Shame Containment Theory ©
Shame Containment Theory (SCT) is a new theory and type of therapy which I have developed as a result of my Ph.D. research into shame.
The importance of this theory is that it allows us to understand our shame and have a different relationship with it, which inevitably stops shame from blocking us from doing things we want to do. When we change our relationship with shame, we have a better relationship with ourselves and others.
Shame generally is not discussed in therapy as we are not taught anything about shame in our training. If you feel you have had therapy but it has not made any difference to how you feel, it may be that shame is the underlying cause of the problems you are facing. If you have never had therapy, I hope this model of therapy helps you to get to the route of your difficulties quickly, as well as giving you tools to improve your relationship with yourself and life.
Shame (when we don’t understand it) can cause problems in
- Feeling stuck
- Feeling depressed/anxious but not sure why
The premise of the theory has 4 components which are all interlinked with each other.
This type of shame is usually what people imagine when they think of shame. We don’t feel this shame very often but when we do it can feel devastating. When people describe this type of shame, they often use phrases like “my world came to an end” or “I wanted to disappear”. It can feel like life is never going to be the same again and we can feel either panic or a state of shutdown. When this feeling is very big, it can feel like we are about to be destroyed or annihilated and can sometimes make us feel suicidal.
Contained shame is the type of shame that we are carrying but have managed to keep at bay. Sometimes we are so good at containing this shame that we don’t even know it is there. This shame can feel like imposter syndrome (all imposter syndrome is related to shame), waiting to be found out, issues with self-worth or self-esteem, and worrying about what people are going to think about us. I call this contained shame as although it might be causing us problems and blocks, we are still managing to ensure no one sees it.
Shame Containment Strategies
All shame is about protection, even uncontained shame, which might sound paradoxical considering how awful it feels. Shame containment strategies are always about protection, as they ensure no one sees our shame, helping us to manage life ensuring we avoid feeling uncontained shame. Some people have built their whole life as a shame containment strategy. Whilst some of these strategies are needed (shame helps us to stay bonded to our social groups, so being polite or helpful is a shame containment strategy) others start to get in our way. Some useful shame containment strategies might be
- Being nice or thoughtful
- Avoiding conflict
- Owning up when we make a mistake
- Numbing activities such as binge-watching TV or watching porn
Shame containment strategies that are getting in our way might be
- Avoiding sex and relationships
- Avoiding speaking out at work
- Not going for a job promotion
- Not starting the business we dream of
- Attacking ourselves when something goes wrong
- Attacking or blaming others and inappropriate anger
- Watching porn (when it is getting in the way of other life activities)
The fourth component of SCT is re-containment strategies. When our shame has been uncontained, either as a big, devastating feeling or as what I call a shame leak when our shame has come out but it is not feeling as painful as a full, uncontained event, we need to do something to re-contain the shame. Depending on the circumstances and how big the uncontained shame feels will determine the type of re-containment strategies we deploy. For example, if we have made a mistake at work, we might move into what is often described as obsessive thinking or rumination. However, these terms in themselves can be quite shaming and do not describe the purpose of them. Instead, I call this continuous thinking “rescuing thinking”, as we are trying to figure out how to manage the uncontained shame that is threatening us. We will either imagine the conversation we are going to have with people or see where we can apportion blame or excuses elsewhere. If we feel under threat, even by our own feelings, it makes sense to try and get away from or diminish that threat.
Other re-containment strategies can be similar or the same as shame containment strategies, such as attacking ourselves, attacking others, or numbing activities. We can also use denial as re-containment.
Shame Containment Therapy
As I have mentioned, all shame is about protection, it is not about attacking ourselves. Unfortunately, shame does not always protect us in the best way. Uncontained shame protects us by feeling so painful, we will not do the thing that made us feel so terrible again, and we will develop containment strategies to ensure this never happens. Sometimes we can imagine the shame we are going to feel before we do something. A good example of this is sex. We may avoid sex as we do not want to experience the shame of a lack of erection or not giving/having an orgasm.
In SCT we explore where the shame has developed from (I call this our primary shame), which is usually in childhood. We do not heal shame as it is not bad, but we may need to heal the original events that created the shame. We then look at what might trigger the feelings of shame (it is important to explore this individually as what will trigger shame in one person will not affect another) and explore what is shameful about those events. This enables the shame to be reduced. We then explore containment and re-containment strategies and figure what which ones are needed and which ones are getting in the way. The strategies that need to be let go of may need to be replaced with something more appropriate.
It is important to know when considering working with shame in this way that strategies are not let go of too early. It may be that the first thing we do is give permission for those strategies to be there, they are there to keep us safe, after all.