Three Keys to Healing Shame
Becoming a loving witness
Posted September 20, 2016
Shame is powerful, insidious, injurious. It’s the air we breathe, the sea we swim in. It informs how we look upon others; it informs how we look at ourselves. It’s a deadly virus attacking our capacity to love each other and ourselves.
When we are shamed repeatedly, we are taught to think that our feelings are wrong and our experiences are delusive. Whether this happens as a child or as an adult, the result is the same: if there is no one compassionate and perceptive enough to acknowledge the validity of our stories on a repeat basis, then we too are challenged to see them as true. We learn to distrust ourselves; we learn to deny our own truth, even to ourselves. Transforming this mindset requires a witness with a willingness to look and listen in a most powerful way—by seeing, feeling and believing.
Video: Seeing, Feeling & Believing
The Three Keys
The seeing I am referring to here is most synonymous with the word respect. The word respect has two elements: 1) spect: to see, to view, to look at; and 2) re: to do it again. To see in a way that heals shame, is to look and then look again—to see what is not seen and affirm the unseen with our physical and verbal recognition.
To see in this way is no easy task, because when people tell you something about themselves, you can’t see inside of them; the information is subjective. For example, if someone tells you they’re nervous, you can't see the feeling. Thus, we need techniques to make the feelings visible. One useful technique for “seeing” feelings is through somatic experience—having the person attempt to demonstrate the feeling with their body.
Accordingly, if a person is nervous, I might ask them where that nervousness is located in their body. They might say it’s in their solar plexus. I might say, "Feel that for a moment. Can you show me with your hand?" They might make a fluttering hand motion. I might ask, "If you kept fluttering, what would you do?" They may say, "I might fly away." That person is saying, "I want to fly away," and now I can see it! When I am seeing it in that way, that person has an experience of truly being seen even more than when I say, "Oh, you're nervous today." That type of “seeing” on my part, as the witness, creates the sense of being acknowledged and cared about, even loved, in a way. It’s so powerful that it can even combat the dominance of shame that dismisses and denies their experience!
There are times when a person’s feelings don’t show up readily in the physical realm during verbal recollection. Another powerful technique is to listen carefully for unseen non-verbal signals. For example, I may ask them to tell me a story about their nervousness. While speaking, I might hear a quiver—a flutter in their voice—and to give the person the feeling of being seen, I might say, "Oh, I hear a little flutter in your voice. That must be some of the nervousness you're talking about." This is what we call sensory grounding; the experience of nervousness—the flutter in their voice, the hand motions—those are things I can actually bear witness to, a unique subtlety in their projection.
To heal our shame, we need to be truly seen.
People then feel like, "Wow, this person is really paying attention. They really want to know me," and that's an amazing experience. People really want to be known and understood; they want someone to not affirm their shamed view of themselves.
To combat shame, we also need someone to be moved by our experience. We need to not only “see,” but feel and express those feelings. To do this I must listen inside of myself to what you’re telling me—I must pay attention to my own feelings.
Let's say you were hurt. If I listen to my own feelings, I notice I am moved to wince or shudder in response to your story. Expressing this lets you know that I can imagine what I would feel like if your experience were mine.
To heal our shame, we need to be witnessed with compassion.
Now, in addition to a seeing quality, you know that I'm moved by your story, and you feel loved, in a sense. That combats the shame, because shame has a dismissal in it that says your feelings aren't important—that you aren’t important, that you are not worthy of care, that you are not valued. So, when I show you that you moved me, you feel like your story really does mean something; it has power and meaningful information in it. My response is empathic and compassionate; and it communicates to you a sense of validation. My being moved by you brings your experience to life and allows you to begin to trust its legitimacy.
Shame is a thief. It steals our belief in our experience and our belief in ourselves. To have our essential self-love restored, to combat shame’s eye, we need to be believed.
I don’t mean that every word you say must be declared the truth—it’s not that kind of belief. I mean that to heal shame, something more basic, something deeper, must be believed—a deeper truth in our story, even if there are some inaccuracies. As a counselor, I must also believe in the person—that the person I am looking at has a beauty, intelligence, a gift, and an authority worthy of my best support. I call this “radical belief.”
For example, If you tell me you’re wearing a blue shirt, and I can see that you are, I believe you. That’s not the kind of healing belief I am referring to. But if you say you got bullied at school and I ask what you did to cause it, then I'm blaming you for something; I am implying that I don't fully believe your point of view, that you have a legitimate complaint and injury. I'm meeting you with suspicion about your experience instead of responding in a supportive way, such as inviting you to tell me your story and how it made you feel. When I do that, I’m essentially saying, “I believe you. Your experience was real, and your feelings are important and justified.” I “radically believe” you.
To heal our shame, our feelings and deepest truths must be believed.
Being radically believed changes something, because when people are shamed, not only do they experience not being believed from the outside, but they also stop believing themselves. They start questioning their initial response to the experience as if it’s not okay or right to be upset. People internalize this distrust of themselves. Radically believing them and their experience in a deep way ends up combating that shame and fosters self-love.
These three qualities—seeing (wanting to know the details of a person’s experience), feeling (expressing empathy and compassion), and radical believing (instilling a profound trust in the heart and story of the person) wrap their way around the heart and soul, like a loving bandage. People come to know they’re important, valuable. They know their feelings matter, and they feel seen and understood. These three qualities can change the trajectory of a life; they can heal our shame.
When we practice being this kind of healing witness on a regular basis, it opens the door for us to not only embrace each other in a more loving way, but it also allows us the opportunity to turn that same love on ourselves, to learn to authenticate our own feelings, experiences, and truths. We begin to build a new world, one not of shame but of love.
For more information, visit www.davidbedrick.com.