A Gestalt therapist's way of working with shame

What is the purpose of shame and is it always bad?

We all feel shame and it is a useful essential modifying emotion, but when it presents as a fleeting micro emotion you might not be aware of it. In such cases, shame might be disguised through the following behaviours, that you might notice in yourself or someone else:

  • dropping of the chin

  • exhaling a breath

  • slumped shoulders

  • exhalation of a sound like ‘Urgh’ or ‘Oh’

All these micro indicators of disappointment or shame are also indicators of micro shame.

Shame like other emotions is on a continuum spanning fleeting disappointment through to mild embarrassment, and all the way to utter humiliation.

So if shame isn’t ‘all bad’ what is the purpose of shame?

Silvan Tomkins in the 1960s, and more recently Brene Brown in her famous TED talk, explored this important and misunderstood feeling and developed what is now known as the Compass of Shame (CoS) Model. The CoS is used widely in Restorative Justice in order to bring victims and offenders together to repair the harm that was done and find a way forward to reconcile differences.

The Compass of Shame and Counselling

The CoS model is useful in Counselling when it provides a visual model that the therapist can use to assist clients in growing awareness of their own and others responses to negative emotions/events or, in CoS language, when ‘joy is interrupted’ or has been spoilt.

When an individual is having good times and these are unexpectedly spoilt, the CoS indicates that there are 4 different responses to this reduction in joy.

These are:

  • Blame/attack towards the Self

  • Blame/attack others

  • Withdrawal from others

  • Avoidance through distraction

Each response provides a way of supporting the Self in the face of shame.

Using the visual image of the CoS during therapy helps clients with a range of issues to track their responses and to make sense of default patterns that may have built up over time. This approach has its roots in Script Theory.

Script theory is a psychological theory which argues that human behaviour primarily falls into patterns called "scripts" providing, like a written script, a program for action. In script theory, the basic unit of analysis is called a "scene". A scene is a sequence of events linked by the emotions which were triggered during the experience of those events. Tomkins recognized that our affective experiences fall into patterns that can be grouped together according to, for instance, the persons and the places which were part of the experience as well as the intensity of the emotions that accompanied it. All these patterns constitute a script, and once internalised they can lead to programmed behaviours.

When this model of looking at one self is taught to clients, I have noticed that clients feel it supports their daily growing understanding of themselves as well as of others at work or at home. This is why I value it as an essential tool which can make a significant difference to their progress and for this reason encourage my clients to explore it during our work together.

Bonny Holland is a Gestalt Therapist based in Hove and with 35 year experience working with families and children in education settings. For more information, view her website http://bonitaholland.wixsite.com/counselling

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