The shadow of shame


Most of my clients struggle with an increased sense of shame that shadows the primary reason they are seeking treatment. Perhaps the issue is marriage troubles, perhaps the issue is trauma, perhaps the issue is a defiant teenager. I always find that shame is nearby.

Carl Jung, who deeply studied anthropology, mythology, and religion, was the first therapist to make a study of shame as a universal human issue, and to attempt to understand how it undermines life goals and therapy goals. Jung was also one of the first therapists to refer to "parts of the self," and began to refer to the "shadow self," as a part of the self that takes on the shame that others burden us with as we grow up, as well as the shame we place on ourselves throughout life. It is alternately a "whipping boy" (when we feel stung by shame) and a controlling, disruptive force in our lives. I will spend more time on the second of these two issues.

The shadow has universal characteristics, some of which are:

1. A tendency to project what we are ashamed of onto others

2. A tendency to cause disproportionate irritability when activated

3. A tendency to self-sabotage, i.e., to avoid failure by presupposing it

4. A tendency to appear as both an "inner child" and an "ugly beast"

You can easily see how all of these characteristics serve one purpose: to hide shame, even at the cost of causing further shame. The shadow fears the ultimate shame of being brought out into the light, which to it is the equivalent of death.

The last point, (4.), is possibly the most difficult to understand. Analysts (which I am not), and ego-state therapists (which I am), often encounter their clients' child and beast as "masks" the shadow wears in order to keep other parts of the self involved in endless conflict, defending the child and fearing the beast, fighting each other over how best to do this. The same purpose is present--a distraction for the shadow to hide behind.

One can see, then, how the shadow self by nature can worsen symptoms of mental illness or trauma, perpetuating these problems to cover its fear of being exposed. This complexity is difficult to treat.

And so this is why I dislike "inner child" work in which the client is seen as a poor victim of an unfair world, and also why I dislike work that fears some "evil" or "animal" part of the self that is not under the client's control. Therapies like these tend to drag on and on. In actuality, what is needed is to acknowledge and work with the shadow self's misconceptions and motivations surrounding its terror of being seen by the self and others.

What is to be done? The discipline of Marriage and Family Therapy seeks to understand the individual in context, that is, the context of development and the context of family relationships. Our deepest shame has its beginnings in our early childhood, and further experiences reinforce and organize themselves around the developing shadow. Our deepest shame also has the tendency to cause our internal turmoil to look very much like our family's patterns of interaction, in generations that precede us and those that follow us. This is a good starting point for seeing a client's problems as an existential issue, not just a diagnosis to be treated.

If a client doesn't want to do this sort of depth work, I don't address it, but therapy is quite simply more effective if it is taken into account. It's all a package deal.

Most recently, to provide one specific solution based on the above, I have been doing "resource development" (an EMDR technique) with trauma clients, specific to the fundamental negative self concept in the shadow. We can usually locate the negative concept together in a discussion of family history and early development, but if the issue is deep, "floatback" techniques can help clients search their memories to identify developmental trauma related to fundamental negative self-concept in the present. Then, a "resource" embodying self-statements that are realistic and strength-focused, as set against the negative intrusions, is "developed" in more detail, and "installed" both in session with EMDR techniques, and strengthened with homework to practice the resource. The resource's statements need not be believed, they just have to be rehearsed daily to the point that when shame is activated, the client has an automatic response that casts doubt on the depth/truth of the shame. In short, resourcing specific to the shadow takes the sting out of the shame, to a degree. This in turn makes work with trauma much easier as there isn't so much distraction and interference from the shadow's fears when reprocessing traumatic memories.

To be more specific, one client's resource was his collection of high school trophies, because he was assaulted at the deepest level by internal accusations of incompetence internalized from early family experiences. Another client resourced early experiences with a dance class to address feelings of "deserving" rejection and abandonment. Effective practice, in this second case, led to a total disappearance of suicidal thoughts in one week. Now, she can effectively participate in trauma therapy.

To conclude, recognizing the reality of the shadow is not a cure in itself, but allows for more effective and meaningful therapy that allows a client to be more free from false guilt/shame, and feel better accepting responsibility for real guilt. A healthy sense of responsibility leads to resilience and humility, which is my definition of mental stability. My job ends there, which illustrates that my view of mental health is not that my clients are per se happy, but that they are able to face the human condition with honesty, curiosity, and clarity. This then becomes a religious issue, which is outside my scope of practice, even though I am religious myself, and beyond that I'm not a relativist. While I address spiritual wounds, and faith is welcome in my practice, I am not a pastor and do not pretend to be. Besides keeping my place in this way, I respect and assert that the post-therapy journey is the client's own responsibility for confidently exploring such issues.