Using Hypnosis to Heal Shame
Southern California Society for Clinical Hypnosis
By John Schairer M.D., Ph.D.
Close your eyes, take a deep breath. Allow your mind to relax. In a moment we are going to take a journey together. I’d like to invite you to set foot on a path, a path of understanding, a path of compassion, a path for healing. Now I don’t really know how you will experience this path that we are taking. Perhaps you see it now stretched out in front of us or meandering through a forest or along a body of water, perhaps a lake or a stream or an ocean. Each of us will see and hear different things as we go together along this path. Perhaps you can begin to hear the sound of our footsteps or feel the texture of the path beneath your feet. I can smell the smells that are here, sweet and familiar and soothing. I see sunlight through the trees as I approach the meadow.
What I have here to point out to you, you will see in your own way. Whatever knowledge I have to show you, you will come to know in your own way. I will be interested to hear what your experience has been when we are done. We can then look back on this path and follow it again as often as we need to; as often as we need to, to fully understand ourselves and others.
Along this path we will encounter emotions – love and comfort, sadness, fear and anger. The mind-state we are most concerned with today is the mind-state that is generated by threats from others and abandonment and loss by others. I like to refer to this emotional mind-state as shame. Shame is a difficult word because it is used in so many different ways but I am referring to that emotional mind-state that is generated when we are treated with contempt or when we are abandoned.
Our task today is to become familiar with this shame. Our task today is to seek out old, familiar shames. Each of us has experienced rejection in some situation with others. Each of us has experienced another person treat us with contempt. Today we will find an old experience of shame and confront it, see it for what it is, see how it gains its power. We will feel and see how it grows and grows. We will learn to tame the shame even transform it into something powerfully loving.
We are going to come back into this room. We are about to encounter some ideas and knowledge about the emotions especially the one we are calling shame.
And now allow yourself to feel increasingly calm and alert. Allow your mind to move into an energized, relaxed place where intellectual thoughts just seem to come so easily. . We are going to approach an understanding of shame, what it is, how it grows and how to tame it
Calm and alert, beginning to move back into your body.
3 -Taking a deep breath, 2 - wiggle your fingers and toes and 1 - open your eyes.
I welcome you back.
I'd like to start by defining what I mean by shame.
Then I will take you to some experience you have had with shame so that you can begin to see it in the framework that I am proposing. Then we will look at the dynamics that keep shame alive for exceedingly long periods of time. I will present a conceptual way to think of shame that I find useful in formulating strategies for healing.
Finally we will go through an example of shame and of healing shame. Everything in this talk is about healing. Everything you say and do as a clinician is in the spirit of healing. Everything we say and do as healers is a trance induction for healing.
So here is my theory. Here is my story of how this happens.
Shame is a fact of human life.
I define shame as the emotion generated by:
That spells CRAP. I don't mean that to be an exclusive set of actions but merely a way to begin to understand this.
The first and last, Contempt and Put-Downs have an aggressive, angry quality, a sort of "I am dominant." quality.
The two middle ones: Rejection and Abandonment have a more passive shunning quality.
Let us take a moment to look at this list: CRAP. They are all actions one person does to another person. Sometimes they are quite obvious and strong and sometimes they are subtle and difficult to see.
Contempt and Put-Downs: “You stupid fool. No one would ever use a word like CRAP to describe shame induction!”
Notice here the tone of voice is critical to the contemptuous quality. Said with a tone of humor- “You stupid fool. No one would ever use a work like CRAP to describe shame induction!” – it has much less impact. The tone needs to be sneering, caustic and critical. One might say it needs to be a tone that is designed to make the other person feel bad, but that would be circular reasoning.
Saying, “You stupid fool”, also has a rejecting quality. It separates you from the speaker. Rejection can be very subtle. It might include my simply turning my back on you, or if we were standing in a group at a party simply closing the circle with you outside it or stepping in front of you. Another example of rejection is when someone doesn’t return your phone call.
Abandonment seems even more intense than rejection. I remember when I was a kid and had some friends over for lunch. Allergic to peanut butter, I loved mayonnaise and put heaps of it on my sandwiches. They sneered (contempt) and made such a thing of it that they actually left feigning disgust and never came back! That was abandonment. I felt shame.
There is a scene in King Lear that I have always admired for it’s Put-Down articulateness. Oswald comes upon Kent and Kent excoriates him:
A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats;
a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave;
a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue;
one that wouldst be a bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.
Put-Downs are insulting ideas with an added measure of contempt and rejection. I believe the conscious ideas in a Put-Down imply rejection and that supports the contemptuous attitude. Put-Downs then are a kind of verbal underlining of the non-verbal contempt and rejection.
One of the problems of identifying Put-Downs as shame inducers is that we get distracted with the question of whether or not they are true. For our purposes it doesn’t matter if they are true or not. They are effective if they make the person feel the shame even if the statements are ridiculously false.
In working with couples it is common to get into ‘he said – she said’ arguments. They are invariably just opportunities to shame one another. Since the objective is to shame the other, truth often gets bent, cut short or often left behind. Also since shame induction in the other is the objective, what is said is selected to make the other feel shame. Hence if any comment by the husband, for instance, fails to make his wife feel bad, he will change what he says until it does make her feel shame. As long as the shame comes across contradictions of fact within the same conversation, sometimes within the same sentence, are ignored!
An important parameter in shame generation by Contempt, Rejection, Abandonment and Put-Downs is the amount of shame produced by a given action or piece of CRAP. People who are what we call ‘sensitive’ have an intense bad feeling when treated with a little contempt. This has important consequences to the feedback dynamics of the shame as we will see below.
To really understand the concept of Contempt, Rejection, Abandonment, and Put-Downs and how they generate shame I would like to lead you through an exercise that brings up a moment in your own life where you have experienced this kind of shame. We are going to seek out an example of shame by CRAP in your past. Are you ready? Any questions?
Take a deep breath and as you exhale let your eyes close, travel back to the path of healing
Now we are going to begin to draw forth a memory of shame. Begin to bring the memory of a time when you were left alone, left out, perhaps put down. Maybe it was a friend, maybe it was a boyfriend or girlfriend. Maybe it was a spouse or a parent. It really doesn’t matter which person brought you the shame. Perhaps your particular memory has a great deal of shame in it and perhaps your particular memory has just a little shame in it.
If the shame gets too large you can let go of the memory and surround yourself with warmth and light at any time.
As you recall the situation allow yourself to experience some of the emotion in your body that comes with the experience. The feeling, the emotion can be quite strong. Just notice that emotion. Perhaps you see it happening, perhaps you hear it in the background, perhaps you feel it in your heart. I'd just like you to take note of the emotion. This is the shame I’m referring to.
In your memory I'd like you to take note of what exactly the other person was doing just before the feeling appeared. Look and see if there are any put-downs or abandonment present.
Perhaps you notice the words they are saying….
Perhaps you notice the tone of their voice.….
Perhaps you notice their body movements and facial expressions…..
I'd like you just to place each of those observations in a basket so that you may remember them…. to share with others later, if you wish …..
I'd like you to also notice the quality of the emotion, the feeling that happens within you.
Notice what the emotion is.
Perhaps there is some fear or anxiety
Perhaps there is some anger
Perhaps there is some sadness.
Allow yourself to take a deep breath and as you exhale let the experience become even clearer.
Notice where you experience the emotion. Is it in your body? If so, where in you body is it?
Let yourself just place each observation in a basket so that you will remember them.
So here is the shame, the emotion from contempt, rejection, abandonment or put downs. You have begun to notice how big or small it is. You have begun to notice how it hurts you. You have been experiencing it from the safety of observation. Having the experience and holding the shame has an effect on the emotion of shame.
Take as much time or as little time as you need to safely experience this memory. Let yourself see this normal human emotion as a powerful emotion but nothing more than an emotion. Let yourself hold the emotion much as you would hold a crying baby. It is painful and difficult to hold a screaming baby but you would never reject the baby. See yourself holding the emotion of shame like it was a baby, comforting it, patting it, surrounding it with your warmth and healing energy. Allowing the screaming baby of your shame-feeling to slowly calm down, feeling completely accepted and enjoyed, allowing the shame to exist and be honored in its very existence.
Just as you would check to see if there is anything the baby needs: Is the diaper dirty? Is the baby cold or hot? Is the baby in pain? Check to see if the shame tells you something you need to do. Once all the practical solutions to the screaming are taken care of, all you can do is just continue to hold the baby. Once all the things that need to be done to protect yourself from the screaming of the shame, all you can do is just continue to hold the shame. That’s the best that we can do to calm the baby; that’s the best that we can do to heal the shame.
I remember when we had our first child. She had colic. I spent many nights just holding her, carrying her around the apartment soothing her. I knew I could not remove whatever was making her cry but I could sooth her until it passed. I knew that lessened her suffering.
Hold your experience. Hold the feeling of the shame. In spite of the intensity of how bad you feel, hold and carry the shame lovingly and compassionately. Hold the beast shame and watch what happens.
Begin to return into this room. Let yourself release the old memory, bringing back with you only your observations. Give thanks. Bring yourself back into this room….. Bring yourself back with your collection of observations….. Observations of the emotions that you felt in response to Contempt, Rejection, Abandonment or Put-Downs.
3-Come back more into this room with a slow deep breath,
2- wiggle you fingers and toes,
1 - open your eyes.
<Pause to see if back>
How many felt the shame?
I'd like to know if the shame changed through the observation.
How many felt the shame decrease near the end? How many felt it increase? How many stay the same?
How many of you have observations that you would like to share? Questions to ask?
I’m going to shift focus for a moment to focus on another important part of this story: Feedback. I can't tell you how important this concept is to how the mind functions.
Feedback is everywhere. Feedback controls how we experience the world. Feedback helps us determine what to do. Feedback, feedback, feedback. Schairer has feedback on the brain. Feedback and CRAP, that is all there is in the world.
There are really only two intellectual concepts I want you to get from this talk: the emotion generated by CRAP and how Feedback effects that emotion. Everything else derives from these two. Everything. The rest is merely details.
Please grapple with this one concept: Something that makes more of itself endlessly, completely fills the world.
Something that makes more of itself, completely fills the world.
Life, for instance. Whatever life form can reproduce best, that is, makes more of itself, will make more and more of itself until it fills the world or looses the ability to reproduce.
Ideas, for instance. An idea that is so appealing that people will tell others who tell others who tell others… That idea spreads around the world to anyone who can hear it.
Emotions: Looking closer to our topic, any emotion that can make more of itself, can take over the person feeling it. That emotion only stops increasing when it can no longer make more of itself: Such is the way of feedback.
What we have already experienced this evening is external events causing an emotion. The external events cause patterns of neuron firing in several parts of the brain at the same time. Most notably there is direct input to the cortex, the surface that processes sensory input on the highest level. Probably much of what we can be conscious of is located in the cortex. In situations of threat the amygdala is also activated partly through a threat evaluation in the cortex and partly through a threat evaluation made by the amygdala. Remember the brain consists of multiple layers of ways of functioning, one built on top of the other. Threat analysis and response has been exceedingly important since the earliest organisms so it undoubtedly takes place in multiple levels of the brain. For this talk I am using the amygdala as representative of all non-cortical levels of threat analysis. In most animals, threat analysis results in an internal state of fear and/or anger. Behavioral reactions consist of fight, flight or freeze.
It is my personal speculation that shame is socially generated fear/anger. Shame is not pure fear/anger. It includes this social component in addition to fear/anger. As is typical of the way we evolve, we take an older system, the fight/flight system, and add some higher level systems to serve a more complex purpose. In this case I believe we add some cortical systems to the fight/flight system and use it to maintain social systems. I further propose that the amygdala is involved in shame along with other somewhat higher structures that specifically deal with the social generators of fear/anger and the social part of doing things to others that generate fear/anger, i.e. CRAP.
At the expense of accuracy but in the service of clarification, let me simplify the role of CRAP and CRAP feedback.
Outside events are interpreted by different parts of the brain, most notably the cortex and the amygdala. When someone treats you with CRAP, a signal is generated in the brain. That CRAP signal then activates the amygdala (and other structures). That activity is the emotion of shame. (I am placing the emotion of shame in the amygdala because it is my experience that shame’s power is from fear and anger which is largely organized in the amygdala.)
Now typically when one part of the brain is active with an emotion it coordinates with the rest of the brain. Specifically, if you are afraid, you will start thinking about things that are associated with that fear. And they will always be things that fit the context. Hence if you are in a dark forest and hear a sound that scares you, your cortex will generate images and thoughts of frightening things that belong to the forest. Lions, bears, snakes will pop into your mind. Notice how useful this is. You now have ideas on the top of your mind before you even have a chance to turn and look. This speeds the analysis of what you are up against so you can run or fight more effectively. This is the associational way our mind works.
Notice that the ideas that come up all fit the context. The mind doesn't associate to just any danger. The mind associates to all known dangers that fit the situation. They are all dangers we might believe in. We don't think about sharks when we are in the forest and we don't think about lions when we're afraid in the water. The ideas we come up with are the ones that we could believe in, not the ones that make no sense to us.
So now we have the socially generated fear and the ideas that fit both the fear and the situation. Here is where feedback comes in as a problem: All of the ideas we have are ideas that act just like the CRAP coming in from outside. The ideas that were generated by the shame all have the ability to provoke more shame.
Someone treats me like I'm a piece of shit. The resulting emotion reminds me that I think I am a piece of shit. That is: the thought that I am a piece of shit comes alive in my cortex. The thought that I am a piece of shit induces me to have more of the emotion. Feedback. The feeling of being a piece of shit induces thoughts of being a piece of shit induces the feeling of being a piece of shit. And so on and so forth. Where does it stop? How do we stop it? That is the real subject of this talk: Healing the shame feedback.
I'd like to add a few additional layers to the neurobiology here.
The signal in the amygdala is apparently completely unconscious. We do not know initially that we are afraid or angry. The amygdala signal of fear and anger is sent up to the cortex to influence our thoughts without our knowing it. We don't realize we are angry or afraid apparently until we feel the effect in the body. The effect of the amygdala-fear-signal on the body is a second pathway that goes down through the hypothalamus to prepare the body for running or fighting. Our blood flow changes away from the intestines to our muscles, we increase our heart rate. Everything shifts to getting ready to fight or run.
Our conscious minds are completely left out of this action. The conscious mind is way too slow to be consulted at this stage of the game. After all, the conscious mind may be fully occupied by learning something or lying on the beach or thoughts of sex.
The first the conscious mind hears of what is happening occurs when the body-changes happen and the receptors in the body register the change and relay it back up to the sensory cortex! Consciousness thus comes way after the fear/anger has registered in the amygdala and probably way after the cortex has been influenced to think thoughts that explain the shame (I am a piece of shit!) We literally cannot use the sequence of our conscious awareness to explain where the emotion of shame came from. The thoughts generated by the emotion appear in consciousness before the experience of shame. That gives the illusion that the emotion is perfectly reasonable and therefore "I am indeed a piece of shit!"
One of the properties of feedback is that if feedback is weak it will die away; if the feedback is strong it will increase until some other limit is reached. If the birthrate is just one child per family, the population will actually decrease. However, if the birthrate is say, 4 children per family the population will increase as long as the number of children per family continues to be high.
If someone is shamed from outside, as we see here, it sets up the shame and the shame generates ideas about oneself that in turn generate the shame. If the resulting ideas are believed and those ideas make one feel more intense shame, the feedback is strong and the shame increases. If these ideas are not believed (“I'm not a piece of shit, I just feel like one.”) then the feedback fails to make more shame and it can die away. This is our task, to weaken the feedback enough to make the feeling of shame die away.
How to weaken the shame feedback. Notice that breaking up the feedback can be done at any part of the loop. I like to try to find as many places as I can to reduce the feedback. Sometimes I think every effective therapy works on the feedback somewhere in the loop. Each therapy is good at reducing the feedback in a different part of the loop.
Here are some techniques: The feedback depends upon the emotion raising self-shaming thoughts. If the self-shaming-thoughts can be blocked or if your thinking can be diverted to non-shaming thoughts it weakens the feedback.
Anchoring your thoughts to positive thoughts that you know are true, can prevent the shame from taking over. "I feel like a piece of shit but I remember being an ok person." or "I did some really good things". Or "I do have friends that love me." The more specific the thought the better: "Jessica loves me," rather than "I'm loved by others."
The feedback also depends upon the emotion generating those self-shaming thoughts. I like to prevent the emotion from controlling my thinking by focusing my mind on a direct awareness of the emotion. I occupy my mind with thinking about the emotion rather than on thoughts that confirm the emotion. With shame I think we get an extra boost with this technique because it involves accepting the emotion. That acceptance runs against the self-abandonment that intensifies the shame.
The feedback is also broken when you feel the opposite of CRAP. If you have been shamed by being rejected and abandoned the shame quickly reverses if you can find someone who hears and accepts you. Indeed, I experience the first part of the healing that I do, is just finding a way to hear the patient's pain, acknowledge it, and anchor them to the positives in their lives. Then I can help them develop more sophisticated ways to deal with shame the next time it comes.
Building a sense of an inner healing force is very helpful to break the shame feedback. I think this is a spiritual experience that really helps. AA has searching for this spiritual experience built into it. Developing a sense of God loves me helps defend against the shame and gives strength to withstand its negative effects.
Another place to break the feedback is by changing thought patterns that support the feedback. Often I encounter a patient who is convinced that anyone who fails at something should feel shame. If they encounter someone who fails they will treat them contemptuously. If they fail at something themselves, they will likely feel intense shame and it is often difficult to talk them out of it. In order to heal their shame they have to change the attitude that failure deserves shame.
Now I'd like to take you though some of these techniques in a hypnotic way.
Take a deep breath in… and out… Begin to look towards a healing energy. Hear the distant soothing sound of a gentle breeze in the trees. …Take another deep breath and let your eyes close so you can feel the gentle warmth of that healing energy. Allow yourself to find yourself in a place where you feel soothed and healed. Feel the soothing. It doesn’t' really matter where the place of soothing is. Perhaps it’s the experience of a warm loving hug. Perhaps it’s in a place of worship. Perhaps it’s somewhere in nature. I don't know where your place is but let yourself find one of the places where you can find soothing calming enjoyment of just being as you are.
I'm going to tell you about one of the places where I go when I need to anchor myself against the emotions that threaten me. You may stay in your soothing place as you listen to my story or you may allow the sound of my voice to float into the distance as you stay in your soothing place or you may listen at the same time. That doesn't really matter.
I know a meadow surrounded by tall elms. The creek flows gently around this meadow. To my right is a hill of grass leading up to the path. I know this place well. I've been here many times in the summer heat when it’s alive with the sounds and smells of summer. In the winter I have skated endlessly along the meandering frozen creek as the moonlight peeks through the clouds at night. Whether it is winter or summer it is a place of peace and a place of power.
In that meadow there is a rock. A rock the size of a chair and that rock has handles that I can hold on to - one on either side. Whenever I feel pushed around by an emotion I return to that rock and hold onto those handles tight. It is just the Beast Shame trying to frighten me. I feel the Beast Shame attempting to make me responsible for this or to blame me for that but I hang onto the handles and feel the rock under me, deep into mother earth. I see the sun and the moon above and I know I will always keep my bearings.
As I hold fast and stay put against the fear and anger the Beast Shame fills me with, I focus on respect and compassion for the beast shame. I cleave to love in my heart for the Beast Shame even as it drives me towards fear and anger. This is one of the places I come to heal the emotions, to tame the Beast Shame, to find out the beast shame is a messenger of loving understanding.
Perhaps you have already found a place of stability and healing of your own. Perhaps you will find a place of stability and healing sometime in the future, a rock you can hold onto. An image you can use to stay stable even as you experience the shame trying to frighten you with emotions and CRAP. Perhaps you have always had such a place in your mind and in your heart. Perhaps you have such a place but have not become conscious of it yet. But when you become conscious of it you will know it.
Now if you have been letting my voice be off in the distance I would like you to return to the flow of what I am saying for a moment. Just allow yourself to be aware of whatever it is that you need most at this time.
I have another image I would like to share with you. This is an image I often use to hold the emotions of the shame as they are happening. You may find this image useful or you may find another image that is more helpful to yourself.
When I find myself afraid, I imagine a bowl. I have a wooden bowl that I use a beautiful carved piece of art. You may have a healing bowl of wood or of whatever form is best for you. Perhaps it is a singing bowl. Perhaps it is a woven basket or piece of pottery. I don't really know what kind of bowl you will find that is best for you and that doesn't really matter. Imagine sitting in the bowl with your heart at the center of the bowl. Imagine the emotions you are experiencing right now filling the bowl. Imagine the shame in the bowl with you. Perhaps the shame and the emotions fill the bowl just a little or perhaps they fill the bowl nearly to the top. It doesn't matter how full the bowl is right now. Just allow the bowl to hold the shame. Allow the bowl to hold the emotions whatever they are.
Notice how much fear there is in the bowl...
Notice how much anger there is in the bowl …
Notice how much sadness is there is the bowl…
Allow the bowl to be made of magical material from mother earth to hold all the emotions you have. Allow the material from mother earth to cradle the shame, cherishing it. Accepting the emotions no matter how unpleasant they are. Notice how the emotions flow, like water. Notice how they evaporate as slowly or as quickly as they need to, as you hold them so gently. Allow them to move smoothly into the gentle wind. Allow them to do what is so natural for them. Allow them to move into the sky to be available again when you need them. Allow the Beast Shame to soften. Allow the beast shame to calm and become tame.
Just allow that bowl of magical mother earth material to help you honor, hold and let go of whatever painful emotions are present.
In a moment we are going to return to our full awareness of this room and being together working on this problem of shame. You may find yourself becoming aware of the images you have found this evening. Perhaps it will happen when you are with another and experiencing a painful feeling of shame. Perhaps it will happen when you are shamed by another yourself or perhaps these images will come to help you when you have shamed yourself by believing a shaming thought. But know your images of healing, see them, hear them, feel them. Invite them to be with you always.
Thank this place of healing. Say good-bye, au revoir, I’ll see you again. And begin to come back into this room. 3 - take a deep breath, 2 - wiggle your fingers and toes and 1 - open your eyes.