A presentation by eclectic therapist and writer Matilde Tomat introducing Shame from the perspective of Erikson’s 8 stages of Psychosocial Development.

The starting point of the presentation was on the concept of Trust. In the womb the child experiences soothing sounds, colours, feels safe and is warm. At birth s/he sees light, experiences noise and needs to be fed, and to breathe. This is a shock for the new-born. A child will feel fear if no-one comforts it. This is the point where a child will learn not to trust. This is the child’s very first existential lesson and can be the beginning of the belief ‘I should not ask for help if I need it’.

Shame is pre-verbal, it is buried deep in our solar-plexus (abdomen) –therefore talking about shame can be very complex. What cannot be communicated to the m(other) cannot then be communicated to the self, because it is too painful. Therefore we cannot often find the words to express Shame. From a therapist perspective it is best to tap into our clients’ emotions and sensations around it.
Shame is silent, and painful – we don’t know why we feel the way we do. This Shame can lead to addiction, eating disorders, depression.

If a child’s mother is absent, Shame is the second stage and is described as ‘suffering from memories’. From ages 1-3 we are learning autonomy. This autonomy should also lead to feeling accepted for who we are, and to learn self-esteem, and control. However, it is also the potty training stage where there is scope for shame and doubt. If we feel shame and doubt during this stage it can lead us to feel inadequate and worthless.

Before the break Matilde asked us to take some blank sticky labels and to write on them what adjectives/names/nicknames we had been given throughout our lives. We had to wear these labels during the break, and to feed back how that felt. It was an interesting exercise; some felt it was pushing their comfort zones, some that they felt vulnerable, and some that they did not want to look at other people’s labels.

Matilde focussed on Trauma linked with Shame.
There are three levels to this (using the example of someone having being raped)

  • Shame around the action/incident that happened
  • Shame around the reaction we had to the incident
  • Shame of being found out about our reactions

Shame is a sense of loss of self; we are happy to be ignored but at the same time we need to be seen. Fully functioning people understand the difference between games and reality, they see crises as opportunities, and they acknowledge their bodies and their physical presence.

When we feel Shame we are sensitive to changes in faces/voices/environments and we tend to take everything seriously. We can also be disconnected from, or ashamed of our bodies and physical presence. When we feel shame we can dissociate from our bodies – this is why as therapists it is good to encourage clients to connect with their bodies – yoga, dance, exercise, massage. This can be one way out of Shame i.e. having a friendly relationship with the body. Such bodily movement can open the chakras that have been closed down.
Matilde finished the talk with exploring how Shame is also embedded in the counselling profession, (how we work, what qualifications we have/don’t have, are we accredited?, are we helping this client enough?) and this is normal, as Shame is embedded in all of us. Erikson says that in order to have trust, we need to have hope. Hope is different to faith and is not a ‘wishy washy optimism’. It is understanding who you are, and if you feel worthy of living, you gain hope and a sense of worthiness. Hope also requires a commitment to the self, and taking small steps towards that.
A question was asked at the end regarding hope, and for Matilde to expand more on this:
Hope requires willpower as motivation. We are encouraged to remember why we want to go to the gym, why we want to quit smoking as opposed to the hows of doing these things. Overall an interesting and thought – provoking talk with a focus on how Shame links with the brain, Trauma, and Anxiety.
Elspeth Treacy