."

Joe said even though he got illustration work from large accounts, like major newspapers and sports teams, he felt he wasn't doing enough to promote his business because of his lack of self confidence.

With regard to relationships, he said his last girlfriend, Sue, left him two years ago, and he felt unmotivated to start dating again. Even though he often felt lonely, he said he lacked the confidence to go out and meet women.  So, he spent a lot of time alone or seeing male friends to go to sports events.

His therapist realized that Joe's shame was longstanding, and it created a major obstacle in his life.  Since she was an experiential therapist, during the initial stage of therapy, she helped Joe to build a stronger sense of self by asking him to remember positive memories about himself (see my article: Developing Internal Resources in Therapy).

At first, Joe couldn't think of any but, gradually, he remembered winning art awards in high school and college, the first time he got a major contract for his illustrations from a top sports team, and other similar memories.

As Joe talked about these moments when he felt good about himself, his therapist used Somatic Experiencing to help him to slow down and feel the sense of pride he experienced with each memory.

By helping him to slow down and notice where he felt these good feelings about himself in his body, his therapist helped Joe to intensify and integrate these good feelings (see my article: Experiential Therapy and the Mind-Body Connection).

His therapist reflected back to Joe the change she saw in him--the pride she saw on his face and in his confident posture as he dwelled on these positive memories.  Joe said that he was surprised to remember so many memories that he usually didn't think about when he was feeling bad about himself.

In his subsequent sessions, Joe said he realized that, even though he felt like "a loser" with most women, he remembered meeting a few women in recent weeks who seemed interested in getting to know him, but he felt too shy to ask for their phone numbers.

Over time, Joe and his therapist explored his shame, and he realized that, along with shame, he felt hurt and sad that his parents neglected him.  At that point, his therapist explained how EMDR therapy helps clients to overcome psychological trauma, and they used EMDR in the next phase of therapy (see my article: Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

Gradually, Joe realized that, even though he was neglected, he deserved his parents' love--not for his accomplishments but for just being himself.  Rather than feeling ashamed, Joe felt angry that he didn't get what he needed from his parents.  This was a big psychological breakthrough for Joe because, instead of blaming himself for being "a loser" and not deserving his parents love, he felt he was a person who was worthy of love.

He also realized that his parents' dynamic of praising Sam and ignoring Joe was rooted in their own psychological problems and he wasn't to blame for that.  He knew that both of his parents experienced similar family dynamics as children where they were the ones who were neglected.  At that point, along with his sadness, anger, hurt and shame, he also felt compassion for them.

As his shame was lifting, Joe felt more confident and assertive in promoting his work.

In addition, when he attended family dinners with his parents and Sam, he felt freer to talk about himself.  To his surprise, his parents noticed and commented on this positive change in him.  Although he was at a point where he no longer felt he needed his parents' approval, his parents really  saw him for the first time in a new light and they praised him.

Within several months, Joe shed his old identity of feeling like "a loser" and he was no longer feeling awkward and shy around women.  He began dating a woman he really liked.  Over time, he saw the potential for the relationship to develop into a lasting, meaningful relationship.

Toxic shame is rooted in early childhood neglect and trauma (see my article about Developmental Trauma).

Shame is emotionally debilitating, especially when it's as pervasive in a person's life as it was in the vignette above.  It often shows up with the person experiencing many "shoulds" about him or herself.  These "shoulds" are a clue to deep-rooted shame.

During the initial stage of experiential therapy, it's important that the therapist ensure that the client has the necessary internal resources to cope with whatever comes up in experiential therapy, like EMDR.

There are many different ways to develop internal resources depending on the needs of the client.  With strong internal resources, the client is better able to cope with whatever comes up as s/he works through feelings of shame.

Anger, hurt and sadness often accompany feelings of shame below the surface. When clients begin therapy, they're often unaware of these other emotions so, when the time is right, an experiential therapist helps the client to work through those emotions as well.

As shame and other debilitating emotions lift, clients often feel lighter and more confident. Rather than being burdened by childhood trauma, they're free from their traumatic history so they can live more authentically.

Getting Help in Therapy
Many people, who have been traumatized at a young age, are unaware of the negative impact of shame in their life.  They might be aware of feeling anxious or depressed, but shame is often suppressed because it's too difficult to face alone.

If you've been struggling with emotional problems you have been unable to resolve on your own, you could benefit from working with an experiential therapist (see my article: What's the Difference Between Top Down vs Bottom Up Therapy?).

Once you're free from the emotional burden of a traumatic childhood history, you can live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my articles: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Therapy and What is a Trauma Therapist?).

I work with with individual adults and couples.

I am currently providing teletherapy, also known as telemental health, online therapy and telehealth (see my article: The Advantages of Online Therapy).

To find out  more about me, visit my website Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.