Beth M. Broom, LPC-S, CCTP-II
Executive Director, CTHN
Without question, the most common concept I talk about with counseling clients is shame. From the very beginning of a counseling relationship, a client often feels exposed as he shares about his history and struggles. He senses that he is sharing too much or that I think he is too broken. He wonders if he is incapable of healing. These are all aspects of shame.
I call shame the ‘growth-killer.’ More than any other intrusion or feeling, shame hinders (and sometimes completely stops) the ability to process pain, think creatively and believe that change can happen. When counselees experience shame, we as helpers should support them and show them the truth. But how can we support without enabling? How can we share truth without seeming trite and condescending?
Let’s hear from John, a 45-year-old client who comes to me because he is failing to achieve at work and fears he may lose his job. He tells me that he’s always felt like he didn’t measure up. He recounts embarrassing moments in childhood and failures in college. He shares that his father told him he would never amount to anything if he didn’t work harder, but he struggled to achieve as much as his older siblings. I listen and then say, “John, if I gave you a sticky note that had one word on it to describe you, what would that word be?” Without hesitation, he says, “Loser.”
I become nervous hearing him talk about himself with such cutting words. I don’t want him to speak condemnation over himself, so I am tempted to stop him and redirect as quickly as possible. But John is calling himself a loser because he is in pain. Something hurts so much, and shame has given him a label for it. Even if this label of ‘loser’ is inaccurate and destructive, it has provided clarity. He now has a word for why he struggles. He has language for the chaos of his suffering. If I stop him from saying what he thinks and feels, I miss the chance to understand what’s underneath it. Instead, I give him the opportunity to grieve the pain he has experienced, as well as the devastation of being condemned over and over by the voice of shame. My primary objective is to listen well.
Listening well does not mean showing empathy for the shame. When I listen, I reflect on what he has shared. I may even say that what he is experiencing makes sense. But I do not offer support for the shame itself. I might say something like, “Wow, that label of ‘loser’ seems to be pretty big. It’s a voice that tells you who you are, and it seems to make sense of why you’re struggling. Now you can take your pain and dump it all into the category of ‘loser.’ That probably makes it easier to function. What do you think?” (Notice that I’m joining John in his expression of pain, but I’m not condoning or validating the label of ‘loser.’)
I want him to process what the voice of shame is doing for him (i.e., providing clarity), as well as what it is doing to him. What is the cost of believing the voice of shame? How does it affect his relationships and work? How might it hinder his intimacy with God? If I listen well and give him the chance to process, he may begin to listen to himself. He may notice the destructiveness and pervasiveness of shame. He may begin to look at himself with kindness and mercy, as God does, instead of with contempt and judgment.
My goal in the conversation is not to get him to stop calling himself a loser. I cannot make that happen. He needs to grow in compassion for his experience of shame. He needs to recognize that he took on that label as a way to cope with his perceived failures. He has been operating in a world where he cannot make mistakes or have needs, and this way of operating denies the beauty of our humanness and our need for a Savior.
So I may say, “John, I’ll be honest. I don’t like the label of ‘loser.’ I think it’s judgmental and overly simplistic at best. I think if you could see yourself clearly, you might be able to let go of this label and replace it with a more holistic identity. Is that something you’d like to try?” I also ask him if he is willing to look into the Scriptures to learn the words God uses to identify him. I assure him that we won’t be slapping new labels on top of the ‘loser’ label. Instead, we’ll be exploring the idea that he is more than just the sum of his accomplishments. We’ll gain clarity on how he is meant to measure himself in view of his identity in Christ.
This process of uncovering shame and pulling it up by its roots takes great time and effort. John may never have grieved his perceived failures. He may never have considered that his father’s words hurt him. He may never have thought the voice of shame was anything other than the truth. He will need plenty of space to talk through these things. When I believe we are ready to engage with the truth, I invite him into that space. I don’t force him there. If he is not ready to hear another voice than shame’s voice, my words will have no effect but to discourage him. In all these moments, I must ask the Lord for wisdom and discernment. The Holy Spirit must be my guide as I seek to guide John toward the truth. And slowly but surely, new seeds of truth are planted and new vision grows for the beautiful identity that God has designed us to embody.