Not all inhibition is bad, of course. But in the case of chronic shame like Brian’s, the child’s emotional expression becomes impaired. Children with too much shame grow up to be adults who can no longer sense their inner experiences. They learn not to feel, and they lose the ability to use their emotions as a compass for living. Somehow they need to recover themselves.
Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy
I specialize in something called accelerated experiential dynamic psychotherapy (AEDP). After being trained as a psychoanalyst, I switched to this approach because it seemed to heal patients who hadn’t gotten relief after years of traditional talk therapy.
Many psychotherapies focus on the content of the stories that people tell about themselves, looking for insights that can be used to fix what’s wrong. By contrast, AEDP focuses on fostering awareness of the emotional life of the patient as it unfolds in real-time in front of the therapist. The therapist is actively affirming, emotionally engaged and supportive. She encourages the patient to attend not only to his thoughts and emotions but also to the physical experience of those thoughts and emotions.
In the first year of our work together, during almost every session, Brian would plummet into states that I can describe only as wordless suffering. I tried during those fugues to bring him back to the present moment with firm commands. “Plant your feet on the floor,” I’d say. “Press your feet against the ground and sense the earth underneath you.”
Sometimes I asked him to name three colors in my office or three sounds he could hear. Sometimes he was too emotionally out of reach to comply. In those instances, I just sat with him in his distress and let him know that I was there with him and wasn’t going anywhere.
In Brian’s second year of treatment, he became more stable. This allowed us to work with his emotions. When I noticed tears in his eyes, for example, I would encourage him to inhabit a stance of curiosity and openness to whatever he was feeling.
This is how a person reacquaints himself with his feelings: to name them; to learn how they feel in his body; to sense what response the feeling is calling for; and in the case of grief like Brian’s, to learn to let himself cry until the crying stops naturally (which it will, contrary to a belief common among traumatized people) and he feels a sense of visceral relief.
Brian and I worked together twice a week for four years. One by one, he learned to name his feelings and to listen to them with care and compassion. When he did feel the urge to “squash himself down,” he knew what was happening and how to manage the experience. He learned to express his feelings and assert his needs and wants. He took risks, made more friends, and engaged in meaningful work. There were no more hospitalizations. His shame dissipated. Most important, he felt alive again.
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Originally appeared on: Psychology Today
Republished with permission