Unravelling the Bonds of Shame

by Elian Aysoy



When Fritz Perls the founder of Gestalt Therapy broke with psychoanalysis, he saw human development in terms of an organism in interaction with its environment. Locating self at “the boundary of organism and environment,” Perls et al (1951) provided the basis for what Wheeler (1995) calls the ‘Constructivist Shame Paradigm’. Shame is experienced relationally and indicates a lack of support. When the excitement of a child is not met, the child pulls back in disappointment and perceives the expression of her desire as not valid. This process of disowning her needs leads to a turning of the anger directed toward the parents back into her. The need that isn’t supported links with shame and is disowned because her parents don’t accept it. A child who accepts the parents’ truth perceives her need as “unaccepted” and introjects “ I am not acceptable to have such needs.” The process that is initially interpersonally induced then becomes an internal shame. This internalisation is referred by Lee (1996) as formation of “shame-binds.”  

Shame is experienced on the physical, cognitive and emotional level. It is important to know about these reactions in a therapeutic relationship. Jacobs (1996) believes that it is essential to address the effects of shame within therapy.  

Shame disturbs the functioning of the Self. Tomkins (1996) tells us  “Shame in its simplest form is a natural process of retroflection.” The person experiencing shame uses strategies and defences to avoid her experience of shame. Kaufman (1980, 1989) speaks of the experience of shame as a “Rupture in the interpersonal bridge between us and another.” Thus, from a Gestalt perspective “Shame is a major regulator between self and other.” Shame indicates that there is a problem between the other, and its boundary with us that needs attention.  



Because shame is relational it can often emerge in a therapeutic relationship. The goal of therapy is to “deconstruct and construct differently” the parts of the self that have been affected by the unsupported past relationships (Lee, 1996). Shame continues to serve the same function in current relationships. The client needs a new experience in the field in order to change his/her sense of self and other in relationship. The therapist’s goal is to notice, support and appreciate the client’s shame linked need. This interaction is very delicate because as the client gets close to this need, he or she will inevitably experience shame.  

My client Roksan who is 12 years old has great potential for shame. She avoids telling ‘her truth’ about her unsupported relationship to her mother because she is very loyal to her. Instead she speaks about her dysfunctional relationships with friends at school. She is envious and very possessive with them. In therapy Roksan started to treat me as an “idealized mother.”  Jacobs (1996) states that there is a potential of shame when the therapist is more important to the client than the client is to the therapist, when the client reveals him/her more and the therapist is in a more powerful position.  

In one session Roksan burst into laughter and couldn’t stop as we approached the issue of her anger toward her mother. I was stuck with not knowing what to do. My Phenomenological observation of Roksan’s process was not helpful. Some of Gestalt interventions will increase shame, especially noticing deflection.  The more she laughed the more I started to feel ashamed too. At that time I had not worked with my shame, I had a tendency to avoid it and could have even subtly transferred it back to her. I think that maybe that’s what happened. She perceived herself as being observed doing something wrong. She was teaching me how it was for her to be shamed by her mother at home and her friends at school. Lee (1996) says, “ The therapist’s observation of the client’s most camouflaged expression of a shame-linked need is a trigger for shame.”  

I paid attention to what happened, discussed it in supervision and learned more about shame processes I was prepared to be sensitive to possible signs of shame and to the felt quality of our relationship that such an experience of shame might imply. I wanted to create an environment enabling Roksan to be in touch with her shame and learn not to be ashamed of it. As a therapist I was prepared to accept Roksan’s shame and also self-support myself without retaliation if attacked. I was very careful to identify and discard any personal agenda of my own concerning shame.  

When I met with Roksan next the experience of her bursting into laughter happened again. I encouraged her to let go of whatever feeling was coming up. As she couldn’t stop laughing and felt ashamed, I felt the urge to acknowledge her uneasiness and how I perceived her being caught in an inner conflict of not wanting to hurt me and also not being able to stop laughing. As I acknowledged her experience, I also gave her the opportunity to see my vulnerability. In therapy with Roksan, I allow myself to make mistakes and thus avoid the expectation of infallibility.  

Jacobs (1996) states that therapists should acknowledge their own shame anxieties and defences and “such acknowledgement is usually the first step in resolving a disruption or impasse and ultimately enriches the therapeutic dialogue as a whole.”



Culture shapes the personality in a similar way to how our families program us. Culture informs the person about how to act through shared rituals, conventions, taboos and expectations, how to think and so forth. The culture informs the person about those affects which are welcomed in that system and what is the preferred communication style. According to Gestalt Therapy we construct our reality with our value system and we are influenced by traditions and myths of which we may scarcely be aware.  

Mathys (1995) asserts that “The Gestalt model teaches us that every behavioural act, every experience, takes place in a field of belonging and that the organisation of that field, as it is felt and understood by the person, is the context for the meaning of the experience.”  

Being a Jewish Turkish woman whose mother is Lebanese and whose father’s family originated from Spain has contributed a lot of wealth to my identity but also made me sensitive to shame arising from conflicting needs that are incompatible and mutually exclusive.  

Mathys continues to say that “ To the extent that that field is felt to be split, with parts of the person’s own world valued and received, other parts devalued and unacceptable, then that person’s experience will likewise be split and significantly organised around the dynamics of shame.”  

I am split between my mother’s and father’s perspectives on life.  

Turkish culture is very traditional and patriarchal. The Turkish cultural understanding of family life enhances male development towards being powerful, autonomous, and competitive and goal oriented. On the other hand women are expected to be modest and always in the service of others. These expectations and role models imposed on us by society create conflict for both genders. Many women like my mother have sacrificed their development in favour of a spouse or son’s development. Some women cooperate with the norms of the current patriarchal system, in order to preserve it. This process may contribute to an unhealthy sense of self in both ways: on one hand when expectations are not met, failure or rejection is inescapable. Fuhr says “In this case we may consider shame feelings as a stimulus to defend and recover our dignity from unjustified expectations and judgement.” On the other hand when expectations are met and if the person starts to over-identify with cultural scripts, this can interrupt the development of the Self.  

In my practice I have met frustrated and unhappy women in their marriages because of “mother-in-law” issues. Many Turkish men grow up idealizing, respecting and honouring their mother without being able to create boundaries once they have their own families. Family lives are affected by the myth of the “untouchable mother.”  

In Turkey strong identification with the family is fostered and this very often creates problems in couples’ lives. Letting the family down becomes a great shame. In such case the therapist needs to work with the individual’s shame about family relationships too. A balance needs to be reached between maintaining the client’s environmental support whilst building her abilities to cope with the source of shame.  

Another aspect of negative identification in Turkish culture is confluence to authority. This fosters a sense of inferiority. Yontef (1993) says “This sense of inferiority comes because of an inordinately high criterion for competency ..” Shame is an issue in the field of education in Turkey. Yontef (1993) states that shame “Gives the message of an ‘ideal self’ that is competent and acceptable, where as the ‘actual self’ is not.” In my practice with high school teenagers I often observe shame reactions of being inadequate, incompetent and not ‘being enough.’  

Fuhr states, “Shame-generating situations are often characterised by power play.”  

The Turkish educational system is hierarchical and not open to critical thinking. Teachers have higher status than students. My studies abroad both in the USA and England gave me the opportunity to compare educational systems. I realised that in Turkey we become ‘received knowers.’ In my time there was no class discussion, we were not encouraged to ask questions, we did not get the opportunity to do exploratory work. As a result I lost my voice.  

Institutions mostly reflect the set of rules created by our culture and communities. In such environmental fields shame represents breaking confluence with the norms and value systems of our culture too. The person who is the authority represents the institution and insinuates that the student has a bad motive. The student is exposed to others in a way that he or she does not like. The persons involved feel deeply wrong and this feeling may be connected with guilt. Guilt and shame often go together. Erskine (1995) says that when the life script of the person becomes “Something’s wrong with me, these fixed beliefs function as a cognitive defence against the awareness of the feelings and needs for contact-in-relationship that were not adequately responded to at the time when the script beliefs were formed.”  



Singer (1996) believes that the Gestalt model teaches us that a new integration of self experience grows out of and is supported by a new experience “at the boundary”; that is, in the reception and conditions of exchange with significant others in the social field.  

My own experience of transformative contact started when I discovered a socially acceptable alternative sub-culture, which is psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is acceptable to contemporary Jewish culture; indeed it could be argued that it is a part of it. In its alternative environment I found the permission to be myself and I started to develop a nurturing voice. Developing a nurturing voice is the key to deconstructing shame. A nurturing voice serves me in times of disappointment. It helps me entering into a loving relationship with myself and be empathic with myself. As a therapist I know now that as someone recognizes my internal experience and/or I recognize my client’s internal experience, it helps to develop the nurturing voice within both of us.  

The culture of psychotherapy helped me to deconstruct and reconstruct my values and beliefs.  

Shame inhibits awareness and contact and work with shame is often the main issue in therapy.

Healthy contacting in a therapeutic dialogue has a transformative power. Jacobs (1996) calls this: “The transformative power of the resolution of shame issues within the therapeutic relationship.” I find that my continuing effort to work things out between my clients and I leads to a mutual ‘Self-Perception’ in which each of us one is worthy of being met.


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Erksine R. (1995) A Gestalt Therapy Approach to Shame and Self-Righteousness: Theory and Methods.The British Gestalt Journal, Vol 4, 107-117  

Fuhr, R., Gremmler -Fuhr, M. (1995). Shame in Teaching/ Learning settings : A Gestalt Approach. The British Gestalt Journal, Vol.4, No.2. 1995.

Joyce, P. & Sills, C. ( 2001) Skills in Gestalt Counselling & Psychotherapy. Sage Publications.

Lee, R (1996). Shame and the Gestalt Model. In R. Lee & G. Wheeler (Eds.), The Voice of Shame : Silence and Connection in Psychotherapy (pp 3-21). San Francisco : Jossey-Bass.

Mathys, M (1995) Absence and Shame : A Cross-Cultural Encounter. The British Gestalt Journal, Vol.4, No.2. 1995.

Perls, F., Hefferline, R.F., & Goodman, P. (1951). Gestalt Therapy : Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. The Gestalt Journal Press, Inc. NY.

Wheeler, G. (1995) Shame in Two Paradigms of Therapy. The British Gestalt Journal, Vol.4, No.2. 1995.

Yontef, G. (1993) Awareness, Dialogue & Process : Essays on Gestalt Therapy, Gestalt Journal Press,  NY.

Yontef, G (1996). Shame and Guilt in Gestalt Therapy . Theory and Practice. In R. Lee & G. Wheeler (Eds.), The Voice of Shame : Silence and Connection in Psychotherapy (pp 351-380). San Francisco : Jossey-Bass.


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Elian Aysoy is a gestalt practitioner living and working in Istanbul, Turkey. She studied Gestalt Therapy with Michael Clemmens, Les Wyman, Hannah Scherler, Arye Burstzyn and Lolita Sapriel from the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, and will shortly complete her second year of a Master’s Degree training in Gestalt Therapy with the Metanoia Psychotherapy Training Institute, London. Currently her professional time is divided between working with Multiple Sclerosis and various psychosomatic illnesses within a busy hospital clinic, and working using gestalt and art therapy techniques in a school for children with learning disabilities.