image by Leon Bliss
My client was a high functioning professional. During our many months of therapy she spoke of numerous times in her life when she felt too awkward, too shy, too depressed or when she felt put down by people in her family or at work.
She had a part of her that believed that something was wrong with her. And yet there was another part of her from long ago that knew that what was going on in her family was not right. And that part had been frozen in shame. All her emotions and her life forward direction stayed stuck and frozen in that shame/trauma bubble.
My client had come in because she had heard Bret and I discuss healing shame on the Sounds True Self-Acceptance Summit in 2017. Listening to us talk about shame, she realized that she had done years of therapy but had never addressed her deepest issue. As she said: “I always thought there was something wrong with me!”
She had kept getting more and more training in her field because she never knew when she would feel inferior and have to back up her work. And she had not dated at all because if anyone wanted to go out with her, she would wonder what was wrong with them!
An active meditator, she knew how to sit with herself and track thoughts and emotions. We tracked her sessions from her first realization, during the Sounds True interview, that this emotion of shame had played a major but invisible role in her life.
In early sessions she had talked about her confusion, about her role as a younger daughter growing up in a large family and having to follow the rules or be beaten - even when she didn’t know what was wrong. She would be beaten by her father for not giving him a glass in the correct way. She would be beaten by her sister for even having a thought that was different and by her mother just for looking a little different.
“Shame is a binding emotion,” I told her one day. “Maybe shame bound up with your anger and sadness to protect you in childhood when your parents would beat you. Maybe you learned to hold back your emotions so deeply and you learned to hold back your thoughts, and shame was like a cover of the deeper parts of you?”
She joined my curiosity as we gently unpacked the way shame had protected her. She had learned to think “Something must be wrong with me” because she had a different reaction than family members.
She had a lifetime of holding back her thoughts and feelings. She had a lifetime of repeating the shame messages that had been placed on her by keeping small and believing that something was wrong with her. I explained that thought was actually the cognitive expression of shame.
My presence was a safe witness that she had not experienced before. And she noticed what it was like to talk about her life without feeling judged.
Shame can be like a multi-headed hydra, attacking self-esteem and self-worth and getting in the way of making life changes. It can help to have a new mirror. I mirrored the positives in her and the changes she was making in her life. I explained to her about healthy shame. And we processed the difference between that and the toxic shame that kept her stuck in the past and kept her energy system frozen for so many years.
It was exciting to watch her transform as we encountered, processed and moved a little beyond the shame each week. Our work together led to an extraordinary session in which the curtain of shame lifted and I got to see the radiant person underneath. I would like to share a moment from that session with you. (I have changed various aspects of her story to keep her identity private.)
It was an odd look I had not seen on her face before, and I wanted both of us to stay a little longer with that moment.
“Ooooooohhhhh. What’s that emotion?” I say, drawing out the sounds of my words. I’ve never seen this look before, I reflect back to her.
She shrugs and stops herself from rushing forward into words that may have been there, and then she pauses in that moment and shrugs.
“That emotion,” I say with curiosity and wonder, “I have never seen on your face. Your eyes are getting big, and there’s a new lightness around your eyes.”
She shrugs again.
I ask again, more insistent, increasing my vitality affect and leaning in towards her a little.
“THAT emotion,” I say, raising my excitement level a little more. “Can you name it? Do you notice it?” We look at each other for a few moments and she sighs.
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know,” I repeat, as if joining her in a game of hide and seek. I ask again. “I wonder what it may be?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know… I don’t know… maybe…maybe….. Oh my……. It’s happiness!!!” she says with extreme surprise.
Happiness and joy! Two emotions that are new to her. We are at a transformance moment in our session, where a lifetime of being in the grips of the shame freeze has kept her emotions frozen and her life ordinary. I join her and name the delight of her overflowing joy and the waterfall and pleasure of this incredible moment.
It touched my heart to share that moment of joyous discovery with her. It brought tears to my eyes and we cried tears of joy together.
Sheila Rubin, MA, LMFT, RDT/BCT is the Director of the Center for Healing Shame in Berkeley, CA. She co-created the Healing Shame – Lyon/Rubin method and has delivered talks, presentations and workshops across the U.S. and around the world, at conferences from Canada to Romania. Sheila is a Board Certified Trainer through NADTA and has served as adjunct faculty at JFK University and the California Institute of Integral Studies. Her expertise, teaching, and writing contributions have been featured in numerous publications, including six books. Sheila has developed therapy techniques integrating somatic and expressive modalities to work with the all-pervasive shame and trauma that underlie eating disorders, addictions and toxic family dynamics. She offers therapy through her private practice in Berkeley and San Francisco, and also offers consultation to therapists over Skype. You can find out more about Sheila's work or get in contact via her website here.
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NOTE: Transformance is a term coined by Diana Fosha, developer of AEDP, to describe “the force in the psyche that’s moving towards growth and expansion and transformation,” and the idea that healing is “not just an outcome but a process that exists within each person that emerges in conditions of safety.”