Three Processes for Healing Shame and Trauma

5 min read

By Bret Lyon, PhD, SEP

Shame, like trauma, puts the nervous system in a state of freeze and lowers the ability to think and act clearly. Shame feels like a fog or cover, something that is external that makes it hard to function. I think of shame as developmental trauma. Usually, it is not a single shock to the system, like an accident or a hospitalization, but a series of more subtle shocks: a slow drip, drip, drip that disrupts normal functioning and creates feelings of isolation and powerlessness. The freeze of shame, like the freeze of trauma, has survival value in allowing us to get through an intolerable situation.

With shame, the thought is “It’s my fault.” I’m not just stuck in a horrible situation in which I have no power, “there’s something wrong with me,” not those around me. Small doses of shame, followed by a “repair of the interpersonal bridge” (phrasing suggested by Gershen Kaufman in Shame: The Power of Caring) can actually be helpful since they force us to stop action and reconsider. For instance, they might make us more aware of how our behavior affects others. This is a healthy shame and the basic training technique of all societies. But what I am talking about here is a toxic shame: a large, repeated dose of shame with no repair or reconnection.


Working with shame, like working with trauma, must be done slowly and carefully. Shame, like trauma, is an under-resourced state, so we must work first to harness all the client’s resources: spiritual beliefs, sense of humor, personal heroes, and places where they feel comfortable. We must also become a resource—a safe connection that can help them come out of isolation and begin to rebuild the interpersonal bridge. Just helping them resource may take many sessions. It is important to understand how important resourcing is, so we don’t get discouraged because the process is slow.


When there is physical, mental, and emotional attunement with another, we don’t feel so alone. Attunement needs to be done subtly, however, as the client may have had the experience that getting attention meant getting shamed. Shame, like trauma, is largely about powerlessness, so the client must feel that they can affect us and that we will respect their boundaries. The physical distance between the client and therapist becomes very important. When I do a demonstration session in a Healing Shame workshop, I like to work in a chair that rolls and ask the client whether he wants me closer or further back, so he will have a sense of control and influence on me.

Orientation and Pendulation

Both shame and trauma interfere with our natural ability to orient—to know clearly where we are in the present moment. Full orientation involves being aware of inner body sensations and emotions as well as being open to the signals we receive from the environment through our five senses, our limbic systems, and our intellect. Shame can interfere with all of these. It is easy to “dissociate” or go into a fog. Clients can actually get lost in the past, losing contact with the therapist/helper and where they are. Also, the details of shaming or traumatic events may be hazy and fuzzy to them, as they may have only implicit or emotional memory with no sense of the details of what happened.

Shame and trauma also interfere with the ability to pendulate—to move easily from one sensation, feeling, or thought to another. Often, the pendulation is between one state and its opposite. The most basic example is breathing, in which we move from inhale to exhale, expansion to contraction. In breathing, we want to be able to inhale fully and smoothly, then exhale fully and smoothly, with an easy transition from inhale to exhale to inhale again. In the same way, people naturally shift from happiness to sadness, anger to gratitude, etc. Some clients shift back and forth between two opposing states, or past and present, without having a full experience of either. Conversely, they can shift from a total lack of awareness of past shame or trauma to a deep immersion in it and get stuck. (Both concepts—orientation and pendulation—I got from my training in Somatic Experiencing®, developed by Peter Levine.)

I believe it is our job, if we are helping professionals, to work with clients in a careful, gradual way so that they become aware of the details of past shame or trauma—of what really happened—without getting lost in past emotions, and so they learn to move easily from the past to the present, or from deep feeling to reconnecting with the helper/therapist. As clients learn to pendulate smoothly and organically, regaining their natural rhythm, they can begin to experience deep feelings from the past and still keep the understanding that “That was then and this is now.” Our job is to keep clients as comfortable as possible, to help them soften and expand their nervous system. This process involves going toward the shame and then backing away, watching carefully to avoid over-activation.

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