Facing Shame

This event organised by Kia Kaha Psychotherapy came at a perfect time for me. I was finishing therapy and wanted some continuing link to the ideas and concepts I had found so helpful and that I was working with in therapy (particularly the compassionate mind approach to therapy).

You can see the video “Facing Shame” herehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2ZCedVuB0g I don’t want to give anything away, so I am leaving the link here without comment for you to ponder on.

Professor Paul Gilbert (@profpaulgilbert), founder of The Compassionate Mind Foundation and Compassion Focused Therapy, spoke at the event on the subject of shame.

On being accepted and loved

He makes the case that we come into this world completely helpless. We have biological needs that can only be obtained if someone cares and values us enough to nurture us. Our brains are pretty much hardwired to need to be valued because we actually can’t do anything for ourselves as newborns and we are relatively helpless for a long time compared to other animals.

When others think of us positively, they are less likely to attack us, or reject us in providing the care we need to grow and develop. These feelings of being cared for/rejected are regulated by hormones that affect our biology in a very tangible way.

For a long time I have not seen the true value of the “soft” feelings. Warmth, care, kindness and love didn’t seem to sound as important as food, clean water, shelter, education. But when we look at how we come into this world, it’s clear that our survival, our brain and our development is inextricably linked to these feelings. As such they are as much a human physiological need as food or water, (especially as our brains are developing), rather than some touchy-feely stuff that can be safely ignored while you attend to “more important” things. Maybe not a revelation to everyone, but it is for many who maybe have struggled to get these needs met.

Compassionate mind model of the brain

The feelings of warmth, safeness and connection are part of one of the three major systems/drives in the “compassionate mind” model.

The “soothing system” is one we share with mammals and it is one of contentment, rather than one of excitement. It makes me think of a cat stretching gently whilst lying by a fire, purring contentedly. There is a lot you can say about society in the west today, but I don’t think many people would agree that contentment is something we value as much as achievement and obtaining new technologies and Stuff. I mean I am content with my mobile phone but since I got it, at least five new versions have come out that are not (as far as I can tell) dramatically different to mine.

And that is likely due to our “drive system”, which is focused on resources, money, status, pursuing, achieving and consuming. The final system is the “threat system” which is all about protection, safety-seeking, fight, flight, freeze, submit. This system is fast and takes over quickly when we reach the ends of our tethers. It pretty much prevents a lot of logical thinking, because, well, when faced with immediate danger, such as a hungry lion, it’s probably best to act quickly, rather than have a meeting or research the problem. But like a smoke alarm, it is sensitive and goes off to “be safe, rather than sorry” and while we can try to balance this with the drive system, the soothing system is really much better equipped to reset the smoke alarm.

Obviously we need all these parts of our selves. Being content won’t get us the food we need to survive – we need drive. We need the threat system that helps us run faster and longer when our lives depend on it. And our survival also depends on the soothing system and our ability to cooperate and to connect with people who we can depend on. But they need to be in balance. Constantly feeling threatened is an exhausting way to live and  just surviving, doesn’t help us to feel happy or fulfilled.


Shame, the feeling that we might be cast out of the family of human beings, or that we are not worthy, switches on our threat system making us more likely to be aggressive or angry. It can increase our drive system and the need to achieve things, make more money, gain more power, obtain more Things, take drugs that excite us and do reckless things that keep us feeling exhilarated (which can be unsustainable). But it can also decrease our drive, when the stress of the shame makes us feel low and depressed.

Interestingly people who feel shame talk about being defective, rather than not meeting certain standards eg. “I am bad/evil”, not “I am not as good as I should be”.  It doesn’t seem to be about what you can do, but what you are – which is the sort of language that feels permanent and un-fixable, unlike a behaviour that could be changed. It’s easy to see why these feelings might be extremely powerful. In fact Prof Gilbert argues that shame is toxic-it stops us feeling connected. We feel unsafe, unlovable, unacceptable, isolated and unhappy. When we feel shame in interactions with others, we start acting as if we are threatened – either aggressively or submissively, which can then mean our relationship is damaged and not knowing how to repair that damage or feeling ashamed of the damage caused, means things spiral out of control.

What about the idea that shame is a way of making sure people behave in socially acceptable ways – that is a helpful emotion for social cohesion?

It seems to me that society is moving away from shame-based approaches to encourage people to act in way that is helpful for society. In general, we are moving from corporal punishment, smacking children and black and white rules for behaviour towards regulating or understanding anti-social, less desirable, or unhelpful behaviours and trying to help people change these. But the desire to judge some as ‘not worthy’ and write them off or treat them as if they don’t have the same rights as everyone else is not far below the surface and with the simplicity and certainty shame and judgement brings, I can see why.

What Prof Gilbert tells us about the difference between shame and guilt, seems to describe this shift. In terms of shame, we see behaviours that make people hide or avoid showing themselves – to make themselves seem acceptable, because that is the threat. This is the brain sensing the threat that we might be cast out of society and left to fend for ourselves and doing anything it can to maintain that place. Shame causes us to want to avoid responsibility, blame the victim, get angry with anyone who stumbles across the bad thing we have done. Because shame is so overwhelming and powerful an emotion that reaches into our core and tells us we are inherently defective.

Of course, it is possible to feel this shame, even when we have done nothing wrong. For example abuse survivors often feel overwhelming shame, but this burden is not theirs, it is the way the abuser has learned to cope with the shame of what they are doing – to pass it on to the victim and avoid responsibility for their actions.

In contrast, guilt is focused on the damage done by our behaviour, and empathy with the person we might have hurt. We are still human, but we have done something terrible. This is altogether a much less overwhelming emotion than shame. It is more likely we will be able to own up to something and take responsibility if we feel guilt for something we have done. The brain will not be detecting the extreme threat of being cast out of society in the same way. Indeed Prof. Gilbert mentioned that criminals that exhibit more guilt are much less likely to reoffend than those who feel more shame for what they have done. Which of course, brings up a lot of questions about our prison system, punishment and rehabilitation which are beyond the scope of this post.


Unsurprisingly to work with an emotion that is toxic to connections and relationships, the tools for the job seem to be about cultivating empathy and connection again and bringing down that threatening sense that we are defective, or about to be demoted from our status as a human. This safeness can be experienced by activating the soothing system in safe, respectful compassionate relationships. But what if you have never related to anyone like this and don’t know how to feel safe, no matter how compassionate the other person is?

The good news is that it is possible to activate the soothing system by yourself. Compassion focused therapy (CFT), harnesses the power of our imagination to begin fertilising the ground for the cultivation of safe relationships. As Prof Gilbert explains, we are very good at tricking our brains into reacting to imaginary things – an erotic imagining about someone we have a crush on or that slice of chocolate cake we really want to eat. Our brains and our bodies react to these imaginings as if they are real. And similarly, yelling and judging ourselves, makes us feel under threat and bullied – releasing stress hormones, despite the absence of an external bully.

So CFT is about imagery, about creating feelings of safeness, of being “okay”, while working with the resistance we might feel to these scenarios in the context of a healthy respectful therapeutic relationship. As we learn to activate the soothing system in therapy and in our minds, our brains can relax a little and we can start to feel safe in relationships we make in “real  life”, allowing us to find healthy social connections, to trust and to take responsibility where we have wronged others, or to discard shame that doesn’t belong to us, where we have been abused.

We can then learn to give compassion, receive compassion in healthy relationships and also and importantly, we can learn to give compassion to ourselves (and be willing to receive it).

Prof Gilbert always seems keen to emphasise the courage involved in compassion. It’s not the soft option – far from it. Compassion does require that we are sensitive to suffering. That we notice it. But to approach that suffering, to face those demons, to look into distress and to engage with it and try to prevent or alleviate the pain requires courage and dedication. It is not brave to ignore the cries of someone stuck in a fire or to push our pain down deep and pretend we are fine. It is brave to enter a house on fire to rescue someone or to look deep into our pain and validate and try to soothe it.

I love the idea that therapists are there to en-courage clients – to help us to be courageous in facing our demons, and sometimes to model this courage and “hold” it for us.

Dr Mary Welford – working with compassion in schools

Dr Welford presented the work she had been doing in schools. When using the compassionate mind model with children, adaptations needed to be made. The 3 systems, were each represented by an icon that children could understand. So the drive system was represented by Buzz Lightyear, a danger sign for the threat system and a picture of people connecting/embracing was used to represent the soothing system. Children were introduced to the idea that they were like a mobile phone with apps on it. They could decide which app was being used and if it was unhelpful try to use a different app. So if you were using your “threat app” and everything was still going wrong, maybe switching to the “connection app” and trying to connect with the other person might help more.

The most important point I picked up from this really interesting talk was that it was often a teacher that people remembered when trying to remember a time that someone was compassionate to them. Surely just another reminder about how important teachers are to the emotional wellbeing of children and that they need the space and time to engage in this vital part of their role as well as to cultivate compassion for themselves.

Dr Michelle Cree – working with perinatal shame and compassion 

My sincere apologies to Dr Michelle Cree (and anyone who wanted to read about her talk), who presented an interesting talk on her work with shame and compassion in a perinatal setting. Although I did find the topic interesting, by this time in the afternoon my brain fog was descending and I have very few notes on this work. But there’s a book link here if you want to read more!

I do remember thinking how important this work was. It was good for the mother, but being able to positively influence a person’s mental health before they are even born has to have the potential to reap big rewards for the people involved and for society.

This quote especially stuck with me.

“If we can hear the mother’s cries, then she can hear her baby’s cries” (Ghosts in the Nursery – Fraiberg).

In a similar vein, I would love to see similar work done with young carers, as the burden of care-giving at a young age can be as overwhelming to us as parenthood can be. There are likely to be many similarities around responsibility, self-compassion and guilt/shame and it’s an area that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves.

I was interested to learn that pregnancy itself causes an increase in the activity of the threat system (presumed to be due to the increased vulnerability to predators), which could potentially start triggering past issues as well causing generalised anxiety. I was also fascinated to learn that the soothing system, part of which involves the bonding hormone, oxytocin has a more complex role, which has a dark side. If we have experienced trauma or negative events connected with the soothing/bonding system, the massive influx of oxytocin around pregnancy and birth can trigger very difficult feelings and memories in us in an unexpected and alarming way. 20160117_223701

I really enjoyed this event and learned a lot about shame and compassion and it is always life-affirming to spend time in the company of people interested in compassion. The settings in which the CFT approach can be applied seem to be endless. I look forward to my own journey with compassion as well as hopefully seeing more of this work reaching more parts of society as time goes on.

The Compassionate Mind Foundation is where you will find more information, events, training and links to the research. I haven’t read a great deal of the research, but my own very detailed qualitative and subjective trial of n=1 is showing promising results!

I will leave it up to you to interpret the evidence base, in terms of impact but a read of “The compassionate mind” certainly puts up a very strong argument for CFT and similar approaches. We know that good outcomes usually come together with social support, emotional resilience and good therapeutic relationships and that bad outcomes usually come from social isolation so I don’t doubt the likely benefits.

I am also not sure the research will ever truly be able to capture the full impact of something that goes to the heart of being human –  helping people feel safe, trust others and connect. It feels to me too amorphous a concept, but there are plenty of people with a great deal of compassion, dedication, courage, determination and intellect doing their best to quantify and conceptualise it as much as is possible and I am hopeful that this work yields great results in terms of ways to help alleviate suffering on this planet.