How to Work with the Body to Help Clients Release Shame
with Peter Levine, PhD
When a client slips into a posture of shame, how can we help bring them out of it?
Peter Levine, PhD has studied the many ways we manifest feelings in our body. He found that posture can have a direct effect on how a person experiences emotions.
Here, Peter gives us a sense of how shame transforms the body, and a practical way to release it.
These memories – full of facts, words, and events – are explicit memories.
Dr. Peter Levine: Shame and trauma fit together.
What you see in shame is a very particular body posture and autonomic pattern, which is fairly similar to what you see in trauma.
Whenever a person is traumatized, the posture of collapse is almost the same in trauma as it is in shame – even if the trauma didn’t occur in an interpersonal dynamic or interpersonal relationship.
With both shame and trauma, you also see an aversion of gaze, of looking away, of not wanting to be in contact with another person, because the pain of the shame or the trauma is so devastatingly intense.
Actually, there's some recent data . . .
If you show a person a picture of a friendly face, the prefrontal cortex lights up: “OK, that’s a friendly face – that’s nice – that feels good.”
And that’s the part of the brain stem that’s associated with fear and terror and paralysis or immobility.
So here’s a mistake that psychotherapists often make . . .
They’ll see that a client is in shame, and they try to be kindly – they try to be supportive – try to somehow make them feel better.
But if you look back at the research, clients just shut down even more when therapists do that. They go even further into the shame.
Without understanding that, therapists can easily increase the level of shame.
So what I generally do when I work with a client is, I work with two chairs, and they’re kind of facing out at a 45-degree angle.
The client can either be completely in their own space, or if they choose, they can make contact with me, but they’re not forced to do that – whereas, if you’re looking face-to-face, there’s no way of getting away from that.
It’s important for therapists to be aware of how they arrange their seating and to then be aware of what happens if they try to make contact with a person who’s in a state of shame.
There are so many approaches to shame, but the most relevant and beneficial has to do with the posture of shame.
When a person is in a posture of shame, the shame aspect will continue until you’ve changed the posture.
So, here’s what I would do. I would, again, not face the person, and often I wouldn’t even say anything about the shame.
I might start by saying, “I’d like to do a little exercise with you, if you’re willing, and here’s what I’d like to have you do. I’d like you to follow me – follow what I’m doing with my body.”
So, I would feel the quality of shame and allow my body to fall into this helpless collapse.
Then, I would encourage them to see if they could very delicately increase that posture, but then to notice where it seemed to rest, and where it maybe even wanted to come back to the other direction.
They would be in a shutdown posture, and the experience of that is no energy – they’re hopeless and helpless.
They would very slowly move. Again, it’s not a matter of getting up – a lot of times people with shame try to change their bodies in such a way that they won’t be feeling the shame, but the shame is there all the same and you see it in narcissistic individuals, for example.
By just slowly moving out of the posture of shame, the person starts to notice, “I’m feeling better. I feel energy coming back. I feel more sensible, alive, and a little tingly.”
The polarity of shame is pride or triumph, and when you gradually have the person come into this new posture, the chest opens – you feel a sense of pride, a sense of goodness, and a sense of triumph.
Then, from that vantage point, you can look at the shame and dissect it – you can work with it.
Please leave a comment below.