Psychotherapy and shame

He looked right through me…..I was so ashamed!

We need to feel seen, to be recognised. Even the self-sufficient person may carry a fear of not being acknowledged; self-sufficiency can be a way to avoid the pain of being ignored. The narcissist is often reacting to a terrible fear of being rejected.

The pain of not being seen varies according to who is looking right through us. Being ignored by a stranger is different to being cold-shouldered by our partner. However, no matter what the level of intensity, most of us fear being ignored.

What are our reactions when we feel ignored? We feel awkward, we feel embarrassed and blush. To be ignored is a source of shame. Another person’s rudeness may diminish them in our eyes, but for us the main person who is cut down in size is ourselves. Even the possibility of shame can stop us from reaching out to others and can lead to acute social anxiety.

Reaching out to other people, expecting to be acknowledged, is to make ourselves vulnerable. To show, however slightly, a little of our true self. Donald Winnicott, the English psychoanalyst, wrote about the way in which a ‘healthy’ degree of a false self is necessary to protect ourselves in social situations. However, for some people that False Self becomes like a suit of armour that stops any threat coming through. Most times our falseness is only partial and some of the real, vulnerable self is present. It is that self that feels rejected and ashamed when looked straight through. It is the shame of offering ourselves and of being found unacceptable.

We build a sense of our value throughout our lives and if all goes well this sense of self worth contributes to a resilience in relationships. The stronger our self worth becomes, the more resilient we are and the less afraid we are of rejection and of shame. However, the foundations of our self worth are laid down during our earliest years, when we look to our first carers for acknowledgement. The attunement of our first carers is so important.

Excessive shame can be crippling. It leads us to isolation and sabotaged relationships; it leads us to react with anger to imagined slights. Psychotherapy offers one way to be accepted and to reduce those feelings of shame.

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