Empathy Versus Shame

Empathy Versus Shame

Paula Davies
by Paula Davies
Published on May 07, 2024
0 min read

An understanding of shame and how it presents itself. How can we support children experiencing it using Creative Arts Therapy as well as using our skills of empathy and understanding.

What is shame?

Shame is given from one person to another by someone more powerful than they are. When people experience this, they tend to dislike themselves, view themselves as being unworthy as human beings, do not feel deserving of love, and view themselves as someone bad in the world. This kind of toxic shame does not lead to positive behaviours or change.

Shame is different from guilt, which is more about behaviour and wrongdoing. Shame is a form of self-judgment that is usually extremely negative and can be disabling. It occurs when you feel that you have not met either your expectations or the expectations of others.

It is important to note that everyone experiences shame to some degree, but for some individuals, it can impact every aspect of their lives.

How Shame Presents Itself

Shame is manifested by traumas such as physical, sexual, and emotional abuse including neglect. This naturally generates an elevated vulnerability in children that is unbearable to inhabit and show to others. This evokes further shame, along with a sense of being different from their peers around them. This intolerance will lead them to develop strategies to protect themselves from feeling vulnerability and shame. These strategies are what we see as dysfunctional behaviours and are difficult to be alongside. Children develop these types of behaviours unconsciously to protect themselves from further hurt. While protecting themselves from pain, this usually means protecting themselves from people and, therefore, relationships. They can become very isolated. This amplifies the shame further as children learn that they are not worthy of a relationship.

These behaviours include aggressive types of behaviour such as physical harm to others, self, and objects, avoidance type behaviours of hiding, and running away, as well as controlling behaviours. It can be not easy to see the person outside of the behaviours presented. We must not respond to the children in a punitive way. This will only lengthen the cycle of shame, confirming the child’s self-belief and increasing the levels of behaviour we are seeing. We need to be able to step inside their shoes and try to understand what lies beneath these dysfunctional and unhealthy ways of being to encourage positive change.

A Brief Overview of My Work with Shame in Psychotherapy with Children

Toby (not his real name) had experienced significant trauma from a historically abusive relationship with a family member.  We met and spent the first few sessions getting to know each other for him to feel safe. We created a variety of stories using artwork, puppets, and miniature toys. There were often themes of aggression, power, and helplessness. These themes were explored by metaphor and fiction, enabling Toby to feel safe to explore what they meant to him. In time, Toby began to share his own story, not his story of trauma but his world around him. He began to open up about some of the difficulties he faced with his peers and how painful that was for him. He felt very alone. He began to feel safe in the therapeutic space. He began to explore his vulnerability and his experiences of shame. He did not choose to share the content of his story, and he did not need to. The significance of his therapeutic work was revealing his true self, his vulnerability, and his shame, and allowing me to see, hear and validate him. It was about him learning and beginning to believe that he was worthy of care, love, and friendship. His aggressive behaviours began to lessen in time, as well as his relationships around him improving, His academic work began to improve, and most importantly so did his feelings of hope for his future. It took time, and we got there, with the support of the family member he lives with and the school he attended.

I often work with groups. As well as exploring children’s individual situations, we also work with group dynamics, shared themes, and stories. Although the work is usually more structured and directive than an individual session, we might follow a similar approach. When this works well, it can mean that the child learns that it is safe to reveal and share themselves with me, they also can feel safe enough to share with their peers. Here, they begin to realise that they have shared experiences, and they are not alone. They begin to feel connected and accepted for who they are, their feelings, and their experiences.

The Good News

In Brene Brown’s book Atlas of the Heart (2021), she talks about how the antidote to shame is empathy. We need to get alongside the individual and help them tolerate their discomfort in safety and warmth. Shame is driven by negative judgement and contempt. It is one of the most difficult emotions to share with others as the fear is that it will intensify. We can support children who experience this level of shame by using our empathic skills to understand what their behaviours might be communicating, and what feelings might be driving those behaviours. We can help children learn to tolerate their emotions and develop healthy ways of being in the world and relationships. Creative arts therapy is one way we can help children experiencing shame by helping children express themselves and understand themselves in a safe and non-threatening way.

However, we do not need to be qualified therapists to support children living with such shame. We can help them by continuing to communicate with children and families with understanding and empathy. Shame disconnects us from others whereas empathy helps us develop healthy and positive connections with others.

To learn more about supporting children and families experiencing shame our partner schools can contact us on 01752 788076 and book onto our new CPD exploratory training on this this theme.