I feel badly that I cannot ever publicly credit some of the more rageful children for showing us so painfully how shame works. From their hard work we can see how past shame can explode into the present, greatly confusing everybody who expects to live happily ever after in real time. For me it is like being handed an x-ray of how the child’s early experiences of neglect or abuse were stored as shame, back when they were very small and unable to integrate their nightmare experiences.
In the safety of the therapy session things usually begin calmly. Hiding the shame works.
After a bit I may allude to the child’s history, at which point the shame begins to rise to the surface. Early signs of dysregulation include avoiding, distracting, interrupting and changing the subject.
Finally, when I reflect on how hard this appears for her, the shame may sense that its cover is blown. We may see a sudden switch from mild dysregulation to a rage by someone trying to be the worst person in the world — which is how shame feels. Shame tells the child that the only hope for relief is to try to make people to whom she feels vulnerable — usually family members — feel the shame for her. Swearing and spitting, hitting and hurting, she tries to give away some of the terror and disgust of her shame — tries to put it into others. (Strangers and those farther away pose much less threat of seeing under her surface defense.)
Parents often say something like, “He just changes all of a sudden, like a switch turning on with no warning!” (Similar to complaints from sweethearts of controlling adults.)
What helps in the heat of the moment? Two observations have helped some caretakers.
1 — It’s not about you. Shame rages are more like a time machine showing us a film about her past maltreatment from others; a film about surviving betrayal and ambush, despair and abandonment, but ‘surviving’ only physically — the child’s emotional despair required a huge IOU of shame be stored deep inside.
2 — She is stuck in a desperate paradox: she needs help with shame, AND shame cannot accept help. (Wow!)
Those observations can help us adults mentally step out of the situation long enough to get our bearings enough to help. We can put on our emotional oxygen mask and go back down to sit with her, trapped as she is in her septic tank of shame. There we can share the survival supplies we brought — which are common relationship gifts. They must be rejected at first, as the paradox cycles through, but that is okay because the power of relationship increases with its ashes.
What does that look like?
Beginning with acceptance, curiosity and empathy for where she is stuck, I try to model a counter-intuitive response for the parent to take home with them. For instance if the child is name-calling, I might reflect based on knowing that name-calling, like most projecting, is rooted in her fears about herself. “Somebody used to call you a ‘fucker’ — was it your first parent who called you names? You seem afraid that you might be ‘stupid’, and that is always such a big worry!”
If that fails — because shame hates empathy — I may shift to singing. Anything with a rhythm, because it is the rhythm which struggling children hear. “When I, waza sailor, upon, the high seas, Singin’ Oh, row, blow the man down,….”
But if that makes it worse I may shift to reflecting on my experience of her and articulating our relationship in this moment. “You’re doing your best to let me know how awful it feels inside. Thank you for helping me understand how hard it was when you were so little! You’re doing the best you can to help me be a better helper…such a big heart!….etc.”
And perhaps around again.
During a recent session the raging child (age six) told his adoptive father, “I’m going to run away from you!” (Shame’s deepest desire.) The father quickly responded with the hard steel of logical reality — “I won’t let you!” But I jumped in with a story before father could continue down that emotional dead end.
“Oh my gosh, you would start walking all the way home [80 miles] and your dad would drive back and tell your mom, ‘I had to come home without Seymour because he decided to walk home.’ And your mom would SCREAM with panic and make your dad come back with her in the car to look for you!”
Using the rhythm of slow repetition, I would continue. “First they thought they saw you…….but when they got close, it was just a baby deer.
“Then they thought they saw you…….but when they got close, it was just a mailbox on a post.
“Then they thought they saw you……and it was YOU! And your mother started crying and crying, she was so glad to see her son, and so happy to find him when she thought he was lost, she just cried for joy!”
At that point the boy was quiet. He could see that my eyes were welling up as I described his mother’s love for him. (Of course I was imagining the scenario with my own children, so I could better tell the story.)
And when it was time to go, he wanted to stay. We had connected through his shame-rage.