Shame and Exiles in Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy
Updated: Feb 25
Clients often ask me, "How am I the same as all of the other clients you see?" People want to know that there are commonalities in their experience - essentially, they want to know that they are not alone. All clients are different. Although they may present to treatment with broadly similar issues, all clients are unique. Despite this, I would confidently say that the experience of shame is something that most - if not almost all - clients have in common. Shame belongs to a group of self-conscious emotions that includes guilt, embarrassment, and pride. These emotions involve the way in which events reflect on evaluation of the idealised self against one’s goals and standards. Typically, these emotions arise depending on whether standards are met (pride) or violated (shame and guilt). Any negative event in which individuals believe they have failed to live up to personally valued standards because of a personal flaw can engender shame. Whereas guilt involves a focus on specific behaviors, when evaluating a failure, shame involves a focus on the entire self ("I am a bad person"). To use a broad analogy - guilt is a rain drop, shame is the rain shower.
The process of how a repetitive and toxic process of shaming oneself comes about has been linked in research to the childhood experience of physical and sexual abuse, both through immediate family members, and the wider social network of extended family, non-related but significant adults like teachers, and peers. Essentially, what I am saying is that people don't emerge from the womb shaming themselves - it's a learned process. If we take the example of someone who has been shamed by parents repetitively in childhood through physical abuse, it's not difficult to understand how this develops. If a parents repeatedly hits their child for perceived transgressions of family rules, the child is faced with an impossible choice: either belief that they are "bad" and deserve to be hit; or realise that their parent is ill-equipped or "bad", and that despite their best efforts, the child is alone in the world. What is a vulnerable child to do, other than accept their "badness" and take the perspective of their abusive caregiver. Then these children go into adulthood, and consider the self shaming process as normal. It shows up when we keep ourselves hidden, make ourselves smaller than we could be, not putting ourselves out there, allowing ourselves vulnerable. The great shame and vulnerability researcher, Dr Brene Brown says that shame shows up in two underlying beliefs: you're not good enough; and, who the hell do you think you are to speak out (aka in Australia as "tall poppy syndrome").
So, what to do? There are many places to start, but I would always start with the body. Every emotion has a physical manifestation. It may take some time to discover the physical experience of shame because it’s become an everyday experience to you. Get quiet and bring your attention to your body. Consider a time recently when you made a mistake and felt negatively about yourself. This is what we call the Trailhead in Internal Family Systems (IFS). Don't choose the most disturbing thing you can think of... not a 10/10, maybe start at a 3 or 4/10. Then notice any physical sensations and places of tightness or tension, or even numbness. This is an exercise in simply meeting in open awareness what has been there anyway. You don’t need to do anything about the physical sensations you meet. You have to fully meet something to build a relationship with it before ultimately transforming it. This is the next step - developing some Self-energy or compassion for the part of you that experiences shame, because compassion is the antidote to shame.
To meet a vulnerable Part of you and Be with it, and even notice it's gifts, try this IFS practice with IFS Lead Trainer, Paul Neustadt.