Working with Shame in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)

As we identify the negative interaction cycles of our couples and work to move each individual to his or her primary emotions, shame can pose a special problem. Feelings of sadness, fear, loneliness or hurt are difficult, but to feel shame can bring an entirely different climate into the room. 

Shame says something is inherently wrong or inadequate with me at the core.  Shame says I am flawed and because I am flawed, no one will ever really love me, no matter what I do, no matter how hard I try.

Shame tells our clients to hide, fight, or people please.  None of these stances allow for the authentic attachment behavior required to break the negative cycle.

Moving a client who feels shame on the surface into his or her deeper feelings of shame can take patience. The client first has to be confident the therapist is safe and accepting, that you won’t negatively judge him or her.  The feeling of shame feels like a punishment, and a client experiencing shame has to be able to trust the therapist will gently validate and normalize his or her struggle.

Shame in Emotionally Focused Therapy starts to rear its head when a client says things like:

  • I don’t know what to do or how to please her.
  • I feel like nothing I try works. 
  • I try to solve the problem I see and he just gets angry with me.
  • I feel like a failure in this relationship.
  • I can be successful in my career, but maintaining harmony at home is beyond me.
  • I sometimes feel like he doesn’t want me. I can never do enough.

Often when shame starts to show up as a part of the cycle the client will immediately return to his or her secondary emotion. It feels better to remain in anger, disappointment, or frustration than to stay and experience shame at a deeper level. The biggest fear of someone who feels ashamed is that others will agree with his or her shame.  For some, losing the relationship may be worth NOT taking the risk their partner will agree they are inadequate, and that they will never be enough to satisfy relational needs. 

Thus, the shame-filled client also needs to experience reassurance his or her partner will not disappear from the relationship when shame is revealed.  As the therapist models acceptance and non-judgment, the client experiencing shame gains confidence his or her partner will also be accepting and non-judging.  EFT research finds the expression of primary emotions actually draws couples closer, including when feelings of shame are expressed.

One reaction a client has to feelings of shame is the need to seek control.  If she or he can control everything, then life will work out okay and shame won’t have to surface.  Control says, my way or the highway!  Control means one person is always in charge and true attachment can’t occur.

George and Candace were making progress in therapy, but the cycle of George’s criticism when things didn’t happen how, when and where he wanted them to was hard to break.  His true struggle remained under the surface until I probed a bit deeper.

***

Therapist When you can’t control what’s going on around you feel anxious, the anxiety is painful and like most of us you do not like feeling it, you get critical, corrective instead is that right?

George:  Yes, that’s what happens.

Therapist:  When do you recall first feeling the need to control everything that happens in your life?

George:  (after a long pause) It was in high school when I did so poorly on my SAT that I could not get into a good college.  I was a valedictorian, never had to study much, and thought I could just waltz through the SAT (and the rest of my life) without any preparation.  I tanked.

Therapist: It sounds as though that was an extremely difficult time for you.

George:  It was.  My parents were disappointed and ashamed.  We didn’t have a very good relationship before that, but afterwards it was worse.  I couldn’t face my friends and teachers.  I didn’t know who I was anymore.  On several occasions, I stayed out all night partying and drove home drunk.  It’s a miracle I didn’t kill anyone on the road.  That just isn’t who I was or am.  I never want to go there again.

Therapist:  So when Candace doesn’t follow through on things that affect you, it’s like a switch flips and you go to that place of not being who you want to be, and get critical as a means of trying to make yourself feel better to gain control again– and it’s hard to stay connected.  It is hard to let her in on the shame and the pain. Is that right?

George:  I feel off balance and I just go off.  It’s not what I want.  [In a previous session, George talked about how Candace completed him.]

***

As George talked more about his feelings of shame, Candace softened. Although she and George had been together for ten years and had talked about the period of time that so profoundly affected him, she had no idea of the lingering shame he held.  What she had always seen was how successful he was with everything in his life, and how easy everything seemed to be for him. She now saw a different person in front of her – someone who was more approachable.  As he divulged more of his inner world in her presence, he seemed more authentic and less critical and controlling.

Candace and George give us one example of the power of primary emotions in changing the dynamics in a relationship. With shame in particular, the cycle may be difficult to change. 

With continued probing, combined with reflection, validation and empathic conjecture, the layers of shame will begin to be revealed and the cycle will change, creating more authenticity and leading towards a more secure attachment.

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