Shame and Counseling
Carlos Durana Ph.D., M.Ac. offers counseling and therapy in Reston, Virginia, Washington, DC, and Bethesda, Maryland.
Body and Mind – Shame
Welcome. I’m your host, Beverly Jones, and today I’m interviewing Dr. Carlos Durana, the founder of A Caring Approach. Dr. Durana is a clinical psychologist and counselor with over 25 years of experience in couples and individual counseling, with practices in Bethesda, Reston, and Washington DC.
In this episode, we’ll talk about an emotion we’ve all had to deal with at one point or another in our lives. It’s the emotion of shame, and Dr. Durana is here to discuss where it comes from, and how to manage it so it doesn’t overwhelm us. Welcome, Dr. Durana.
Carlos Durana: Thank you, so glad to be here with you.
Bev: Well, I’m glad you’re here to talk about this. What exactly is shame, and where does it come from?
Carlos: It’s a very important social emotion. It governs social relationships, really. It is how we regulate social behavior in so many ways concerning what is acceptable, and what is unacceptable. And if you look at the meaning of shame, one of the definitions has to do with the lighter aspect of shame, which is in French and Spanish is the word poudour. Let’s say that you’re wearing a dress that may be too low, and somebody gives you a look, maybe your mother or your father, and you feel a sense of disapproval, then you correct it in some way or another. There’s another word for a deeper aspect of shame, however, that we don’t have in the English language. The meaning is shame as a feeling of disgrace, a feeling of dishonor. Someone has done something where they may feel a sense of disgrace or dishonor. That is important, because it is how we regulate social interactions and behaviors. Sometimes we hear people say, “Oh that person is shameless,” We don’t like to hear that, do we? We want to feel that everyone is capable of experiencing and feeling shameful about certain things because it can determine whether that person has certain sensitivities to be part of the group, or to be part of our society.
There’s another aspect of shame that becomes very problematic, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today. It has to do with how that sense of shame becomes a pervasive habit. When that happens, we feel unworthy. We feel defective. We feel that something’s deeply wrong with us, and as a result, we don’t feel accepted, or that we don’t belong. It’s that feeling of unworthiness and not belonging that is very painful. And it becomes very impactful in our lives – in how we think about ourselves, and how we cope with life, in our relationships and our behaviors, in our work life, it causes many, many different types of problems.
Bev: So in your counseling practice in Bethesda, do you see that we all experience that very deep aspect of shame, or are there people who go through life and never have to deal with it?
Carlos: I think that everybody has had some experience of shame. It’s just that sometimes we cope with it in different ways. We can cover it over, Or we can compensate. For example, if I feel very unworthy, I may become someone who can be overly productive at work. I’m trying to prove something, that I have value, and as a result I may become a workaholic. Some people might say “Oh, he’s fantastic! He produces so much!” (laughs) But then the rest of my life is a mess.
There are ways we can try to compensate. We can compensate with drugs, alcohol, by being perfectionistic, through anger. If that shame button gets pushed, we can become very angry. I’m thinking of an example, of someone who is in a relationship. This man has had challenges in getting jobs that are providing enough for his family. When conversations come about where his wife is asking him about it, he becomes very defensive, he becomes very angry. And then he may attack his wife, he may withdraw and not want to talk about it, so he feels a great deal of shame. It’s very difficult to talk about this because it’s touching something in him. As a man, there are some gender-based expectations and norms having to do with shame. And as a man, he is not providing. That is one of the biggest norms for men, you have to be a good provider, and now all of a sudden he’s not doing that. So there’s big shame about that. And even sharing his feelings, as a man it is a weakness to be vulnerable and show feelings, and feeling scared, for example.
Bev: But he doesn’t want to say that.
Carlos: No, of course not. His way of coping is to get angry and withdraw, and that is not very effective. There are other skills that he needs to learn, in individual counseling in Washington DC, to work with those feelings and to transform them. That way he can be free of the shame, and become better in his relationship, and feel better about himself.
Bev: We can see the results of shame as grown-ups, but do the roots of shame start at a very early age?
Carlos: Yes, they do. I think of my shame. I had a teacher for several years who was very shaming in terms of putting me down, in terms of the school work that I produced, being emotionally abusive in some of the things he would say about my not being smart, and so on. The school environment can produce shame.
Our home environment, of course, is one of the most important places. Let’s say that there’s a family that is very controlling in many ways, and maybe what’s right (and what is right means primarily what the family wants), whether it be in terms of career or in terms of behavior, and if a person strays away from those norms and what is right, then she or he can be shamed for that. The person may develop a career where it wasn’t really what he or she wanted to do, but it was the thing that was the right thing to do according to the family. There can be different family scenarios that can engender that feeling of shame.
Bev: Why is the emotion of shame something that is so deeply felt? Why is it so painful to us?
Carlos: It really goes to the core because as human beings, we have a need to feel loved, to feel respected, to feel valuable, and to feel like we belong, that we’re part of our family, and our society. They’re fundamental needs, and if those needs are not addressed, there are negative results. It’s something we can think of as biological.
Bev: So let’s go back to biology and our families. We sometimes say that our family guilts us into something. Is there a difference between guilt and shame?
Carlos: Yes, there is. We can think of shame as where we might say “I am a bad person.” As opposed to guilt, where we might say “I did something bad today.” Maybe as a kid I hurt my sister. The guilt is useful because I can feel bad about it. Then I can take corrective measures and make amends, and try to change that. However, if I think I am fundamentally bad or wrong, this is one of my own shame core beliefs, it’s hard to change that. If I have that label on myself, across my forehead, it’s difficult to have a way out if that’s who I am, as opposed to this is what I’m doing. One of the things about working with shame in couples counseling or individual counseling in Bethesda is yes, you want to go from the I am to what I did.
Let’s go back to when I’m talking about having this thing imprinted on your forehead, like a label. One of the definitions of shame is a cover. And I know that in my own experience of shame, it is like that, it’s like a cover, like a shroud, as if you are covered with something filthy. Something stained. That is the sort of felt sense of shame. And that’s what the labeling, that deep self-labeling does. It’s that kind of feeling. And the body language that often goes with that, in the lighter sort of shame, our cheeks may get a bit red and we might pull away, but in this type of shame it’s like having that shroud over us. Our head may go down, our chest may collapse, our body language reflects that in a much deeper and profound way.
Bev: So what I hear you saying is that there’s a difference, there are perhaps different levels of shame. There might be the shame of the way he or she looks, that might be one level, but there could be another level perhaps there was some abuse that went on, and that would be a deeper level.
Carlos: Exactly. And there are other things that go with that. With the abuse, depending on physical or sexual abuse, often there are other feelings that occur with that, a much deeper sense of disgust and self-hatred. And the deeper kinds of negative beliefs, “I am damaged,” or “I am so unworthy, I’m so disgusting.” Or sometimes with physical abuse, you can feel very hopeless about standing up for yourself. “I can’t speak up, I’m not allowed. I don’t have the right to defend myself. I don’t have the right to protect myself.” Because there’s something so fundamentally wrong with me. Because of what has happened. With abuse, often what happens is some very deep level of self-blame in a person.
Bev: When we first started talking about shame, we were kind of laughing and smiling a little bit at some of the things are more like guilt, but it seems like this is a very, very negative emotion. Is it always a negative emotion?
Carlos: As I was saying earlier, I think that there’s some value to the social function of shame, but what we’ve been talking about for the last ten minutes or so, this aspect of shame, it’s very negative, and very painful. It has many, many ramifications. Physically, mentally, emotionally, in terms of our energy, in terms of our creativity, in terms of our mood, in so many different ways.
Bev: I’m wondering if blame always accompanies feelings of shame. Can you talk about that?
Carlos: Well sometimes we can be blamed for certain things, and then we can absorb that blame, so yes, there’s something to that. Again, it’s not just something wrong that I did, there’s something fundamentally wrong with me for having done that. And blame can come with that, can be a vehicle.
Bev: And we can blame ourselves.
Carlos: Yes, and that’s the worst part. As children we don’t know any better. We can’t understand or have enough capacity to see whether something is wrong with my parent for doing that, or my sibling or my teacher. We think “Oh, really, I am the cause of that. There’s something deeply wrong in my being,” and that is the problem.
Bev: So you would say that shame can affect our self-esteem.
Carlos: Yes, it’s shame and unworthiness and low self-esteem. They go hand in hand. Although sometimes we can vacillate. We can have very low self-esteem and then very high self-esteem, almost like a sense of arrogance, but that really becomes compensation for that unworthiness.
Bev: Can we affect others when we feel this way like our children, or other loved ones?
Carlos: Yes, because even with our kids sometimes, for example, let’s say as a parent that we become exasperated with our children. We cannot control their behavior, we do not know what to do. And at that moment we feel helpless. That can lead to feelings of shame – “I should know what to do here and I’m feeling helpless – and I’m not supposed to (feel helpless).” Shame is bound to a lot of expectations and assumptions that we may have about being perfect or about always being in charge, or always being in control, or always being a certain way or another…
Bev: Or seeing some other family. They have it together.
Carlos: They have it together and I don’t, and something’s fundamentally wrong with me. I should have it together. And then I may react and do something with my child. I may spank my child, or scream at my child, “What’s wrong with you?” and in a way I’m passing it down when I do that.
Carlos: That statement, “What is wrong with you?”
Bev: I mean, there’s shame right there.
Carlos: Yes, right at the child.
Bev: I know you talked about this a little bit earlier, but can you talk again about what people do in order to stop the feelings of shame?
Carlos: Well, let’s perhaps let’s think in terms of some steps that we can take in couples counseling or individual counseling in Washington DC dealing with shame, and how can we transform, how can we heal shame. Because sometimes what we are doing is trying to suppress the shame, like the parent who’s having problems dealing with the child or the husband who’s having a lot of difficulty in dealing with the job situation, and suppressing the shame. They feel awful. They feel incompetent, they feel defective, they feel unworthy. Whenever we’re trying to change something, we have to bring light to it, we have to become aware of it. It’s like the phrase “know thyself.” That is the first step. And it takes courage to do that, to start that process. Often we don’t get to that place until we have suffered enough. Maybe there’s a problem with the relationship, or we are acting out too much with our kid and somebody starts to complain, or with our spouse. Often we wait until there is a problem and there’s suffering enough so that we say we’ve got to get help through individual or couples therapy in Reston here. That can propel us to really look at ourselves, to try to understand what’s really happening. To try not to deny it, but to bring light to it and to begin with some degree of acceptance that it’s there. And rather than suppressing it, try to understand it, try to experience it. That is painful. But at the same time, that pain, when we start to work with it in therapy, can lead us. Those painful memories are, in a sense, part of us. When we connect with our pain in a constructive way, there can be a sweetness to it. Because it connects us to who we really are. A deeper aspect of our being. Where there is a certain degree of worthiness, lovableness, they’re in there, and we can tap into that in the process, over time, accepting it.
Bev: In this podcast, that sounds very simple and very easy. But what if there have been years and years of abuse, and there are layers and layers of shame to get through. Where does somebody start?
Carlos: What I’m talking about are some steps that we can follow. And this is one step. And I’m not saying that all of a sudden, you do this one time and… (laughs)
Bev: Oh, I know that’s not what you’re saying! (laughs)
Carlos: This is something that takes time. Let’s talk about some of the other steps because, as I was saying, this is not something that you do overnight in a one shot kind of deal in couples counseling in Reston or individual counseling in Washington DC. The second aspect of the healing is having a community or having, whether it be a therapist or friends or a group, or a combination of things. For example, people who are in AA, there’s a community there, where people accept each other despite the awful things that have been done. Likewise, if we have a good friend, a minister, a therapist, or a priest, it’s important to share our stories of shame. Because part of shame is hiding from others. Part of the healing process is being able to share stories with others. When we experience empathy and compassion from somebody else, it is very healing. They’re joining us in the experience in a way. They’re understanding us, and perhaps validating us, but at the same time, they’re not trying to fix it. They can’t fix it, but they’re there with you, and they’re witnessing that. That compassion for you.
Bev: And sometimes when you feel that empathy from others, it helps you to be more accepting of yourself.
Carlos: Exactly. It touches that place in you that I was talking about. It helps you touch that place. You feel the support that you need to help you go to that place. Sometimes it’s really hard to get to that acceptance place on your own. Or you might do it a bit, but then you additionally need this other influence from the outside.
Bev: Because you give yourself all of that self-talk, and sometimes you need something from the outside to break through that.
Carlos: Yes, definitely, it’s very important. Extremely important. And also because there’s the aspect of shame that has to do with feeling isolated, alienated, not belonging, or unworthy to the point where you don’t feel like you’re a part of the family or community.
Another important aspect is you want to understand what triggers it. Whether it be certain thoughts, whether it be certain interactions, so you become more aware of how it works.
Bev: Dr. Durana, you and I had been talking earlier about triggers. In couples therapy in Reston, how do you see shame being triggered?
Carlos: Well, I was using the example earlier about that couple and how he goes into shame around not having a job that he can maintain, and how that triggers it for him. It’s important in coaching the partner, and how we bring up conversations about this, because sometimes, let’s face it, we can judge each other, and blame each other. When you’re working with couples counseling in Bethesda, you have to pay attention to the interactions, and how you teach them to talk about this problem in a way that is constructive.
Another facet that’s so important is the expectations, and the assumptions. I was talking earlier about gender-based assumptions, and the expectations that are different norms for males and females, so some of the triggers can be gender-based, and it’s good to be aware of that, and to be aware of these assumptions.
Bev: Are there other aspects or issues that come up in couples counseling or individual therapy in Washington DC when you’re dealing with people around shame?
Carlos: Yes, I was talking about some things that are like a prescription almost, some things that are important. And there are other things that can be helpful to pay attention to. The practice of mindfulness. On another podcast I’ve talked about the use of mindfulness as a therapeutic approach that can be helpful. You have to be able to stand back, and witness, with compassion, your feelings and your thoughts. It can give you a broader perspective. There’s also what could be referred to as critical mindfulness. It’s a rational thinking that can help us put things in place. For example, the whole moving from shame to guilt that I was talking about earlier. “I’m bad” versus “I did something wrong.” There’s a certain faculty that we have in terms of discerning and evaluating that’s very important in doing that. Moving from one to the other. And likewise, that faculty can be used for dealing with many aspects of shame and the components of it. Like unworthiness, or our lovability.
Bev: When you use those rational tactics or techniques in your couples counseling in Reston practice, would you say that your clients are having compassion towards themselves when they use them?
Carlos: They can, if they try to elicit that compassion. It’s not just cold rationality, although even that can be helpful at times. But it’s even more effective when we can bring in some degree of compassion into the evaluation.
Bev: How do we do that?
Carlos: Well, I’ll give you an example. Let’s say there’s an person in individual counseling who is saying “I’m a bad person.” And so I say “what constitutes a good person?” And we come up with some criteria. What’s a good person? And we list them. Dan, now, I know he is a teacher. He teaches children. And I start to ask “What do you with the children? Give me an idea of what happens. What do you do with the kids?” and he starts to describe some activities. And he’s taking the time to be kind and caring, trying to teach those kids how to learn something. I say, “That’s a very important thing that you’re doing there with them, isn’t it? You’re having compassion and being caring. That is one of your definitions of being a good person, isn’t it?” And Dan says “Yeah.” And we go through some other things like that. And basically, he’s manifesting a lot of those qualities that he has described as a good person, every day, in his work environment. But he sees himself as a bad person. And then I ask, “If one of those kids were doing all of those things that you’re doing, would you say that that kid was a bad person?” And he says “Of course not, not at all.” So this is a way of starting to reflect and look at the biases that we have against ourselves. It’s like a double standard. There are ways of doing that, where we can bring in some of that analysis, that evaluation. We’re trying to bring some compassion into the process.
Bev: So a client in your counseling practice in Washington DC can take that, you’ve given them these tools, and they can take that away from your session, away from your office, at home, and they can be aware of their self-talk, and retrain themselves.
Carlos: Exactly, great point. A lot of this is about self-talk, that’s one aspect that we have to deal with, and how we catch that, and how we train ourselves to use different techniques to deal with it. Of course, in dealing with shame, we also need to learn to feel more positive feelings too, so that’s another aspect in terms of coping skills.
Another thing that’s very important is paying attention to our bodies and our posture. I will work with that sometimes. It’s almost like a role play, interacting in that kind of way. Because with shame we are in that state that is expressed in our bodies. we may bring the head down. It’s like that shroud I was talking about earlier. The shoulders may come forward, hunching a bit. Or we may pull away with our bodies rather than being present. So what is our physical sense of presence as we’re talking? How is that manifesting? We can use the body that way, as a feedback mechanism, in dealing with shame.
Bev: So there are a lot of positive ways to treat this negative emotion.
Carlos: And then a person can become more aware, with the posture, maybe start to catch themselves. It’s self-correcting, because it then gives feedback to the brain, to create a more positive state or make a shift in self-perception of that moment. So it’s another way of helping the process of change.
Bev: Helping us to accept ourselves.
Carlos: That’s right.
Bev: Dr. Durana, I want to thank you for delving into this topic that has so many different layers.
Carlos: I am so glad to have had an opportunity to talk with you about this, because it is so important. It has been for me, in my life, in dealing with my own shame, and I hope it can be helpful to others.
Bev: If someone wants to get in touch with you, they can call you or visit your website to learn more about your approaches. There are so many people who are dealing with shame, I think they would like to talk with you and perhaps work with you on a deeper level. You can reach Dr. Durana at 703-408-4965, or you can visit his website, https://caringapproach.com to find his practice locations in Washington DC, Reston, and Bethesda. Thank you, Dr. Durana.
Carlos: Thank you.