Exploring Shame with Michael Derby – an interview

Posted: 10/05/2022

This month we launch our latest resource – Exploring Shame – a game changer for therapists, counsellors, carers and teachers.

We talk with lead author Michael Derby on his motivation for producing the resource.


1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the work you do?

I’m accredited mental health social worker and a clinical family therapist. I migrated to Australia from Scotland in my early 20’s and have enjoyed the Australian way of life ever since. My current role is very adaptable and changeable. I provide secondary consults, clinical supervisions, training and reflective practices for practitioners. I have spent many years working with children, young people and families who have faced significant trauma, to improve relational difficulties and heal from the trauma.

2. As the author of the Exploring Shame cards, you clearly have a deep interest in the field of shame research and how shame impacts of people? What drew you to thinking about shame initially?

I started to acknowledge and see the effects of shame when I was working with children and young people who were victim survivors of sexual abuse, or who had engaged in problematic or harmful sexual behaviours.  Shame was often discussed in the team and how to work with it.

I remember the first time shame hit me. It was during a session where I was working with a young person who was a victim survivor of sexual abuse but had also engaged in harmful sexual behaviours. We needed to discuss certain issues, and I remember the young person producing a strong shame response to the behaviour they had engaged in, and also to the sexual abuse they suffered. The shame response was so strong that I remember the body signals that I picked up through transference. This triggered my own shame story and got me reflecting on how to work with shame.

The more I reflect on my own shame, and the shame of others, the more I see it within my work and within wider society. Most people don’t understand shame and often people’s behaviour is misunderstood as a result. When shame isn’t understood properly, it can actually make the person’s shame worse.

3. Why do you think we should be focussing on shame in the work we do with people, either as social workers, psychologists, counsellors or teachers?

This is THE big question!

At the core of it, shame is attached to who we are, our identity, but in a very negative way. Shame undermines our sense of self and can cripple us with silence and stop us taking action. It’s highly erosive and impactful, both on us and others around us.

When a person has done harm and is trying to make a change in their life, shame can be a barrier to that change and perpetuate the unwanted behaviour. We need to be able to focus on and work with shame, and support people to acknowledge the harm they have caused and face up to their behaviour.

Working with shame has the added bonus of potentially reducing the burden on the person who has been harmed. Often people who have been harmed carry the shame of the person who has caused the harm. So by focusing in on shame we can support people to heal past hurts.

4. If you are working with someone, how would you identify that they may be experiencing shame?

There are several ways in which you can do this.

Firstly you may pick up on the other person’s nervous system being activated. There will be an emotional affect during the conversation, this might lead the practitioner to feel frustrated, sad, angry and annoyed. If this happens, get curious and ask yourself what is going on here with these feelings? And where have they come from? It’s quite a difficult thing to do in the moment, but take a breath and pause before reacting.

Shame can present as a defence mechanism, a way to deny responsibility. Responses here include blaming, denying, justifying, distracting and avoiding the issue. By getting curious about what is going on for the person, you are more likely to open up a dialogue about what’s happening.

You might also see the opposite where the person in shame presents as inward facing, head down and not talking with you about the subject. If the person presents this way, it probably means that there is safety within the relationship which can allow the practitioner to connect with the person more easily.

5. What advice do you have for workers or teachers about how to name and explore shame with people they are working alongside?

First of all we need to know our own shame story, and how it might show up in relationships, because we can activate it when we start to work with someone on their shame. We may need some techniques to help manage our shame response, and remain grounded.

Secondly, in the words of Dan Siegel, you need to ‘name it to tame it’, which means cutting through or getting behind defences and naming the vulnerable parts that are being protected. Naming shame is difficult and people can feel very exposed so it has to be done in a delicate way where emotional safety is upheld.  Cutting through blaming, for example, and acknowledging that the situation sounds difficult or hurtful can create safety and allow the practitioner to start working with the shame.

The final thing is to externalise the shame and create some distance between it and the person. This allows the practitioner and the person to become curious about the shame. As shame is highly entangled with our sense of self, externalising it can reduce a threat response as it’s not seen as a personal attack.

6. How do the Exploring Shame cards help?

Exploring Shame helps by supporting  practitioners and teachers to think about the different manifestation of shame that could come up during a conversation. They also provide questions that could help people understand and work with their feelings of shame. By naming shame, and removing the secrecy that accompanies it, shame will often reduce naturally.

Using the Exploring Shame cards in groups or classrooms can help people realise that everyone experiences shame at some time. They can help to create a ‘common third’ where the practitioner and service user, or teacher and student, come together to explore and learn how to recognise and manage shame experiences.

As shame focuses on our identity, Exploring Shame can help externalise it, providing space to explore the impacts of shame on us and our relationships.

Follow link for  more information about the Exploring Shame cards.

For more information on creating safe spaces, view the video: Creating Safe Spaces

Creating Safe Spaces video

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