Written by Ken Benau


Review by Gunnel Minett

Feeling ashamed or shame is something that most of us have experienced. Sometimes rightly so; for making mistakes from not paying enough attention or being neglectful. This, Benau points out, is how we all set out in life, to learn ‘right from wrong’ in our social interactions with others. These are important lessons for every child so that they can fit into the social group setting the rules to live by. Such lessons often results in feelings of shame or pride. Both strong feelings aimed at making us pay attention and remember for the future.

But shame can be much more than this. For many of us shame can be a misinterpretation of a situation simply because it triggers (un)conscious memories of previous experiences of shame that may influence our perception of the present. Such a reaction may still be straight forward enough to be detected ‘correctly’ even if it is a misinterpretation of the current situation due to the mixing of one or more previous situations. 

But shame can also be caused by very different associations that are not directly related to doing right or wrong: it can stem from less obvious feelings of neglect earlier on in life. We are all born with a ‘pre-programmed’ need to be seen and heard. Satisfying this makes us feel reassured that we are accepted by the group of people we live with and are dependent on as we grow up.

We are ‘pack-animals’ who throughout human history have survived best in group environments. A sense of exclusion, may therefore effect us deeply and can often be experienced as directly life-threatening. Because of this strong link with survival it is important that we learn ‘right’ from ‘wrong’ behaviour. If we have done something wrong we need to identify and corrected this for the future. Depending on our core sense of inner security (provided by carers in our early environment) the conclusions we draw are linked with our self-perception. If we have low self esteem it is easier to assume that there must be something wrong with us. Rightly or wrongly we may experience shame.  

In particular when the conclusion is based on a misinterpretation of the situation this can cause real damage later in life. A small child may assume that they have done wrong when parents or siblings are treating them badly, or even worse, they may be being physically or psychologically abused. This is often the cause of psychological problems that can be very demanding to clarify and work through and somewhat of a journey for both client and therapist.

Shame can take many forms, from withdrawal and depression, to ego-inflation and hubris. Because of this wide spectrum of expression, it can be very difficult to detect and understood correctly. This book offers a thorough explanation of the many reasons why we feel shame as adults and how as a therapist you can help to steer a person in a different direction where they will be able to understand the background of their shame.

Because shame is such a common theme in most of our lives, being a therapist may not give immunity against shame. As Benau points out, the therapist may struggle with their own sense of guilt and shame for not being able to help, triggered by the shame brought up by the patient. So to understand the many aspects of shame in a certain situation may be essential, not just for the client, but also for the therapist.

The opposite of shame is pride and the goal for the therapist, Benau points out, is to disentangle the feelings of shame so that they can be replaced with a healthier feelings. Since feeling ashamed can be an aid to learning, it can have a healthy role. This kind of shame may eventually lead to a sense of pride. In this way it can add to a person’s sense of self-worth.

To understand the many aspects of shame and its consequences for society as a whole goes way beyond the therapy setting. In today’s society there are many examples of leaders, who have turned their childhood shame into narcissism and inflated self-importance. Instead of learning from their mistakes, they strive to get into a position of power which they can use to manipulate and control others, whatever the cost to the innocent. For this reason alone, understanding shame should be something we are all taught at some point, and this book is a good contribution.

Published by Published March 18, 2022 by Routledge, ISBN 9781138362383