top of page
Where Words don't Reach - Working with the Imaginal Realm to Heal Shame
Where Words don't Reach - Working with the Imaginal Realm to Heal Shame

by Sheila Rubin, MA, LMFT, RDT/BCT

Between words and beyond the cognitive realm lies another world of imagery and symbol.

 Helping a client access this nonlinear world can lead the session into the imaginal and the expressive world. Careful drama therapy exercises that gently support this direction with the client's imagination can uncover hidden feelings and help the client move from a place of shame and fear to a place of curiosity, wonder, and self-expression.

During normal development, when attachment was threatened, many clients made the unconscious choice to hide their true self and create a false self. The resulting choked voice and withheld parts long for discovery and attention. Inside is an “act hunger” that can lie buried and dormant. Inside is the client's access to creativity and play.

This work is excellent for working with the inner critic, the “should” voice of shame, as well as addiction, depression, anxiety, and family distress.

Combining drama therapy, expressive arts, somatic therapy, and attachment work helps individuals, couples, and families find their way out of the blame/shame game and into true self-expression, playfulness and connection.

There is an evolutionary purpose to shame. I help clients better understand the evolution of shame from family of origin and generations back. Social messages from cultural and community information that used to be vital for survival may not have the same role today. I am helping clients understand ways they may have been shamed directly or indirectly, and exploring that maybe they don’t have to react in the regular predictable ways. There can be an important message in the multi-generational transmission of shame. It is different for each family. During the session, we have the possibility of imagining talking to the shame and understanding more about it. Maybe the shame has an unconscious job to do.

By my talking to their shame, and counter-shaming, I can help resource each client so they feel more equipped when difficult or challenging emotions come up during the session. I am gently guiding their attention by building the bridge of attachment between us. Since the emotion of shame is the rupture of the interpersonal bridge, our work is to restore that interpersonal bridge, gently, step by step in the session. As we work together to restore the bridge of connection and attachment, I am helping the client build their inner strength so they can sit with difficult emotions.

The following paragraphs are a story of one of my clients moving through shame.

I have a client who is doing individual therapy with me for depression. His depression has been holding back the intensity of his anger about his wife’s difficulty with emotions, when they are in a negative cycle.

In a recent session, we are on Zoom and he is sitting in his car. He says, “She told me I can’t even clean one pot right. That I am the roommate from hell!”

I acknowledge his frustrations. I invite him to take some deep breaths, and he feels his chest tighten. I invite him to feel more deeply and focus to find the felt sense of his throat tightening. The anger begins to lessen and he feels a new emotion: sadness. I acknowledge the sadness. I have him breathe into the stuck feeling in his throat and gently put his hand on his throat. His tears fall gently now in the session. I say how proud I am of him feeling his emotions. This is where I pause and ask the question, “And when she says that you are the roommate from hell, what does this mean about you?”

“I am not a good enough husband! I will never be who she wants me to be.”

“Oh, so you feel embarrassed?”

“Yes” is what he says.

I get curious here. Maybe this is the shame, I wonder. I ask him to get curious. Is there something familiar with this shame? I ask if this is a feeling from his family growing up. Is this maybe something about not being able to do anything right, or the belief that something is wrong with him?

He remembers his father telling him, “If you’re not the best, then you are nothing at all,” and his mother telling him that he had to be top of his class in a particular department or nothing at all (and he chose a different department).

Here I ask him to consider, “Is that a failure?” I pause and invite him to get curious, to ponder, “Where were you supposed to learn things to figure out who you were and how you wanted to grow?” I offer just a little psychoeducation about shame: “Shame thrives on secrecy. We can feel shame when we feel different from others. Any time there are differences there can be shame—sometimes a little shame and sometimes a lot of shame.”

I continue, “Maybe you felt so alone with these difficult emotions. Who did you talk to about your inner feelings growing up?”

He says, “I couldn’t tell anyone what I was feeling, I was so afraid of getting something wrong or making a mistake. I was always making mistakes which I couldn’t see until later.”

“So, you had no one to talk to about these confusing feelings?”

“No one,” he told me. “I kept all my feelings inside. My father kept taking his time to teach me basketball and I didn’t even like basketball. I never was any good at it. There were many years of the two of us taking all this time together practicing and playing basketball. Finally, after lots of practice together, one year I told him I just wasn’t a jock type. I kept this secret from my father all these years: I didn’t even like basketball! I felt like I let my father down. My father eventually told me that his secret wish was for me to get a basketball scholarship. I couldn’t believe it! And all his attention from spending time with me around basketball stopped. I failed my dad and I failed my mom. I could never get anything right.”

“Hmm, not getting anything right—that’s a fear-shame bind or a grief-shame bind.” I gently hold space for him to begin to cry, allowing the sadness to flow through his tears.

After crying, he realizes, “That’s why I can’t bear to feel like my relationship might not work out.”

We sit there for a long time while I help him unpack the shame and the grief of not getting things right with his dad, his mom, and his wife. I am counter-shaming him and supporting his gentle curiosity of these deep, stuck places. I am allowing what has been covered by shame for so long to come to the surface, gently and slowly, with the help of my kind voice for support.

The following paragraph describes a time in which I lead this same client into the imaginal realm with a quick guided visualization.

I have him imagine he is going through a forest of other people’s expectations and emotions, and he is caught tight in the death grip of a vine of others’ hopes and dreams and needs. How does it feel?

“Trapped,” he says with a deep voice. “I cannot move. I can hardly breathe.”

I acknowledge how hard this moment is and that he is not alone. “I am here with you and you are not alone. Your whole life has led up to this moment and we are here together, so you can maybe make slightly different choices and grow yourself maybe just a little.”

I have him begin to find a very little movement in his shoulder and eventually his arm to begin to reach up and out. I suggest imagining a machete or knife cutting away the growth. I invite him to imagine cutting away what isn’t his, including his parents’ shame from the unrealistic expectations that were put on him. I encourage him to say something he has been unable to say in the past to each of his parents. I continue to lead him through the guided visualization and cut away some of the emotional old growth in the underbrush. Eventually, through working together, he can free his arm and find himself moving through the undergrowth more easily. I notice that the movement from cutting away the imaginal undergrowth has led to a big physical movement, and his arm is swinging now. I invite him to look up in his mind’s eye and notice that there is a hill. I invite him to climb the hill. He does.

“That’s wonderful,” I say. “Now that you’ve climbed the hill you can see a great distance beyond the shame that was put on you, and see the gifts of the beautiful, sensitive man you are. What do you see?”

He pauses here and has tears in his eyes. He says, “It’s not my fault. I can see that I am doing my best with my wife, and even though it’s hard, these emotions don’t have to hold me back. I will tell her I love her, even though she is mad at me.”

“What can you say to your father in the imaginal realm?”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t good at basketball, but that didn’t have to mean I wasn’t a good kid. Why did you pull your love away?”

I say, “That really shamed you. This broke the interpersonal bridge with your dad. Let’s restore the interpersonal bridge here with me, now. I see what a deeply committed kid you were back then, and how what a deeply feeling man you are now, wanting to save your marriage. You keep coming to therapy, and each week I watch you grow yourself by not hiding from these complicated emotions and mastering the next level of getting a deeper understanding of yourself and who you are.” I am countering the shame and I am restoring the bridge.

As his shame lifts, I see the look in his eyes and his creative energy return. I say to him, “Shame is the master emotion that keeps your feelings stuck.” As we unpack and work through his shame, the heaviness lifts and his life force returns.

This session is so powerful for this client because his depression is changing. I am gently and slowly working with the anger-shame bind from not pleasing his father, the grief-shame bind of not being able to please his mother, and the fear-shame bind of the thought of losing his wife. All of these feelings have been under the depression. We are using the imaginal realm and the somatic realm to work with deep transformational processes.

He feels different at the end of the session. He says he feels so much lighter now. I suggest homework of being kind and saying positive things to himself. I tell him he is at a choice point: the shame he unconsciously inherited from his family has the potential of helping him evolve towards healthy shame, including changing how he responds to his wife when she is angry.

This work can be helpful day to day and can be evolutionary, because it can give a person a new place to stand inside themselves in the direction of healing of attachment. Since shame is the breaking of the interpersonal bridge and my work is to restore it during the session, a person can come alive as the shame is witnessed and imagined differently as we simultaneously restore the bridge between us and also between him and his wife, by him showing up more fully who he is.

5-22 cleavers1.JPG
bottom of page