ACA Blog

Kathy Renfree
Aug 26, 2010

Shame, Guilt, and Embarrassment

Last week when I came home from my work at a community mental health clinic, I was exhausted. I made sure that I took time to soothe myself and not make any decisions or have any frank talks that evening. Sure, that helped some, but I could not puzzle out what triggered the exhaustion.

As counselors, we are often the holders of secrets, the receivers of stories filled with emotions, and the givers of relief. We receive training in theories, in ethics and pathology, and we are often supervised to make sure we take care of ourselves. So I was thinking – had I somehow neglected myself recently? Was I not feeling well, or did I have my own problem to solve or work through? None of those fit, leaving me a bit chagrined that I could not figure out my own issue.

I contemplated more; I took a break by reading fluff and enjoying every minute of it. But it still bugged me that I could not articulate what exhausted me. It took a few days and then I started to see through the fog I created (my blind spot). As I reviewed the clients and the work that we had done I realized that the emotions present were not the “popular” emotions that get a lot of press e.g. anger, sadness, despair, or disappointment. I refer to these as popular because, for me, they are the emotions that I see every day, either with clients or on the news, in movies or other media. We can describe them easily and connect them to rather mundane events. “I was mad at him because he was late for dinner”, or “I felt so alone, as if no one cared about me because they didn’t ask me out”. I think most of us have an easy time providing an empathic response to the popular emotions. We do not have to dig too deep to find our own experiences in order to understand where the client “is”. As I dug even deeper, I found that many of the emotions that surfaced last week were ones not easily described, not easily spoken, and are often blanketed in secrecy as our bravado steps up to ward off anyone seeing a crack in the façade.

What I discovered was that the emotions of shame, guilt, and embarrassment were present last week. They crept out from behind the wall of appearance. They insinuated themselves in conversations and narratives. The leapt onto the table and stamped their feet and shouted, “we’re here” “pay attention” “we’ve waited for this moment so long!” Imagine their visit, uninvited surely, us holding the door closed as they tried to get in. However, it was time, time to stop avoiding their visit. No more drawing the blinds and not answering the phone. They were here to stay, and they brought along their companions – sexual abuse, neglect, physical abuse and alcohol and drug abuse.

It is never (and I will say never) easy to be with the overwhelming pain, shame, guilt or embarrassment of an adult, whose child voice enters the room and recounts unspeakable acts. The world stops for a moment, the lights dim to honor the courage spilling into the office. Words are whispered, because saying them softly eases them into reality – into the present. The adult speaks of relief and freedom in sharing the secrets. The child, emboldened, no longer hides behind the adult but walks beside them.

For me, traumas, experienced vicariously. I understood why I was exhausted now and I knew I needed to share what I experienced as I listened to my clients. As counselors, we are encouraged to seek supervision, and or seek therapy at times like this and it is important that we do just that. As time passes, we regain our strength, enough for us to receive and hold again, and to give relief not only to the clients but also to ourselves. Especially when shame, guilt and embarrassment come to visit. How do you give relief to yourself? I invite you to share your thoughts.

Kathy Renfree is a counselor in a community mental health setting, teaches in a graduate counseling program as needed, and is looking forward to building a private practice.

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