The affective interactions between a child and his or her caretaker shape the brain over a lifetime. When a main caregiver is emotionally attuned and connected the child feels understood and secure. But, when the caregiver has a pattern of being absent or intrusive the child suffers what relational psychotherapist Patricia DeYoung refers to as “profound misattunement to their young affective/emotional selves” (DeYoung, 2015, p.34). In her book, Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame: A Relational/Neurobiological Approach, the author explains that this kind of disconnection between parent and child, when left unrepaired, leads to chronic shame (p.20). DeYoung’s assertion differs from the commonly held belief that “a parent’s intention to shame the child” (p.20) is the cause and she places emphasis on the need for repair of the bond immediately following the misattunement.
Quoting Judith Jordan, DeYoung writes:
“Shame strikes…because a person does not have a primary need met, namely, his or her need for connection and emotional joining (p.18).
DeYoung explains that it is in these moments of “dysregulation in relation to a dysregulating other” (p.29) that “the self is in immediate (real or imagined) ruptured relation to another person” (p.29). The result is both a feeling of being bad for needing to be loved and the unbearable feeling of longing denied (p.12). It is within this nonverbal exchange of affects that shame begins. The question I want to pose is: how is shame healed? DeYoung offers:
“Shame can be healed…if a person can be brought back into connection where empathy and emotional joining are possible (p.18).
DeYoung emphasizes that while our left brain wants to repair the “chronically dysregulated emotionally relational self” (p.60) by providing a logical understanding, what is called for is a right brain approach. Referring to the therapist and patient relationship, she writes: “we have to be there, emotional self to emotional self, right brain to right brain” (p.73). Basing her statement on the seminal work and ideas of Allan Schore (2012), DeYoung states:
“The right brain hears the music, not the words, of what passes between people (p.37).
This approach refers to the felt sense of attunement and connection required for “shame reduction” (p.163) to take place. DeYoung looks to therapists to “share our own visceral understanding that a person’s need for attunement is also her heartfelt longing to be seen, supported, known, and treasured” (p.56). This emotionally present approach has the potential to speak directly to the patient’s right brain about the impact of shame.
DeYoung states that shame carries with it an emotional pain which is challenging to share, especially in a direct way (p.90). At the same time, she believes that taking care of the client’s need for connectedness is taking care of the client’s shame experience because it addresses the fragmentation caused by being disconnected from the original caretaker and then carried into adulthood. She makes the important point that clients need to ‘learn to do connection differently, not only with [the therapist], but also with the “real people” in their lives’ (p.165). If shame is to heal, clients are in need of what DeYoung calls “an authentic reciprocal connection with others” (p.167).
In my search to answer the question: how is shame healed?, I discovered The Shame Chorus – an innovative project that has found a powerful adjunct to therapy.
What are the possibilities for reparative connections when hearing the music is literally an approach to healing shame?
Repairing shame through music is what artist Jordan McKenzie sought out to do when he collaborated with psychoanalyst Susie Orbach, the Freud Museum, and London Gay Men’s Chorus on a project he called The Shame Chorus. The aim was “to create the empathy needed to stunt shame”. Orbach conducted interviews with choir members about the relationship between shame and sexuality. McKenzie then went to well-known composers who took the material and wrote positive and therapeutic songs. The result was a vehicle, propelled by a right brain approach, for bringing shame “out of the closet and onto the stage.”
To hear Jordan McKenzie, Susie Orbach, and Carol Siegel (Director of the Freud Museum) describe how The Shame Chorus came about and developed into an outreach program watch this fascinating video:
To hear Jordan McKenzie talk about his view that shame needs a shared experience to heal, listen to this brief interview:
According to writer Sarah McLean, McKenzie wanted to address shame in an artistic way by using the “transformative power of art” and to develop a way “to overcome shame…though loud and powerful song.”
Jordan McKenzie has stated that “nobody really wants to talk about these kinds of emotions, feelings, and experiences.” However, shame is something that ‘thrives on silence, isolation and loneliness.” He has observed that “while many individuals will talk about having dealt with shame along their personal journeys of self-identification, most never delve too deeply into the specific feelings they had to confront, and maybe are still confronting privately” But, Shame Chorus, according to McKenzie, is “a kind of brotherhood.” Susie Orbach finds that “sharing these experiences allows people to feel that they’re not alone in it and that it is through the act of singing that shame is able to fade“.
McKenzie succeeds in bringing The Gay Men’s Chorus along a “journey from an analytical to a creative space”. Just as with any therapeutic approach, the Shame Chorus cannot fully repair the unmet primary needs a child suffers with a main caretaker. In learning about this innovative approach, it becomes clear that the joining inherent in the shared right brain experience provides one means of connection and attunement that “releases something very crucial about private agony”. When connection is what is most needed, attunement provides the much needed experience for shame to heal through the right brain.
“At the core of…shame is an absence- the absence of connectedness (DeYoung, p.120).