This page links to my comments on Only for Therapists; a link made after I participated in a PESI training led by Christiana Sanderson on the topic of Shame.
Without saying so, she revisited Richard Bandler’s trip into the world of etymology. A long time ago, I attended a training led by him in London – he of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) fame. On that occasion, amidst much theatre, Bandler made a ‘play’ on the word, therapists. It is unfortunate that one small space can transform that word into: the rapists.
As I heard it, in her workshop, Sanderson was making the point that unintended actions by therapists can, indeed, take on the guise of the rapist. Rapists, by their actions, abuse power, demean others and breach boundaries. The rapist intends this abuse of another for their own gratification. The therapist may do the same, if without the intention, and often out of the ‘best’ of motives – compassion for another.
Often in my work it is very tempting to want to help yet it is not easy for me, and other therapists, to share a space with some-one who is hurting. It seems only natural that I should want to lessen the hurt. At the same time, that shared experience can trigger my own hurt and shame and it is a small step to protect myself from both.
So, who am I wanting to help? What is guiding my priorities and how can I help most effectively?
These are important questions as I may well be at my most dangerous when I think I have definitive answers to such questions.
This dilemma takes me back to my time in child protection training. In a concise book, the Swiss psychiatrist, Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig taught therapists to be aware of the subtle abuses of authority that can occur during the process of assessment and treatment. His book, Power in the Helping Professions (1998), from Spring Publications, is not an easy read. It warns that experience may enable me to be a confident practitioner and make highly nuanced judgements and yet that very same experience can lead me to develop into a sense of certainty. That, in turn, can draw unjustified conclusions from my professional assessments.
It’s a shame
Back to Sanderson’s workshop focused on Shame. Ostensibly focused on the treatment of shame-related features in ‘clients’, the workshop echoed Guggenbuhl-Craig’s warning. More usefully, the work identified several small, safe experiments that the practitioner can do to become more aware.
She asserted that effective intervention was feasible only if the therapist paid attention to the impact of shame in their own lives; not just the life of the person in front of them. The presence of shame is a ‘universal’ in human experience so the only question was: to what extent are each of us aware of the roots of our own shame, and its impact on our lives today.
I have chosen to write this page as the workshop cast light on my own practices and my attitude as adopted in this website. Clients may need to know about this as it identifies another of my Achilles Heels. Sanderson uses Nathanson’s ‘compass of shame to identify four ways in which I can defend myself against shame. These are:
- withdrawal and appeasement
- attacking self
- avoidance or compensation
- attacking others
I’m at a life stage, moving to retirement, where ‘withdrawal’ is part of the territory. That could be just ‘one of those things’. What is evidently no coincidence is attacking myself through self-deprecation; after all, how can you attack some-one who gets in there first! Also, I emphasise the importance of you designing and implementing your own small, safe experiments. That minimises aspects of my own contribution to the processes you may follow. This enables another obstructive strategy as it could be described as controlling events through the ‘it’s nothing to do with me, guv‘ philosophy!
That’s a cunningly disguised version of attacking others – you, that is! Do confront it if you feel blamed for not getting down to safe experimentation. When you notice it, tell me, and both of can become more aware.
So let’s look further at Sanderson’s material and can consider the place of shame in our lives.
Some more information about Shame
There are several pages on this website addressing safe experiments with a Shame focus. I list some at the bottom of this page.
Sanderson’s own contribution goes into greater depth by addressing forms of Shame. She placed emphasis on:
- the universality of the shame experience; sometimes it can be articulated, and sometimes it is wordless or even kept secret.
- the conclusion that shame can no more be abolished than those anxiety circuits in our life. Shame may be uncomfortable, but it is there for a purpose.
- how to differentiate external and internal experiences of shame (and, through this, notice how ‘guilt’ is a different feeling, serving different aims.
- the subtle ways in which shame can promote ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ power and control strategies. This is very relevant to practitioners where it is possible to feel shame on behalf of others -called vicarious shame. This feature can block the progress of therapy.
The implications for our daily practice are spelled out:
- that healing requires an inclusive, collaborative and non-hierarchical approach to negotiating the professional relationship. She highlights the subtle difference between ‘being with’ a client, and ‘doing things to another’.
- that showing compassion involves awareness of our own shame and an ability to identify healthy shame that keeps me pro-social and toxic shame that traps me in a narrow world.
Also, Sanderson focused on how to break the silence and sustain connection with a client through showing compassion for self as well as the other. She emphasised the way in which judgement of others can be withheld and emotions identified and expressed as part of building resilience.
In particular, she demonstrated how the central permission: allowing our self to be human, needs more attention here.
Specific practical devices she offered as ‘antidotes‘ to shame were:
- The Shame Tree: that ‘rang a bell’ for me given my own inverted tree.
- The Cookie Jar: as a ‘store house’ holding those qualities and abilities in which we can have authentic pride.
- The Shame Wheel: an exercise that client and therapist can complete together.
…. each intended to make explicit the ways to break the silence to promote compassion and empathy.
I’m not going to illustrate these small, safe experiments further, at this stage, unless I get permission to do so. You can always ask me a question – see below – if that helps.
Alternatively, can I suggest you visit one of her publishers and research further around these topics. I’d recommend that you look out for a suitable training through the internet and other educational programmes.
There’s still a problem
Some practitioners who get this far on this page may say: this may be so for you, Mr Trewartha, but not for me. My training and experience has given me enough insight to manage the risks you have identified.
I assert that this cannot be true. I see this position as a prime example of the dilemma called Discounting. For me, this imagined exchange is an indicator the highest level of discount, but my imagined protagonist claims it is not.
Who is right? This is a major complication and doubtless a good example of a trigger for shaming self or others.
Christiana Sanderson demonstrates that, as with democracy, she seeks ‘eternal vigilance’ to provide effective therapy through a unique relationship. There is no ‘one size fits all’ in undertaking shame work.
She offers several ways to ‘audit’ her own shame features in her professional relationships.
Here are some small, safe experiments on this website that can help me to step back and audit my skills as a practitioner:
- the body scan to monitor my thoughts, feelings and sensations as well as the connections between.
- take personal responsibility for my own shame features and ensure that I stay open to discussion about it.
- Take Special Time seriously and apply it to my own professional work.
- Step back to reflect on how I can think before making judgements and taking action.
- be both sceptical and curious about ‘meaning‘.
- be able to reframe a view I have, particularly about ‘endings’ and how to get there.
- to improve my skills in psycho-education, as mentioned near the bottom of this page – to see that ‘education’ is provided confidently, briefly and to the point.
- …. any others? You have found and can remember?
Some further leads to consider
Design Designing a safe experiment
Categories of safe experiments Actions that might constitute a safe experiment
Limitations to action Limitations to actions in safe experimenting
Shame Shame and neuroception
An index An index of pages on Your Nudge
Can I use ‘safe experiments’ to help others? https://your-nudge.com/can-i-use-safe-experiments-to-help-others/
Connect and Disconnect https://your-nudge.com/connect-and-disconnect/
Dissociation and disconnection https://your-nudge.com/dissociation/
Inter-generational Trauma https://your-nudge.com/inter-generational-trauma/
Obstacles to safe experiments https://your-nudge.com/obstacles-to-safe-experiments/
Polyvagal Theory – what are the practical implications? https://your-nudge.com/polyvagal-theory-what-are-the-practical-implications/
Power, Threat and Meaning: Power, Threat and Meaning