How a bodywork perspective can inform our understanding of shame and humiliation

Charlotte Holloway

I only recently recognised my own shame and humiliation when I spontaneously re-enacted a chronic childhood relationship on my therapist’s floor. I found myself on my knees pleading with her to get down and play with me.   Suddenly, when I realised from her face that she wasn’t going to come, I gave up, retreated to my chair, curled up inside and was overwhelmed by waves of shame. Thanks to having recently studied Keleman’s work on under-bound and over bound-body structure I was able to feel and recognise for the first time my body going into submission and collapse. Once I was able to articulate what I was feeling, I also became aware of my anger and described myself as feeling humiliated.

Recognising my humiliation felt as if I were seeing myself through my own eyes for the first time: the first step to being free from the agony of always feeling as if I were under some hostile microscope. Until this moment I had been unable to identify this feeling as anything other than anxiety. Now I could feel how the fear of it had also been an invisible barrier to making real contact with people. My experience prompted me to ask the following questions:

Do we need to feel shame?

What distinguishes shame from humiliation?

Why are these shame emotions so painful and lingering?

Why are these shame emotions so often out of our consciousness?

What are the therapeutic implications?

Evolutionary psychology teaches us that all emotions must have an adaptive function (Mollon, 2002). Shame protects us from being ostracised by an individual, family or society; it socialises us (Rothschild, 2000).  When a child is reprimanded for lifting her skirt in public, the shame she then feels tells her that this exuberance is suddenly no longer cute but distasteful. Being shameful may be painful, being shameless “points to a bigger disturbance.” (Ayers 2003:11).

If feeling shame enables us to conform to our group then it contains some acceptance of the negative judgment as justified and requires re-evaluation of the self. In humiliation this is not the case (Tantam 1998:164). I would argue that this is because humiliation has no socialising function but is what we feel when we have been unnecessarily, “aggressively shamed” (Mollon, 2002).

Inherent in the shame experience is unexpectedness, an unanticipated rupture in a relationship that is otherwise secure. The sudden triggering of shame “precipitates the onset of a stress reaction” (Schore, 1998:68). Physiologically there is a sudden shift from energy mobilizing sympathetic (SNS) to energy conserving parasympathetic-dominant (PNS) autonomic nervous system activity.  This is experienced as a sudden contraction of the self from a feeling of agency to an inanimate feeling (Schore, 1998) and perhaps accounts for the “sudden reversal of flow of consciousness from the self as subject to the self as (threatened) object”  (Mollon 2002:33). When we feel shame we avert our gaze, our body slumps and curls inward, losing the appearance of power (Gilbert and McGuire, 1998).

My immediate feelings following my experience with my therapist were of inadequacy, powerlessness, inferiority, disconnection and a desire to disappear. But this was followed by a strong need to make repair.  This is consistent with Schore’s argument that although a contraction of the self and a rupture in a valued and trusted relationship are very painful, this isn’t where shame pathology lies. The origin of shame pathology or shame proneness, Schore argues, lies in the lack of repair of the rupture and how long the child is abandoned in the shame.

Key to repair and regulation is “the caregiver’s capacity to monitor and regulate her own affect” (Schore,1998:66). If the caregiver is sensitively attuned to her child’s shame she can provide solace. Her swift, empathic response is vital so that “the feeling of the continuity of the good relationship is not lost” (Gerhardt 2004:158) and the child is not left in a stressed state. If, however, the mother fails to respond to her child’s shame signals and fails to be reparative but instead ridicules and rejects the child’s requests for comfort with a slap or ‘let him stew ‘or ‘you deserve it’, then, Schore argues, the child does not recover from his shame but instead feels what Schore describes as “shame rage” or humiliation.

Unable to regulate her own shame, my mother was never conscious that she was constantly puncturing my joy and putting me down. I was left feeling deflated and rejected and, importantly, angry without even realising I was.

Schore (1998:68) suggests that as opposed to the elevated parasympathetic component which always accompanies shame, humiliation involves “an extremely dysregulated state of elevated parasympathetic plus heightened sympathetic reactivity.” (Italics added). In other words, humiliation is an intensely stressful state of simultaneous arousal  of both the PNS and SNS systems, similar to the physiology of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Schore’s physiological evidence of a separate state of shame rage develops Erikson’s earlier thesis that “shame…the impulse to hide one’s face…actually expresses rage, although that rage is turned against the self” (Jacoby, 1991: 53).

Humiliated fury can hinder the repair of the outside relationship and I would suggest that the agonising internal antagonistic relationship between the PNS and SNS also makes internal repair or rebalancing more difficult as there is no alleviating opposing system. The result, I suggest, is an internal and external experience of being agonizingly stuck, of painful frustration and immobility, “a feeling trap in which the person can oscillate between shame and anger, each state rekindling the other” MacDonald (1998:143).

This was embodied by a client of mine whose unacknowledged anger and need to submit would manifest in violent, sudden shifts between leaning forwards and then backwards in his chair. He came to therapy complaining of feeling “impossibly stuck.”  He was so dissociated from his body that he found it very difficult to stay with any felt bodily sense. Not surprisingly, the inner emotional and physiological conflict of shame rage can be unbearable and at this point the only way left to cope with the pain is to dissociate from the feelings. To freeze.

Shame and humiliation are both PNS-mediated passive coping mechanisms (Schore 1998) triggered by threats to the “social self” (Budden 2009) and yet they are experienced very differently so can they both be freeze responses?

Porges’ Polyvagal Theory may explain the different character of the two stress responses: in addition to the freeze and fight flight responses Porges proposes a third, more evolved stress response, “with a survival value specific to mammals, especially primates” (Chitty 2003:1); as well as the primitive unmyelinated dorsal vagal complex (DVC) that is responsible for the freeze response, Porges identified a second parasympathetic vagal system, the VVC (ventral vagal complex) whose myelinated pathways allow for the ability to communicate via facial expressions and which can rapidly regulate cardiac output to foster disengagement and engagement with the social environment. Porges hypothesises that because it takes primates so long to survive on their own, this system evolved to foster early mother-infant interactions, ensuring secure attachment (ibid).

Porges’ theory proposes that the stress response is hierarchical so that when our safety is threatened we try our most evolved strategy first. Could shame thus be the affect at the heart of our most evolved survival strategy?

The non verbal signals of shame could be what Gilbert and McGuire refer to as the “involuntary submission behavior” (1998:103) which is similar to other primates’ appeasement displays and serves the same function: to reduce aggression and promote social reconciliation (Keltner and Harker 1998:94). In other words, when we feel shame in a securely attached relationship, our signals of submission are recognised and responded to by a sensitively attuned caregiver with the capacity to forgive and we are swiftly welcomed back into the group or into the arms and gaze of the mother (ibid). As Keleman (1985:74) says: “collapse is a way of bringing the other in” so it appears that what is necessary to mediate the shame response are the same capacities that are found in the more evolved VVC of the PNS that is, the capacity to disengage and then rapidly re-engage and to make appropriate facial signals whilst remaining in a passive state.

I suggest then that shame may be our most evolved coping mechanism, but if we also feel anger (the fight/flight response) and this is masked by the shame or cannot be successfully discharged we then resort to freezing in our shame rage, the most primitive response, as a last resort. If shame rage is the state we are left in when our shame is not acknowledged and regulated then it would seem that that this potent combination is what defines the painful, lingering nature of ‘toxic shame’ (Mollon, 2010). We are chronically poisoned by the ‘stuck’ nature of simultaneous arousal of both the SNS and PNS and by our own unacknowledged hidden anger turned on ourselves.

The final, significant component of this poisonous recipe is our passivity, a helpless, powerless reliance on the response of another to alleviate our distress.  Rothschild (2000:62) observes that shame is unique in this way: “shame cannot be expressed and released in the same way as other feelings.” Fear, anger, sadness, grief can be discharged through crying, yelling, screaming, stomping, etc. “Shame”, she says, “does not discharge… and can only dissipate under very special circumstances – the nonjudgmental, accepting contact of another human being.”

In addition to dissociation discussed, I would argue that the inherent helplessness in shame rage is an integral factor in why it is so hidden from us. This passivity and powerlessness contributes to our shame of our shame (Herman, 2007). Whereas we can run from fear, attack with our anger, what can we do with shame if there is no one there whom we can trust to rescue us from it but hide it or hide from it?

Therapeutic implications

“Unacknowledged shame arises from and generates failure of social connection” (Retzinger, 1998:210). It is therefore imperative that the therapist face her own shame.

As we have seen, the face is the core mediator of shame. It both triggers shame, signals shame and repairs shame. (Gilbert and McGuire 1998).  In face-to-face work with a client there is huge potential to re-shame the client just with our eyes. If a client sees shame in the therapist’s eyes then, just as a baby builds its own sense of self from looking into the mirroring eyes of its mother (Ayers, 2003; Schore, 1998) so too could a client see in the therapist’s eyes not the therapist’s own shame, but something shameful about themselves. It is likely that the client will then withdraw from the therapist who, if full of her own shame, may have already withdrawn without realising it. Thus, failure to connect can be caused by withdrawal or, as in my case, unconscious hostility projected outwards. The sensation I had was that the eyes that looked down the microscope at me were hostile. Shame when denied by both parties can also be “…displaced into the other in the form of hostility” passed backwards and forwards (Archer, 2003).

A client of mine had begun to dissociate. I couldn’t follow her experience and, ashamed of my own failing, I projected this shame and suggested that she may not following her prescribed medication regime correctly. As therapists we relate to others as we relate to ourselves (Hartley, 2009) and in my case I was ashamed that I was a trainee therapist – I was dismissing myself and so dismissed her. My client then began subtly to dismiss me. Unable to face the fact that I had prompted her need to do that, I focused on the origins of why dismissing someone was her default position, as opposed to why she was having to use that default position in the therapy room right then! It would have been more helpful to ask her what she saw in my face.

Our ability to regulate ourselves and make repair, as opposed to having shame of our own failure when we have shamed a client, is, as we have seen, key to recovery. I support Soth (2009:74) when he says that “the supposedly helping relationship needs to be unhelpful … it needs to involve re- enactment of the client’s wounding and the practitioner needs at times to be helplessly available to participating in these patterns so that they transform themselves.” This was certainly my experience with my therapist. When I showed signals of submission she did not immediately come to my rescue with loving reassurance. As a consequence she allowed me to then get in touch with my anger. Repair of the relationship will allow the client to experience what they have not in the past and, in time, learn to inter-regulate their shame with another rather than trying to hide it. I believe that lack of repair rather than re-shaming is where the real re-wounding occurs.

Much of the above discussion points to bodywork to help people re- associate, identify, own and regulate their shame rage. One way of connecting them with these feelings is through helping them to sense and experience their body posture and non-verbal signals of shame and rage turned inwards (such as biting the lips or fingers, squirming and curling up (Retzinger 1998)) and to identify the associated feelings.

Schore has written extensively on the right brain being where chronic relational trauma is first stored and on the challenges of working with the consequent dissociation in the therapeutic setting and he argues that therefore a right brain-to-right brain therapy is where the healing must begin. I would add, however, that I believe that verbal processing of a bodily experience is essential for integration. After my experience I re-read Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child. Reading the words shame and anger helped me to integrate my experience.

Shame is ubiquitous and necessary because it regulates social interaction and it seems that it may be a more evolved coping strategy. Shame rage, by contrast, is the toxic residue left inside us when our shame is unacknowledged or unaccepted. Experts in torture say that the goal in breaking captives is to render the victim “completely humiliated, defenseless and compliant” (Budden 2009:1033). These words describe the experience of many children every day (Herman, 2004) and I would therefore argue that shame rage might be the affect at the heart of relational trauma.

The shame emotions are unique in needing a non-judgmental accepting other in order to dissipate and regulate them; the client-therapist relationship is designed to meet this unique need and as therapists we must dig deep and face and accept our own shame and rage to truly meet the client in theirs.


Charlotte Holloway is a counsellor now in her final year of training at The Minster Centre to become an integrative psychotherapist. This article is based on an essay Charlotte submitted in the second year of her training.


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