Identifying Difficult Feelings — An Important First Step Toward Concrete Change
Shame is a word my counseling clients sometimes dance around when trying to express their pain. It is a feeling experienced by many, but people have trouble saying the word. Somewhat ironically, shame feels like a “shameful” word to say. Nevertheless, developing the ability to articulate difficult sensations like shame can act as a catalyst. Learning about and discussing shame is the best way to get a handle on the painful sensations often accompanied by shame. Shame does not have to be a permanent feeling. I always tell my clients that learning to identify what the feeling is through naming it is the most important step in therapy. Developing the ability to identify difficult feelings frees up emotional energy and sets the stage for working through these feelings and developing solutions.
Therapy is most effective when the clinician is grounded in a particular theory that acts as a guiding principle for the work. Sure, it helps to integrate various theories based on the needs of each particular client, but therapy will be directive and productive if there is a key theoretical base structuring the process. My approach to therapy is grounded in attachment theory. According to attachment theory, underneath shame – most often — exists the sensation of a loss of connection. Clients experiencing loss of connection often feel misunderstood or even invisible. According to attachment theory, sustained lack of connection leads to insecurity, sadness, frustration and/or anger. Underneath these secondary emotions lies the primary emotion — shame. When clients talk about feeling “frustrated” or “annoyed”, we discuss these emotions and I point out it that it can feel safe to use words like “frustrated” or “annoyed” because we are socialized to believe that it is vulgar to be angry. We are socialized to believe that if you are sad you must rid yourself of that feeling as fast as you can so that others view you as strong rather than experience you as vulnerable or weak.
No wonder we grow up working so hard to make ourselves tough as nails, it is marked in our culture. Fortunately, current research on vulnerability and dynamic thinkers like Dr. Brene Brown are speaking up about the importance of facing shame and showing vulnerability. Brown’s books — The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly and Rising Strong — and TED talks are challenging this social norm. My approach to therapy highlights the importance of moving through shame and learning to be vulnerable in our primary relationships . Without authentic connections, there is a tendency to keep feelings bottled up with nowhere to go. By continuing to suppress feelings of anger, sadness, fear, shame can manifest in unhealthy ways such as anxiety, depression or even medical disorders associated with stress.