Collapsing Shame

By Forrest Samnik, LCSW, EFTCert-I, CCH

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The results of several research articles show that shame plays an important role in depression.  I was prompted to examine the research when I noticed that many of my clients seeking help for depression also had feelings of shame.  So I did a little informal survey of my own. 

I randomly pulled 71 client records.  As part of my client intake process, I use a “Symptom Checklist” consisting of over 80 emotional, psychological and physical indications of distress.  Included is a checkbox for “depression” and one for “feelings of shame”.  Twenty-eight (28) of these 71 clients had checked “depression” (almost 40%).  Of these 28, a whopping 54% also checked “feelings of shame”.  And, this does not account for those who were not consciously aware of shame, or did not feel comfortable sharing their sense of shame at the initial visit.

The difference between shame and guilt can be confusing.  Shame refers to a negative focus on aspects of the “self” in response to a wrongdoing (”I’m a horrible person for doing that”). Guilt refers to a focus on the wrongdoing which, in adaptive guilt, leads to reparation (e.g., “I feel bad for what I did and I should apologize”). 

Technique for Assessing & Collapsing Shame

By its very nature, shame is not something many easily or comfortably shares with others, even with professionals.  Unless the client broaches the subject first, I believe it is important to have already built a strong sense of trust and rapport with the client before exploring feelings of shame.

Fear of judgment can preclude clients from continuing treatment.  Once trust has been established, using the following technique can prove very fruitful.  I call the technique “The Truth Barometer” and here’s how I use it as it relates to shame.

First, I give the client the following explanation:

“I’m going to say a statement.  I then want you to repeat the statement out loud.   After which I want you to let me know how true this statement feels to you on a scale from 0 - 10.  I don’t want you to analyze the statement logically.  I want you to tell me from the heart how true it feels.  Zero means the statement feels absolutely false, while 10 means it feels absolutely true.  Something in between means it feels somewhat true.”

Next, I lead them through this exercise using the following statements, making note of the intensity:

      “I am no good.”

      “I am bad.”

      “I am evil.”

      “I am not a good person.”

      “A part of me is bad.”

      “A part of me is evil.”

      “I am ashamed”

      “I am not worthy.”

      “I am unacceptable.”

      “I am deficient is some way.”

      “I don’t deserve what I have.”

If all of these statements are rated a zero, I ask them if there was ever a time when they felt any of these statements were true.  I repeat the statements, if necessary, having them review how true these statements felt in the past.  Should there be any feelings of truth to these statements, I ask them to think about the first time they remember feeling this way.  This will often lead us to the core issue of shame.

Occasionally, a client will be disconnected from any memories.  Using the body can be helpful in this situation.  I’ll ask the client how they knew the statement(s) held some truth…where did they feel this truth in their body.  Then I have them describe the sensation and start tapping.  For example, “Even though I feel this tightness in my chest when I say, “I am bad”; I deeply and profoundly love and accept myself.”  Many times this will reduce the intensity enough for the memories to bubble up.

A Case Example

Recently, a man in his early 60’s, a highly successful consultant, well respected in his field, came in feeling depressed about business.  He stated, “I feel like I’m starting all over and I don’t know if I have the energy or time, at my age, to see this slump in the economy through.” 

During the first two sessions we worked through his presenting feelings of loss and failure, but my intuition was telling me shame was involved also.  [Note: He did not have shame checked on the Symptom Checklist.]

On his third visit, we updated the symptom checklist.  “Depression” was still checked.  After checking in with him, it was clear we still had more work to do to get to the root of the depression.

We had already uncovered some pretty painful memories from his childhood, and I sensed he trusted me, and the process of EFT, enough to move forward with the “Truth Barometer”.  He reported a rating of zero to “I am no good” and “I am bad”.   But when we got to “I am evil”, he quickly and emphatically declared, “That’s a 10!” 

He went on to explain that he interprets “bad” in behavioral terms and not necessarily as an aspect of self.  But evil was something “you either are or you’re not, and there’s nothing you can do to change it”.  I’m thinking, “Wow!  Now here’s some writing on his walls written in bold, black ink!” 

I asked him to think about the first time he remembered feeling he was evil.   A memory quickly came up.  The intensity appeared high so I used the “The Movie” technique.  He titled the move “Horror in the Cornfield”.  He reports this event took place at about 6 years of age. After a few rounds of EFT he reported the intensity was down to a 2. 

He was then able to talk about an aspect of self that he called “Damian”.  My client reported that Damian had the power to cause really bad things to happen to any person who had “done me wrong”.  It wasn’t that my client did anything to harm the person, it just so happened that occasionally (as would be expected) the “wrong doer” would have a negative or unfortunate event, like getting divorced or having a car accident, after the conflict or altercation took place.  

He related that after the event in the cornfield, he believed either God or the devil instilled this power in him, and has been so ashamed that he was chosen to have this power that he has never told a soul.  This explains why this client had made the distinction between bad and evil.  He hadn’t behaved badly, therefore he was not bad.  He had an evil power, therefore he was evil.

He recounted how just recently he had been back-stabbed by a business associate which had infuriated him.  Three weeks later the associate took a fall down a flight of steps, broke his neck and is now a quadriplegic.  Though my client had nothing to do with the accident, he was convinced Damian made it happen.  Until he recounted this story, my client had not made the connection that his depression had set in right after hearing about accident. 

At 6 years of age, magical thinking is at its zenith.  It makes total sense that a child would believe that just wishing something bad to happen to someone would cause a negative event.  Children who experience the death of a loved one often have severe feelings of guilt or shame because they think they caused the death due to something they thought or did. 

For example, “I was so mad at Mommy for making me clean up after my little sister that I wished she would go away and never come back.”  Later, Mommy dies in a car accident.  A relative tells the child that Mommy has gone to heaven and is not coming back home.  The child then links her earlier wish that mom wouldn’t come home and concludes this wish caused the tragic event. 

A more devastating conclusion can also take hold; the belief that “I am bad.” Without intervention, a case such as this can get “stuck” energetically resulting in feelings of shame and possibly setting the stage for episodes of depression for years to come.

It appears to me the event in the cornfield was so traumatic, that my client’s explanation at 6 years old (of having supernatural power to make evil things happen), got stuck energetically, leaving him to feel evil and ashamed for almost 6 decades.  Yet, after many rounds of tapping with a lot of reframing, his full-grown logical self was finally able to come forward. 

He said, “I’ve made a lot of good things happen for people too, but it always took some kind of action and intent on my part.  I just can’t think or wish good things to happen.  So, there’s no way I could have caused those bad things to happen.  The power of evil needs the same action as the power of good.”

In a follow-up session 2 weeks later, my client reported all his symptoms of depression lifted and his energy and zeal for business had returned.  [Note: The last appearance of Damian happened in a business setting, it makes sense to me that the depression would revolve around business.]  When I directed him back to both the” cornfield” and “the fall down the stairs” incidents, he reported zero intensity.  As importantly, when asked to repeat the statement, “I am evil”, he reported a resounding “zero” on the Truth Barometer.  He then went on to say it should have taken years to get rid of Damian, not 1.5 hours.


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Author's Bio:

Forrest Samnik, LCSW, EFTCert-I, CCH, founder of LifeWorks Counseling & Coaching, has dedicated her career to helping people through life's challenges.  A psychotherapist, life coach, and retired Registered Nurse, Forrest has more than 30 years of experience in counseling and medicine.  She has been practicing the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) since 2002 and was one of first practitioners in Florida to receive EFT certification.  Forrest has had phenomenal success treating issues relating to trauma, depression, phobias, panic and stress disorders, low self-esteem, and relationship issues.  She also provides EFT training to other mental health professionals through the Florida Department of Health.

For more information log onto www.LifeWorksWithEFT.com or email Forrest at forrest@LifeWorksWithEFT.com.


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